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Monday, January 18, 2016

Art critic amateur takes on Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker

It's unusual  to blog about the article "Shades of Whte" on the important Martin Luther King day of remembrance, but The Art World article by Peter Schjeldahl in the December 21-28 of The New Yorker needs its own criticism. Like, "What is Schjeldhal talking about"?  (Okay, as I blog on this "whitewash" art story, it so happens, there's snow falling on the deck of my Maine Writer home. So, maybe the subject's association isn't "far out" after all.

In "Shades of White", Schjeldahl writes about the cliche "spiritual time capsule" conceptualized in the art - or absense of color - painted by Robert Ryman, an American painter identified with the movements of monochrome (aka - only one color and in his case, no color) painting, minimalism, and conceptual art. Yup, he's best known for abstract, white-on-white paintings. In other words, as Schjeldahl explains, the gadgets used to hang Ryman's paintings are more interesting than what's on the canvas- bolts or staples?  "There's no savoring of style, just stark presentation," writes Schjeldahl.  Honestly, I don't know what's "stark" about white on white but then I'm just an amateur art critic. What do I know?

So, my point is this. Every amateur art critic, and I'm proudly among them, goes into an exhibit, museum, collection or show with the same question, "Do I like this art, or not?" Therefore, if my amateur logic works, this is how I understand Ryman's art: When there's no art to look at except for the bolts or staples hanging it, then, by logic, there simply can't be any criticism of the painting!

My amateur take-away from Schjeldahl's article is about how artists like Robert Ryman gain the prestige of being the subject of an article in The New Yorker, in the first place.  If painting with "no color" or, more precisely, the absence of colors, makes one an art collection's attraction, then why bother to go to art school, at all?  "What is a painting?", asks Scheldahl.  (OMG! Hello? Now that's as amateurish a quesiton as his "spiritual time capsule" cliche is an anachronism.)  

To add to my personal sense of controversy, there's even agism in Schjeldahl's review. He claims an appreciation of Ryman's art has to do with how old you are.  Well, I'm not nearly as old as Leonardo da Vinci, but I still like looking at his Mona Lisa. 

In fact, there's more color in the Wikipedia sketch of Robert Ryman than there is contrast in his absence of color art.  Image result for robert ryman

As am amateur art critic, I find it insulting to be told that a white on white painting is appealing, and "no museum collection of paintings since the nineteen sixties can be authoritative without an example of his work."  I disagree.  In my amateurish opinion, any art gallery or museum that has one of these Ryman paintings might just as well feature a Hans Christian Anderson cartoon of the fable about the emporer who has no cloths. There's probably more appeal in a colorful graphic of a cliche, than in the absense of color being conceptualized as a "spiritual time capsule". Hca33.jpg
"The Emporer's New Cloths" by Hans Christian Anderson has more appeal than a Ryman painting, just my amateurish opinion.

Too bad for the many talented artists who work tirelessly to perfect their art and to create a special style, when a man with the talent of Tom Sawyer painting a white washed fence can gain collectionable status and the attention of Schjeldahl's New Yorker critique. 

To be fair, even Schjeldahl gives "the emporer with no cloths" some conceptual attention, but not before leading the reader into thinking there's something to be gained by learning how to understand the absence of color as somehow being a "stark presentation". 

Surely, Peter Schjeldahl can create better prose than the Ryman art that he's critiquing. "Spiritual time capsule" is a descsription of art that describes "nothing".

Here's the article:


The Art World DECEMBER 21, 2015 ISSUE
Shades of White A Robert Ryman retrospective.
BY PETER SCHJELDAHL

A succinct retrospective of twenty-two works by Robert Ryman has just opened at the Dia Art Foundation in Chelsea, and it offers a tacit reproach to today’s art-world circus. Ryman, now eighty-five, has been making all-white abstract paintings, in square formats of different sizes, for most of the past six decades. He appeals more to cognoscenti than to popular audiences, but no museum collection of painting since the nineteen-sixties can be authoritative without an example of his work. His art’s phlegmatic allure involves qualities of different paint mediums, applied dead smooth or textured by brushstrokes, on canvas, board, paper, aluminum, and other surfaces. At times, the main—or, really, only—event is an emphasis on the way a work is attached to a wall: by bolts, staples, brackets, or flanges. Always, Ryman invites contemplation of the light that falls on his paintings (which when I saw them, on a recent cloudy day, was glumly tender as it filtered through the Dia skylights) and of their formal relation to the rooms that contain them. There’s no savoring of style, just stark presentation

His work’s economy and quietness may be pleasing, but its chief attraction is philosophical. What is a painting? Are there values inherent in the medium’s fundamental givens—paint skin, support surface, wall—when they are denied traditional decorative and illustrative functions? Such questions absorb Ryman. Do they excite you? Your answer might betray how old you are.

Ryman is rooted in a phase of artistic sensibility that was coincident with early minimalism and Pop, and is still in need of a name. Call it the Age of Paying Attention, or the Noticing Years, or the Not So Fast Era. American art underwent convulsive changes in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, following the triumph and swift decline of Abstract Expressionism. A vast cohort of young artists and intellectuals, many of them academically trained, flooded into formerly patrician or bohemian scenes. To qualify as hip, you registered fine distinctions—between a photograph of Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of a photograph of her, say, or between Carl Andre’s stack of bricks on a gallery floor and a stack of bricks anywhere else. Skeptical attitudes, averse to mimesis and metaphor, put a withering pressure on painting, including even the simplest abstraction. Barely passing muster were the evenly pencilled grids of Agnes Martin, the broody monochromes of Brice Marden, and Ryman’s taciturn brushstrokes. What you saw, while not a lot, stayed seen. The mental toughness that defined sophistication in art back then is rare now. Ryman’s Dia show is a spiritual time capsule. The work isn’t dated, exactly; it seems classical. But what’s missing is a confident assumption that there will be an audience eager to put up with it.

Ryman came to his vocation indirectly. When he arrived in New York, in 1952, from his native Tennessee, it was with a saxophone and the ambition to be a professional jazz musician. (He took lessons from the pianist Lennie Tristano.) At first just to support himself, and then with a growing fascination, he worked as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, from 1953 to 1960. His co-workers included the future leading minimalists Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt. He also met and became friends with Roy Lichtenstein. The earliest of Ryman’s paintings in the show, made in 1958, are small, awkward, oddly charming arrangements of impasto strokes, which have a generic look of expressive painting—at a time when the swashbuckling style of Willem de Kooning was much in fashion—but are as matter-of-fact as cards laid out for solitaire. Ryman was likely affected by Jasper Johns’s recent, sensational “Flags” and “Targets,” in which sensitive-looking touches of thick paint wander like sheep without a shepherd. Other artists, too, were mocking Abstract Expressionism’s painterly rhetoric. Robert Rauschenberg did it by repeating the same spontaneous-looking strokes on twin canvases, “Factum I” and “Factum II” (1957).

But Ryman eschewed imagery and any apparent irony. There was, as there remains, something monkish about his submission to austere forms and procedures. For a while, in the early sixties, he flirted with color and with mildly decorative effects, such as layering whites atop reds and blues. It was as if he were straining against a principled compunction and toward an indulgence in the hedonistic rewards of painting. That stopped in the late sixties, with a double commitment to whites and to treating paintings as self-evident objects. I well remember the pleasant shock of his show at Virginia Dwan’s gallery, on Fifty-seventh Street, in 1971, of identically big, square, white paintings on sheets of vinyl, which were held to the wall by paint that ran over their edges. (Tiny blank patches showed, where pieces of masking tape had secured the vinyl while the paint dried.) It was like entering a luminous fog bank in which nothing—except everything—was palpable. 

Under its spell, you could deem even the most astringent works of other artists fatally fussy.

The Dia show is a career sampler, which means that it lacks the engulfing experience of Ryman shows that present series of closely related works en masse, with a practically chapel-like air of consecration to some mysterious ideal. I can imagine a devotee of Ryman visiting Dia twenty-two times, to give each of the paintings, in turn, an hour of undistracted communion. As it is, you hopscotch themes, with variants of tone, including the majestic—as in “Counsel” (1982), a large, densely brushed canvas, held out from the wall by steel fasteners—and the bizarre, as in “Pair Navigation” (1984/2002), which incorporates a painting on fibreglass mounted, horizontally, on a table-like, wood-and-metal structure that projects from the wall. If I could have one work from the show, to satisfy my somewhat equivocal appetite for Rymanism, it would be the delicately befuddling “Arista” (1968), a six-foot-square painting on unstretched linen, which is stapled to the wall and abutted, on the wall, by ruled lines in blue chalk. The lines suggest a guide to placement, but there they are in place, themselves, as the most interesting feature of the work. The particular meaning, if any, of a Ryman commonly tiptoes just out of mental reach.

Back on the philosophical front: What is white? As light, it is the apparent no-color that contains all colors except its antithetical no-color, black. But, as pigmentation, it rarely lacks some ghostly tint, and it is never without relative tone. (Juxtapose any two whites and watch one turn gray.) Ryman generally favors cool whites, whispering of blue. A warm-white painting, “Untitled” (1973), jumps out in the show like a sunflower on fire—if, that is, you have spent enough time for your perception to adjust, like eyes in the dark, to the pitch of excruciating discrimination that Ryman demands. The exercise may offer its own reward, refining the viewer’s eye and mind, but it comes with ponderous intellectual baggage. Ryman’s reductions of painting to basic protocols are engaging only to the extent that you regard painting as an art that is both inherently important and circumstantially in crisis. You must buy into an old story, which bears on Ryman’s extreme, peculiarly sacramental standing in the history of taste.

Ryman’s is a kind of mute art that, generating reverent and brainy chatter, puts uninitiated citizens in mind of the emperor’s new clothes. (I have in hand, as tinder for such derision, “Robert Ryman: Critical Texts Since 1967,” a thick volume of often gruellingly dense essays.) Yet, actually, the populist fable rather befits the serious aims of Ryman and his avant-garde generation, who insisted on something very like full-frontal nudity in artistic intentions. The emperor—roughly, high-modernist faith in art’s world-changing mission—could retain fealty only if stripped of fancy styles and sentimental excuses. That was Ryman’s formative moment. It was succeeded by a suspicion, now amounting to a resigned conviction, that contemporary art is an industry producing just clothes, with no ruling authority inside them.


(Maine Writer summary- I guess, if a reader can even understand the Schjeldahl review of the Ryman collection, than the "white on white" art might make some sense. Nevertheless, for an amateur like me, I'd prefer to write blogs about "paintings" rather than waste space in The New Yorker giving credibility to white washed fences. In fact, Tom Sawyer lives on....!)

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