Interview with Robert Ryman: Painting is for pleasure

Ryman has been painting white on white for more than 50 years. He talks about how his paintings work and which shade of white he uses


Although Robert Ryman is renowned for the white paintings he has been making for more than half a century, he is by no means a Minimalist painter of monochromes. As the extraordinary variety of his work bears witness, this veteran American artist’s use of white has always been a means to open up, rather than narrow down, the possibilities of painting. He declared in 1971: “ I don’ t think of myself as making white paintings. I make paintings: I’m a painter. White paint is my medium.”

In any case, Ryman’s work has never been exclusively restricted to white; nowhere is this more evident than in his new paintings, currently on show at Haunch of Venison this month, in which a rich range of greens, browns, and umbers in the underpainting make themselves evident along with the colour of the underlying canvas and linen.

The Art Newspaper: In these recent paintings the coloured underpainting seems to be especially pronounced.

Robert Ryman: I don’t know why, exactly, but I put the colour down first with no plan at all, just putting colour on the surface and letting it develop in its own way to a certain point. I have to wait, of course, for that to dry before I can continue, then I can begin to take away and also to add at the same time with the white, there again almost without a plan.

But as it moves along, then the painting develops into a compositional situation and then there does become a certain plan for the painting, in the way it is developing on its own...

TAN: So there is a certain point at which the composition spontaneously reveals itself?

RR: Yes, as you work on it, it develops it’s own way; then it is up to me to recognise that, and then to make a painting out of it. I’m aware, of course, of the space itself, and the edges and the colour of the canvas. In this exhibition, there are, actually, three basic colours: there’s the buff colour of the cotton canvas, and then there’s the brown of the linen on others, and then there is a yellow ground that was a pigmented gesso which I also use as a ground colour, so there are those three basic colours, before the actual painting of the surface begins.

TAN: How do you select the colour for the underpainting?

RR: Sometimes it’s almost random. I tend to prefer earth colours: I don’t use any bright reds or blues or so on, although there was one where I used a brighter blue, but mostly I prefer earth colours, ochres and Naples yellow and umbers...

TAN: There is quite a lot of green in this new body of work.

RR: Yes and there’s some green earth I use and then a slightly brighter green, a kind of a swamp green.

TAN: And the colour of the canvas is just as is.

RR: The linen is the brown colour of the linen; of course it’s been sized with glue, and the buff colour of the cotton is as it is also, but the only difference is the yellow of the gesso.

TAN: Obviously, the shade of white is affected by what you lay down underneath it, but do you use the same white paint for each work or does the white vary from painting to painting?

RR: I believe there were two, maybe three, paintings which had a different white. It was a warmer white, almost a light Naples yellow, but most of them are the same white which is a Winsor Titanium.

TAN: A couple of the paintings, “Resort” and ‘“Exchange”, have one very sharp edge which contrasts with the other more fluid sides. The dynamics of these paintings are very distinct. At what point do you decide how the painting will be done?

RR: That’s when the painting reaches a point where I can work with the composition. It’s hard to say exactly when that happens. I use a hard straight line many times as a contrast to the soft curving lines so there can be an opposite visual there. In that case [“Resort”] as I remember, the hard line was at the bottom and the line of the canvas itself formed a rectangle, and then the left side was very soft and loose with a lot of movement and the right side, as I remember, kind of moves off of the space entirely.

TAN: There is an interesting tension between the linen rectangle at the bottom and the whirling mass of paint at the top. Then there is a band of white above the straight line which is almost like a constraining buffer; it makes the painting seem almost adversarial.

RR: With that painting I was trying to get that tension where the paint moves off the space and then is contained, and then you have the soft area with a lot of movement. Some of the other paintings have a similar approach to that one.

TAN: The relationship between these paintings with their contrasting passages and the other, more symphonic “all over” works in this series seems crucial.

RR: Yes, that’s very important because of the way that they move outwards with the wall space, they’re different to the usual pictures where you look into them, these kind of move out, they use the space similar to a Mondrian, the way a Mondrian works. Actually, in the installation here, I hung one of the paintings, “Accompany”, quite high, with the bottom edge of the canvas at eye level. I had it in my studio in that way, and I felt that that’s the way it should be seen because of the nature of the painting itself. It didn’t really need to be at eye level since it wasn’t the kind of thing you look into, so I hope that’s in the exhibition because if it is, it will be higher than the rest.

TAN: Will you be coming to London to hang the show yourself?

RR: No, I won’t. But Arnie Glimcher of Pace Gallery will be there, and he’s very familiar with the way it works.

TAN: Do you submit plans of how you want the work to be installed?

RR: No, because you can’t really plan; you can, maybe, do a little bit with a map, but you really have to see it in the actual space to know how it’s going to work—sometimes with surprising results...

TAN: I am interested in the relationship of the titles to the paintings. Although your work is emphatically non-narrative, or metaphoric or symbolic, if you give a painting a title, people cannot help but make associations.

RR: Sure. But I try to pick a title where you wouldn’t have such an association, but sometimes you don’t know what a viewer is going to be thinking of. He really has nothing to do with the painting itself, except for identification, and I try and pick a word that we know, that’s familiar, but yet it’s not exactly something you can pinpoint. It’s funny; I can’t remember some of my titles.

TAN: The majority of your earlier work was untitled, but over the years you have titled your paintings more and more. Is there a reason for that?

RR: Well, yes. I don’t really title them unless they go out of my studio into the world. No one was interested in the early paintings, so they never went anywhere. I never titled them. So when they did go out, it was kind of too late, they were about 20 years old when they went out finally.

TAN: So, in a way, the title is just part of the painting’s public face?

RR: It’s just so they have some kind of identification, like a person has a name and you can refer to that. I have a list of words that I pick up from here and there when I run into a word that seems interesting. So when I’m titling a painting I just go down a list and pick out what I think is the best word of the moment and that’s the one that goes on the painting.

TAN: So you never tie the title into the appearance of the work?

RR: No. I don’t, although you might think that some of them seem that way. After I do it, they do seem to kind of fit, I don’t know why.

TAN: Do you work on several paintings simultaneously?

RR: Oh, yes.

TAN: Roughly how many do you have on the go at the same time?

RR: Usually three or four at the same time. There might even be two other small paintings that are on my wall that I work on from time to time. One little painting might take six months or more, not that I’m working on it all the time, but it’s just around and, when I see it, it tells me what it needs and then I work on it.

TAN: Do you ever decide that you have finished something and then change your mind?

RR: Oh yes. In fact, I recently had some renovation done in my studio and found some things that were squirrelled away years ago. I found a little painting that I’d begun in 1964 and I’d abandoned it. I decided to finish it and, when I finally did, I dated it 1964-2000. Mondrian did that also; he had paintings sitting around, and there wasn’t so much interest in his paintings, and so he might see something that might be different, or a better solution to a certain painting, so he could pick it up and make a change on it. Usually when the painting goes out into the world, then it’s really finished.

TAN: Judging from what you have told me, it sounds as if you do not make preliminary studies; you always paint straight onto the canvas.

RR: There have been occasions in the past where I haven’t done preliminary studies, but I’ve had in mind beforehand what I’ve wanted to do. One instance in the early 70s I saw a painting in a museum, I don’t remember the painting, but the label said “unfinished painting” and that stuck with me because I thought, “Oh, this painting is finished because we’re in a museum and we’re looking at it.” So, in my studio, I did three five-foot paintings: the first one had one layer of vertical strokes, and the second painting had one layer of vertical and one layer of horizontal strokes, and the third one was vertical, horizontal and vertical again. And I titled the first one, “Unfinished painting 1”, and the second one, “Unfinished painting 2”, and the third one, “Finished painting 3”, but I usually don’t do that kind of thing!

TAN: Do you carry notebooks or sketchbooks around with you?

RR: No. I do carry a pen and a little paper usually, but that’s usually just to write titles down, it’s very intuitive, my approach.

TAN: When someone walks into a room full of your paintings, what do you want them to feel?

RR: Hopefully they will have a smile when they see it. When I was at the Vermeer show, which was at the Met a couple of years ago, it was just sensational that they were able to get the paintings together like that. Anyway, I remember a woman was looking at one of them very closely, about a foot and a half away and she had this very peaceful expression, a kind of a half smile, and she stayed there for a long time. And I remember thinking that, basically, it seems that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure: if someone can receive pleasure from looking at paintings, then that’s the best thing that can happen. L.B.


Born: 1930 Nashville

Currently showing: Haunch of Venison, London (until 20 February)

Solo shows include: 2000-2001 Robert Ryman Retrospective, Haus der Kunst, Munich, travelled to Kunstmuseum, Bonn 1993-94 Retrospective, Tate Gallery London; Reina Sofia, Madrid; MoMA San Francisco; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1990 Pace Gallery, New York 1988-89 Dia Art Foundation, New York 1977 Whitechapel Gallery, London; 1975 Kunstalle, Basel 1974 Stedelijk Gallery, Amsterdam 1972-73 Lisson Gallery, London 1972 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Kassel Documenta 1968 Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich; Galerie Konrad Fischer, Düsseldorf 1967 Paul Bianchini Gallery, New York.