A survey of the career of Robert Ryman, the American artist noted for the white paintings which he has been making for nearly forty years, is the most significant exhibition of contemporary art to be taking place in London this spring. Following its launch at the Tate Gallery (17 February-25 April), a prestigious international circuit has been arranged for the exhibition which goes to the Museo Nacional de Reina Sofía, Madrid (8 June-23 August), New York’s Museum of Modern Art (22 September-4 January 1994), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (3 February-17 April 1994) and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (23 July-2 October 1994).
The selection of eighty-one canvases and other works of art has been made by Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery and long an admirer of Ryman’s work, which he showed at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1977, and Robert Storr, Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In the past, the Tate Gallery has borrowed exhibitions which have been organised by MOMA’s staff, including “de Chirico” (1982) and “Schwitters” (1985), but this occasion is a proper collaboration between the two institutions.
Although Ryman has been making art since 1954 and belongs to the generation of Jasper Johns, he did not exhibit his work until the later Sixties and was not given a solo museum exhibition until 1972. As a result, his biography has been compressed into the chapter of Minimalism. In fact, he has usually been regarded as the supreme Minimalist painter, but perceptions have been changing through a closer study of his earlier work which reveals him as an artist whose origins lie in painterly Abstraction. This rediscovery has come through historical exhibitions held recently at New York’s DIA Center for the Arts (1988-89), Claude Berri’s RENN Espace d’Art Contemporain in Paris (1991-92) and at the Hallen für Neue Kunst, Schaffhausen, where Ryman’s art has been prominently featured for several years and a fresh installation opens shortly (2 May-31 October).
The Tate Gallery’s exhibition continues this process of reassessment through a selection of those earlier works dating before 1960 and including a rare coloured canvas, “Untitled (Orange Painting)”, which was created in 1955-59 and has never been shown, although it is known from illustrations in catalogues. That those unexpected interests in colour are still valid has been confirmed by Ryman’s “Versions”, a series of sixteen recent pictures employing a thin layer of white pigment washed over coloured grounds laid on fibreglass, which were seen in Shaffhausen and at Pace, the artist’s New York gallery, in an exhibition which closed last month. Three examples from that series mark the conclusion of the present exhibition.
The catalogue includes an essay by Storr and entries for the exhibited pictures prepared by Catherine Kinley of the Tate Gallery and MoMA’s Lynn Zelevansky based upon interviews with the artist.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'White-out at the Tate'