In this first book-length study of Robert Ryman, Suzanne Hudson traces the artist’s production from his first paintings in the early 1950s, many of which have never been exhibited or reproduced, to his recent gallery shows. Ryman’s largely white-on-white paintings represent his careful working over of painting's conventions at their most radically reduced. Through close readings of the work, Hudson casts Ryman as a painter for whom painting was conducted as a continuous personal investigation. Ryman's method—an act of “learning by doing”—as well as his conception of painting as “used paint” sets him apart from second-generation abstract expressionists, minimalists, or conceptualists.
Ryman (born in 1930) is a self-taught artist who began to paint in earnest while working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1950s. Hudson argues that Ryman’s approach to painting developed from quotidian contact with the story of modern painting as assembled by MoMA director and curator Alfred Barr and rendered widely accessible by director of the education department Victor D'Amico and colleagues. Ryman’s introduction to artistic practice within the (white) walls of MoMA, Hudson contends, was shaped by an institutional ethos of experiential learning. (Others who worked at the MoMA during these years include Lucy Lippard, who married Ryman in 1961; Dan Flavin, another guard; and Sol LeWitt, a desk assistant.)
Hudson's chapters—“Primer,” “Paint,” “Support,” “Edge,” and “Wall,” named after the most basic elements of the artist's work—eloquently explore Ryman’s ongoing experiment in what makes a painting a painting. Ryman's work, she writes, tests the medium's material and conceptual possibilities. It signals neither the end of painting nor guarantees its continued longevity but keeps the prospect of painting an open question, answerable only through the production of new paintings.
About the Author
Suzanne P. Hudson is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Adopting as her lodestar the artist’s assertion that the question that engages him is not what to paint but how to paint, Suzanne Hudson incisively addresses ‘meaning insofar as it attends method’ in Ryman’s work over the past five decades. As she explores the extraordinary level of formal invention he has brought to bear on this bedeviling question, she persuasively grounds his practice in a form of Dewey-derived Pragmatism, and thereby brilliantly circumvents the twin shoals of ‘antiaesthetic historicism and anticonceptual hedonism’ on which most previous commentators have foundered.”
—Lynne Cooke, curator, DIA Art Foundation
“This is an indispensable study of Ryman's painting, distinguished by its brilliant and original analysis of Ryman's pragmatism. Hudson pries Ryman's work from the silent critical interstices to which it has too often been relegatedstuck between warring critical parties; pinched between postwar art movements that cannot securely encompass it. In doing so, she reveals the non-interchangeable specificity of each and every Ryman painting, showing how each emerges from its own procedural and material moment, how each has a history even as each refuses to contribute to traditional art-historical narrative.”
—Jennifer L. Roberts, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University
“In Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Suzanne P. Hudson detaches the painter’s 'white' paintings from the usual stylistic and polemical framings. Her focus is Ryman's practice (its recycling and recombination of the painter's concerns: support, paint, edge, wall) and its emergence in the pedagogical milieu of modernism's temple, the Museum of Modern Art. Hudson's Ryman is both pragmatic and pragmatist, a devotee of Dewey and James, D'Amico and Barr: a Ryman for whom idea and action, the what and how of painting, are inextricable terms. In these pages we encounter a Ryman who staves off doubt through the assertion of belief, a belief in painting not as medium or essence but as a cognitive and bodily activity. Her account persuades.”
—James Meyer, Winship Distinguished Associate Professor of Art History, Emory University