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American Art








Robert Ryman's white paintings have, not surprisingly, been associated with minimalism, but the sensuality of his work and his disassociation from minimalism's critical discourse have also been emphasized. Art historian James Meyer's concept of the “minimal field,” or terrain of difference, allows us to forgo a debate about whether Ryman is or is not a minimalist, and instead to closely examine this painter's motivations and achievements. While Ryman shares the rigid anti‐illusionism of many artists of his generation, his work also has important connections with the jazz music that brought him to New York in the first place and with the abstract expressionist gesture painting he encountered as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. These factors combine in the defining characteristic of Ryman's painting: the single stroke—the brushstroke placed once and left. This seemingly simple rule turns the painting into a unidirectional temporal record, much like a musical performance. Although Ryman gave up the saxophone in favor of painting, his work retains the same principles of control and attention to nuance advocated by his instructor, the pianist Lennie Tristano. The temporality inherent in Ryman's singular, “one‐time” stroke sets him apart from the similarly reductive early paintings of Frank Stella, which seek a more unified impact and are less closely tied to their own procedure. Ryman's paintings are paradoxically closer to some of the sculptural work of Carl Andre and Robert Morris. The work of all three artist manifests its own coming into being through clearly discernible methods. Ryman, therefore, is unique among “minimal painters” in his literalization not only of space, but of time.

Original Publication Citation

Colaizzi, V. (2007). 'How it works': Stroke, music, and Minimalism in Robert Ryman's early paintings. American Art, 21(1), 28-49. doi:10.1086/518293