Art and Artists Text

Ryman at Dia Chelsea

 “Destruction takes place so order might exist. / Simple enough. / Destruction takes place at the point of maximum awareness.”  Charles Wright

“An ever dimmer light.”  Samuel Beckett

“In every story I tell comes a point where I can see no further.” Anne Carson

“That language can suggest a body where there is none.” Rosemarie Waldrop

“Where we have, at one and the same time, darkness and light, we also have the inexplicable.” Samuel Beckett 


That which withdraws from view, from understanding—in light, in shadow, even in absolute darkness—

Robert Ryman’s white paintings and the Samuel Beckett Trilogy link in my mind in a question about seeing; link over light and darkness, in the perception of the real—both in the seen and in the understood, and in the misseen, misunderstood: illumination on two levels, or the lack of.  

Ryman persists in speaking about “real light” just as Donald Judd insisted on using “real space”, yet what the real evokes is perhaps something even more untenable than illusion: that which exists at the place where metaphor fails.  “Rendering substance entirely optical, and form, whether pictorial, sculptural, or architectural, as an integral part of ambient space—this brings anti-illusionism full circle. Instead of the illusion of things, we are now offered the illusion of modalities: namely, that matter is incorporeal, weightless, and exists only optically like a mirage.”  This statement by Clement Greenberg about Judd’s work could equally be applied to Ryman’s paintings.

The point where metaphor fails, is of course the moment when language fails, when what is cannot be defined.  Beckett also wanted to undermine the desire for and the presumption of clarity.  He often employed an obscurity of meaning in language, reminded us how truly inarticulate language use can be, to indicate the imperfections of our own subjectivity, such as the darkness offers us, the audience, in this particular staging of three short plays.

In Lisa Dwan’s production of the Samuel Beckett Trilogy all the lights are turned off, no aisle lights, no exit sign, no glow of the entry hall slipping through a cracked doorway.  So I am first confronted with the experience of true darkness, something so very unusual to find in a city—and then I become aware of the action of looking, a striving, not to cease seeing, but eyes active so as to see.  I have always liked the Latin phrase ex nihilo: ‘out of nothing’.  Out  of nothing the actor appears on the stage.  In Footfalls, Lisa Dwan appears and treads back and forth across the stage.  She is a ghost in the less than half-light, again I am aware of the action of looking, feeling it in the eyes, the strain to discern.  The eyes are discontent with the spectral, the form in flux, the form almost having no form.  The lack of light plays disorienting tricks on perception.  The eye does not know what it sees and what it manufactures, sees the very detritus of seeing—ex nihilo, out of nothing and then a return, into nothing.

The things that emerge—in light, in shadow, even in absolute darkness.  One would think that at least in complete darkness there might be an absence of image, a freedom from looking.  Plotinus said: “To see darkness, the eye withdraws from the light it is striving to cease from seeing, therefore it abandons the light which would make the darkness invisible; away from the light, its power is rather that of not-seeing than of seeing and this not-seeing is its nearest approach to seeing Darkness.”  

A pale form in a white dress…is it even white? If there were color, the absence of light would suck it away.  A pale form in a white dress becomes a screen on which image and afterimage superimpose.  Even thought itself becomes as active a participant as the real and the mind projects a mirage of meaning and form onto the amorphous.  And yet all this eye-noise interferes with coming into understanding and the desire to define which might be served better by the eyes’ power of not-seeing, as poet Rosemarie Waldrop puts it: “this not-seeing / sees the night”.  Perhaps we are meant to navigate by this spectre: steer our eyes by it rather than towards it?  It is said that moths navigate in relation to the moon by a transverse orientation and yet those blooms that rely on night’s pollinators are also white or drained of color.  A white rose in the night garden is just a small grey spot; draws eyes like moths, but in the figure the geometry of bone anchors, creates structure.      “Form imposes, structure allows­­,” writes the poet Charles Wright, and later: “Mondrian’s window gives out / onto ontology”

What is seen?  What is known?  How to be certain?  Yet still, in the pale spotlight, structure imposes an order, where eyes do not glitter, sockets are dark and skin seems to fall away to reveal bone.  Shadow dissolves flesh to reveal the cruciform pattern of the skull with its verticals and horizontals.  I think of this as I stand, 16 hours later, in front of Ryman’s Untitled, c. 1960, on this, my second visit to the exhibition at DIA.   The cruciform pattern of brush strokes seems to, at a distance, encourage the eyes to define.  I have noticed recently that I have been attracted by the faces in things, faces that are not faces.  For years I stared at the Felix Gonzalez Torres poster at the foot of my bed and it stared back: I let my mind impose such faces upon the waves’ patterns of light and shadow, and now, even within my own work, I do not disrupt the faces I find, but press them into a greater clarity.  To do so seems a deliberate thwarting of the tasteful, I am suspicious of good taste, its leveling effect on meaning.  In Ryman’s painting the ridges and ruts leftover from the brush separate into brow, bone, socket, lip, line, tooth, bridge, chin, jaw.  Today, an April afternoon, the sun is bright and so I witness the surface of things composed through light and shadow.  


In addition to the Ryman paintings I have been visiting the Mondrians and the Malevich paintings at MOMA, specifically to look at the way both artists used white: both its function and its application.  I find my mind tends to make the same assumption the reproductions make: the assumption that both artists made smooth paintings.  Conservators in the 1950’s evidently made this mistake as well and when relining the paintings they “ironed out” the impasto.  White pigments, titanium especially, that great cover-over-er, can take such a long time to dry.   I find a place where Mondrian closed off a white square with deep visible brush marks.  He was clearly impatient to complete the geometry and solve the shape without masking, by simply rerouting the final strokes to the horizontal.  In his haste he let his hand be seen, perhaps he foresaw, and even counted on, the ironing out that would take place in the reproduction?  

Malevich also must have built up paint quickly, the layers of strokes subtly undermining the direction of the previous stroke, raking the surface: wet thick paint over wet thick paint so that the brush did not cut through the previous layers still wet, so the strokes float over each other in time and space.  Brush strokes are embodiment, they link the artist to the viewer.  The strokes instruct the eye, speeding up and slowing down, they move the eye across the surface: weave body and time.  I stand longest in front of Malevich’s White on White.  A geometric figure, a sort of square floats in the right corner of the larger ‘square’ of the composition.  Malevich’s geometry is never perfect hence the tension and the illusion of movement it provokes.  There are two ‘whites’ in this painting; the square of the canvas is filled with a warm, greyed out butter-toned white, while the interior square is cool, almost greenish by comparison.  In many of the Ryman paintings as in those by Malevich, one becomes aware of the artist’s hand at work—how a mark changes progress across a surface, not arresting movement, but instructing it in its flow, measuring it out in increments.  The impasto records each press of paint against the surface; repeated gestures that in both White on White and its looser cousin, Ryman’s Untitled #17, 1958, approach but never quite reach the penciled/painted contour of the forms that contain them. 

The use of white focuses the viewer on the tactile—on the paint itself.  It is tempting to see the subject of these paintings as the process of painting itself. But this simplistic reading overlooks a great deal.  There always seems to be a point at which the meaning of a work of art is insoluble in language.  There is a kernel that does not break down, that remains within the mind as an object within itself: something to be seen from the outside, but which the light of thought cannot entirely penetrate.  This causes a desire to turn and return to that which we have seen: the painting or whatever container offers the unresolved truth, the truth in process of becoming, to search and research its aspect for clues or conclusions.


Beckett (says to Duthuit) — The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.  

       A friend (turning towards me says emphatically) —  The thing itself!

       Beckett (looks at the painting) — On its what is the wrong word its uptilted face obscure graffiti.

      Ryman Painting — 

      Beckett — (exit weeping)


What is the wrong word? White? Where does meaning stick?  Where is the assumption that circumscribes the undefinable and oversimplifies? Perhaps white is the wrong word, it even being a word it suggests that its meaning is resolved.  And yet white is always visibly unresolved: word as figment, color as figment. Can this be what Courtney Martin is suggesting in the DIA pamphlet when she writes: “As viewers, we experience these painted frequencies of light as white?” This sounds very noncommittal, ambiguous: and yet truly each white is as mutable as the natural light that filters in through the skylights.  

The color white was for Malevich the color of infinity, and signified a “realm of higher feeling”. And like the concept of the infinite, the ‘color’ of white has something intangible about it. Are we not told that white is the presence of all colors? White reflects back the whole of the visible spectrum. A color that is all colors and no color: white is a deceiver, a backslider, the double-crosser of the visible spectrum. Or else white is so credulous and wide eyed that it is taken in—easily influenced by its milieu: and so in the spectral scale it can be swayed and tipped in favor of one or another of its prismatic comrades. The perception of white is in fact dependent on, or influenced by the presence or absence of another color nearby. White tints itself to the light and becomes a pale mimic of whatever is near.

I wanted to watch the Ryman paintings blush when I first visited DIA in February, I wanted to infect them: purity tinted by my own presence, the very manifestation of uncertainty and influence—and through this act to urge something concrete, even fleetingly, onto the surfaces.  But there was hardly natural light to speak of; “real light” withdrew from the paintings on this winter afternoon and all the whites slipped into a twilight of grey and caught no reflections.  On this occasion I took copious notes.  Yet reading over these notes two weeks later I decided I had seen nothing and so in fact my notes said nothing: ill seen ill said in the half-light of a dimming February afternoon.  In the absence of light I saw only with my moth eyes.  I bounced off the surfaces.  I bounced off meaning. I threw away the notes.

“If there may not be no more questions let there at least be no more answers.” 

above: ‘Arrow,’ 1976, by Robert Rymanshow runs through July 2016