Modern art museum patrons are often confounded by all-white paintings like those of Robert Ryman. Like, what the hell? It’s just a white painting? “I could do that.” In this video, Vox’s Dean Peterson talks with The Whitney’s assistant curator Elisabeth Sherman about how you might approach thinking about minimalist art.
The art critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing about a retrospective of Ryman’s work for the New Yorker, gets at what the artist is attempting to communicate with his work:
Always, Ryman invites contemplation of the light that falls on his paintings (which when I saw them, on a recent cloudy day, was glumly tender as it filtered through the Dia skylights) and of their formal relation to the rooms that contain them. There’s no savoring of style, just stark presentation. His work’s economy and quietness may be pleasing, but its chief attraction is philosophical. What is a painting? Are there values inherent in the medium’s fundamental givens — paint skin, support surface, wall — when they are denied traditional decorative and illustrative functions? Such questions absorb Ryman. Do they excite you? Your answer might betray how old you are.
And Ryman himself talked about why he uses white in an interview with Art21:
White has a tendency to make things visible. With white, you can see more of a nuance; you can see more. I’ve said before that, if you spill coffee on a white shirt, you can see the coffee very clearly. If you spill it on a dark shirt, you don’t see it as well. So, it wasn’t a matter of white, the color. I was not really interested in that. I started to cover up colors with white in the 1950s. It has only been recently, in 2004, that I did a series of white paintings in which I was actually painting the color white. Before that, I’d never really thought of white as being a color, in that sense.