Gerhard Richter: Articles, Information, Images (2015)

The Art of Gerhard Richter

Hermeneutics, Images, Meaning

By: Christian Lotz
Media of The Art of Gerhard Richter

Published: 10-22-2015
Format: Hardback
Edition: 1st
Extent: 256
ISBN: 9781472589019
Imprint: Bloomsbury Academic
Illustrations: 16 colour illustrations in plate section: pp.180-181
Dimensions: 6 1/8″ x 9 1/4″
List price: $112.00
Online price: $78.40
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Gerhard Richter Colour Charts in London – Presented by Dominique Lévy First Time Since 1966

Amy Lin

Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts will be on display for the first time in the last five decades at Dominique Lévy gallery in London. The exhibition will present some of the best colour panels by the celebrated German artist. Colour Charts exhibit highlights a crucial moment in the artist’s career and works that are situated across several leading art movements of the twentieth century. Gerhard Richter has embraced industrial materials and commercial serialism designating the series as Pop Art although he has once stated that “Colour Charts manifest the influence of a Duchampian model of Conceptual Art“.


Dominique Lévy,catalogue, raisonné, picture, august,news, square, 2006, just great, come, number, world, page, began, atlas, set, fields, cologne cut 2007, colours, work, search, pictures, glass, 1974, London

Sample Card for Enamel Paint from Ducolux, 1963

Paint Sample Cards by Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter was inspired by a collection of paint sample cards noticed in one Düsseldorf hardware store. The artist was captivated by the chromatically rich industrially designed selection that was completely deprived of any aesthetic motives. He had copied the originals exactly and the composition of colors was random throughout the process. At first, Gerhard Richter’s friend Blinky Palermo would visit the artist’s studio and randomly call out the names of sample color cards, which were then incorporated into the artwork. Later the artist himself had chosen the colours randomly in order to remove the artistic impact on the compositions. These colorful paintings have been the initiator for Gerhard Richter’s renowned multi-colored abstract paintings created in the following decades. The series was crucial for the artist’s future works partly because for the first time in his carrier, Gerhard Richter was able to capture a referent and its symbolic representation in the same painting. On a visual level, Colour Charts series is pure abstraction but the paintings are also a representation of industrial color sample cards that inspired the artist and therefore and object in its own right.


Dominique Lévy,painting, richter's, window, english, make, number,arts, 4900, news, work, search, photographs, white, history, books, collections, arangement, arts, group, squares, press, november, deutsch, quotes, videos, like, people, different, life, english, 4900, richter's, colours, London, raisonné, 2011

Left : Gerhard Richter – Fünfzehn Farben (Fifteen Colours), 1966 – 1996, photo by Tom Powel Imaging / Right : Gerhard Richter – Sechs Gelb (Six Yellows), 1966, photo by Volker Naumann, courtesy of Museum Frieder Burda

The 50th Anniversary of the Colour Charts

The exhibition at Dominique Lévy will mark a 50 years anniversary of Colour Charts series. Each painting consists of multiple monochromatic rectangles or squares of glossy enamel painted onto a white background. The size of the canvases varies and while some are only few feet tall others almost reach human height. The installment will include single Colour Chart painted in 1971. when the artist begun to expand the series after a five-year break. This monumental 180 Farben (180 Colours) painting that consists of twenty panels with a three-by-three white-based grid, will be provided by Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden. Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden will lend one of the artist’s biggest single-panel paintings Sechs Gelb (Six Yellows) for this occasion.


Dominique Lévy, page germany, book, home, book, 2014, quotes, film, group, London

Gerhard Richter – Fünfzehn Farben (Fifteen Colours), 1966 – 1996, photo by Tom Powel Imaging

Abstract Painghtings and Archival Documents at Dominique Lévy

Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts exhibition will open on October 13th at Dominique Lévy gallery in London. Apart from enamel on canvas paintings the exhibit will feature a selection of archival documents related to the series, including an original 1960s Ducolux paint sample card that inspired the artworks. Additionally the exhibit will be accompanied by a comprehensive publication dedicated to the series. Exhibition of some of Gerhard Richter’s best Colour Chart paintings will close on January 16th, 2016


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Featured image: Gerhard Richter – 180 Farden (180 Colours), 1971, photo by David Brandt, courtesy of Gerhard Richter Archive
All images courtesy of Dominique Lévy gallery


“Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts” at Dominique Lévy, London

October 18~2015

Dominique Lévy is pleased to announce “Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts,” an exhibition featuring a vital group of paintings selected from the artist’s original nineteen “Colour Charts” produced in 1966. Presented with the support of the Gerhard Richter Archive, the exhibition is the first to focus on the earliest works of this series since their inaugural appearance at Galerie Friedrich & Dahlem, Munich in 1966. At once paradoxical and coalescent, the “Colour Charts” highlight an important moment in the artist’s career and are situated across multiple leading art movements of the twentieth century.

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Colour Charts’ inception, the exhibition brings together works from multiple prominent international institutions. These include the Hamburger Kunsthalle, who is lending 192 Farben (192 Colours), 1966, Richter’s earliest fully realised Colour Chart and the only work from this series executed in oil, and the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden who is lending Sechs Gelb (Six Yellows), 1966, one of the largest single-panel “Colour Charts,” originally exhibited at Friedrich & Dahlem in 1966. “Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts” also features an earlier work, Sänger (Singer), 1965/1966, a Photo Painting with a colour chart of various shades of red painted on the obverse side of the canvas, which provides an integral insight into the artist’s conception of the series. Additionally, Richter’s 180 Farben (180 Colours), 1971, has generously been provided by the Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden. Comprised of twenty panels, each with a three-by-three grid, this work is the first Colour Chart Richter produced when he returned to the series in 1971, after a five-year hiatus. “Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts” is accompanied by a comprehensive book featuring newly commissioned essays by Dietmar Elger, Head of the Gerhard Richter Archive; Hubertus Butin, curator and author of several key texts on Richter; and Jaleh Mansoor, Professor at the University of British Columbia, whose research concentrates on modern abstraction and its socio-economic implications. This book is the first publication dedicated to the original “Colour Charts.”


at Dominique Lévy, London

until 16 January 2015

“Gerhard Richter: Colour Charts” installation views at Dominique Lévy, London, 2015

Courtesy; Dominique Lévy, London.

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Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult
  2. See, respectively,,
  3. See
  4. See
  5. See
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see


Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism

112 Green Street – Soho – New York 1970 – Gordan Matta Clark

Arts & Culture

112 Greene Street

July 25, 2012 | by

Exterior of 112 Greene Street. Photo by Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone.

I met with Jessamyn Fiore in the air-conditioned back offices of David Zwirner’s Chelsea gallery in late June to discuss her new book, 112 Greene Street, a series of interviews with artists who helped found or were associated with the eponymous location, one of the first alternative art spaces in New York City. Opened in 1970 by artists Jeffrey Lew, Alan Saret, and Gordon Matta-Clark, 112 Greene Street served not as a commercial gallery but as a space in which artists could create and exhibit works collaboratively. Their participation in the burgeoning SoHo art scene also included cofounding FOOD, a pay-what-you-wish restaurant known for its delicious soups. Back then, the neighborhood more closely resembled a small village, rather than the glamorous, high-end shopping district it is now, and all of the artists associated with 112 Greene Street who were interviewed by Fiore remember that communal period fondly.

Fiore has a direct lineage to the groundbreaking gallery: her mother, Jane Crawford, was married to Gordon Matta-Clark, who died from pancreatic cancer in 1978 at age thirty-five. Known for his daring “building cuts”—literal dissections of buildings slated for demolition—Matta-Clark was, by all accounts, charismatic and widely admired and loved. Fiore herself ran a nonprofit art gallery in Dublin for several years before relocating to New York, where she curated an exhibition at Zwirner about 112 Greene Street last winter. She is warm, easygoing, and candid; it’s easy to see why the artists, whom she considers her friends, would trust her to preserve their memories in print.

Chance encounters played such a big part in the manifestation of 112 Greene Street.

There were a lot of chance meetings involved in its creation. But I think they were a reflection of that community at the time. The art world in New York was a lot smaller. In one Richard Nonas story, he goes to Max’s Kansas City for the first time and ends up meeting Carl Andre and Richard Serra, and they get in a conversation and he goes to see their studio. There are lots of these kinds of stories.

It was also key that Jeffrey Lew and his wife, Rachel Wood, had bought the building and let out the floors to various people. But it really only came together when Jeffrey saw what Alan Saret was doing with his own studio at the time. Alan renamed his studio Spring Palace and opened it up for exhibitions and performances by other artists. So, for example, Joan Jonas came in and did a performance where George Trakas actually built a set for her to perform on. So when the business that was in 112 Greene Street moved out, Jeffrey had a big, empty, ground-floor space and basement, and Alan came on board and helped Jeffrey set it up. And Alan’s uncle was the first backer of 112 Greene Street, whatever that means. No one goes into detail as to exactly what the business relationship was, but he was able to give some kind of initial funding.

How did they convince him to fund the project?

Jeffrey had an amazing ability to meet people and get them involved. A few people I talked to said there was a bit of an air of mystery about Jeffrey as to how he actually got this stuff done, but he would get it done. In the beginning, 112 Greene Street was supported by a series of backers, and Jeffrey would say, “People come on board and I convince them to support it, but then after a while, they want something. They want their name on something or they want some kind of influence on it, and that’s when I say no way and let them go.” He really had this pretty incredible attitude of, What I’m doing is great and it’s working, so give me the money to do it.

When he and Alanna Heiss initially met with the NEA, which was just becoming interested in creating grants for independent art venues, that was his attitude, too—which I think is pretty incredible. In a day and age when we’re so used to having to bend over backward for any kind of funding, to go in and say, If you like what I’m doing, just give me the money and leave me alone—it takes guts.

How did it all come together?

Alan Saret had an architecture degree and was doing jobs he found incredibly boring. But he was working with materials that he later used in his work—wire and meshes and so on. From the start, he had a philosophy about art that was quite radical at the time but which became the beginning of a whole movement. He was quite anticommercial. He had very high standards as to where his work should be shown and the context it should be shown in. He wasn’t interested in sacrificing his creative process or the work’s integrity in order to be included in an institution or to have a commercial gallery. And he really believed that an artist’s whole life is his artwork. So this idea of living and showing and working in the same space—it was very central to his philosophy of what an artist is.

So he provided the philosophical framework from which Gordon and Jeffrey were able to take a leap and open up 112 and allow it to be a space where artists could work, show, communicate, and really embrace the idea that the gallery shouldn’t just be a white cube. It wasn’t that they were anticommercial—artists would still sell work, if somebody wanted to buy it—but their primary goal wasn’t to sell, and they weren’t creating works they thought they could sell. And I think that gave the space a freedom that was necessary for those artists at that moment to push boundaries and take risks, to make works that might be destroyed afterward. Often they were, at the end of the exhibition, destroyed or thrown away.

Installation of works by Alan Saret in progress, ca. 1970. Photo by Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone.

Nonas describes being against the pedestal, or the idea that the viewer is at a remove from the object. “You couldn’t isolate anything from the world in 112,” he says, “because 112 took over.” It seems like the works were almost interventions in the space.

The physical space of 112 Greene Street was key to the works themselves. They were responses to that context. And I think it was Nonas who said that the most successful shows there were those that really used that space, that could have only been done in that space. A lot of people have described coming in and seeing the raw floors and walls with chunks missing, and then noticing the artwork and wondering, What’s the work and what’s the space?

Gordon did a whole series in the basement that embraced that particular environment—dark, dank, and dirty—to create works that would counteract it. Once, during winter, he planted a cherry tree, put grow lights around it, and created a mound of grass. Suddenly you had a beautiful garden in this underground, urban, disused space.

Gordon Matta-Clark’s Cherry Tree at 112 Greene Street, 1971 Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York.

The stories about Gordon I found especially compelling. In particular the way people responded to the tree.

Rachel had a great story about it. When it was in its full glory, they had an opening, and a woman came down and saw it, and ended up taking off all her clothes and lying on the mound of grass under the lights. And Gordon absolutely loved that. He loved not only that his piece provoked that kind of response but also that it inspired this woman to participate in it and experience it.

Something I never really thought about with 112 Greene Street is dance. And you actually devote quite a bit of room to it.

Suzanne Harris’s Flying machine at 112 Greene Street, 1973. Courtesy Jene Highstein.

I do! Because I was blown away when I really began to look into what happened here. 112 was a space where visual artists and dancers and filmmakers came together and collaborated and participated in one another’s work and, in that way, informed one another’s practice. A number of visual artists participated in the dance performances, and some of the dancers, in turn, started making visual installations. Suzanne Harris, for instance, started out in dance and performance and then began creating sculptures that were activated by her own body. She created a sort of rigging for herself and another dancer so they could hang from the ceiling like puppets. They were connected, so if one person moved their arm, the other person’s arm would move, too. They would have to perform in unison, or in response to each other.

On the other hand, you had Gordon, who was very much a visual artist, an installation artist, building pieces that were also stages. His Open House was a Dumpster outside 112 Greene Street, in which he created a house with corridors and doors, though it didn’t have a ceiling. He invited the Natural History of the American Dancer, which was a dance company based at 112, to perform it in, and he made a film of them activating his piece.

SoHo was then fairly abandoned. All these massive factory buildings lay empty, so the entire area had this feeling of falling apart. How did the artists respond to the deterioration?

For his first piece within 112 Greene Street, Alan found huge pieces of metal cornicing, dragged them back to 112, and suspended them from the ceiling. It was a way of bringing the outside into the space and reconfiguring it as an artwork. Gordon’s first solo show at 112 included some of his first cuttings, the Bronx Floors series, where he cut segments from the floors of abandoned South Bronx housing projects. It was a form of obsolete architecture. He paired his cuttings with photographs of the sites they were cut from. Later, he did Splitting, in which he actually cut an entire house in half—but his architectural cuts were always paired with photographs.

One of my favorite pieces that he did at 112 is Walls paper, where he took photographs of the walls of semidemolished buildings and made giant prints on newsprint. He brought all of those into 112 to create a kind of wallpaper composed of walls. He also had a large stack of prints available for people to take home and put it on their own wall.

The way this generation of artists is different from the ones slightly preceding it, is that a lot of the work had a social context, a sense of social responsibility. They weren’t making art for art’s sake. They wanted to have a larger impact on and relationship to what was happening in the city. New York was then near bankruptcy. There was a massive homeless population and a tremendous amount of urban decay and poverty. People wondered if the city was going to last. The artists were very connected to that—it was their environment, their home, and it was also their source of inspiration.

The collective spirit was so strong, it comes through even in the way they shared meals together.

Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden, and Gordon Matta-Clark in front of FOOD, 1971. Photo by Richard Landry, with alteration by Gordon Matta-Clark. Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York.


I think it was Richard Nonas who described it as the result of a contingent of artists who had moved up from the South and brought with them a food culture in which the main gathering place was around the dinner table. Tina Girouard and Richard Landry and Mary Heilmann rented out a building on Chatham Square for something like five hundred dollars and made huge dinners there—everyone would come around. Food played a role in the work of some of the artists, too. When Gordon was invited to participate in a show underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in 1971, he roasted a pig as part of his work and gave the food away. In the second iteration of his Dumpster piece, Dumpster Duplex, he built a second floor onto the space, with a working barbeque.

Food was essential to how people related to one other, and in SoHo there weren’t many places to go at that time to eat and to drink, so FOOD restaurant came about as a natural extension of these activities. Opened by Carol Goodden and Gordon, the restaurant had food performances, and artists would be invited in to create a meal. Robert Rauschenberg was invited to do one, and Gordon did a meal called Matta-Bones, where everything he served was on the bone and at the end he drilled holes through the bones to make necklaces. He did another meal called Alive, where everything was alive. That one sounds  kind of gross.

He also made a film with Robert Frank on a day in the life of FOOD restaurant. It’s one of my very favorite films by Gordon. It starts with them going to the Fulton Fish Market and buying the fish for the day, and then you see them setting up, and then people eating. And at the end of the night, it’s the whole group sitting around the table, talking.

The way the group dispersed is very bittersweet.

I chose to end the book with the exhibition “Anarchitecture,” which took place in March 1974. The artists for that show consisted of Gordon Matta-Clark, Suzanne Harris, Richard Nonas, Jene Highstein, Tina Girouard—the core Anarchitecture group, a group that got together and discussed ideas around architecture, space, language, and subverting existing norms. “Anarchitecture” culminated with a show at 112 Greene Street in which each artist contributed a few photographs that they felt represented their idea of anarchitecture, such as liminal or overlooked spaces, and they made the works anonymous.

Installation view of “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974),” curated by Jessamyn Fiore at David Zwirner, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

And what’s fascinating about this exhibition is that there is absolutely no documentation of it. I pored through the artists’ archives—and these artists were generally very good about documenting their work—but not a single one had a picture of this show. We have the works that were in it. We know what it was about. But no one took pictures of it. I think it was almost a good-bye to the space. By 1978, they lost the space and had to move to Spring Street. The name changed to White Columns, which still exists today. Sometimes there’s a tendency, particularly nowadays, to create something that is going to be sustainable indefinitely. But the reason these projects and venues are so fantastic is precisely that they’re not meant to last forever.

Claire Barliant is is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. She tweets at @claire_barliant.

Join Jessamyn Fiore at 192 Books on Thursday, July 26, at 7 P.M.



White Columns is New York’s oldest alternative art space. It was founded in 1970 by Jeffrey Lew and Gordon Matta-Clark as an experimental platform for artists. Originally located in SoHo (and known as the 112 Workshop/112 Greene Street), the organization was renamed White Columns when it moved to Spring Street in 1979. In 1991 White Columns moved to Christopher Street in the West Village, and in 1998 the gallery relocated to its present address on the border of the West Village and Meat Packing District.


vanity fair


December 31, 2010 7:00 pm

Dereliction of Beauty

Gordon Matta-Clark at 112 Greene Street, the celebrated art sanctuary in New York’s SoHo, in 1972. Photograph by Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone; © 2010 Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
David Kamp spotlights outlaw artist Gordon Matta-Clark.
The conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark used the entropic scuzziness of 1970s-era New York as his medium. He fashioned a “garbage wall” out of debris strewn beneath a Brooklyn Bridge access ramp; planted a cherry tree in the dug-out basement of a tatty old industrial building (turned art space) in SoHo; and, wielding an acetylene torch like an X-Acto knife, cut holes in the walls and floors of an abandoned Hudson River pier to create what he called a “sun-and-water temple.” (This, decades before the High Line and similar city-sanctioned reclamations of derelict urban terrain.)

Matta-Clark, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1978 at the age of 35, is the featured artist in a collective historical show called “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974),” which opens on January 7 at the David Zwirner gallery, in Manhattan. The exhibition looks back to the beginnings of Matta-Clark’s career and SoHo’s do-it-yourself art scene, and specifically to 112 Greene, the site of a failing ragpicking business when an artist named Jeffrey Lew purchased it, in 1968.

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Lew basically turned his creative pals loose in the building, letting them have the run of the place for exhibitions, performances, guerrilla gardening (it’s where Matta-Clark planted his cherry tree), and all manner of interdisciplinary horsing around. Among those who showed, performed, or worked there were Larry Miller, Alan Saret, Richard Nonas, Suzanne Harris, Philip Glass, Richard Serra, Tina Girouard, Vito Acconci, Don Gummer, William Wegman, Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, and a very young Kathryn Bigelow.

But it was Matta-Clark who acted as the site’s animating spirit, erecting a Dumpster domicile out front he called Open House, instigating the creation of Food, the artists’ hangout around the corner (a conceptual piece as much as a restaurant), and, in general, challenging the very precepts of what art is and how it must be displayed. New York, back then, was rife with real estate “outside of society” that suited Matta-Clark’s needs. “The wild dogs, junkies, and I used these spaces to work out some life problem,” he said. “In my case, having no socially acceptable place to work.”<

David Kamp has been a Vanity Fair contributing editor since 1996, profiling such monumental figures of the arts as Johnny Cash, Lucian Freud, Sly Stone, and John Hughes.


112 Greene Street: The Soho that Used to Be

All images via

“It is rather inspiring,” writes Peter Schjeldahl in the New York Times, “that in an hour of political crisis this art (despite its makers’ eschewal of revolutionary postures) has arisen to make possible a project like 112 Greene Street.” The year is 1970. The place is Soho, until recently known as the South Houston Industrial District. Here an unemployed artist can buy a six-story cast-iron ex-rag-picking warehouse, and huge chunks of sheet-zinc cornice can lie abandoned on the sidewalk at a demolition site until another artist bribes the garbage men to drive them to his studio. Sculptor Jeffrey Lew owns the six-story building at 112 Greene Street, where the eponymous exhibition space and workshop is taking shape. Alan Saret, who lives a block away, has joined in to get the gallery (extremely loosely) organized, and it is here that his piece “Cornicing,” slung from the ceiling, becomes the sort of art that inspires the young critic.

Saret tells the story of the cornices in 112 Greene Street: The Early Years, 1970–1974, edited by Jessamyn Fiore. Half oral history and half exhibition catalogue, Fiore’s book follows a show she curated last winter at David Zwirner, which prominently featured 112’s celebrated alumnus, Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978), along with Saret, Richard Nonas, Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Larry Miller, and Richard Serra. The show is lushly documented in the book. In addition, Fiore has interviewed nineteen artists, including Lew and all of the living exhibition participants but Serra, weaving their reminiscences into an episodic narrative. Fiore comes by her interest organically; she ran a nonprofit space, Thisisnotashop, in Dublin. Moreover, her parents, filmmakers Jane Crawford and Robert Fiore, belonged to the 112 circle, Crawford by way of her first marriage, to Matta-Clark. Fiore has an insider’s feel for her subject, and her book is an evocative addition to the archive on downtown scenes — especially since the comprehensive oral history 112 Workshop/112 Greene Street: History, Artists & Artwork (New York University Press, 1981), edited by Robyn Brentano and Mark Savitt, has long been out of print.

It’s easy to see why oral history is the favored mode. These people did wild stuff some forty years in the past. A few got famous. A few, like Matta-Clark and Harris, died young, and have been posthumously canonized or not (Harris’s oeuvre is ripe for reinvestigation). Some left New York decades ago, and some live in the same lofts they renovated under the 1971 artist-in-residence law. Almost all continue to make art, and they remain bracingly nonrevisionist about their shared experience. Their voices nuance a still-evolving historiography, just as their sculptures, films, and performances helped to define post-Minimal and post-Conceptual practice. Nevertheless, part of what fascinates about 112 Greene Street, and sister endeavors like FOOD restaurant and the collective The Natural History of the American Dancer (both discussed by Fiore’s interviewees), is the sense that no single interpretive strategy, not even that of first-person witness, totally explains how it all happened. It’s a synergy of flukes that makes and breaks utopia.

Gordon Matta-Clark with Jeffrey Lew, circa 1971

Gordon Matta-Clark with Jeffrey Lew, circa 1971

Consider, for starters, the almost unimaginable ubiquity of big, cheap spaces, and lackadaisical police and buildings-department oversight, in what was already the most important art city in the world. Art-markets hadn’t yet learned how to sell what the emerging sculptors, dancers, musicians, and photographers were producing. Lew lined up a couple backers for 112, from whom he demanded lump sums and strict noninterference; Carol Goodden founded FOOD with her modest inheritance. The real currency, however, was collaborative experiment. “I have an anarchistic nature,” Lew declares. “I’m an anarchistic phenomenon.” Other blithely anarchistic institution-builders created Avalanche magazine, the Performing Garage, The Kitchen, Mabou Mines, the Grand Union, the Poetry Project, Artists Space, and the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, shortly to become P.S.1. This DIY economy of scale guaranteed that people with skills and tools would be on hand to pitch in when one needed them, and enthusiastic audiences would turn up day after day, night after night. Borrowing an ethos from the counterculture yet jettisoning radical political objectives, the downtown artists could feel confident that they were furthering societal transformation while allowing themselves rambunctious aesthetic freedom; as Schjeldahl’s comments demonstrate in passing, revolution was not their aim, but it wasn’t not on their minds. Mary Heilmann tells Fiore, “Most of us came to 112 as bohemian outsiders and almost Marxists — against capitalist culture.” Bill Beckley puts it this way: “We were all friends then. Some of us were male, some female, some hetero, some gay, some both, or all three, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was art […] We were negating much about modernist aesthetics, but at the same time we believed that what we were doing was new, and that there was still a possibility of the new.”

112 Greene Street: The Early Years is rife with era-defining anecdotes. Everyone involved, for instance, remembers George Trakas’s “The Piece that Went Through the Floor” (1970), a timber-and-glass structure that punched through from the rough street-level gallery to the even-rougher basement. Lew “freaked out,” Trakas reports cheerfully, but the fact that, at 112, one could carve up the very architecture set the tone. 112 was the place where Matta-Clark — soon to become, himself, building-cutter extraordinaire — planted a flowering sapling under grow-lights in the basement (“Cherry Tree,” 1971). Alice Aycock brought in thousands of pounds of sand, to be randomly sculpted by industrial fans she’d scavenged on Canal Street (“Sand/Fans,” 1971), and Harris and Rachel Wood made dances by bouncing off huge sheets of rubber stretched between the Corinthian columns that gave the ratty space its elegant profile (“Rubber Thoughts on the Way to Florida in January,” 1971). Vito Acconci locked himself in a tiny room with a fighting cock (“Combination,” 1971), which escaped, and had to be trapped by Girouard — whose own piece “Four Stages” (1972) was used as a frame for Mabou Mines performances. It was in the basement, likewise, that Leo Castelli, in sports-coat and loafers, was detained as a “hostage” during the performance “Prisoner’s Dilemma” (1974), an experiment with live-feed, multi-channel video that was masterminded by Serra and Robert Bell, with Spalding Gray and G.H. Hovagimyan playing hooligans pitted against each other by the cops.

Installation view of "112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974)" at David Zwirner Gallery

Installation view of “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974)” at David Zwirner Gallery, January 2011

Eventually 112 got stable funding, and evolved into a normal exhibition space. (White Columns, in Chelsea, is its lineal descendent.) The Greene Street building enjoyed another life in the eighties and nineties as a recording studio, first operated by members of the Philip Glass Ensemble — who had belonged to the coterie from the beginning — and later serving artists from Public Enemy to Sonic Youth. Fiore concentrates, however, on the intense first phase. Was it really anarcho-Marxist? Sort of. Was the art-world transformed by it? Subtly, and not in exclusively anti-careerist ways. “We actually made galleries stronger than they ever were — precisely because we were doing the kind of things that people didn’t necessarily understand,” muses Acconci. “We formed the 80s without realizing it.” Personal fallout was dramatic too. Wood, a dancer and a key figure at FOOD, moved to Vermont in 1976:

I left New York because the very people I cared about were on a “death path,” you know? Because the way they were living was so extreme and it seemed like they had disregard for their own lives. They were going to die, and I didn’t want to stick around for it. And then Suzi died, Gordon died. There was a feeling during this time that it just couldn’t go on forever. And we really had had such a rich and full experience.

No utopia, after all, holds out forever against assimilation and crack-up. But is the story of its “rich and full” early years enticing, urban-mythical? Inescapably. 112 “was just a room, a big room where anything could happen,” Highstein says to Fiore. “It was a time when artists believed that every new work was going to change the world. We actually believed the works we were putting up had the power to change everything — that everything was being reinvented. It sounds really strange today, but we really believed it.”

112 Greene Street: The Early Years, 1970–1974is available at David Zwirner and other online booksellers.


New Yorker magazine
The Art World January 17, 2011 Issue
Proto Soho
Gordon Matta-Clark and 112 Greene Street.
By Peter Schjeldahl


Table of Contents
A too short career: Matta-Clark’s “Small Graffiti: Truck Fragment” (1973), and the artist in “Hair” (1972).
A too short career: Matta-Clark’s “Small Graffiti: Truck Fragment” (1973), and the artist in “Hair” (1972). Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY (RIGHT): CAROL GOODDEN; BOTH: COURTESY ESTATE OF GORDON MATTA-CLARK / DAVID ZWIRNER

The doors were never locked at 112 Greene Street, a vast, decrepit, and virulently fecund artist-run gallery in the primeval SoHo of the early nineteen-seventies. Anyone could go in, at any hour, and do anything, amid semi-regular art shows that sometimes might be mistaken for collections of random debris. “In most galleries, you can’t scratch the floor,” Jeffrey Lew, an artist who owned the building—a former rag-scavenging plant—said at the time. “Here you can dig a hole in it.” In a new show at the David Zwirner gallery, surviving and reconstructed works evoke the scene at 112, minus its charismatic squalor, with primary focus on its leading light, the sculptor and architectural visionary Gordon Matta-Clark, who died at the age of thirty-five, in 1978. I remember a party at Matta-Clark’s Chrystie Street loft. Guests were required to bring whole fish from the Chinatown markets. These were tossed into an aluminum cauldron that dangled from chains over a jerry-rigged gas burner. The dubious stew was consumed when hunger, honed by marijuana, overcame discretion. One had a sense of belonging to a pioneer community, united in poverty and valor. (The happy-go-lucky gastronomy was of a piece with that of Food, a Prince Street restaurant run by and for artists, which Matta-Clark co-founded, in 1971.) The cauldron may have been one that he used to brew up masses of agar (seaweed gelatin), which, hung in leathery sheets on the walls, hosted visually lovely, worrisome microbial cultures, until it rotted away. Art in the early spirit of 112 tended to be nothing if not temporary. It was barely salable, in any case; and very little sold.

Matta-Clark was one of twin sons born to the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta and the American artist Anne Clark. (Matta-Clark’s brother, Sebastian Matta, was also a painter.) He studied architecture at Cornell, and French literature at the Sorbonne. In Paris, during the events of May, 1968, he was inspired by Guy Debord and the Situationists, who preached attitudes of resistance to what Debord called capitalism’s “Society of the Spectacle.” Back at Cornell in 1969, Matta-Clark assisted in a seminal show of earth art: geological capers by artists including Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, and Richard Long. He arrived in New York City later that year, at a moment made chaotic by economic recession and anti-Vietnam War fury. A rising generation of environmental artists beggared the finances and the physical spaces of even adventurous galleries, which were nearly all still small and uptown. Not for the first time, an avant-garde took form as an eddy in a mainstream unready for it. Launched in 1970 by Lew, in collaboration with Matta-Clark and the brilliant eccentric Alan Saret, who displayed crumples of wire on the floor, 112 led a nationwide wave of do-it-yourself “alternative spaces.” The glory days were brief. Artists who weren’t cherry-picked by dealers settled into government- and foundation-funded cocoons. Lew lamented, “Something special happened during the first three years, and after we got the grants it didn’t happen anymore.” The last really consequential show there was Susan Rothenberg’s big outline paintings of horses, in 1975, which presaged, with shocking force, an epochal return of painting to youthful favor.

Little-known works by Matta-Clark, whose estate is represented by the Zwirner gallery, dominate the new show, mainly drawings of abstracted tree forms and photographs of gaudy street and subway graffiti—a populist novelty then, which at once exacerbated and brightened the time’s cascading urban blight. Both motifs symbolized spontaneous creativity for Matta-Clark. On New Year’s Day, 1971, he planted a cherry tree in the basement of 112 and forced it, with infrared lamps, to blossom in winter. The next year, he mounted a photographic mural of a graffiti-laden subway car on a brick wall outside the back windows of the building’s ground floor. On another occasion, he glossed Marcel Duchamp’s classic jape of signing a urinal “R. Mutt” by importing a found, rag-festooned baby carriage from the street and listing its creator as “George Smudge.” The difference was a kind of urban naturalism, exalting the tumult of the city over the protocols of art space. Robert Rauschenberg’s famous wish to operate in the gap between art and life seems tentative by comparison; Matta-Clark’s approach was gap free. His too short career climaxed after 1973, when he convened a corps of architectural guerrillas, dubbed Anarchitecture, and began to carve voids into condemned structures: stripping a house near Love Canal, New York, of its front; bisecting a house in Englewood, New Jersey. Some interventions—admitting shafts of daylight into an abandoned Hudson River pier and riddling South Bronx apartment buildings with shapely holes—were illegal, but unchecked by authorities. (If you weren’t in New York then, you have no notion of its rampant disorder.) All anticipated the spatial inventions with which architects including Frank Gehry, a declared Matta-Clark fan, would demolish modernist geometry.

The show is curated by Jessamyn Fiore, a young playwright and curator whose mother is Jane Crawford, a filmmaker and Matta-Clark’s widow. For an upcoming book, Fiore has interviewed nineteen veterans of 112, including, notably, dancers who performed there often. A film in the show records a typically startling piece by Suzanne Harris: she and Rachel Wood (who was married to Jeffrey Lew) dancing in the air, their limbs attached to straps that, passed through overhead pulleys, make each woman the other’s puppeteer.

Sculptures in the show include a reconstructed carrot-shaped heap of fresh carrots on the floor by Larry Miller, from 1970, and, by the artist and dancer Tina Girouard, a handsome floor piece of patterned linoleum under a suspended ceiling of patterned fabric, from 1972 and 1973—a sally of Anarchitectural decoration, like the wallpaper that Matta-Clark made, in 1972, from photographs of demolition-exposed walls in the South Bronx, offset-printed in moody colors. Strikingly fine black-and-white photographs by Matta-Clark, from 1974, document found, quasi-architectural subjects—a collapsed building, a fenced array of floodlights in a graveyard. They are like New York ripostes, gritty and brutal, to Ed Ruscha’s influential picturing of clean, bland sites in Southern California. An edge of radical politics is tacit in such work, but hardly ever with the self-congratulatory air that is so tedious in the annals of conceptual art. Matta-Clark and his friends concentrated on how to change the world, not just on why.

Despite Matta-Clark’s reliable ebullience, the 112 cohort was not a cheerful bunch. Times were hard, and they were made harder. Sleek galleries and boutiques brought soaring rents to SoHo. Passionately co-dependent relationships predictably ran aground. These two factors took hold in 1978, when Matta-Clark died, of cancer. Jeffrey Lew and Rachel Wood divorced, and the increasingly bureaucratized gallery decamped to smaller quarters, on Spring Street, and became the alternative space White Columns, which survives today in the West Village. Suzanne Harris died of a heart attack, in 1979. A deeply troubled Sebastian Matta had died after falling from a window in Matta-Clark’s loft, in 1976. Wood told Fiore that she abandoned New York because she despaired of friends who, living recklessly, “were on a death path.” The suggestion of intermingled mania and depression jibes with my memories of the era, in which all days are overcast, if not slept through, between too eventful nights. But I marvel to recall, as well, an assumed dedication to authenticity, in life as in art, that shrugged off concerns of mere personal happiness, not to mention the trivia of conventional success. Jane Crawford quotes the artist David Bradshaw as saying, “Art was doing its job, tearing away its dead flesh, sweating out its poisons.” As good as this show is, the arduous and exhilarating 112 legacy merits a more comprehensive revisit. ♦

Robert Rauschenberg: Interviews, Images and Texts and Texts

Oral history interview with Robert Rauschenberg, 1965 Dec. 21

Rauschenberg, Robert , b. 1925 d. 2008
Painter, Printmaker, Assemblage artist, Collagist
Active in New York, N.Y.

Size: Transcript: 43 p.

Format: Originally recorded on 2 sound tapes. Reformated in 2010 as 4 digital wav files. Duration is 1 hr., 58 min.

Collection Summary: An interview of Robert Rauschenberg conducted 1965 Dec. 21, by Dorothy Seckler, for the Archives of American Art.

In this interview Rauschenberg speaks of his role as a bridge from the Abstract Expressionists to the Pop artists; the relationship of affluence and art; his admiration for de Kooning, Jack Tworkov, and Franz Kline; the support he received from musicians Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Earl Brown; his goal to create work which serves as unbiased documentation of his observations; the irrational juxtaposition that makes up a city, and the importance of that element in his work; the facsimile quality of painting and consequent limitations; the influence of Albers’ teaching and his resulting inability to do work focusing on pain, struggle, or torture; the ‘lifetime’ of painting and the problems of time relative symbolism; his feelings on the possibility of truly simulating chance in his work; his use of intervals, and its possible relation to the influence of Cage; his attempt to show as much drama on the edges of a piece as in the dead center; his belief in the importance of being stylistically flexible throughout a career; his involvement with the Stadtlijk Museum; his loss of interest in sculpture; his belief in the mixing of technology and aesthetics; his interest in moving to the country and the prospect of working with water, wind, sun, rain, and flowers; Ad Reinhardt’s remarks on his Egan Show; his discontinuation of silk screens; his illustrations for Life Magazine; his role as a non-political artist; his struggles with abstraction; his recent theater work “Map Room Two;” his white paintings; and his disapproval of value hierarchy in art.

Biographical/Historical Note: Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was a painter and photographer from New York, N.Y.

These interviews are part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and others.

Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America’s Treasures Program of the National Park Service.

How to Use this Interview

  • A transcript of this interview appears below.
  • The transcript of this interview is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Robert Rauschenberg, 1965 Dec. 21, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
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Interview Transcript

This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Robert Rauschenberg, 1965 Dec. 21, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Interview with Robert Rauschenberg
Conducted by Dorothy Seckler
In New York
December 21, 1965


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Robert Rauschenberg on December 21, 1965. The interview was conducted in New York by Dorothy Seckler for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


DS: Dorothy Seckler
RR: Robert Rauschenberg

DS: This is Dorothy Seckler interviewing Robert Rauschenberg in New York, on December 21, 1965. Robert, I have just been explaining to you why I am interested in taking the beginnings of this in terview back to around the period of 1950. Since critics so often discuss your work in terms of its being, as they suggest, a bridge between abstract expressionism and Pop art, it might be interest ing to see how very different it is, how distinct your attitudes and ideas were from either, and from the artists who were figures at either end of that bridge. You were in Algeria or in Casablanca, just before 1953, and perhaps that would be a good point at which to pick it up. You had come back to New York, and were having rather a struggle at that time. As I recall, you were supposed to have been living on Fulton Street on fifteen cents a day. Is that right?

RR: Some days it was twenty five.

DS: Well, one of the things that struck me about that period of struggle some of the people who have written about your work have said that the reason that you were able to take a position of accepting your environment, as opposed to the abstract expressionists, who were rebellious against theirs, was because or they said this about Pop artists in general because the artist was much better treated during this period than he had been when the abstract expressionists were coming along. Now here you still were, after having had some very notable shows at Betty Parsons and, I believe, at Egan. And still this period was a struggle. So apparently your attitudes weren’t being too much influenced by affluence.

RR: I think one of the main differences in my attitude and that of some of the abstract expressionists was based on the fact that my natural point of view was never cultivated, that the creative process somehow has to include adjusting realistically to the situation. I don’t think any one person, whether artist or not, has been given permission by anyone to put the responsibility of the way things are on anyone else. I just don’t find it a very interesting moti vation to work with the idea that things are difficult, or that I won’t accept the fact that things are easy. I think with afflu ence, which was very foreign to me during the period we’re talking about, there are new complications. If you don’t have trouble paying the rent, you have trouble doing something else; one needs just a certain amount of trouble. Some people need more trouble to operate and some people need less. And I felt very rich in being able to pick up Con Edison lumber from the streets and whatever the day would lay out for me to use in my work. In fact, so much so, that sometimes it embarrasses me that I live in New York City as though I’m a guest here.

DS: So that you didn’t feel like a hero, being an artist and working under difficulty.

RR: Well, I think that’s much too easy a way to be a hero.

DS: Perhaps the word hero slips in there because at this time there was a kind of attitude among a number of the artists of taking a rather heroic stance. Perhaps, this is really something that the critics opposed almost more than the artists, but there was a feeling of the artist having a role outside of society, let’s say, and sometimes it could become almost a Messianic role with certain artists. This was not, of course, general. It was part of the attitude that emerged. As you were sitting in club meetings at
the Cedar Bar, listening to discussions of that more rebellious attitude, that feeling that the artist has a special role to oppose
the demands and the ways of a commercial, materialistic society, can you remember any particular feelings that you had? Or ways in which you expressed them to yourself or to anybody else at that time?

RR: Well, I don’t know how accurately I remember. It was certainly a lot more complicated and I felt more involved than probably my generalization about it now. But I was in awe of the painters; I mean I was new in New York, and I thought the painting that was going on here was just unbelievable. I still think that Bill de Kooning is one of the greatest painters in the world. And I liked Jack Tworkov, himself and his work. And Franz Kline. But I found a lot of artists at the Cedar Bar were difficult for me to talk to. It almost seemed as though there were so many more of them sharing some common idea than there was of me, and at that time the people who gave me encouragement in my work weren’t so much the painters, even my contemporaries, but a group of musicians that were working: Morton Feldman, and John Cage, and Earl Brown, and the dancers that were around this group. I felt very natural with them. There was something about the self assertion of abstract expressionism that personally always put me off, because at that time my focus was as much in the opposite direction as it could be. I was busy trying to find ways where the imagery and the material and the meanings of the painting would be not an illustration of my will but more like an unbiased documentation of my observations, and by observations I mean that literally of my excitement about the way in the city you have on one lot a forty story building and right next to it you have a little wooden shack. One is a parking lot and one is this maze of offices and closets and windows where everything is so crowded. And I remember I was talking to someone about this one time, and they said well, you know, parking lots are the most valuable real estate in New York City because there’s absolutely no overhead. And I thought this is so absurd, all these officious looking buildings and actually, the best business would be not to have a building at all. I’m getting a little off the subject now.

DS: No, I think that’s fascinating, Bob.

RR: It was this constant, irrational juxtaposition of things that I think one only finds in the city. One doesn’t find that in the
country. I had traveled quite a lot in Europe just previously and I didn’t find it there either. There’s a kind of an architectural
harmony. Whether it’s chauvinism or patriotism anyway, there’s something that tended to unite the people. And so everything
abroad that I came in contact with was so much more coherent or cohesive than I found New York. And I think that even today, New York still has more of this unexpected quality around every corner than any place else. It’s something quite extraordinary.

DS: Yes. Are there particular sections of the city that appeal to you more than others?

RR: Well, I like way downtown near the Battery. I lived down there at this time and for, I guess, the following well, this is where I moved to uptown and I’ve been here for four years and this is 1965. And this is as far uptown as I’ve lived except for one period in my life when my wife was carrying my son and under the insistence of my mother in law we got a ground floor apartment and lived sensibly for about a year or a year and a half. But I like that area down there because maybe there the contract is even more emphasized; it’s more dramatic. On one side of town you have the largest pet store in New York, with all kinds of wonderful animals. At that time they had the Washington Market; that was the only one in the city where you could get all kinds of fresh vegetables and meat. It was like a farmer’s market and imported cheeses. Then, right within the same block they had wholesale plant places. The flower district is up around 26th Street, but this was a different kind of area. And in the next block they had surplus hardware stores galore. And electronic equipment. And then across town, you had the Fulton fish market. The two were separated only by big business. And during the day, the streets would be so filled with people that it looked like an ant hill that had just been kickedtrover. And then Bam at six o’clock you could hear footsteps three blocks away. And the buildings were the tallest there. I always like being close to water if I have the choice. And if the roasting of coffee wasn’t too strong, you could always smell the fish market. I think that is a very rich part of town.

DS: Yes.

RR: But I don’t find the rest of the city lacking in this quality I’m talking about. Every time I’ve moved, my work has changed
radically. And I think that if it didn’t change radically naturally, then I’d do something about it and I’d force it to change. In
this place the light is so different you can’t till so much because it’s a gray day but sometimes the light is so white in
here, it’s not to be believed, because of these skylights. And that’s a very different kind of light from other studios that I’ve been in where the ceilings weren’t as high, but maybe the windows were bigger, and so there you’d get the light as it reflected, as it bounced off the floor and it would always be warmed up. All these things I think are the well, they certainly, I’d say, are the job of an artist to move with these things as though they are additional qualities rather than an attitude about painting which makes one move into a place and force on it a particular working atmosphere that they remember as being the one that they like. And I think that carries through I think that attitude also makes a different kind of painting. And whereas my work was never a protest of what was going on, it was only the expression of my own involvement, it always had the possibility of being some other way. But if it were, I guess I’d have to be someone else.

DS: This is all so fascinating, the feelings you had about the city. I can recall that I was told that Franz Kline when he took a place had something covering the window nailed up. I’m very fond of Franz Kline and his work, but it does illustrate a kind of different attitude toward a way of responding to what’s around you, yours, as contrasted to some of the feelings of people at that time. Of course, in other ways, you and Franz might have easily shared a sympathy. I can remember the talk he gave at the Museum of Modern Art in which Shredded Wheat played a very important part. Do you remember that talk?

RR: No.

DS: It was on abstract expressionism, and all the critics, Aline Saarinen, and I don’t remember who else, had all spoken very intellectually; and Franz got up and just went on for, oh, a long, long time about the different things, about getting up, and Shredded Wheat right in close to the experience of the moment.

RR: He was beautiful with some pet words like that; Nanook of the North was one of them that he played with. And also his idea about somehow London was the answer to all the good ideas in taste. And Princess Margaret was his idea of when a girl was really beautiful, “like Princess Margaret.” I mean it was just a feeling he had; it was all an abstraction. I don’t think he wanted everybody to look English or anything but it was a style.

DS: I can remember one time when I was in the Cedar Bar and I was wearing a suit that had rather nice tailoring and he came up and said, “Ah, that looks like a suit with English tailoring. Wasn’t that made in London?” It wasn’t, as a matter of fact. But it was so surprising to me because, you know, from everything I knew about Franz and his way of life, elegance of that kind was not something that I would have expected him to be concerned with.

RR: And he wasn’t.

DS: No, I’m sure he wasn’t.

RR: It was just one of his fantasies.

DS: Yes. It was a very interesting fantasy. You’re quite right. Using the word elegance reminds me of something else that I wanted to ask you about at this time, and I think it can easily be cleared up. I recall reading Mr. Tompkins’ very interesting article in The New Yorker about how you began collecting waste materials from where you were living, as you said, the Con Edison wood and so on. It was sort of an implication that the reason the materials were inelegant or everyday, ordinary things, was because you were poor and those were the things that were around. Well, there might have been an implication that if you had been living in a posh environ ment then you might have included, let’s say, gold chandeliers and so on. Then I later came across the reminder that you had made a kind of collage with gold leaf and one very similar in toilet paper.

RR: Right.

DS: So it made an interesting comment on each other.

RR: That was earlier… it was right after the all black and all white pictures. And there had been a lot of critics who shared the idea with a lot of the public that they couldn’t see black as color or as pigment, but they immediately moved into associations and the associations were always of destroyed newspapers, of burned newspapers. And that began to bother me. Because I think that I’m never sure of what the impulse is psychologically. I don’t mess around with my subconscious. I mean I try to keep wide awake. And if I see in the superficial subconscious relationships that I’m familiar with, cliches of association, I change the picture. I always have a good reason for taking something out but I never have one for putting something in. And I don’t want to, because that means that the picture is being painted predigested. And I think a painting has such a limited life anyway. Very quickly a painting is turned into a facsimile of itself when one becomes so familiar with with it that one recognizes it without looking at it. I think that’s just a natural phenomenon. It may be I think it is even an important one. I don’t think that we have the strength over a period of years to see things always as though we hadn’t ever looked at them before to see them new. There may be someone that you’re very close to and you see them every day. If they take a two weeks’ trip or you take a two weeks’ trip, it’s only for about the first fifteen minutes when you’re back together that you notice how they have changed from the idea that you have of the way they look. And then one’s readjusted. I think the same thing happens to painting. So if you do work with known quantities making, puns or dealing symbolically with your materials, I think you’re shortening the life of the work even before it’s had a chance to be exposed. I mean, it hasn’t had a life of its own. It’s already leading someone else’s life.

DS: That’s a fascinating point.

RR: And when I did the well, as I said, I wasn’t sure that I really might have been using materials because they were old or liked black with newspaper because of the burned out look. But I certainly didn’t like the idea of tortured, tarred, because I don’t think that you torture newspaper. A newspaper that you’re not reading can be used for anything; and the same people didn’t think it was immoral to wrap their garbage in newspaper. And I think, you know, that that’s a very positive use for a newspaper. So I did a painting, or a couple of each, one in toilet paper collage, trying to duplicate it in gold leaf. And I studied both paintings very carefully and I saw no advantage to either. I mean, whatever one was saying the other seemed to be able to be just as articulate. So that I knew then that it was someone else’s problem, not mine.


RR: We have an auxiliary in case your tape machine isn’t working, which is your memories.

DS: My memory is a very poor auxiliary. What you’re saying is fascinating and I would be desolate indeed if the machine didn’t work. Just to keep in the general period; we’ve jumped about a bit which I’m happy about; back before when you mentioned the black paintings and, of course, the black paintings belong to the same period as the white paintings.

RR: Yes. Excuse me, you know you were talking about the difference in my work during those years and the work that was going on?

DS: Yes.

RR: There was a whole language that I could never make function for myself in relationship to painting and that was attitudes like tortured, struggle, pain. And I never could I don’t know whether it was from my Albers training or my own personal hangup, but I never could see those qualities in paint.

DS: You had, of course, seen them in life.

RR: I could see them in life. And I could see them in representational art that illustrates that fact pictorially. But I never saw in the materials this conflict and I knew that it had to be in the attitude of the painter and a kind of interpretation of the attitude that existed separately, so that if in the future one were to lose the idea that those paintings were made from that it would be very possible to have a completely different attitude about the painting.

DS: Tie were speaking before about the life of a painting and the instability of perception in regard to painting. I think it was Duchamp who had a theory that it’s true that the painting has a lifetime; I think he said fifteen years, I’m not sure do you remember that?

RR: Yes.

DS: Then apparently, however, it comes back into perception for another generation or for posterity possibly on some other basis. And this is what you’re saying now that if two hundred years from now when black may have all sorts of other associations …

RR: Right.

DS: This anguish that was being put in by some abstract expressionist might not be perceived, but the painting may have a different life. In other words, they may bring some other qualities.:.

RR: I think necessarily it will. I’m sure we don’t read old paintings the way they were intended.

DS: No.

RR: I think it is what may be part of my naivete but I think that painting being as extreme as it is now, and it was only extreme in the past by degrees, at this moment in New York you have old masters, new masters, no masters, people painting in all kinds of styles and they all celebrate a certain amount of recognition and tolerance and communication between each other.

DS: If I may say so, you had something to do with it, because at the time when you came on the scene, this was not so.

RR: It didn’t feel like it; I know that. I felt very isolated, but I felt reasonably isolated. I mean I thought there was a good basis for the separation because the points of view were very different.

DS: Did you feel at the same time that the position of some of the abstract expressionists had also opened the way for you? In the sense I’m thinking of this, that at least one of the main results of their point of view had been to restore to the painting a sense of its being an object. Here I’m thinking perhaps even more of we haven’t mentioned Rothko but the idea came in at one point, of the painting as an environment. Barnett Newman told me that he even urged he put a sign in an exhibition saying, “Move up close to the painting.”

RR: Yes.

DS: In other words, not looking at it from a distance, but there it is as an object. Well, while your attitude of what you were going to do with that object was completely different, it was a canvas right in front of you; it was a two dimensional phenomenon; it was a phenomenon like other objects.

RR: Yes.

DS: Would that have been important?

RR: Yes, I’m sure that the climate for my involvement was right. Pollock also … wanted one to be wrapped in the painting. And also the new excitement and variety of ways that the abstract expressionists were applying paint. You could put it on as though it were colored air and it would be painting. Or you could stack it on so thick that it would be a relief. And all of this, all these physical aspects of painting at that time excited me very much. You could do a picture in just black and white. I mean all the things, whether you’re soliciting permission or not, do give you permission.

DS: Did you ever do any pictures in which the pigment was applied in an airy way? Or were you always more apt to work with a very active brush, and so on?

RR: I remember how at different times I had different preoccupations. One of my preoccupations at a period was that I wouldn’t use the same color when I broke loose from those monochromes. And it was after the red. I wouldn’t use the same color in a picture in more than one place. And another was, even though it was an intellectual idea and with its built in limitations, I tried to imply with the different ways that the paint went on, that even though I might know only seventeen that there were thousands.

DS: Coming back to the other thing that you mentioned that you had been at that time very closely associated with John Cage and with other musicians I know that many people have assumed that because of your association, that accident and a philosophy, an outlook of accident was important to your work, since it had apparently been in Cage’s. And I gather that this was not your feeling, that you were once quoted as saying that you didn’t believe in accident any more than anything else. Was that a strongly developed attitude?

RR: I was very interested in many of John’s chance operations. Each one seemed quite unique to me. I liked the sense of experimentation that he was involved in. But painting is just a different medium and I never could figure out an interesting way to use any kind of programmed activity. And even though chance deals with the unexpected and the unplanned, it still has to be organized before it can exist. I think maybe chance works better in a situation like music because music exists over a period of time, and you don’t maintain constantly the you can’t refer back from one area to another area. One’s familiarity or lack of familiarity with time is very different from, say, the size of a canvas, which is what I would compare it to. One can see that a canvas is six feet by eight feet, say, quite accurately. But you can spend two minutes and think it’s five, or thirty seconds and it’s just a different bed for activities there. The only thing that I could get with chance, and I never was able to use it, was that I would end up with something quite geometric or the spirit that I was interested in, indulging in, was gone. I felt as though I was carrying out an idea rather than witnessing an unknown idea taking shape. If this is called accident I certainly used accident, and I certainly used the fact that wet paint will run, and lots of other things. It seems to me it’s just a kind of friendly relationship with your material where you want them for what they are rather than for what you could make out of them. I did a twenty foot print and John Cage is involved in that because he was the only person I knew in New York who had a car and who would be willing to do this. And I poured paint on one Sunday morning. I glued, it must have been fifty sheets of paper together; it was the largest paper I had, and stretched it out on the street. He had an A Model Ford then and he drove through the paint and on to the paper and he only had the direction to try to stay on the paper. And he did a beautiful job of it. Now I consider that my print. It’s just like working with lithography. You may not be a qualified printer but there again, like the driver of the car, someone who does know the press very well collaborates with you and they are part of the machinery just as you are part of another necessary aspect that it takes to make anything. Would you call that accident?

DS: Actually, I’m not sure I’d call anything accident. When paint drips it’s like an insurance company say a man crosses the street and is hit by a car. To that particular individual, it is an accident. But to insurance companies who have tables showing how many people will be hit by a car that year, it’s an expected event.

RR: Yes.

DS: And in a sense though you don’t know exactly where a drip will run, it may wiggle a little in the middle, you know that there’s gravity and you know that paint will drip and so on.

RR: You know that it’s not going to run up.

DS: That’s right. So there’s a certain element in which some of the things that were called chance weren’t.

RR: Anyway, they weren’t all done with I know maybe this is what you’re getting at they weren’t done with some kind of wild abandon where you just shut your eyes and throw things about.

DS: Yes. Well, I don’t think anyone ever imagines that would be possible. Now one other thing that I thought might be a parallel ….

RR: I’m not saying that they’re better for it. But that just never interested me.

DS: …was the use of intervals because I understand in John Cage’s work that he often emphasizes interval and waiting and silences a great deal. And I notice that you have also emphasized leaving open spaces in your paintings and areas in which there is less happening and those work very beautifully in relationship to the things that are happening very fast in other parts of the canvas; and I thought perhaps that there may have been a kind of sharing of feeling about this kind of thing, of the importance of interval and openness.

RR: Well, it’s no secret that we admired each other’s work very much, and still do. But I think that those are like some feeling of variety within a restricted area that are important to if you’re dealing with multiplicity and variation and inclusion as your content, then any feeling of a complete feeling of consistence or sameness is a violation of that attitude; and I had to work consciously to do work that would imply the kind of richness and complexity that I saw around me; and I think those things just got into it. One of my painter friends says I’m awfully good at the edges. It was intended as a joke but I think that that may be true; but there’s been a conscious attempt for me to treat any area whether I only have half an inch more before I hit the wall, or whether it’s dead center, to not treat any one area with a kind of dramatic preference. I dealt with that several ways. One is with a kind of simple minded formal idea about composition by just putting something of no consequence dead center so that when you look there, yes, there it is, but you see that certainly doesn’t matter any more than anything else; that’s not what the center is for. So that ideas of sort of relaxed symmetry have been something for years that I have been concerned with because I think that symmetry is a neutral shape as opposed to a form of design.

DS: There’s quite an important group of younger painters now who are interested in symmetry and in a sense it almost returns to something Byzantine it seems to me.In a curious way the whole thing seems to have come full circle. Whereas your work has always seemed almost the most opposite of Byzantine. There’s no sense of hierarchy at all; you can’t make a hierarchy out of things in your paintings. Nothing can be assigned a position beyond or above anything else so that the relativism is complete, I’d say, as opposed to the structure, which moves up from a base to a high point in which every position is fixed. This is an aside, and I don’t want to take up too much time, but I just wondered in passing how you react to the importance that these new painters are giving to symmetrical design, all over and symmetrically centered.

RR: I enjoy most of it. I think I said this earlier, but I have never felt that one way of working excludes another. In fact, I think
that one of the aspects of my work that I criticize myself for the most is the fact that so many people recognized it as a way of working, as an end in itself, so that the influence that the work has had on other artists to work in what I think they would call the same direction is really one of the work’s weaknesses. And I have forced myself well, if I were interested in styles, I’ve run
through a good many.

DS: That you have.

RR: And it’s always a pleasure to give them up because I feel if one takes an overall point of view, sees my work in general as, you know, massed, then I think that that point can be made. I’m not so facile that I can accomplish or find out what I want to know or explore enough of the possibilities and a way of making a painting, say, in just one painting or two paintings. Sometimes a period of say, silk screen, or all those all red paintings or the ones that I did after the all red ones which I called pedestrian colors. Maybe one will be made up of thirty paintings, maybe one will be made up of fifteen paintings. I can’t tell. There’s no desire to mount. I use as a guide for this, when things seem to work out consistently. It takes three or four paintings to really decide whether you’re just having a lucky streak or whether you have somehow within yourself made some accomplishment that lets working this way be easier for you, where you’re more apt to be successful than unsuccessful. And then when I definitely decide that that’s the case, well then it’s just gone. I mean I just start something else. And I never seem to have any particular problem about like people say, what are you going to do next? And usually while I’m working one way, there’s another attitude that’s growing which as often as not is a reaction from what I’m doing.

DS: Almost the reverse of it perhaps?

RR: Yes.

DS: Would that have been the case just before your show that was called Oracle? I mean how did that very different adventure come about? Well, I suppose it wasn’t so different from some of the objects you’d made before.

RR: Oracle was I had started it I guess two and a half years ago, maybe even longer than that, closer to three. And it was going
to be a radio painting but a concert variation. I did Broadcast, a painting that has three radios in it but only two tuning knobs,
one for volume and one for tuning. And I objected to the fact that one had to be standing so close to the picture that the sound
didn’t seem to be using the space and the way the images were react ing to each other. And that was all right. That was one aspect of it. But through that, having made that and feeling that limita tion with that piece, I wanted to do something that was remote control, that could be separated in the room. I had some canvases stretched, but it took so long I needed help with the radios. And it took so long for me to find the help that I used the paintings for something else. Then later I decided that was a good idea because once I started seeing what was involved I saw that with the weight problem, and the depth the painting would have to be to house the equipment, that painting was the wrong form for that to take. So I started on a sculpture. Then I went to Amsterdam to work at the Stadtlijk Museum with what was going to be a collaboration of about five artists, or six. And because I was working in sculpture, I had three weeks; we found that our ideas were so different that it was very difficult to get together and just make a piece.

DS: Was that with Tinguely? Was he one of the people?

RR: Yes, Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, Per Utvet, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spurry.


DS: This is Dorothy Seckler continuing a tape with Robert Rauschenberg on December 21, 1965. At the point where we had left off in our previous reel you had mentioned your participation or intended participation with a group of other artists at the Stadtlijk Museum in Holland. I think we might take up at this point what actually happened to that project.

RR: Right. The form that the exhibition took finally was that each person just picked a part of the museum. It was a very interesting experiment for the museum, by the way, because they wanted the artists, instead of just shipping and picking a lot of work, they trusted the artists that they picked to respond in this time in some way or another, doing works that they would show whatever the artist made. I thought that was kind of beautiful for a museum.

DS: Yes.

RR: And the artists were given a salary; they were given money for materials and all the transportation.

DS: And a studio, I assume?

RR: Well, the Museum itself functioned as a studio. They had emptied out about, well it’s a very large museum and we took, I think, almost a quarter of the museum. And each artist then just picked a spot in the museum that he wanted to work and just started in that area. So I was working with the sculpture which became Oracle with the radios. And painting didn’t really interest me. So in a kind of crash program of three weeks I made four pieces of sculpture and some of them quite large. One of them is about ten or twelve feet high and was very densely massed, about eight feet by five feet, and twelve feet high. That was by far the largest work. But I’m not really a sculptor in any traditional sense. I tend to work with materials that are a little heavier and put them together as practically as I can. By being a sculptor, I mean I don’t weld or solder.

DS: How did you put them together?

RR: Just with bolts and nails and wire. And I was working alone. I could have had help there except that the way I work I can never tell anybody what to do to help me unless it is just a very simple thing like “drill three holes here.” And there wasn’t enough of that kind of work for me to warrant my getting over the language barrier. I mean by the time I could have told someone how little they could help me, I could have done it three times myself. But then that had its disadvantages because a lot of the material I was working with it was a very large room and things were in that scale were really too heavy for me. So it was practically disastrous to my health. I was laid up for weeks afterwards. And not to mention the cuts and bruises dealing with airplane parts and things falling. So by the time I left there I had worked so frantically, because I started running out of time, too, and the last week I never even went home from the museum. If I got terribly tired, I’d just lie down on the floor for a few minutes. Because there was no way, as you know, there’s no way of hurrying some things. There’s no way of anticipating how much time it’s going to take. At a certain time you just are through. And I still worked on it a couple of days after the exhibition opened.

DS: Had the sound equipment been sent over there?

RR: No, I didn’t have sound then. I wasn’t continuing this piece, you see. The pieces I made did happen to have sound, but it wasn’t radio sound. I had an electric air pump attached loosely enough as part of the sculpture so that the vibrations of the motor would make a constant rattle and then the air went into a large tub of water and you had this bubbling all the time in contrast with the …

DS: But the water didn’t run freely?

RR: No, it was a closed thing. It was just that the air passing through it made this gurgling. And another piece had clocks that had all been tampered with. We had nine large clocks in it all running at different speeds, some just zipping around and others, you know, barely moving.

DS: Did that interest you?

RR: I got so I was really just sick of sculpture. Nothing appealed to me more when I got back than the gentility of a beautifully
stretched piece of canvas. I couldn’t break anything as I crossed the room, and if it fell on me it wouldn’t hurt a bit. So that
the piece then that I was working on, the radio piece, was put aside. And then I just worked on it from time to time, mostly in rela tionship to the experimentation with the radios to see how that would work. I came back from tour recently with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and I’m going to move my studio. I had had my silk screens destroyed while I was gone so that I wouldn’t fall back on that. I really wanted to work. I think there’s something about moving and coming back that before you can begin on something new well, I find it morally difficult to simply abandon a work and I got very interested in the sculpture again. I made two addition al pieces and worked on the sound, and so on.

DS: Has it continued to interest you since then? I mean, are you likely to resume?

RR: I think the radio piece probably is the closest thing to what I’m about to do next as one can predict without knowing where one’s going, because I like very much that mixture of technology and aesthetics.

DS: I was interested in what you said last time we talked, I think, about the sound having been important in shifting the focus of the audience, in a sense, in that insuring a certain movement through the exhibition …

RR: Literally.

DS: Literally, yes.

RR: You had a sense of distance that as often as not was distorted. You had the feeling possibly of knowing where you were but where you were was lost.

DS: That’s very expressive. And another thing that you had mentioned which we haven’t recorded was your feeling that it was important that the sound frequencies, that the radio sources, be actual ones, not taped; and your feeling that if you had been able to tape them, it would have been rather like commercial art in that not being an actual …

RR: Yes.

DS: Would you like to enlarge on that in any way?

RR: No, I think that just about says it. I like for the sound to be as fresh as the daily fall of the dust and rust and dirt that
accumulates,.which doesn’t mean that one doesn’t clean it off from time to time. But then that’s another thing. It’s an actuality
of a literal insistence on the piece’s operating and existing in the time situation that it’s observed in. It’s another one of those
things trying to put off the death of the work.

DS: Yes. Did I hear you mention before that you had in mind possibly using at some time in the future a piece in which the wind might work as an actual force?

RR: Yes. I’d like to work with wind and water and plants. It sounds like it’s going to be a garden, but I don’t think it’s going to be, but if it turns out to be a garden that may be my own sneaky way of moving out into the country. I hope I don’t pick this new building out just in order to discover that what I really needed was a farm. In fact, having two dogs now is also an indication that I’m trying to get out.

DS: I think so. Siberian dogs are going to be moving you out into the great open spaces any moment.

RR: Maybe it’s bigger than I am.

DS: I think that would be the cream of the jest for the art world: that the man who was sort of responsible for introducing the whole urban environment into painting moves to the country and becomes a collaborator with sun and wind and rain and flowers.

RR: And beaches.

DS: And beaches, yes. That would be very beautiful.

RR: I might move out there and find that all the work is finished. At that point I might just become a collector of vegetables … and I could be a critic on waves.

DS: Yes. And I could come into the studio and start fooling around with some of this lovely stuff here.

RR: Right.

DS: The bit about the other end of that bridge that we started off with sometime ago, I realize that the point about inclusiveness makes a question about your responses to your so called descendents in Pop art perhaps superfluous. But I thought it might be kind of interesting to try to separate in any way that we can the distinct differences that exist between your outlook and those of some of the leading Pop artists. Of course we haven’t really done all of our in between traveling to bring us up to the point where Pop art appeared. You did mention at some point that you saw a great many people taking what you had sone as a kind of well, simply new kinds of materials, collaging and tires and posters and so on as a new aesthetic element without taking along with it or perceiving that there was a great deal more involved than unorthodox materials.

RR: I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with influence because I think that one can use another man’s art as material either literally or just implying that they’re doing that, without it representing a lack of a point of view. But I also like seeing people using materials that one is not accustomed to seeing in art because I think that has a particular value. New materials have fresh associations of physical properties and qualities that have built into them the possibility of forcing you or helping you do something else. I think it’s more difficult to constantly be experimenting with paint over a period of many, many years. Like Ad Reinhardt said to me one day, and I took it as a compliment until he had finished his remark. He said, “I saw your show.” I think it was the Egan show. He said, “I saw your exhibition.” He said, “Those are very good pictures.” And I said, “Thank you:” And he said, “Yes, it’s too bad.” He said, “Somehow we just can’t help but get better.” And I couldn’t agree with him more.

DS: And I suppose that explains your destruction of the silk screens that everyone was so fascinated by. Does that mean that you don’t ever …?

RR: That’s my own personal relationship with them. It doesn’t mean that I won’t ever use silk screens again. I just don’t have any appetite for them now. But it would have been very easy to come back after being away from the studio for eight months and simply pick up, even though the concepts and the sense of the construction, the choice of color and all of that might have been different. I think the temptation to just use the screens I already had made would have been too great. And I think it’s important for an artist to know his weakness and use it well. I think that the difference in the work that I would have done with silk screen after I got back from the tour and being away from painting would not have been as great as it will be, because I’m having to work in some entirely different medium.

DS: I suppose I should ask this while it’s on my mind. You have, of course, resumed work with silk screen in connection with a commission from Life?

RR: Yes.

DS: … To do a series dealing with the theme of Dante.

RR: I had intended to do that with lithography, but there was a, I don’t know what you’d call it, a legal question there. It’s absurd to do a single print as elaborate as that would have to have been. I mean, it’s just uneconomical. In making prints, one of the values is that you can make several copies or that it is possible to have an edition. And the legal tie up there was that if Life Magazine commissions a work, it has to have an exclusive. I would have had to have made an edition of one. So then I thought, well, how will I get all this photographic material down, and I thought of silk screens. I had about twenty five photographs, because the scale was magazine scale, reduced to one screen. And it was like having just that many palettes but instead of lots of colors laid out you had all of these images on one surface.

DS: It was a very handsome and very provocative piece. One of the things that I’m sure you’ve been asked a great deal about the Life piece is something dealing with its imagery. The various photographic materials deal with areas in contemporary life that are readily identifiable the Negro question, the Jewish issue, the atom explosion, the bomb, concentration camps, apparently I’ not sure exactly where the photomontage of bodies came from.

RR: Yes, it is.

DS: And in a most exciting way. The question that I suppose occurred to me was that well, Mr. Sullivan and other people who have written about your work have always insisted that your intention was one of creating an imagery which remained ambiguous, which could not be pinned down, which could not be directly related to issues. And also, of course, it has been said, or I think perhaps people were interpreting at least what you had said yourself, as taking no position in any attitude of reform concerning the world we live in. Does this represent an exception to that attitude?

RR:No, personally I do take a stance in questions like race issues and atrocities of all sorts. But the Dante illustration one of the problems there was that I was illustrating.

DS: Yes.

RR: Some one asked me yesterday if I really see today as being all made up of hell. And, of course, no is the answer to that.
But if one is illustrating hell, one uses the properties that make hell. I’ve never thought that problems were so simple political
ly that they could, by me anyway, be tackled directly. But every day by consistently doing what you do with the attitude that you do it, if you have strong feelings those things are expressed over a period of time or in a few words as opposed to, say, one Guernica.

DS: Yes.

RR: And that’s just a different attitude. When I was working on Dante, it was during the election year with Nixon and Kennedy. A historian will be able to read that that’s when the Dante thing was done. So that I have never thought that well, I consider the other for me anyway, almost a commercial attitude of illustrating your feelings about something self consciously. If you feel strongly, it’s going to show there. I mean, that’s the only way it can come into my work. And I believe it’s there. The one thing that has been consistent about my work is that there has been an attempt to use the very last minutes in my life and the particular location as the source of energy and inspiration, rather than retiring to some kind of other time, or dream, or idealism. I think cultivated protest is just as dreamlike as idealism. Does that answer that?

DS: Yes, I think it answers it very beautifully.

RR: When I started the Dante illustrations the idea really was to see. I had been working purely abstractly for so long, it was important for me to see whether I was working abstractly because I couldn’t work any other way, or whether I was doing it out of choice. So I really welcomed, insisted, on the challenge of being restricted by a particular subject, which meant that I would have to be involved in symbolism. I mean the illustration has to be read. It has to relate to something that already is in existence. Well, I spent two and a half years deciding yes, I could do that. And I think that all these things that you do it seems to me they can sound rather schoolroomish, like insisting that you make yourself do this to see if you can do it. But it’s so easy to be undisciplined. And to be disciplined is so against my character, my general nature anyway, that I have to strain a little bit to keep on the right track.

End of Side One
Side Two

DS: You were just talking about disciplines when I interrupted.

RR: I think that one of the reasons that I have been so preoccupied with theatre is that it has in an extreme form two of the things that I like. I like the necessary control that one has to have in order to work with other people to put on a piece of theatre. One has to be on the one hand extremely aware of things like tape recorders and what time a piece starts; the responsibility with the lights; one has to have an understanding of the light board; one has to communicate clearly with whoever is running the light board. It’s just the opposite end of the kind of freedom that one has to then necessarily be involved with in order to do the piece. And I think I try to do pieces where every move is not choreographed, but it is planned and there’s a great deal of open trust within an image on the stage. I’m talking about the performance now, as opposed to the discipline of the organization that makes the performance possible, makes it possible for you to see one, or to get to the theater on time, or have the show ready to start. Within the image, there is a kind of freedom that allows one to be much better one time and not as good another. As in painting, it may be the same color, but sometimes red looks better than it does in other paintings. It’s a combination of the necessary co existence of the known and the unknown in a positive relationship, a constructive relationship to each other. Without one or the other, the event wouldn’t be possible. I guess it’s a kind of a fight against dualism, using dualism as using both yes and no at the same time to say yes, I hope.

DS: I was fascinated by the Happening that you presented in the past few weeks, the imagery, the action. References were very beautiful and very inexplicit. I wondered if there’s anything you’d like to say about the way the sequence developed, or, the first impulses that may have brought it about and how it was changed perhaps by people who were in it and by other circumstances.

RR: I don’t call my theatre pieces Happenings. Because of my involvement with theatre through dance, I think I’d refer to them as dance theatre or maybe just theatre or anything else, because my understanding of Happenings is that they came out of a desire painters had who were working with objects, or objects were their content, their subject, a desire to animate those materials. I think mine I think mine comes out of really quite a traditional response to dance. The way I begin is by just having an idea and then if that idea isn’t enough, I have another idea, and a third, and a fourth, and composition could be described as an attempt to mass all these things in such a way that they don’t contrast or interfere with each other, that you never set up a sense of cause and effect or contrast like black and white; but that they either calmly or less calmly just happen to exist at the same time. So one of my main problems in composing a piece is how to get something started and how to get it stopped without breaking a sense of the whole unit that more or less should look continuous and anti climactic, or I don’t know the word for it when one thing simply follows another progressive. Progressive relationship with the elements. And it’s very much the way I work with the paintings. They’re the same kinds of problems.

DS: Yes. Does the performance have a title? I’m sorry I didn’t get a program.

RR: Yes. Map Room Two. The first Map Room was a sketch, really, for what became Map Room Two, which was done at Goddard College, just going up there and staying a week, and at the end of the week giving a performance, working with things that were there and having the ideas on the spot. It would have been impossible to do Map Room One in a theatre, the Cinematek Theatre, where I did Map Room Two, because of just the difference in the architecture of the place. And when it’s at all possible, I like to draw people’s attention to the fact that this is a different place that they’re in, rather than assuming that the stage is where all the magic action is. There was very little to do with the Cinematek that way.

DS: With the white cards?

RR: That’s right. Actually that did move out into the audience.

DS: Yes.

RR: That the audience, which had it been an average situation would have been an inactive part, just on the receiving end of the theatre experience, became a necessary element by using their cooperation, first voluntarily asking them to put the white cardboards on their backs …

DS: Then the lights played over them.

RR: And then using the cardboards as a movie screen …

DS: That was great.

RR: Which if you’d been sitting in the first row, you wouldn’t even have known it was happening, probably.

DS: I liked that. There was another sequence that was interesting in relationship perhaps to your painting although, of course, most of it was related more to dancing. The sequence in which you erased an image into existence, instead of out of existence, I thought was beautiful.

RR: I hadn’t thought of that.

DS: Well, it did seem very much related to your painting at that point but otherwise, of course, one was more involved with action. And it was interesting that you were also a performer and that lovely last sequence where you were very high and very poised and picking up neon wands of colored light in a very poised and deliberate way.

RR: Yes, I used my body as a conductor of electricity by holding a live coil in one hand.

DS: Yes, that was remarkable.

RR: And then just with the contact with the neon tubes, they came on. I consider that piece more successful than some others that I’ve done simply because maybe it’s that I’ve done enough pieces so that a collective vocabulary is being built up. But I’m now beginning to see more and more things that are possible to do. And if one’s body can be a conductor of electricity, there are all kinds of materials that one could use and activate by hand dancing that, rather than it’s like moving the controls out onto the stage. I like for the lighting man, if the setup permits it, for whoever is running the lights to be visible. And if something has to be moved onto the stage, that one does it in the most simple, direct fashion. That you just walk over and pick. it up and put it there, rather than the proscenium type hiding where everything is supposed to look effortless. I nearly never choreograph expressions for the people that I work with. I think that their bodies should be working totally. They should look as though they are doing something easily. If it’s difficult, necessarily, I don’t want any mask of the activity. It seems to me that it’s so difficult in art particularly to now I’m finding out the same thing is true in real estate to keep in direct touch with exactly what’s going on. I think that in the last twenty years or so, there’s been a new kind of honesty in painting where painters have been very proud of paint and have let it behave openly. I mean, this has been used for different reasons, probably as many different reasons as there are different artists. But it’s very rare well now there’s a new kind of paint which hides it. Like you said before, things have sort of worked their way all the way around again. But for a long time now, one could see a brushload of paint almost as though it had just been put on the canvas, and the artist had just walked away, rather than using the paint only to build an illusion about something else or, say, only wanting the color aspect of paint. All these things are being separated, each one used independently. And I think it’s a very exciting time.

DS: The element of the audience participating in the work of art by its psychological attitude, even by its movement is something that has become more and more pronounced in the last decade. And your directness in dealing with an audience or your involving them even when they weren’t aware of it. For instance, the white paintings, of course, where shadows were cast and people didn’t appreciate this very much but it was still part of your conception.

RR: They had to go all the way across town to see a shadow of themselves. I can see that they might resent it. Think of the happy few, though, who really thought it was worth it. You’d really go away holding your head up.

DS: But even in many other kinds of work, your combines and your silk screens too, I think there’s always been a way of making the audience re experience its own experience in front of the object; and I’ve often wondered also if this process doesn’t continue after leaving the object. If another part of the effect of work like yours isn’t really not only what happens when you’re looking at it, but going away and then meeting in life some of the same elements with a new awareness of what they were like when they were in a different ensemble.

RR: I’m sure that’s happened. The most recent example of that was fan mail that I got from London after the Whitechapel Show. And if I would have answered the letters, I think I would have put the people down a bit for wanting to give me credit for their having looked at where they were going instead of just concentrating on leaving one place and arriving at another place, as though that in between was not part of the trip. Their wanting to compliment the painting for making them do that is kind of an escape.

DS: We lose that innocence very readily, however, and necessarily, because life demands that we keep our attention focused on action and jobs and so on. And, of course, the painter’s privilege is to let us tear away that veil that intervenes between us in a visual sense.

RR: Well, I think that it’s a little more involved than that. I think a particular form of logic and an idea of progress may be protestant or something, but we’ve been encouraged through language and philosophies of all sorts that the important thing is to move from one place to another. And it’s that point and it’s getting there that’s important, and getting where then gets to be the only other aspect of that, and it’s only incidental how you get there.

DS: Yes.

RR: People are very tolerant of any means of getting there. And I don’t see that it’s reasonable that there be that hierarchy of like where you go to is more important than how; because you’re spending time. It’s the same kind of time as you’re going to have when you get there. And it’s you. And you exclude, you falsely, cultivatedly denied the experience of what there is in between.

DS: Paul Tillich seems to feel that’s particularly an American disease because of our tdndency as a people to have this dynamic movement forward.

RR: Oh, I don’t think so. I think it may be even more so in Europe.

DS: Do you?

RR: Because they’re very programmed. Thousands of years of inhibitions have forced them to concentrate on a single aspect, to understand that this is valuable, this is not valuable.

DS: There’s that hierarcy again.

RR: Yes.

DS: Well, I’m glad that you feel that we have some slight freedom from that in this particular environment. I think you certainly contributed to it in terms of the art world. That note of hierarchy breaking is such a very simple one, I think, from everything you said today, that I think it’s not a bad one on which perhaps to wind up today.

RR: Okay.


This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Robert Rauschenberg, 1965 Dec. 21, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

A Radical Disregard for the Preservation of Art: Robert Rauschenberg’s Elemental Paintings

Figure 1: Robert Rauschenberg, Dirt Painting (for John Cage), ca. 1953 Dirt and mold in wood box 15 1/2 x 16 x 2 1/2 inches (39.4 x 40.6 x 6.4 cm) Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

*By Charlotte Healy 

Above: Figure 1: Robert Rauschenberg, Dirt Painting (for John Cage), ca. 1953
Dirt and mold in wood box
15 1/2 x 16 x 2 1/2 inches (39.4 x 40.6 x 6.4 cm)
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


In April 1953, Robert Rauschenberg returned to New York after an eight-month sojourn in Europe and North Africa with Cy Twombly. Upon moving into his first permanent studio on Fulton Street, he recommenced work on a group of all black paintings, most with patchy, textured surfaces created with newspaper grounds, begun the previous year. He also constructed a series of Elemental Sculptures out of various unembellished found objects like stones and pieces of wood, often joined with twine. From September to October 1953, many of these works were exhibited for the first time at the Stable Gallery in New York in a two-person show with Twombly. In addition, this exhibition included Rauschenberg’s controversial, pristine, and uniform White Paintings of 1951. Also in fall 1953, he produced two of the most notorious and groundbreaking works of his early career: the proto-conceptual Erased de Kooning Drawing, in which he erased and subsequently framed a mixed-media drawing given to him by Willem de Kooning, and Automobile Tire Print, a collaboration with his friend John Cage, who drove his car over twenty sheets of paper while Rauschenberg inked one of the rear tires. Around the same time, Rauschenberg made a series of rectangular, vertically positioned objects generally referred to as the Elemental Paintings. [1] In each, he employed one of five “elemental” materials, three of which were unconventional for painting: dirt (figs. 1, 3), clay, tissue paper (fig. 2), gold leaf (fig. 4), and lead white paint. It is unclear how many he created of each type, given that only a small number have survived; some are known only through photographic documentation.

In this early series, Rauschenberg challenged the traditional and contemporary imperative that an artwork be inextricably linked to its creator, and embraced physical change. Specifically, he eliminated visible gesture — highly valued at the time by the Action Painters and their advocates — in favor of a heightened sensitivity to the essential character of his chosen media. In essence, he strove to collaborate with his materials rather than control them. Moreover, he showed a disregard for the preservation of these works and others, instead choosing techniques and materials that would allow the works to evolve over time. Ultimately, these works are among the earliest to necessitate a reassessment of conservation practice that takes into account the unorthodox intentions of postwar artists.

One of Rauschenberg’s primary goals in creating the Elemental Paintings was to demonstrate that his chosen materials worked equally well as painting media. Motivated by a lifelong sensitivity to objects of all kinds, he strove to eliminate the traditional hierarchical view of materials that existed in both art and life.[2] As he told Barbara Rose in a 1987 interview, “There’s no such thing as ‘better’ material. It’s just as unnatural for people to use oil paint as it is to use anything else.”[3] This comment elucidates Rauschenberg’s inclusion in the series of at least two paintings done entirely in thickly applied lead white paint, Untitled [small White Lead Painting] (ca. 1953) and White Lead Painting (1953-54).[4] Oil paint, a painter’s traditional medium since the sixteenth century, is as basic as dirt or gold — emphasized by the explicit identification of the paint’s elemental makeup in the titles of these two paintings — and has no particular value over other materials aside from its utility.

In interviews, Rauschenberg often lamented the typically associative and socially coded responses to his black paintings that he had not intended. In 1966, he complained, “Lots of critics shared with the public a certain reaction: they couldn’t see black as pigment. They moved immediately into association with ‘burned-out,’ ‘tearing,’ ‘nihilism’ and ‘destruction.’ That began to bother me…. If I see any superficial subconscious relationships that I’m familiar with — clichés of association — I change the picture.”[5] As a rejoinder, Rauschenberg selected his materials for the Elemental Paintings, as Branden Joseph has suggested, to “observe the operation, and potentially test the limitations, of the attributions of meaning from the social sphere.”[6]

Rauschenberg deliberately exploited the symbolic and associative properties of his materials. In an interview with Walter Hopps, he explained, “For each one I did in gold, I did one [the] approximate same size in toilet paper. I was testing the market. I knew this. Gold stays and toilet paper gets thrown away.”[7] Of course he was right: none of the paper paintings seem to have survived, while at least ten of the Gold Paintings are still extant. According to Twombly, for the one paper painting — or, more accurately, the large upright transparent box filled with crumpled paper — documented in a photograph (fig. 2), Rauschenberg did not actually use toilet paper, but rather tissue paper from shoeboxes. This distinction is of little consequence from a purely monetary perspective: even if it lacks toilet paper’s scatological connotations, tissue paper is equally worthless and expendable, especially compared to a valuable material like gold leaf.

Figure 2: Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled [paper painting], ca. 1953. Tissue paper in glass display case with wood base, 18 x 14 x 4 inches (45.7 x 35.6 x 10.2 cm), dimensions approximate. Lost or destroyed. Photographed by artist. Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

In the Gold Paintings, Rauschenberg’s interrogation of the traditional uses and associations of his materials is manifest. In the fifteenth century, the incorporation of precious materials like gold leaf and ultramarine pigment was often stipulated in contracts for commissioned paintings as a way of increasing their value.[8] In icons and Medieval and Renaissance religious paintings, gilding was used to designate the shining heavens and transcendental figures, often adorned with gleaming haloes. By carelessly covering the entire surface with gold leaf and emphasizing its inherent fragility in the Gold Paintings, Rauschenberg seemingly parodied this material’s traditional employment in painting. He went further still, making the gold appear dirty and deliberately mishandled as it cracks and flakes off the support, which undermines the material’s high monetary value. The irregular, haphazard, and organic quality of the gold, dirt, and paper compositions can be interpreted as a kind of heightened “naturalism” of materials.

In the interview with Rose, Rauschenberg explained, “The only thing I like to keep out of a work, no matter what the materials are, is the history of the process of putting it together. I don’t bring that into it.”[9] Accordingly, Rauschenberg’s “naturalistic” treatment of his materials can also be explained as a way of masking any signs of process. He seems to have retained the organic, natural quality of his materials so that the effect of his hand on the surface has not only faded into obscurity, but has been reversed. The materials, particularly the dirt and gold leaf, appear to have returned to their natural states. This “naturalism” is antithetical to another method of concealing the artist’s hand, which requires, in contrast, completely disguising oil paint rather than celebrating it in its natural form: the smooth, crisp, photographically precise, and highly illusionistic style of much French nineteenth-century academic painting can in turn be seen as a kind of “idealization” of oil paint.[10]

A deliberate deviation from the objectives of the particular strain of Abstract Expressionism most famously characterized by critic Harold Rosenberg in his landmark essay “The American Action Painters” of 1952, the Elemental Paintings prioritize chance effects over the visible manifestation of the artist’s process.[11] The surfaces of the Gold Paintings are extremely varied due to the arbitrary and seemingly careless application of sheets of delicate gold (and occasionally also silver) leaf of different tonalities, sometimes glued on top of newspaper and other collage materials (fig. 4). Often crumpled and loosely adhered rather than laid flat on the support, the gold leaf puckers and peels off the surface. Consequently, parts of the support are visible between irregular patches of gold. The unevenly and heavily applied layer of varnish-like glue has discolored, making the gold appear darker in certain areas. The lively surface is further enhanced by the reflectivity of the material.

In the other Elemental Paintings, Rauschenberg similarly emphasized the physical and material quality of the surface over personal gesture. In a Dirt Painting made for Cage (fig. 1), an irregular blue and yellow pattern created by the growth of mold or lichen dominates the surface, producing a completely accidental “composition.” Rauschenberg’s actual labor of packing the dirt into a boxlike wood frame is overshadowed by this chance organic effect. Likewise, in a large Dirt Painting that became known as Growing Painting (fig. 3), Rauschenberg’s efforts were again overshadowed by the effects of nature, which he happily embraced. When asked by Rose what he thought was the most inventive thing he had ever done, the artist gave this work as an example: “I was working on one dirt painting underneath a bird cage. Then grass started growing on it and I had to take care of it.”[12] Apparently, some birdseed had accidentally fallen into the dirt and began to sprout. This chance occurrence inspired Rauschenberg to make a “living” picture, as Calvin Tomkins called it.[13] When he exhibited the work in the Third Annual Stable Gallery Exhibition of January to February 1954, he periodically visited the gallery to water and care for the vegetation he had cultivated.

growing painting

Figure 3: Robert Rauschenberg, Growing Painting, 1953, Dirt and vegetation in wood frame, 72 x 25 inches (182.9 x 63.5 cm), dimensions approximate. No longer extant. Photographed by artist. Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The Elemental Paintings illustrate Rauschenberg’s claim that, “I’ve always felt as though, whatever I’ve used and whatever I’ve done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation and control.” [14] In these works, the inherent nature of the materials themselves plays as much of a role as the artist in determining the final outcome. Like Cage, Rauschenberg was inclined to substitute chance and other impersonal operations for self-expression. According to Tomkins, “what Rauschenberg was getting at was a kind of painting in which the artist — his personality, his emotions, his ideas, his taste — would not be the controlling element.” [15] To Rose, Rauschenberg professed, “I don’t want my personality to come out through the piece.” [16] His disdain for self-expression and his desire to “collaborate” with his materials partially account for his tendency to let his works slowly evolve over time. As he told Rose, “I like the history of objects.” [17] This anti-preservation attitude towards art has a number of ramifications for the collectors of his works and for the conservators who treat them.

Historical accounts reveal Rauschenberg’s radical disregard for the preservation of his art. He painted over many existing works, in part because his lack of financial resources prevented him from purchasing new supplies. According to Hopps, “when the occasion demanded, making new work overrode any sentiment the artist might have had for past accomplishments.”[18] There are numerous examples of White Paintings masked by subsequent paintings and black paintings covering earlier works.[19] For instance, when staying at Cage’s loft while his studio was fumigated in 1953, Rauschenberg discovered an early work of his that his friend had acquired before the two had ever met. He immediately set about turning it into a black painting by applying a newspaper ground and covering it with black paint. Fortunately, Cage, the painting’s owner, did not mind the unsolicited reworking.[20]

Rauschenberg’s enormous White Lead Painting (1953-54) is another example of his apparent indifference to the perpetuation of his early works, even ones that he clearly cared about. Over an extended period, he slowly built up the surface of an approximately six-by-six-foot stretched canvas with layers of lead white paint. According to Twombly, Rauschenberg spent an inordinate amount of time and money on this work, especially given his impecunious circumstances and the relatively high cost of lead white paint. When Rauschenberg moved his studio from Fulton Street to Pearl Street at the beginning of 1955, the size and weight of the piece prevented its removal from his old studio. Consequently, he was forced to abandon the painting.[21]

In his interview with Rose, Rauschenberg recalled destroying Growing Painting (fig. 3) after two white mice he had bought as a present for a friend froze to death in his unheated studio: “So I broke the growing painting into bits. It was another sort of dying. The painting was having problems with the lack of heat anyway. And no one was particularly interested in it. They couldn’t see that there was more to it. There was the feeling that you have to take care of things in order to keep them going. That’s true with art. When the mice died, I killed the painting.”[22] In spite of the ultimately destructive nature of his action, his rationale demonstrates an awareness of how one should take care of art, especially according to modern conservation practice, in which preventive conservation measures are often considered. As explained by MoMA conservators James Coddington and Jennifer Hickey, preventive conservation consists of “taking steps to minimize the potential for damage and to slow degradation processes, thereby postponing or entirely avoiding hands-on restoration of the work. This paradigm is most widely manifest as environmental standards for displaying and storing art.”[23]

Just as he was willing to paint over, abandon, or destroy artworks, Rauschenberg became known for accepting and appreciating changes to his work as his materials transformed over time. For centuries, painters have been using techniques (like applying varnish) and relatively stable materials that allow their works to be preserved with only minor intervention on the part of conservators (for instance, by removing and replacing varnish). In contrast, Rauschenberg’s use of unconventional and often organic materials enabled him to exploit and thematize such physical transformations. No better examples exist than Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (fig. 1) and Growing Painting (fig. 3). Visible change due to natural processes of growth and decay became essential aspects of these works. Both their appearance and material makeup have altered over time.[24]

Some of these changes pose major problems for conservators. The extant Gold Paintings and clay painting have transformed substantially due to the fragility of the materials employed. As a result of Rauschenberg’s haphazard method of application, some of the loosely affixed gold leaf in the Gold Painting that is jointly owned by the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (fig. 4) has actually detached from the fabric-on-Masonite support and fallen to the bottom of the deep wooden frame. For each of the Gold Paintings, Rauschenberg originally constructed permanently affixed wood-and-glass frames, which have protected them as they have become more fragile.[25] Likewise, the appearance of Pink Clay Painting (To Pete) has also changed over the past sixty years: it has weathered, cracked, endured minor losses, and faded, transforming from bright pink to a dull rusty orange.[26] Rauschenberg devised a unique hinged wooden door over an orange velvet covering, which concealed the rough surface and could be lifted to reveal the painting.[27] However, these protective presentational devices have since been lost, leaving the work even more vulnerable to damage and change than the artist had intended.

Figure 4: Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Gold Painting), ca. 1953. Gold leaf on fabric and glue on Masonite in wood-and-glass frame. 12 1/4 x 12 5/8 x 1 1/8 inches (31.1 x 32.1 x 2.9 cm). Joint bequest of Eve Clendenin to the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

The one remaining Dirt Painting (fig.1) has also suffered from age. Cage, to whom Rauschenberg dedicated and presented the work, poetically recounted its continual transformation: “The message is conveyed by dirt which, mixed with an adhesive, sticks to itself and to the canvas upon which he places it. Crumbling and responding to changes in weather, the dirt unceasingly does my thinking.”[28] The instability of this work has ultimately resulted in a drastic change in its presentation. Despite their unconventional materials, Rauschenberg intended for all of the Dirt Paintings to be presented vertically on the wall like conventional paintings. In his famous discussion of Rauschenberg’s “flatbed picture plane” in the essay “Other Criteria,” Leo Steinberg described this positioning of Growing Painting as “a transposition from nature to culture through a shift of ninety degrees.”[29] Due to the current fragile condition of Dirt Painting (for John Cage), it must be presented horizontally instead, thus making it appear more like an object than a painting as the artist had envisioned.[30] As Rauschenberg told Rose, “The nature of some of my materials gave me an additional problem because I had to figure out how they could be physically supported on a wall when they obviously had no business being anywhere near a wall. That was the beginning of the combines.”[31] In 1954, the artist began making the wall-mounted and freestanding assemblages incorporating various found objects that he called “combines” and for which he is now best known.

Given Rauschenberg’s embrace of his work’s deterioration and change over time, his use of unstable and ephemeral materials epitomized by the Elemental Paintings has proven problematic for conservators and collectors. Because modern conservation practice dictates a consideration of the artist’s original intent, any conservation treatment of Rauschenberg’s work should take into consideration his acceptance of change and the process of aging, even if it contradicts established conservation standards aimed to protect cultural heritage. As conservator Paula Volent has explained, “Traditionally, the conservator and the curator have attempted to keep the art object frozen in time, both as an historical and aesthetic object. However, dialogue with contemporary artists reveals that, in many cases, this approach may be antithetical to the aesthetic concerns of the artist.”[32] The incongruity of these two seemingly irreconcilable positions can lead to legal and ethical issues.[33] According to conservator Suzanne Penn, who has worked extensively on the art of both Rauschenberg and Anselm Kiefer, it is hard for people to accept signs of age and deterioration “given the high monetary value” of works by these two artists, who both intended for their works to change over time.[34]

Antonio Rava, in addressing some of the philosophical issues of contemporary art conservation, has perfectly summarized the challenges presented by Rauschenberg’s work to conservators: “Should one apply different conservation practices to works created with the aim of defying eternity than to those in which transformation and deterioration play an intentional and integral role?”[35] When conservators consulted Rauschenberg about the treatment of particular artworks, he tended to request minimal intervention, authorizing the stabilization of damaged elements but refusing cosmetic cleaning, asking that any patina, discoloration, or other evidence of age be retained.[36] According to collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, “for artists like Rauschenberg, sometimes conservation, even simple cleaning, can be dangerous if done with excessive care, inasmuch as aging and alterations caused by time and dirt embellish the painting. This is work on recapturing the memory; the dirt and yellowing of the surface add a special quality to the work and it is a mistake to remove them.”[37]

Like conservators, museums and private collectors have also realized that they must take into account the artist’s wish to let the work evolve over time. Collector Attilio Codognato has acknowledged the necessity of allowing his works to age: “I own a work by Rauschenberg that was bought thirty years ago, made of organic materials, and therefore with its own life. I am particularly proud of the fact that the work changes, because I think this was also Rauschenberg’s notion: that time works to bring about the work’s metamorphosis. I believe that the perishability of a work does not affect its validity. The work may change, but on a poetic level it always remains the same.”[38]

Sociologist Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s theoretical distinction between “docile” and “unruly” objects elucidates some of the problems museums face with works like Rauschenberg’s Elemental Paintings. According to Domínguez Rubio, works of art are not simply objects. Rather, he prefers to call them “slowly unfolding disasters,” since all artworks are constantly transforming over time due to changes in the environment. The most important task of the museum is to turn these “disasters” into stable objects (primarily through preventive conservation measures), which requires an organized infrastructure that distributes labor and knowledge. Some artworks lend themselves to standard museum divisions more readily than others. Domínguez Rubio calls these “docile” objects. They are more easily stabilized as objects by the museum, given that they can be classified into established categories of artworks (such as paintings, sculptures, and works on paper), which reinforce the traditional roles of museum staff like conservators and curators. On the other hand, “unruly” objects are not so easily turned into stable objects, as they tend to be “elusive and ambiguous,” “variable,” or “unwieldy.” Because they do not fit nicely into the typical divisions of conservation and curatorial knowledge, “unruly” objects often require interdisciplinary collaboration across set boundaries within the museum.[39]

The Elemental Paintings exhibit certain characteristics of “unruly” art objects, especially due to their material deterioration. For instance, conservators and curators at MoMA found it difficult to classify the Gold Painting that the museum jointly owns with the Guggenheim (fig. 4) when it first entered the collection in 1974, presumably because of its unusual materials and collage-like construction. Originally placed in the holdings of the Department of Drawings, it was not transferred to the Department of Painting and Sculpture until 1984, following a review of the museum’s collections for the preparation of the publication of the collection catalogue Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art.[40] This reclassification indicates that Rauschenberg’s Gold Paintings do not clearly fit into set divisions of curatorial and conservation knowledge, and likely require collaboration between departments. Undoubtedly, the Dirt Paintings, Pink Clay Painting, and paper paintings would also require interdisciplinary collaboration. According to Amanda Swift, the treatment of the combines in the Panza Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1989 and 1992 “required the collaborative efforts of various groups of conservators” specializing in paper, objects, textiles, and paintings, due to “the bizarre nature of many of the materials incorporated into the combines and the idiosyncratic methods used by the artist in their construction.”[41]

The highly vulnerable state of the Gold Painting has necessitated that it rarely be permitted to travel to other museums, thereby disrupting standard museum practice. In response to a loan request for the exhibition Part Object Part Sculpture at the Wexner Center for the Arts that opened in October 2005, the Guggenheim’s deputy director and chief curator Lisa Dennison wrote:

As you are no doubt aware, Rauschenberg’s Gold Paintings are particularly fragile and any movement, regardless of how carefully done, greatly disturbs their surface. For this reason, we do not feel that we are able to lend on this occasion. Please be assured that my colleagues and I have struggled over your request as we believe in the scholarly merit of your exhibition. I trust however that you will understand that the successful long-term preservation of this piece must be our first and foremost priority.[42]

The Guggenheim’s concerns echo a number of the considerations for loaning works in poor condition outlined by Penn: “One must weigh the risk of transporting, handling, and publicly exhibiting the work against [the] benefits [of loaning a work]…. Should a work of art be jeopardized for an exhibition that may be very pretty and entertaining for the general public, but not necessarily intellectually substantial nor scholarly?”[43] Swift has pointed out that the fragile condition of many of Rauschenberg’s works has “severely limit[ed] their accessibility to the general public.”[44] Evidently, even if museums are willing to respect the artist’s intended deterioration, as reflected by minimal conservation treatments, they have instituted stricter preventive conservation measures (such as travel restrictions) to counteract or at least slow down such transformations.

The Elemental Paintings concisely summarize Rauschenberg’s view of and approach to materials. His subversion of traditional hierarchies of materials, his emphasis on the inherent qualities of his chosen media over personal gesture, and his embrace of physical changes in these early works allowed him to interrogate the standard boundaries and priorities of painting. These three tendencies characterize Rauschenberg’s aesthetic preferences for the remainder of his career, and are particularly evident in the radical combination of a vast array of unusual and sometimes unstable materials in his innovative and celebrated combines of 1954-64. Following his precocious acceptance of deterioration and change in the Elemental Paintings of ca. 1953-54, a wave of postwar art emphasizing degradation and mutability has demanded a revision of standard conservation practice.

*Charlotte Healy is a doctoral student at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, where she specializes in the materials and methods of modern art. She received her MA from the IFA in 2013, and wrote her thesis on tactility in Paul Klee’s paintings. She holds a BA from Williams College, graduating with Highest Honors in Art History. She has completed curatorial internships at The Museum of Modern Art, The Phillips Collection, and The Frick Collection. She recently participated in the First Museum Research Consortium Study Sessions at MoMA, and presented a paper at the Cleveland Symposium in October 2014.  


[1]. As John Cage wrote, “He changes what goes on, on a canvas, but he does not change how canvas is used for paintings — that is, stretched flat to make rectangular surfaces which may be hung on a wall.” John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work,” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 100. This is not a completely accurate description of these works, given their thick three-dimensionality.

[2]. According to Walter Hopps, “as a crucial part of his early childhood, Rauschenberg…collected and arranged a great miscellany of things that were meaningful to him, obsessively adding jars and boxes and all sorts of found specimens such as rocks, plants, insects, and small animals” to a compartmentalized “collection wall” he built in his room. Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1991), 14. Hopps has suggested that consequently Rauschenberg’s training at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, under the strict instruction of Josef Albers, solidified this inherent “belief in the usefulness and worth of any material.” Hopps, The Early 1950s, 16. Albers’ multimedia approach to teaching was largely informed by his Bauhaus colleague László Moholy-Nagy. Like Moholy-Nagy, Albers stressed the essential properties of a wide variety of materials and the proper way to manipulate and handle each. In response to a question about his time at Black Mountain in an interview with Barbara Rose, Rauschenberg revealed, “I maintained my affection for the materials and the physical aspects of art.” Later in the interview, Rose commented, “The original Bauhaus course that was taught in Germany was based on properties, qualities and characteristics of the materials. This attitude is a central part of your art also.” Rauschenberg replied: “I have a great respect for my materials.” Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 23, 89.

[3]. Rose, An Interview, 58.

[4]. For reproductions of these two works, see “Untitled [small White Lead Painting],” Robert Rauschenberg Foundation,, and Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1991), 202, respectively.

[5]. Dorothy Gees Seckler, “The Artist Speaks: Robert Rauschenberg.” Art in America 54, no. 3 (May-June 1966): 76.

[6]. Branden W. Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 92.

[7]. From an unpublished interview conducted January 18-20, 1991. This line is quoted in Joseph, Random Order, 92. In an interview with Dorothy Gees Seckler, Rauschenberg reiterated his desire to compare paper with gold as painting media, again finding them equally valid materials for his purposes: “I did a painting in toilet-paper, then duplicated it in gold-leaf. I studied both very carefully and found no advantage in either: whatever one was saying, the other seemed to be just as articulate. I knew then that it was somebody else’s problem — not mine.” Seckler, “The Artist Speaks,” 81.

[8]. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 6-11.

[9]. Rose, An Interview, 90.

[10]. This kind of “idealization” of the medium of oil paint is epitomized by the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme. More recently, throughout his career Vik Muniz has taken an “idealizing” approach to various unconventional media, such as dust, chocolate syrup, and garbage — in other words, he masks their identities in order to create recognizable images, which he then photographs.

[11]. In his essay, Rosenberg declared, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act…. A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist.” Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New (New York: Horizon Press, 1959), 25, 27. This essay was indicative of the growing preference in the early 1950s for the large gestural canvases of First Generation New York School artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and the accompanying obsession with their artistic process.

[12]. Rose, An Interview, 56.

[13]. Calvin Tomkins, The Bride & The Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant Garde (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 209.

[14]. Ibid., 204. Rauschenberg restated this idea in the 1973 documentary Painters Painting: “You begin with the possibilities of the materials, and then you let them do what they can do, so that the artist is really almost a bystander while he’s working.” Emile De Antonio and Mitch Tuchman, Painters Painting: A Candid History of the Modern Art Scene, 1940-1970 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), 92.

[15]. Tomkins, The Bride, 204.

[16]. Rose, An Interview, 72.

[17]. Ibid., 56.

[18]. Hopps, The Early 1950s, 153.

[19]. See throughout Hopps, The Early 1950s.

[20]. Cage recounted this experience in a series of statements on Rauschenberg: “The door is never locked. Rauschenberg walks in. No one home. He paints a new painting over the old one. Is there a talent then to keep the two, the one above, the one below? What a plight (it’s no more serious than that) we’re in! It’s a joy in fact to begin over again.” Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg,” 101.

[21]. For a more detailed account of the White Lead Painting and Twombly’s assessment of it, see Hopps, The Early 1950s, 163-64.

[22]. Rose, An Interview, 57.

[23]. James Coddington and Jennifer Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project — An Ounce of Prevention…,” Inside/Out: A MoMA/MoMA PS1 Blog, December 10, 2012,

[24]. As Branden Joseph observed, the Dirt Paintings and Growing Painting “appear as attempts to show matter in its own duration: a duration related to the natural creation or deterioration within which humanity exists, but that is not itself dependent on humanity.” Joseph, Random Order, 61.

[25]. Unfortunately some of these original frames are now missing. See, for instance, “Untitled (Gold Painting),” Robert Rauschenberg Foundation,

[26]. In 1991, Hopps assigned this work to 1953. Hopps, The Early 1950s, 212-13. However, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation has reassigned this work to 1952. “Pink Clay Painting (To Pete),” Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, For the work’s current condition, see the Sotheby’s condition report. “Contemporary Art Day Auction, Lot 160: Robert Rauschenberg, Pink Clay Painting (To Pete),” Sotheby’s,

[27]. According to Hopps, “This vibrant juxtaposition of pink and orange recurs throughout Rauschenberg’s palette…. This work in its original incarnation was also an early example of Rauschenberg’s fascination with doors and their functions of concealing and revealing.” Hopps, The Early 1950s, 162.

[28]. Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg,” 100.

[29]. Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 87.

[30]. Hopps, The Early 1950s, 162.

[31]. Rose, An Interview, 58.

[32]. Paula Volent, “When Artists’ Intent is Accidental. Artists’ Acceptance of and Experimentation with Changes and Transformations in Materials,” in Modern Works, Modern Problems? Conference Papers, ed. Alison Richmond (London: Institute of Paper Conservation, 1994), 171.

[33]. Conservator Ann Baldwin has explained some of the legal issues related to artist’s intent: “Artist’s intent has been a focus of professional conferences and is covered under copyright law in federal courts and in California and New York. These laws were written to extend legal protection against many types of alteration, including vandalism, of an artist’s original work. Any type of damage — including significant change resulting from a conservation treatment — may be subject to a legal action.” Ann M. Baldwin, “The Wayward Paper Object: Artist’s Intent, Technical Analysis, and Treatment of a 1966 Robert Rauschenberg Diptych,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 38, no. 3 (Autumn-Winter 1999): 416.

[34]. Suzanne Penn, “Johns, Rauschenberg and Kiefer: Preserving the Artist’s Intentions,” The Journal of Art 1, no. 2 (January 1989): 24.

[35]. Antonio Rava, “Robert Rauschenberg,” in Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods, Materials, and Research, ed. Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation), 211.

[36]. See Volent, “Artists’ Intent,” 172; Baldwin, “Wayward Paper Object,” 417. For the treatment of all the combines in the Panza Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “it was agreed that no surface should appear ‘pristine’ as this would ‘contradict the artist’s assumed intention.’” Amanda Swift, “Robert Rauschenberg: The Neo-Dada Junk Aesthetic,” in Modern Works, Modern Problems? Conference Papers, ed. Alison Richmond (London: Institute of Paper Conservation, 1994), 168.

[37]. English translation in Rava, “Robert Rauschenberg,” 210.

[38]. English translation in ibid.

[39]. Domínguez Rubio emphasizes that docility and unruliness represent two ends of a spectrum. Fernando Domínguez Rubio, “The (uneasy) rise of the conservator” (presentation at the Mellon Research Initiative conference Conservation and Its Contexts, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, New York, NY, December 7, 2013); Fernando Domínguez Rubio, “Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly objects at MoMA,” Theory and Society (August 2014): n.p.

[40]. Collection file 441.1974, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; MaryKate Cleary (Collection Specialist, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), email message to author, December 18, 2013.

[41]. Swift, “Neo-Dada Junk Aesthetic,” 168.

[42]. Letter dated 7 September 2004, from Lisa Dennison to Sherri Geldin. Collection file 74.2109, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

[43]. Penn, “Preserving the Artist’s Intentions,” 24.

[44]. Swift, “Neo-Dada Junk Aesthetic,” 168.

Robert Ryman: Interviews, Images & Texts


The Art World March 19, 2007 Issue
Abstraction Problem
Two new shows on an old idea.
By Peter Schjeldahl


Table of Contents
An Adaptive, by the veteran Austrian artist Franz West.
An Adaptive, by the veteran Austrian artist Franz West. Credit “LISA DE COHEN WITH ADAPTIVE”(1983)/ARCHIV FRANZ WEST

Remember abstract painting? It used to be the living end of modernity in art. Now it’s just one variety of produce in the supermarket of visual culture. Two shows stir thoughts on the subject: new work by the paladin of white paintings, Robert Ryman, at PaceWildenstein, and “Comic Abstraction,” representing thirteen contemporary artists inspired by comics, cartoons, and other mediums of demotic fun, at the Museum of Modern Art. Ryman, seventy-six years old, is a Tennessean who came to New York in 1952 to be a jazz musician, and encountered the art world while working, for seven years, as a guard at MOMA. He matured as an artist in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, between the decline of Abstract Expressionism and the dawn of minimalism. He conjoined and, ever since, has stayed true to features of both movements: expressively pure painterliness and blunt matter-of-factness. His works are as much mute essays in aesthetic philosophy as objects of pleasure. They delight, if you let them, by clarifying the material givens of any painting: shape, scale, paint texture, underlying surface, and attachment to a wall.

Most of the works in “Comic Abstraction,” by younger artists, derive inspiration—albeit remote and attenuated, and, at this late date, perhaps unconscious—from the same era that formed Ryman, when abstraction was still a reigning imperative and self-consciousness in and about aesthetic experience became an iron law. But they yoke those ideals to pursuits of frisky entertainment or earnest politics. Has abstraction, since the sixties, fallen from grace, or been liberated from preciousness? Both may be true.

There are four works in the Ryman show, all of them called “No Title Required” (2006)—finessing a title, “Untitled,” so common in the heyday of minimalism as to become something of a joke. (When not using it himself, Ryman has favored astringently poetic titles, on the order of “Regis,” “Consort,” and “Journal.”) The main attraction is an ensemble of ten paintings in smooth white enamel on wood, each a different size in a narrow range from fifty to fifty-five inches square. Each incorporates a wood frame (in oak, cherry, or maple), mounted flush. Paint bleeds across the abutments between surface and frame, establishing the paint skin as the work’s forward plane. This being Ryman, every aspect of what you see counts. The units hang close together along most of one wall and part of another. The walls are a matte, muted white, in contrast to the work’s glossy, bright enamel. Ghostly reflections of yourself provide vestiges of pictureness. Illumination is indirect, from banks of lights that shine on a wall across the room. The carpentry of the frames is imperfect; slight separations at their corner joins—as well as occasional cracks in the paint between frame and panel—register as chance elements of drawing. The grains, knots, and natural colors of the frames become practically rococo in their visual appeal, amid the prevailing blankness. The units’ shifting sizes defeat a reading of them as a unified whole. The suite’s length is given as six hundred and eighty-eight inches, which works out to fifty-seven and one-third feet. Intentional or not, that gawky one-third (an infinity of threes, when expressed in decimals) seems Rymanesque, consistent with a thoroughgoing aim to pique and discombobulate comprehension.

The three other works in the show are paintings on linen stapled over frames, each more than seven feet square. (Again, painting fronts frame, this time with the added thickness of the linen.) White oil paint is applied in brushy flurries over a very slightly darker ground. Surface qualities vary almost—but never quite—enough to suggest pictures of something: clouds, perhaps, or foliage. The effect is a stammer in the visual cortex, as your brain doggedly tries and incessantly fails to make conscious sense of the sensory input. This isn’t an unusual phenomenon in abstract art, or even in figurative art. (It also occurs in daily life, when confusion about what we see triggers a double take.) But such delicate fallibilities of eye and mind are the engines of Ryman’s art, which plays with self-aware looking for its own sake. How much you like him depends on a couple of things. First, how highly do you value feeling sensitive and smart? “Getting” a Ryman can produce the thrill, at your own acuity, that comes with grasping a proposition in mathematics or a tricky passage of music. For Ryman fans—including me, off and on—the effect is addictive. Second, do you buy into a romance of painting in extremis, so imperilled by skepticism that, to survive as indispensable art, it must jettison all functions that are not identical with its conceptual scheme and physical reality?

That romance dates Ryman as one of a cohort of abstract painters who, in the nineteen-sixties, simplified painting to save it. Others were the late Agnes Martin, with delicate grids, and Brice Marden, with brooding monochromes. (Frank Stella’s insolently literal-minded designs on blocky stretchers were the height of sophisticated taste back then; their emotional numbness has consigned them, in retrospect, to period décor.) Marden, as a marvellous recent retrospective at MOMA proved, has since reclaimed for disciplined abstraction a repertoire of tensile drawing and eloquent color. Ryman has sustained the old sense of crisis, as if each of his many ingenuities—with different paints and supports, and, over time, with a hardware store’s worth of deliberately obtrusive screws, brackets, and other mounting devices—were a tale told by Scheherazade to win another night’s reprieve, never mind that the sultan who had to be propitiated is dead. Ryman is a favorite of certain academic critics who, loyal to intellectual adventures of avant-garde art in the fifties and sixties, ignore most contemporary art and seem to mark time until a new development, or Second Coming, merits their engagement. Still, Ryman stays fresh and taut. Even out of date, his conscientious integrity ought to abash today’s hordes of careering youngsters, whose idea of the future of civilization reaches little beyond the next art fair. But to be shameable, under present conditions, may be an unaffordable moral luxury.

Vivacious brassiness rules in “Comic Abstraction,” organized by Roxana Marcoci, a curator in MOMA’s photography department—an interesting choice, given that the show contains no photographs. Except for an installation by one strongly original veteran artist, Franz West, the works on hand amount to new wine in old bottles. “Mirror in a Cabin with Adaptives” (1996), by West, the sixty-year-old Austrian Pied Piper of audience participation, invites viewers to disport themselves, in front of a mirror, with odd and appealing constructions of lumpy plaster on metal rods. Even declining the offer, I feel in good hands with West, a terrific sculptor who is conceptually as rigorous as Ryman, in a hippieish kind of way. Fully seven of the artists in the show run variations on the New York School of big painting—the expansive and diffusive field that was invented by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, and that has been adopted by painters of every subsequent generation. Like the blues foundations of rock and roll, it is easy to learn and it always works, if you can keep the beat. The challenge is to give it distinctive content and style. Pop art introduced the frisson of wedding lowdown imagery to the big painting’s sublime form. Cartoonishness has been a regular recourse of master painters from Roy Lichtenstein and Sigmar Polke to Carroll Dunham and Albert Oehlen. Their number is not increased by anyone in “Comic Abstraction,” whose wrinkles of novelty are just a proliferation of peculiar techniques and an amplification, to simultaneous extremes, of the ceremonious and the vulgar.

The show’s cast of picture-makers includes the lately ubiquitous Takashi Murakami, with crisply stylized renditions of spurting bodily fluids (breast milk and sperm) in baby pink and baby blue; Sue Williams, with what look to be Pollock-like fields, until you make out their constituent cartoon imagery of orgiastic goings on; Arturo Herrera, with a likewise webby, exceedingly handsome mural in which lurk scenes of Walt Disney’s “Snow White”; Julie Mehretu, the up-and-comer in this group, with a heady, infernally complicated overlay of diagrammatic motifs; Polly Apfelbaum, with a mandala on the floor, about eighteen feet in diameter, of dyed velvet petals whose color scheme alludes to the television cartoon “Powerpuff Girls”; and Inka Essenhigh, with neo-Surrealist creepy-crawlies in shiny enamel. Two African-Americans tackle racial themes: Ellen Gallagher, with lovely Agnes Martin-like compositions that incorporate tiny caricatures of Negroid lips and eyes; and Gary Simmons, with a smeared chalk drawing of a particularly vile black cartoon character of the nineteen-thirties. For appropriate jollies, there’s an installation by the late Spaniard Juan Muñoz: a darkened room with a lit-up mousehole, accompanied by a soundtrack, composed by the artist and a collaborator, of Saturday-morning whizzes, squeals, and thumps. New to me, poignantly, are jazzy paintings and a bank of video monitors flashing fractured logos by a conspicuously gifted German, Michel Majerus, who died in a plane crash, in 2002, at the age of thirty-five. Two other artists contribute negligible works with arbitrary political associations.

Is all of this a mite thin and forced? It is, along with almost everything else of recent vintage in an art world where frenetic production has outrun any substantial supply line of ideas. Nearly a century of experiments in abstraction have become a fund of handy tropes. What’s lost—while being barely preserved, with monkish zeal, by the likes of Ryman—is a sense of risk at the frontiers of convention. Pablo Picasso once zeroed in on the fundamental problem of abstract art, which he rejected, as “only painting. What about drama?” He added, “There is no abstract art.… A person, an object, a circle are all ‘figures’; they react on us more or less intensely.” The best modern abstract artists countered with jolting demonstrations of art’s intrinsic powers, independent of worldly reference. But their project proved self-defeating, as the looks of a Pollock or a Mondrian became just additional items in the world’s image bank, alongside Titian nudes and Mickey Mouse. Picasso’s cynical wisdom (minus his driving genius, of course) is common sense now, as artists like those in “Comic Abstraction” mix and match stock elements, with ever less drama and with intensity dwindling away. ♦

Robert Ryman – White paint, not white paintings

Ryman - Surface Veil

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970-1971
22 x 29 inches, oil on fiberglass with waxed paper frame and masking tape. Collection SFMOMA.

“The real purpose of painting is to give pleasure.”
–Robert Ryman

When one’s thoughts turn to the topic of white paintings, artist Robert Ryman comes easily to mind. Ryman, born in 1930 in Nashville, was first a jazz musician until he moved to New York in 1952 and subsequently took a job as a vacation relief guard at the Museum of Modern Art. His exposure to the artwork there, including contemporary Americans Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, was instrumental in his decision give up music and turn to painting. He never had any traditional art training, although, as Suzanne P. Hudson recounts in Used Paint1, he was directly influenced by MoMA’s “widespread institutional ethos of experiential learning whereby museum educators … promoted values of thinking and making ‘outside the lines.’” He took one adult course at MoMA in experimental painting, although he would later say he didn’t remember much of it. Other than some life drawing done in the class, he never went through the traditional stages of learning to paint or draw representationally. Instead, he was interested in discovering what could be done with different kinds of paints, substrates, and other materials.

Ryman - Painted Veil (detail)Robert Ryman, Surface Veil (detail)

Although beginning in the mid-1950s he spent many years exclusively making paintings with every type of white paint, using a seemingly limitless variety of techniques on every possible surface, and he is known for work most commonly described reductively as “white squares,” he would say that he was not making white paintings. “I never thought of white as being a color. White could do things that other colors could not do. White has a tendency to make things visible. You can see more of the nuance.”2

Speaking of one of his earliest works, Untitled (Orange Painting), he said in 1992, “I’ve always thought that if I ever wanted to paint a white painting it would be in the order of the way this painting was done, because this is definitely an orange painting but there are many nuances and many oranges (and black and green). And if I were doing a white painting I would approach it the same way, and there would be whites and warm-whites and cold areas and then you would have a white painting. As it is, the way I use white it’s more as a neutral paint, in order to make other things in the painting visible, color for instance.”3

Robert Ryman, TwinRobert Ryman, Twin (1965)
6′ 3 3/4″ x 6′ 3 7/8″ Oil on cotton. Collection New York MoMA.

The interesting thing about Ryman is how he became so well known in spite of (or because of?) his unapologetically unconventional approach to painting. He confounded the critics, who tried variously to categorize his work as minimalist, or anti-form, or process, or conceptualist, while admitting that none of these could be perfectly applied. He resists the idea that his work is abstract, saying “I don’t abstract from anything. [My work is] involved with real visual aspects of what you really are looking at, whether it’s wood, or you see the paint, and the metal, and how it’s put together and how it works with the wall and how it works with the light.”

Robert Ryman - Untitled (1958)Robert Ryman, Untitled (1958)
10.125 inches square, enamel on linen. Collection SFMOMA.

He also resisted attempts to place him into a specific box or frame within the greater art world. “I’m not involved with any kind of art movement. I’m not a scholar, I’m not a historian. I just look at it as solving problems and working on the painting and the visual experience.”5 There is no attempt at illusion; the paintings are not “about” anything other than what’s right before your eyes. What you see is what you get – nothing more, nothing less.

I read parts of Used Paint a couple of years ago when I was doing research for a school project. It was a treat for me soon thereafter to be able to go to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and see some of these paintings in person. They are just what you’d expect, but somehow in person they have a surprising presence. I’m drawn to Ryman’s work aesthetically, and I admire his ability to put forth these seemingly simple objects as paintings and get them hung in the most prestigious of museums. I have an impressive number of partially finished textile works lying around my own studio, suspended from completion because I love the raw edges and I don’t want to cut, bind, or hide them in some “professional” way. If I were Ryman, that would be the end of it – I’d just hand them over to the Guggenheim and up they’d go as is.

Robert Ryman, An all white painting measuring 9 1/2 ” x 10″ and signed twice on the left side in white umber
(See full view here)


I first became aware of Ryman’s work from the wonderful PBS art:21 series. In this video from Season 4 (2007), Ryman demonstrates how his paintings consist not only of the support and the paint, but also the edges, the fasteners, and the wall itself. He tapes panels to the walls with blue painter’s tape, and then paints right over the tape and onto the walls beneath the panels. Then the tape, which has functioned as a resist, is removed. The process is repeated multiple times. This creates a variance in the surface and edge surrounding each panel. The quality of the light in the room is extremely important to the aesthetic experience, including how it changes throughout the day. Speaking about his intention, Ryman says, “It should be a soft, quiet experience that’s nice to look at.”

“In painting, something has to look easy even though it might not be easy.”
“The painting should just be about what it’s about, and not other things.”
“In all of my paintings, I discover things; sometimes I’m surprised at the results6

An Interview with Robert Ryman – By Peter Blum

Much has already been said about your paintings. But I’m interested in your life story and your origins. How did you get involved with art?

An Interview with Robert Ryman

By Peter Blum

Much has already been said about your paintings. But I’m interested in your life story and your origins. How did you get involved with art?

I was born in Nashville, Tennessee. I had never seen any paintings before moving to New York. Except for paintings of flowers -but never anything remotely high quality. There was nothing there.

And your parents? No influence came from them at all?

No. But I had music. That was what counted. That was what interested me and why I moved to New York. There I started going to galleries and museums and saw paintings for the first time. Actually not so much galleries but museums. I was like a tourist but gradually I became more and more interested in painting and such.

Was it going to the museums that made a difference? Is that what made you decide to study painting?

Well, my main concern was actually music. I was a jazz musician, a saxophonist. That was in 1952. But entertainment music didn’t appeal to me, neither did Pop or dance music, and I didn’t care much for performing in public. Actually I wanted to compose: to compose with my instrument, to improvise, to find out all the things you can do with the instrument. In that respect it’s related to painting. What’s important is the composition, the discoveries you make while working. Painting really resembles music in that way. You develop something and then you take the part that interests you. That’s how it happened

And then you decided it was time to learn how to paint. How did you go about it?

Mainly by watching. You see I didn’t know any artists at all. I didn’t know a single painter. All of my friends were musicians. Besides I was very shy. I couldn’t just go up to someone and say I want to be a painter. So what I did – I just kept at it. From the beginning, I was never interested in painting that was supposed to represent something. I knew I would be able to do that if I wanted to and if I practiced. But that’s not what I wanted. I wouldn’t make any new discoveries that way. What intrigued me were the possibilities of painting itself. I had to study the basics of painting, obviously — like what can be combined and how paint works.

And how did you learn from that?

Actually I got to know a few painters pretty much on my own at the Museum of Modern Art, like Bill Sharf. I asked him how you stretch a canvas. So he showed me, but I figured most of it out myself.

Were your paintings completely non-objective from the beginning?

Yes, I just studied color, composition, and format and I experimented with thick paint, thin paint and watercolors, and I explored the effect of light on the works. My only goal was to produce something that interested me personally and that gave me the feeling I had achieves something. But I never painted and abstraction of nature.

Has white always been an important factor?

In 1957 I still made a couple of paintings in color. White actually means taking away, eliminating. It’s not the case of painting white paintings. It’s a question of using white pigment. Of course, I use it differently today because the issues have continued to develop. I never thought that there should be a lot of things in a painting that don’t necessarily belong there. After all I didn’t simply make a decoration or paint an accumulation of things in order to see what works well. My main concern was to develop the structure of the paintings so that it contains the essentials and everything superfluous is eliminated…the composition extends to the wall and becomes a part of the wall… when you take my paintings off the wall, they don’t exist anymore. The painting needs a wall in order to exist. Otherwise it makes no sense.

Excerpts from an interview with Robert Ryman by Peter Blum originally published in DU Magazine, Zurich, August 1980 and republished in the book: Robert Ryman, Works on Paper 1957 – 1964, Peter Blum Edition, New York, 2004.



Issue 10 May 1993 RSS

On Paintings and Pictures


In conversation with Robert Ryman

imageDavid Batchelor: What led you to describe your work as realist?

Robert Ryman: The two main procedures artists have used in painting are representation and abstraction. While abstraction has been used in many ways, the two procedures still employ a similar aesthetic, one which involves illusion. Even the most abstract painting uses a picture-based approach. The painting I make is based on a different approach. It has to do with using real light on real surfaces, rather than creating an internal illusion of light. If I use line in my work it is to do with line itself, not line as a representation of something else. I think of this as working with an outward aesthetic rather than with an inward one. I work with the painting plane in relation to the wall plane. Everything points to an approach which is a real situation rather than an illusion of the kind you get in pictures. I also have to consider the way light works. In most paintings we think of light in terms of an illusion within the picture. In my painting light is used differently without any illusion. The light in the painting, so to speak, is accomplished by the different surfaces and how real light acts upon those surfaces. In some cases the surfaces are very soft and quiet and absorb the light; in others, light is reflected off certain parts of the painting, or off the fasteners, while it is absorbed in other parts.

Many abstract painters in the past have classified their work as realist – Malevich and Mondrian for example – but yours seems a very different kind of approach from the one, say, that led Malevich to paint white on white. His work is clearly spatial in an atmospheric kind of way.

I think Malevich’s work had a lot to do with Symbolism, to do with meaning outside the painting itself. Mondrian, though, was certainly a realist painter, more of a realist than Malevich. The mid-period works did not refer to anything other than painting, and that is what I would think of as realism.

Mondrian was also an artist who took a lot of care about how his paintings related to the walls, in his use of those shallow stepped frames.

Very much so. But most of his paintings have been altered, boxed in by other frames and covered in plastic. It’s unfortunate, but it’s rare to see a Mondrian the way he wanted it to be.

Do you see any similarities between what he was doing with the stepped frames and your use of fasteners?

Maybe, although I hadn’t really thought of that. In Mondrian’s case I think he felt the need for some form of protection for the canvas but he didn’t want it to interfere. So he tended to paint it in with the rest of the painting.

You have exhibited more in Europe than the States. Do you identify more with a tradition of European painting?

Certainly I have had more large exhibitions in Europe, but I don’t really think of my painting in that way. At times there has been more interest in Europe, and my painting didn’t seem to fit in, I guess, with certain fashions in America at the time. In the early 60s Pop painting was shown most widely in galleries. There wasn’t much interest in abstract painting during that time. It was mostly sculpture, and Minimal sculpture which was emerging. What painting there was was primarily bright colours and sharp edges. In the late 60s there was some interest in my painting, but this was mainly in Europe again – Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf and Heiner Friedrich in Munich.

What about your inclusion in the big ‘Systemic Painting’ show in New York in 1966, with Noland, Stella, Mangold and others?

Oh yes, I had forgotten about that. That was at the Guggenheim, or the Whitney.

And the ‘Anti-Illusion’ show in 1969?

At that time there was some interest in that type of work, of course. But it was more to do with the kind of work that could be planned and not executed – what was it called? Conceptual art.

I take it you don’t regard your work as having anything much to do with Conceptual art?

Not at all. Just the opposite. My work is very intuitive, and it has to be made. It’s painting. But somehow some of my painting was accepted, perhaps because it had certain modular elements.

Your work doesn’t look at all preconceived in the manner of Minimal and Conceptual art.

The idea that you could have your work fabricated by someone else was an aspect of Minimal and some Conceptual art of the period which became acceptable as modern art.

Which makes your work look, by comparison, like rather traditional painting. Are you happy to be seen as a traditional painter?

Yes. I have always thought of myself as a traditional painter.

I believe this is the first time your work has been hung chronologically in a gallery.

In the larger exhibitions I have had, the work has not been hung chronologically, rather the different years have been jumbled together. The exhibition here at the Tate is the first time I’ve seen the work arranged in a more or less chronological order. This has been quite interesting for me.

Basically my painting works with the wall plane and with the environment. As I said before, it has what I think of as an outward aesthetic. Unlike pictures where you look into the space, space in my work is used differently. There is an interaction between the painting and the wall plane. So what is placed next to a painting can affect it. In the past my paintings have been hung in a strictly visual capacity. There might be a contrast between a smaller work and a larger one where it benefits both paintings. The question of light is also important here. If you are hanging several different paintings together which react differently you want to take this into consideration so that each painting benefits from the one next to it.

It seems to me that you tend to counterpoint paintings – small and big, absorptive and reflective, solid and fragile. That is still the case in this show, isn’t it?

There is still a certain leeway within a group of years so I was still able to use some of that.

You mentioned this is the first time you have seen your work hung chronologically. Did this reveal anything to you?

Well, there were a number of paintings I hadn’t seen for years, so it was nice to see them again and to see them in the context of the more recent paintings. That was interesting. If this exhibition had been hung less chronologically, certain of the relationships between the paintings could have been made more clear. But overall the show has worked very well.

Does the variety in the way the show is hung indicate something about the way the work is made? Do you work small one day and big the next, or on steel then linen? Do you use any kind of systematic procedures?

No, as I said, there isn’t any system and there isn’t a plan in that sense. It’s more intuitive. Maybe there is a particular problem I am trying to work out, or I may need to work on a larger format or a smaller one just depending on how things are at the moment. I can’t really say much more than that.

This is going to sound like a dumb question, but was there a particular point at which you decided you were going to use primarily white paint, or did things just turn out that way?

There wasn’t any conscious decision. Like all painters I began to experiment with form and colour. Early on I often used a lot of white to paint certain things out. I don’t know exactly why I did that. As a few years went by this became more concentrated. The white, you might say, was beginning to take over. I could see that it was beginning to make little nuances and other colours more visible. It evolved.

In the earlier work the white looks more like overpainting. There are reds, ochres and other colours which are masked out but still visible.

It was a matter of making the surface very animated, giving it a lot of movement and activity. This was done not just with the brushwork and use of quite heavy paint, but with colour which was subtly creeping through the white.

It’s clear from this show that you have never really made white paintings, so much as used white in painting. There are always other colours in the work, the colour of the support or the fasteners, as well as other relationships bet-ween textures, degrees of reflectivity and so on.

I don’t think of my work as white paintings. There is a lot of white used, but the purpose is not to make white paintings. The painting would be quite different if that was my aim. There’s only one work about which you could say that it is a single colour painting and that’s the orange one.

As for the surfaces, they depend on the kind of support I’m using. If I’m working on aluminium which reflects light or has what I call light movement, perhaps I will counter it with a soft surface which absorbs light. I do tend to use these types of opposites.

After making some steel paintings in 1967 which were very heavy, I was looking for something light and thin. This is when I began to use the brown corrugated paper which has very different properties. I painted these with a more reflective, shellac-type paint.

As well as the relationships between surface and support you have also mentioned the relationship between the painting and the wall it sits on. You seem to put a lot into mediating that relationship with your use of fittings and fasteners. How did you come to introduce this as a visible part of the painting?

The first time I exhibited paintings with visible fasteners was in 1976. Since then I have used visible fasteners in one way or another. They have taken many forms. Sometimes the paint plane is fastened directly through the surface. Other times it sits on the wall plane and is held by some exterior means. Sometimes I use the fasteners to move the canvases off the wall plane slightly. Curiously, when the structure of the paint plane is thicker, the more you move it away from the wall plane, the more clearly you see it as attached to the wall. With the very thin materials, they logically go very close to the wall.

How did this come about? Obviously all painters have to find ways of attaching their work to the wall, but generally these means remain hidden.

It was very simple. I was just thinking that most paintings are fastened to the wall invisibly because we aren’t interested in that aspect of the work – they are pictures that we look into. You are not concerned with how it is fastened to the wall or with the wall itself for that matter. Since I was working with the wall plane and the paintings were not pictures, I felt, well, why not show that part of the work, why not let it become a part of the composition?

Was this a liberating experience?

Well, it opened up more possibilities of course. They are very much used as compositional elements. Later on it became even more directly compositional. It’s always a question of ‘where do I put these fasteners?’ It seemed logical to put two at the top and two at the bottom, the way you would pin something to the wall. That’s more or less the way I have always used them, two at the top and two at the bottom.

Do the titles of your work tie in with your type of realist approach?

These have no representational meaning, they are a means of identification. I have often taken the titles of the works from the names of the materials or the brushes or the supplier. I try to choose words which can’t be associated with very much. I wouldn’t title a painting ‘Clouds’ for instance. That would be really disastrous. They are more names than titles, a means of identification. I try to keep the word simple and familiar. It’s a lot easier than using numbers.

Another rather traditional element which often crops up in your painting is your signature, both in the earliest works and right across the centre of a big structure from 1988.

I’ve used my name as a compositional device, and for its value as line. I often turn the name on its side to make it more abstract. In the 1988 painting it is a solution to a compositional problem. There is a bar across the centre of the painting, which is structural, but it needed to have some other reason for being there apart from the structural reason. It needed some movement across it. I couldn’t put dots or something across it without getting too much into the manipulation of paint. I allowed myself to put my name across it because that was signing the painting. I go through these kinds of aesthetic problems; it was signing the work and it gave it compositional movement. I also raised the centre of the painting.

This show covers three decades of work. Are there any obvious nodal points for you where important changes of emphasis or direction have taken place, or is it all more of a flow from one thing to another?

It’s pretty much a flow except around the mid-60s the paintings became more radical, you could say. That was when I made Adelphi, which included waxed paper and was fastened directly to the wall with masking tape. There were a number of paintings around 1966-69 in which I used very thin surfaces, and it was the beginning of the visible fasteners. In 1969-70 there were the corrugated panels which were more radical than the paintings from before 1965. It was during the mid-60s that I began to use different materials more.

The catalogue lists 31 different types of support and 25 different types of paint, over the years.

Could be. Over the years I have come to use a wider range of materials – plastics, fibreglass, metals – but I also continue to use canvas.

Are the surfaces as physically worked these days as in the 50s and early 60s?

Probably not, although some of the very recent work have been worked on over a series of months.

The catalogue essay also stresses the significance of music in your work.

Well, I tend to do that also. Music is a medium that people are more tuned to, so to speak, than painting. Vocal music, which is more popular, I see as more like representational painting, because it conveys meanings outside the music itself. Instrumental music, which is rather less popular perhaps, is more abstract, but still projects feeling and emotion. I think painting can project the same kind of sense as music, its just a different medium. I sometimes listen to music while I’m painting, as long as I’m not doing some technical measurement or something. Modern jazz mostly.

Have you looked at much recent painting in the States or elsewhere?

I haven’t seen much recent painting. A lot of the younger artists seem to be doing more environmental constructions and kinds of social abstractions, I guess you could call them that. I haven’t seen much painting I could get too excited about, although some of it is quite confident. I may be wrong but I always think there is not that much going on in painting at the moment. I thought the ‘Gravity and Grace’ show at the Hayward was quite interesting. If you didn’t see the dates on some of the works from the 60s you might think they had been done by young artists right now.

David Batchelor


Oral history interview with Robert Ryman, 1972 October 13-November 7

Ryman, Robert , b. 1930
Active in New York, N.Y.

Size: Transcript: 31 pages.

Format: Originally recorded on 1 sound tape reel. Reformated in 2010 as 2 digital wav files. Duration is 2 hrs., 8 min.

Collection Summary: An interview of Robert Ryman conducted 1972 October 13-November 7, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art.

Ryman speaks of his early career as a Jazz musician and transition to painting in the early 1950<u+2019>s, after moving to New York City. He recalls working as a guard for the Museum of Modern Art and as a page for the New York Public Library, where he encountered such artists and curators as Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt, and Betsy Jones. Ryman elaborates on his development as a painter; experimentation with lithograph printmaking; his work methods; group shows at the Tenth Street Galleries; solo shows in Europe and New York, including The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; his marriage to art critic Lucy Lippard.

Biographical/Historical Note: Robert Ryman (1930- ) is a painter from New York, N.Y.

Interview Transcript

This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Robert Ryman, 1972 October 13-November 7, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Interview with Robert Ryman
Conducted by Paul Cummings
In New York, NY
October 13, 1972


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Robert Ryman on October 13, 1972. The interview was conducted in the artist’s studio in New York, NY by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose. This is a rough transcription that may include typographical errors.


PAUL CUMMINGS:  It is the thirteenth of October, 1972 – Paul Cummings talking to Robert Ryman in his studio, house.  You live up here too, right?


MR. CUMMINGS: No, just studio – on Greenwich Street.

PAUL CUMMINGS:  Are you living then, in Bowery, or [inaudible]?

ROBERT RYMAN:  [Inaudible.]

PAUL CUMMINGS:  Well, let’s just do the background.  You were born in Nashville, right, 1930? Did you grow up there?

ROBERT RYMAN:  Yeah, I went to school there.  I was in – well, I began college there, until 1950.  Then it was the Korean War.  Then that interrupted the college.  Then there was the army for two years, until ’52.  Then I came directly to New York.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, let’s talk about Nashville for a little bit.  Do you have brothers and sisters there, or family?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah [laughs]. I have a brother.  He’s a terrific person.  I like him [laughs]. He has three kids and, you know, a car and a house.  Somewhat different from my situation.  His name is John.  He has a few early paintings of mine actually, some of which were kind of student paintings but a couple that he has are very good paintings.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, you didn’t start painting until, what, ’54 or ’55?  Did you paint or draw before that?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  I was a jazz musician.  I originally came to New York for that reason.  Because I played music in the army.  And so, I came to New York because this was where the music was.  Then, when I arrived here, for the first time I saw museums and galleries and saw paintings; and I became interested in it.  It excited me and I decided around ’54 that that was really what I wanted to do.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what got you going to galleries and museums?  Was that a person or just one of the things you did in New York?

MR. RYMAN:  No, no person.  It was just, I knew they were here.  Oh, I went everywhere.  I mean, I went on top of the Empire State Building, I went to –

MR. CUMMINGS: Everywhere [they laugh].

MR. RYMAN:  – the Staten Island Ferry, I mean, everything that was available.

MR. CUMMINGS: Yeah, yeah.

MR. RYMAN: – Times Square.  I spent a lot of time just looking and kind of feeling the city.  You see, I had never seen anything with the energy that the city had.  And it excited me.  I went to museums.  As I say, just everywhere and taking in everything that was here.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And it changed your interest from the music – or was there competition for a while there?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah no, I was – Well, competition?  There wasn’t really any competition there.  At first, when I decided to make this change, there was a little emotional – [laughs] how should you put it – Well, yeah, the emotional upset I guess, because I had put so much time into the music.  You know, I had been studying it, and I had been playing it.  And I was very involved with the music world.  Not only jazz but, you know, I would go to the concerts at Juilliard and other places.  So there was a little emotional thing about just giving it all up for painting.

MR. CUMMINGS:  When had you started to study?  When did you begin to study music?  Was that around –

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, that began in Tennessee.  Yeah, you know, I was 18 and 19, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I – Well, you know, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to get into.  I think a lot of people don’t at that age.  Then, I just felt the music, the jazz.  That’s what I wanted to do.  It was kind of a crazy thing.  I mean, I was put down for it by my parents and all that, because [laughs] “what is a – what are you going to do?”

MR. CUMMINGS: “What kind of lifestyle -”

MR. RYMAN: Yeah exactly, “What kind of life are you going to have with a – playing jazz?”

MR. CUMMINGS:  What did you play?

MR. RYMAN:  Tenor sax.  But I felt it, and I liked it.  And that’s why I got into it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Was there any interest in music at home?  Was your brother interested or your family?

MR. RYMAN: It was a tough life kind of thing, too – Oh, no, no.  My brother is six years younger, you know, so he didn’t really have anything to do about that.  Yeah, well my mother used to be a pianist.  I mean, not a professional one ­–

MR. CUMMINGS: She played piano.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah – but not bad.  I think she almost went into the profession, but she didn’t.  I don’t know if that had anything to do with it at all.  It was just that I liked to listen to music and so I got into that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what were the schools like?  You went to George Peabody College right?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, that was a school for teachers.  I only went there – that was my second year in college – because it was a better music school than where I had been before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What, the Tennessee –

MR. RYMAN: – Polytechnic Institute, which was more of an engineering school.  I went there originally.  Well, [laughs] one big thing was to get away from home.  I mean – [laughs] I don’t know how to say that.  I mean to live away from home for the first time in my life, you know.  But it turned out when I decided to really go into the music that Peabody was a better music school, so that was a better place to go.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were you interested in engineering and technical things?

MR. RYMAN:  No [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  It was just a place to go.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, and they had a pretty good music department, but it wasn’t – When I first went I didn’t really know if I was going into music or what.  And as I say, it was a big thing just to live away from home at that time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were there any teachers that you remember form those schools?

MR. RYMAN:  None.

MR. CUMMINGS:  [They laugh.] Any students or any memorable events or influences or attitudes?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  Well, there were friends.  I had a lot of friends but no one that really –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were there any jazz clubs around there in those days?

MR. RYMAN:  Very few.  There were some but it was all kind of an underground thing.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Country music was it?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, yeah, exactly.  Nashville was geared to country music with the Grand Ole Opry, and that’s all you could get on the radio.  I would spend time, hours in fact, fishing around on the dial of the radio trying to get a station with jazz – some station, way off.  Of course, there were records.  At that time, well I can remember [laughs] it was the 78 [rpm] discs you were getting.  That was a big thing, you know, going to the record store and trying to find out what they could get or what they had.

MR. CUMMINGS:  I get the feeling that Nashville is so dominated by the country music.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it was, sure; it still is.  No it’s definitely not a place that has too much jazz.  But as I say, there were places, but very few.  And very kind of underground.  You see with the black community at that time, it was a whole different situation.  Everything was segregated and, of course, some of the best musicians were black.  But they couldn’t come to your school, or you couldn’t go – I mean, you could but it was difficult.  That’s one thing with musicians; there was never any racial problem.  Everyone understood each other.  It was just what they played and how they played.  But [laughs] in order to get together, it was kind of a tragic complication.  You know there were the black clubs that had some pretty good jazz blowing, and then there were the night clubs and other things going.   Big bands would come in or first-rate jazz groups, on occasion.  But it was hard.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were there any friends that were interested in jazz in college?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh yeah, sure.  There were two or three good friends that I had.  I think one is a composer, Alfred Bartles.  And another good friend was a trumpet player who ended up in the music school.  He’s the head of the music school now at Peabody.  Actually, I haven’t seen him in years.  I don’t really know what he’s doing.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Who is he?

MR. RYMAN:  His name is Del Sawyer.  In fact, his brother is a painter.  I can’t remember his first name now.  Well, that’s not important.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, did you get into the musician’s union?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS: Or any group?

MR. RYMAN:  The whole number – [Laughs.] The musician’s union was really incredible [laughs]. When I took – this is 802 I’m talking about [Local 802 American Federation of Musicians] –


MR. RYMAN:  –in New York.  You know you have to go through an audition.  But the audition, at that time at least – and I’m talking, you know, what?

MR. CUMMINGS:  1950’s.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, I’m talking about years ago, twenty years ago.  Anyway, the audition was pretty ridiculous [laughs].

MR CUMMINGS: In what way?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, they had you play a tune.  And then you had to read some notes, I mean a simple thing like Chopsticks.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Right [they laugh].

MR. RYMAN:  And you had to play a few scales or something like that, or exercises.  And if you could do this, and as long as you paid your dues –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Ah, right.  The other vital part [they laugh].

MR. RYMAN:   So that was really a joke.  But, of course, you had to be in the union to work.

MR. CUMMINGS:   To do anything, right exactly.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, you didn’t have to – I mean, you could work, but it wasn’t so good.  You had to be in the union, unless you really wanted to hassle around.

MR. CUMMINGS:  It wasn’t worth the trouble.

MR. RYMAN:  But I never really worked – I worked practically none, nothing at all as a professional jazz musician, because I was mostly studying, and playing in jam sessions and little clubs here and there that no one has every heard of.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of places?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, bars around the Village.  I think it’s still there, the Champagne Gallery, a place on MacDougal Street.   And another place off of Sheridan Square, Arthur’s it was called.  I hadn’t thought of this for a long time. [They laugh.]  Then some places on Third Avenue uptown.  But as I say, I did very little of that.  Oh, and then there was – some jazz clubs around – I can’t even remember the street, but in the center of the Village that had major groups come in.  And sometimes on a Saturday night – not a Saturday, that was a big night – but on Monday nights, when the place was half empty. Then they would have other groups that played.  You didn’t get paid for it, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS: Right [inaudible].

MR. RYMAN: But as I say I did very little of that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Did you study with anybody in New York?  Because I have you tied up with [inaudible] –

MR. RYMAN:  Lennie Tristano, the pianist.  Yeah, I studied with him for, I guess, three years.

MR. CUMMINGS:  From when to when about?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, when I arrived.  From ’52 to ’54, when I quit; when I began painting.  Actually, I was fooling around with painting – you know, doodling with paints – around ’53.  But I really wasn’t into it.  It was ’54 or ’55 when I really completely dropped the music and said, “Well, okay this is it; it’s painting. I like it.”

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what about the army.  Were you in Korea?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, no.  I didn’t go to Korea.  I was in an army band.  I was stationed in southern Alabama.  At that time it was Camp Rucker, but now I think it’s a fort.  [Laughs.] That’s where we were stationed, but we traveled around from there and we played for everything.  Anything that the army wanted music for, we played – within a certain radius – from marches, parades, service clubs, officers’ clubs, dances.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Anything and everything. [Laughs.]

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, carnivals that happened to come around. [They laugh.] We had some moonlighting on the side.
MR.CUMMINGS: Right. [Laughs.]

MR. RYMAN: We could play in the towns around –

MR. CUMMINGS: Oh, really? [Laughs.]

MR. RYMAN: -you know, for little clubs. But that was it.  It was just whatever they wanted music for –

MR. CUMMINGS: “Hey, come over here -”

MR. RYMAN: Yeah, that’s what we did.  We also did some – I mean, we went through all the groveling and the dirt, with rifles too – we went through the training.

MR. CUMMINGS: The basic training, right.

MR. RYMAN: Yeah, but primarily what we did was anything they wanted music for. [They laugh.]

MR. CUMMINGS:  New York was obviously the place to come to pretty early in life then?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, yeah, and in fact I was coming to New York before the army.  The army interrupted that; took a couple of years out.  But I don’t regret that, because I learned a lot in the army.  I was doing what – I was in the music.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So kept it on.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.  So I learned a lot.  But it was nice to get out, and it was nice to arrive in New York.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what did you do when you came here?  You obviously weren’t making a living from the music.  Did you get a job?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, I could talk about – [inaudible] I mean, is anyone interested in that? [Laughs.]

MR. CUMMINGS:  It all adds up in an odd way.

MR. RYMAN:  I came directly after I got out.  Well, I spent a week at home, and then I took a bus.  I had very little money.  I had $200 that I got from the army when – What do you call it?

MR. CUMMINGS:  Muster you out?

MR. RYMAN:  Muster me out.  Right.  I had $200, maybe $240 or so.  I came here and I didn’t know anyone in the city, although I came with a friend from the army.  We got a place in a rooming house on 60th Street across from Bloomingdale’s, which was run by a Russian cellist.  He played cello and it was a very strange scene. [They laugh.] I don’t even know how to begin to describe it.  But we had this room and it was very inexpensive, $8 a week or something like that.  We had piano. And no gas, very little heat.  You know, it was the usual.  I immediately got in touch with Lennie Tristano to begin lessons, and well, that $200 lasted for a long time.  It lasted for about three or four months.  I ate hamburgers at Riker’s and canned beans and that kind of thing.  The main thing was paying for the lessons, which was at that time $5 a lesson.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How did you pick him?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, a friend of mine had studied with him and recommended him, and said that’s the person you should see.  So, I knew about him. And I knew that he taught, and I knew that he had a group of students and a studio.  So, it was a logical place for me to start.

Of course, I was very naïve at that time.  I didn’t know the city, I didn’t know anyone, and I spent all my time just practicing.  I was pretty much a recluse.  Of course, I had no money to really go anywhere. It was a matter of paying the rent and eating and paying for the lessons.  And that was all there was, you know.  Well, of course, my $200 ran out after a while, after three months.  Well, I had to get a job. [They laugh.]  I didn’t have anything else.

My first job was as a messenger.  I didn’t want any kind of job with any real responsibility, because that would have been the end of everything.  So it was just a matter of flunky job after flunky job.  First as a messenger for an insurance company and then a mail room attendant and then I don’t know.  I went from one to another.  I don’t remember all of them.  Once I was a traffic manager at a chinaware importing place.  I mean assistant traffic manager.  I was learning.  But once they found out I wasn’t really interested in it –

MR. CUMMINGS:  That was the end.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah. So it was on and on from one job to another, just a matter of making sixty or seventy bucks a week or something to pay for everything.  Then I finally got a job at the Modern Museum [Museum of Modern Art] as a guard.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How’d that happen?

MR. RYMAN:  That was very good.  In fact, that was the beginning of an education, a very good education.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What year was that?

MR. RYMAN:  I think it was ’54 or around that time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How’d you ever come to go there for a job in the first place?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, through a friend, I met this woman – let’s see, what’s her name?  She’s still at the Modern – a very good person. [Inaudible.] Betsy Jones.  She was a friend of a singing group called The Heathertones [1946-1953], which now don’t exist anymore, and I think they didn’t last too long.  But they were a popular singing group, The Heathertones, and she was good friends with them.  And I met her there.  I don’t know how it came about.  I just said, “Well, I needed a job.”  She worked at the Modern at that time.  I don’t know what her duties were there, certainly not what she is involved with now.  I think she’s a curator now [Associate Curator, Department of Paintings and Sculpture], right?  But she said she would inquire about it.  And then I inquired about it. So I went and anyway I got the job as a guard.  I don’t know how it happened.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How’d you like that?

MR. RYMAN:  That was really the best job I’d had. It didn’t pay too badly.  I think I got around $80 a week instead of $60.

MR. CUMMINGS:  A lot of difference. [They laugh.]

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it was a lot of aggravation, of course, and a lot of boredom.  But what I got from it – In the first place, I could be pretty much left alone.  I could see all the paintings, everything that came in and out of the Modern.  Show after show.  I got to see all the movies – not just once, but six times – because I used to also take tickets at the movies.  So I got to experience a lot that I never would have otherwise, you know, from the collections and, as I say, the paintings and sculpture and everything that came in and out of the museum.  I was there for, I guess, four or five years.  Also, it was an advantage because the hours were pretty good, because the museum didn’t open until eleven.  That meant I could sleep late in the morning, and I could paint at night, you see.  It was eleven to five, something like that. So that was a very good advantage.  I learned a great deal from that, from being there and seeing the people; seeing the organization, how it worked; and, as I say, the art and movies and everything.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what about the actual activity of being a guard there?  Some shows draw enormous numbers of people and others don’t.  I suppose it depends where you are.  You know what –

MR. RYMAN:  What do you mean?

MR. CUMMINGS:  What your association with the public is?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, as I said, it was a little boring and sometimes a little hectic.  Sometimes, when they’d have openings at night, you’d have to work overtime, which I hated because I didn’t want to spend that much time.  But I got along well with everyone. It was just – You’d give directions to people and someone would say “Well, where is the Van Gogh?”  “Second floor, first gallery -”

MR. CUMMINGS:  You got to know where everything was.

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, I knew where everything was.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How’d you like the experience of being able to see the same pictures over and over and over?  Weeks and months on end –

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I never got tired of that.  I would concentrate on different paintings each week or so, you know.  Sometimes I would be into the Cezannes.  Other times I would concentrate on the Matisses or the Picassos or other things.

Well, the big thing was not necessarily – once I learned their permanent collection pretty well.  It was the one-man shows, those special shows that came in, that were really fantastic.  That was always a new experience, a Monet show or – I can’t even remember all of them.  The Pollock show at that time.  I remember people’s reactions to many of these shows.  They were angry sometimes.  Or, you know, a lot of people liked it.

And, of course, I had the benefit of lectures that went on and all of the activities.

MR. CUMMINGS: There were some good, little side-effects.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, as I say, it was the best thing that I could have done.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, this was also your first introduction to art history, wasn’t it?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.  I mean, although I’d been through the museums and galleries, not so many galleries actually, mostly museums – the Met and all – before this.  But this was a very educational job.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well they’ve often had artists working as guards there.  Were there any when you were there?

MR. RYMAN:  That’s right.  At that time they seemed to encourage artists, or at least student artists.  I wasn’t really an artist then. Dan Flavin was there.  Let’s see, I can’t remember – there were quite few painters, Bill Sharp.  I haven’t seen him in a long time.  Sol LeWitt was there.  In fact, that’s where we first met.  Only he wasn’t a guard.  He was selling tickets, I think; or he was working with the books and magazines.

MR. CUMMINGS:  The bookstore.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right. Sol was there and they were – they would work for awhile, and then they’d leave.  I stayed there the longest practically of anyone.  Dan, after he left the Modern, went to the Museum of Natural History as a guard.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Really?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah [laughs]. That was his second job.  I don’t know what he did after that [laughs]. He, well, he didn’t get along too well at the Modern.  I don’t know.  He was very –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Was it difficult to work there, or was it fairly easy?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, no.  It was very easy.  There were hectic times, and there were some hassles, and sometimes it would be very tiring and, as I said, boring on occasion.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What caused the boredom?  Was it lack of anything to do?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, yeah, the walking around so much and too much of the same thing five days a week.  You’d get a little buggy sometimes. But for the most part, it was very good for me.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of painting were you doing then?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I was just beginning to paint and I was –

MR. CUMMINGS:  You never studied painting with anybody though, did you?

MR. RYMAN:  No, no.  I went through everything that any student goes through.  Well, I did take one course in drawing, figure drawing.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Where at?

MR. RYMAN:  At the American Art School [American Artist’s School].  It was a terrible course.  I quit after six weeks.  Drawing from the model, the plaster-casts, and they had all this worked out – you know, number one shading, number two shading, three, four.

MR. CUMMINGS:  The whole system.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, it was really a mechanical kind of thing, and I wasn’t interested in doing that anyway.  I just wanted to have some experience with it, and it was awful. I quit that.  Oh no, I forgot.  I took – Yes, the museum school had a course called Experimental Painting, and I took that.  It was for adults.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh, that was –

MR. RYMAN:  What’s his name?  Who was the head of that then [Director of Education]?

MR. CUMMINGS:  The man who was there for all those years?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  He was a short man, very energetic.


MR. RYMAN:  D’Amico.  Yes, right.  What’s his first name?

MR. CUMMINGS:  Victor.

MR. RYMAN:  Victor D’Amico, right.  He was the head of –

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of class was that? I’ve heard about those-

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it was good for me, but it was strictly a beginning kind of class.  It was a little of everything actually – drawing from models; sketching; working with paint and color; some instruction about color.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Who taught those though?  Do you remember?

MR. RYMAN:  I don’t remember his name, no.  It was just someone, I have no idea who it was.  But it only lasted a short time.  It was three or four months a course, like once or twice a week, I don’t remember, for two or three hours.  And mostly you would go in and work.  But it was a nice thing for me.  It gave me a little insight into some of the techniques.  You know, pastels and –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Water color and –

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.  And even though I didn’t really do –

MR. CUMMINGS: – all the materials.  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

MR. RYMAN: Yeah, right. Paper and canvas; that was the valuable thing.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Going back again to the early first paintings, what kind of things were they?  Were they figurative things or abstract things?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, as I say, they were things like all students do.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I was just painting.  I was just doing things with paint.  No, I never did any realistic paintings except for these drawings, as I said.  No, they were always abstract.  Oh, I worked –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Why was that?  Weren’t you interested in representational art?

MR. RYMAN:  No, never.  No, because I decided right away that – I knew that I could do it.  I mean, I could paint the figure if I wanted to, or I could paint a landscape.  I knew I could do that, because it was just a matter of learning the technique.  But I knew that really wasn’t – if I could do it, anyone could do it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And it wasn’t enough of a challenge.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, that’s right.  If I was going to do something with the paint, and make something happen with it from me, then that would be much more important, and much more of a challenge.  That’s what it was.  And so it was always abstract.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What painters were you interested in, in those days?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, many, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Everybody and everything?

MR. RYMAN:  Sure.  You know, Matisse at one time.  As I said, I was moved by many things.  But I tried to always see what they were doing with the paint, how they worked with it, more than the – I was never interested too much in symbolism or story telling.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Or what kind of image they used?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  I could understand that, but that wasn’t what it was all about really.  It was how they put the painting together.  I was interested in composition and color and paint handling.  How one person would do something in a different way than another artist but still come out with the same strength, with a sureness I guess was what it was in the end. Authority, like Picasso or Van Gogh.  When they painted something, it was as if it were just put right down, just no fooling around with it.  It was right there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Bang.  There it was [laughs].

MR. RYMAN:  And, I mean, it always seemed like the easiest thing.  Some of the best paintings always seem just like anyone could do it.  They’re so easy looking –

MR. CUMMINGS: It’s part of the illusion.

MR. RYMAN:  But that isn’t so easy to get.  It’s always the paintings that aren’t so good that have this struggled look, fussed with, or painted out and over.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, were you reading books at this time?  Did you read art history and other things?

MR. RYMAN:   Yeah, yeah.  I used the library at the Modern.  Of course, that was another advantage.  I had access to that.  I didn’t read so many books; mostly there I read magazines and articles and clippings and whatever catalogues, more than I read books.  I would go through books.  I would not really read them so much as just pick out certain things that interested me.

When I got into books was after I quit the Modern.  I got another job at the public library, the art division.  And that was excellent also as far as education goes.  I was there for a year, and there again it was sort of a flunky job, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Running books or something?

MR. RYMAN:  Page supervisor.  But there I had access to tremendous amounts of material.  In fact, that place really amazes me – what they have there. I worked on the scrapbooks and the folder files, and I knew the system.  I learned the system backwards and forwards.  I knew where to find anything – and all the huge picture books they had and the print collection –

MR. CUMMINGS:  And Karl Kup, he was there.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  That’s right.  He was the head of the Print Collection.  So that was very valuable for me.  For a year I did that after I left the Modern.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So, that gets us into 1960.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  That was about 1960 when I left the library.  And that was the last job like that that I had.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, you had shown during the late fifties and early sixties in some of the Tenth Street galleries like the March [Gallery] and Brata [Gallery]?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, in ’58 and ’57, I think.  They were group shows at the March and Brata and –

MR. CUMMINGS: [inaudible]?

MR. RYMAN: I don’t know, maybe a couple of other ones.  Funny I can’t remember those.  But I was never a part of those galleries.  I was never a member of the galleries.  Usually I’d be invited, you know, for a Christmas show or something like that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh, right, when everybody brought their friends in.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.  It was when everyone –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Filled up the walls.  Yeah, I remember those shows.  How did you like that?  That was kind of the heyday of Tenth Street.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it was kind of an exciting time actually.  It was very energetic there.  A lot of action and people and artists were around, and some of the shows were very good actually.  It was an interesting couple of years there with Tenth Street.  I think that was an important time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You didn’t have any interest in being in a gallery then or showing with anybody particularly?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  I could have.  I could have joined one of the galleries, but I didn’t like the idea of a cooperative.  I mean, the way everything was run – kind of sloppily; and there was a lot of, oh, confusion.  No, no.  I thought the only thing is to have someone show my work – Well, I wanted to paint and not be involved in all of the politics and things.  So, I never wanted to be in a cooperative gallery.  That’s changed a little now, of course.  Cooperative galleries are a little – well, some of them anyway – are a little better.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But, they’re always full of politics I think.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, there’s always, you know –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Somebody starting one for some reason or another.

MR. RYMAN:  Right.  And, you know, when you get so many artists together all trying to run something, it’s really chaos.  You know, it’s just difficult.  I mean, it was particularly then, but that might have changed a little.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, when did you – when, for example, the pictures on the wall here, the photographs, when do they start? The earliest?

MR. RYMAN:  The earliest one here is ’57.  I have a few from ’56 but they’re, you know, more student things.  But around ’57 and particularly ’58 that’s when things began to – well, I began to know a little more of what I wanted and what I was doing, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS:  When did you start the, you know, the raw canvas things that are –how can you describe – you know, off the stretchers, or something?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh yeah. Well, those – huh – I don’t know exactly.  There were a few in ’58, some in ’59.  But I was doing paintings on stretchers also, you know.  But mostly around ’64 – ’63 I guess, I did quite a large group of paintings, you know not on stretchers.  But it wasn’t anything special.  It was just that I wanted the nakedness, you know, just the surface and the paint.  And really I didn’t know what to do with them, so I put them under glass, you know in a glass frame.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Right, right.  So the whole kind of thread is of work that goes on, you know like the metal ones, the support itself is not there almost, and some of the things on paper and cardboard it’s–

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Well I – For a long time, and always and still, I like this very – I wanted it to be as simple, I mean as direct, without any interference.  For instance, years ago in ’59 I think, ’58 – no it was a lot earlier than that.  Well anyway, when I first saw Rothko, I didn’t know what to make of it.  There was this very naked canvas with no frame on it and not even a strip, not even tape, you know, just the canvas.  I was very impressed by that, by Rothko’s sensibility.  As I say, when I first saw that, I didn’t know what to make of it; but then I understood it later.  And I guess I wanted that, too.  I wanted just –

MR. CUMMINGS:  That straight confrontation-

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, and no frames.  Although since that time, I have used frames, you know, taped frames and paper frames.  I’ve used – but they’re always kept very to the point.  Nothing is there that doesn’t need to be there.  If I use a frame, a paper frame or a tape frame, it’s because that’s part of the painting.  It’s not because it’s some kind of decoration.  It’s there for a reason, to pull the painting out onto the wall and not to confine. My frames never confine paintings.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Just to hold it up so you can see it.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, but also to point, I mean visually point, you know with some tape strips or something, to expand the visual vision of the painting.  And with the paper frames, they were always translucent so you saw the wall and you saw it was just kind of a, there again, an expansion of the painting itself.  And a contrast; of course, it served as that, too.  But never a thing that was boxed or confined, whereas the usual frames do that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So it’s very open-ended.  But it doesn’t still blend off into the wall or anything.  They all stand out very much.

MR. RYMAN: Yeah.

MR. CUMMINGS: [Inaudible].

MR. RYMAN:  Oh yeah, well yeah they are.  They’re objects, there’s no question.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You know the early ones that I’m sitting and looking at, all these are early pictures, there’s that grid-system-structure underneath.  And As I remember, you had painted bright colors and then kind of gone over them with white or something.  I don’t remember exactly.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  I used a lot of color.  And at the beginning when I first began the – well, the white paintings if you want to call them – I would begin by putting down a lot of color and then it was always a matter of taking out, painting out the color; painting out the painting to where I ended up with very little color left.  And it was painted over, but maybe a little red here or a blue shape slightly on the edge.  The edges were very important. But it was always subtracting, you know, putting a lot of color and then subtracting with the white.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Why’d you use white though?  What was the –

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I don’t know.  It didn’t get in the way, you know.  It was very neutral, I guess; I don’t know.  I mean, you don’t usually paint out with a color.  You paint out with a white, and that’s how it began really.  It just kind of evolved.  And then at one point, I just decided:  Well, I’m putting this color down, and I’m really not that interested in the color that I’m putting down.  I’m only doing it because somehow being a painter I should use color.  But here I am painting it out, so why not get this down a little stronger and not put the color on in the first place?  And then, begin with the white and make something happen with that, rather than when I’m painting out the color.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What started the grid systems and the use of the squares?  Because that’s a fairly consistent quality.

MR. RYMAN:  Of course, a grid is a very classical – Probably every artist, every painter that ever worked, has used a grid in some way or another because it’s simply – I mean, you see the old master drawings.  Well, of course now, they did it for different reasons.  Everyone did it for different reasons.  You know, you’ll see a grid where they either scaled up a drawing, or did a drawing for a painting.  You know, they could scale it up with the grid.  But, of course, the grid is always one of the most direct visual things, because you have the horizontal and the vertical [laughs]. You know, and they cross.  And that’s really very perfect.  It’s a very perfect, nice thing.  Simple and right, this grid.  I never used it myself to scale anything.  I only used it as a visual guide, anchor, if you want to call it that.  If you have the horizontal and vertical lines, and then if you have other things, other movement no matter what, with paint or drawing, then it’s a very direct visual approach, a very right thing.  I don’t always use that, but –

MR. CUMMINGS:  No, but it appears here and there.  You sense it kind of underneath, even some of the more recent things.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, of course with the circle, the drawing that I did on the circle –  paper, which there were five of –  that worked very well, I mean visually, because you had the horizontal and vertical straight lines and they were broken by the circle space, I mean the space of the circle, which contrasted with that and contradicted it.  And also none of the lines were the same length, because of the circular space, so that it worked very well in that sense.  I mean, in the visual rightness of it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What led you into the circle? Because there’s that and what, some prints of the circle, aren’t they?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I don’t know exactly.  But the circle was a very – I’d worked, you know, on the square space and that I liked very much right from the beginning.  In fact, almost from the beginning I worked on a square.  I don’t know why.  I mean, except that I liked the equal sides. You know, it wasn’t two sides longer than two sides, it was –

MR. CUMMINGS:  The same all the way around.

MR. RYMAN:  It was – the square, which seemed to me the perfect space to paint on, I mean as far as what I wanted to do with the paint.  And then the circle, of course, that is a very perfect shape to work on too because there are no corners.  There are no, I mean, they’re almost – there are no sides.  It just –

MR. CUMMINGS: Goes on.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah [laughs]. It’s just a circle.  So the challenge was interesting because there were no corners.  And the circle is very similar to the square, I mean in being very –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Proportioned.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, equal.  Everything is equal.  And I guess that’s how it came about.  I wanted to try it and see what I could do on the circle space.  I’ve never done a circular painting.  I’ve only done the one circle drawing which was five parts, and the recent lithograph which was a circle.  I’ve never done a circular painting.  I don’t know why.  Somehow the painting doesn’t [laughs] – I don’t know, maybe I will do a circle painting. It just never lent itself into that the same way that drawings did or the lithograph did.

Actually, the lithograph [Circle Lithograph, 1971] came about – I had done the Two Stones [1971] lithograph in Halifax; and they said, well, if you’d like to do another one, let us know.  And I had no plans to do another one; I had nothing.  And then it just occurred to me, I wonder if they can print on a circle space?  Because I had never seen it, lithograph on a circle space.  I don’t mean a circle image, you know, but the actual space being circular.  I called them and I said, “Can you print on a circle?”  And they said, “Well, I don’t know, maybe we can.”  [Laughs]

So they made an aluminum template, you know, to tear the paper.  And so I came and then I worked out the print.  The dimensions were decided, and the type of paper, and the ink and the size, and all of that.  And it turned out that they could.  There again, it was just another challenge, you know, to do a lithograph on a circular space because I’d never seen one.  I don’t know that there are any.  Maybe there are.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So you were pleased with the solution then?

MR. RYMAN:  Yes.

MR. CUMMINGS: I mean, it did work for it?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  It took much longer than the first lithograph to do, because there were many trials.  I didn’t know the – Well, you know, first we tried different papers, and we tried – I got the size pretty much down.  Oh, well, I won’t go into that.  It’s a long story.  Many decisions were made on that lithograph.  But it finally ended up, I think, to be very good.  I mean I got rid of all the unnecessary [laughs] things, and the paper was right, and the writing on it was where I wanted it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  It worked.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.


MR. CUMMINGS:  It’s the seventh of November, 1972 and this is side two.  On the other side, you’d just finished talking about making the round print.  You’ve made other prints, right, besides that circular one?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah. There was the first one which was the Two Stones.  Two of the limestones that were clamped together and the actual stones were printed.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How did it come about to make those prints?  I mean, were you asked?  Did you want to do –

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, yeah.  I was asked by the people at Nova Scotia [College of Art and Design] if I’d like to make a print, a lithograph.  I was thinking about etching at the moment, and I said yes I would.  I’d had this idea with the stone and, well, first it was to print one stone.  I’d had that earlier with a printer here in New York in ’65 to print one stone, and we did one trial proof of it but with a very small stone, just to see how it would look.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Who was that?

MR. RYMAN:  Irwin Hollander [master printer].  But at that time he was moving, and there was some financial problems and so we never did the print.  I just forgot about it.  Nothing was ever done about it until I was asked to do this lithograph.  So I thought I’d continue with that. At first it started out to be one stone, and we went through all kinds of problems with the stones.  They at first said what we can do is a photographic image of the stone.  You know, we can just make it look like a stone or we can draw the stone and print it.  But I said no, it has to be the actual stone itself printed, because I don’t want the image on the stone printed.  I just want the stone.

MR. CUMMINGS:  The whole shape with the rough edges and everything.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, and, well, with ink of course.  So before it came to the actual trials, I decided to print two stones instead of one because with two they were locked together in a wooden frame so that they wouldn’t bounce when the press went across it.  I thought then I would have the edges be smooth where the press – I mean it’d be a hard edge where the press moved across and soft edges where it wouldn’t, where the press would have to stop before it went off the edge of the stone so that it wouldn’t flip the stones or break the stones.  So I decided on two stones, and we were fortunate in finding two stones that were pretty similar.  I mean, I wanted them pretty much alike.  They were both rectangular, and they were ground down so that they were even, so that when the press rolled over them, so they would both print.  Then there were a lot of problems with the paper and the ink; and the size of the print; the chop; the pressure of the press, how much we wanted to emboss it.  Those things we went through. But that was it really. And as I say, it was just fortunate that we got two stones that were very equal.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, were you happy with the results?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, very much so.  And it was very intense.  There were a lot of decisions.  It was similar to the circle lithograph.  Most of the decisions were worked out as to the stones and locking them together and everything were worked out over the phone.  Then when I went to Halifax, it was a twenty-four-hour day.  I decided on the paper and the size and the torn edges, and as I say, the pressure – It went very quickly, you know, everything was decided on and the edition number and –

MR. CUMMINGS:  That’s not a large edition is it?

MR. RYMAN: No.  It was fifty.  Plus, I think, there were five artist’s proofs.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Have you liked this activity of making prints?  Do you find it congenial or is it difficult?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I’d never thought about making prints until recently.  You know, I had never really had the opportunity.  I just began it because I thought it would be a challenge and an interesting process to try to work in, and so it began with the two stones and then the circle lithograph.  That came about – I guess maybe I talked about this before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Yeah, right.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, they asked me if I wanted to do another one, and I didn’t have any idea.  Anyway then came the etchings, and I did those because there again I’d never done etchings before.  It’s a whole different process, and I thought why not try it and see what I can do with it.  It was very interesting, the etching process I mean, very different than the lithography.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Which do you prefer? Or do they do different things for you?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, and then I did one silkscreen also.  I don’t know.  I don’t have any plans to do any more right now.  They’re both interesting.  I guess the etching is a little – the etching process is certainly more complex in a way, I mean more in an almost archaic –

MR. CUMMINGS:  [Laughs] all the technical –

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  All this stuff you have to go through to get the print, with acid and rosin and all that; and the biting; and the press itself; and the wetting of the paper.  Whereas, you don’t have all of that so much in lithography.  Of course, the results are – with the etching – very good.  It’s different.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You find it’s a stronger image?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, no, not necessarily.  But you can build up ink with the etching, of course, which you can’t with the lithograph.  Well, you can there too.  You see, they can do just about anything with any of these. [They laugh.]  But they can fake an etching.  They can emboss and they can do things with silkscreen and lithography.  I mean, it takes someone with an eye for prints to really see the difference.  I mean, the average person couldn’t tell probably one from another, but there is a difference.  I don’t know that one is any better than the other.  It’s just –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Different.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, let’s go back to our chronology here for a bit.  You had an exhibition where?  Where was the first one-man show at?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, that was at Paul Bianchini [Gallery, New York].

MR. CUMMINGS:  That was Bianchini.

MR. RYMAN:  And that was 1967, in April.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But you had shown there in all sorts of group shows and things you had been in?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, the group shows –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Since March Gallery and Brata and those things.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Well, the first kind of group show where I showed more than one painting was at Alan Auslander [Gallery], in ’64 I think it was.  I’m not sure – around that time.  But the first one-man show was at Paul Bianchini.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How long did he represent you?

MR. RYMAN:  Let’s see, about three months I think.  [They laugh].  Right after my show the gallery folded.  That was in April and the gallery closed in June.  So you can figure three months, I guess [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  He didn’t handle you when he went private did he?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  Well, he had two early drawings of mine.  But not so much –

MR. CUMMINGS:  No paintings or anything.

MR. RYMAN:  No, he had no paintings at all.  No, he really didn’t have anything.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, you had an exhibition once with something called The Lannis Museum.

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, yeah [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  Who was that again?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, that was Joseph Kosuth.  As far as I know, I may be mistaken, it only lasted for a month.  I mean, space was rented; and it was a gallery-type space.  They had this one show.  They may have had more, I’m not really sure.  But the one show that I know about was just quite a large group show of documents.  I can’t remember now the title, the name of the show, but it had to do with books and documents [Normal Art, 1966].  Anyway, that was the Lannis Museum.  I think it was called that because someone by the name of Lannis had put up the money for the space. But it only lasted a month or so.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And that was it.

MR. RYMAN:  But it was the Lannis Museum, no question about that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well what about Dwan [Gallery] –

MR. RYMAN:  I think the full title was Lannis Museum of Normal Art.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh, right, right, Normal Art.

What about Dwan?  Because you got involved with her soon after that.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, that was later.  That wasn’t until ’70.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Really? I thought that was before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  No.  Then the Fischbach [Gallery], after Paul Bianchini.  I didn’t show in New York until ’69.  I showed in Europe in ’68 [Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich and Konrad Fischer, Dusseldorf]; but I had no gallery in New York until ’69, with Marilyn Fischbach. I had a show there in ’69 and ’70 [Robert Ryman: Delta Paintings, 1966].

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, who represented you between Bianchini and Fischbach, yourself?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, really no one except Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf and Heiner Friedrich in Munich.  I had shows in both of those places.

Then a little later, in ’69, [Galerie] Francoise Lambert in Milan and Yvon [Galerie Yvon Lambert] in Paris.  Then also [Galleria] Sperone in Turin.  Those people had a lot of my work.  I guess probably Heiner Friedrich and Konrad Fischer had most of it, the work of those two years.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What was it like showing in Europe and not showing here so much?  .

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I’d never been to Europe.  That was my first time to Europe, in ’68.  And it was very good for me, very interesting, I mean, you know, the experience.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were you there just for your exhibition or did you travel around a bit?

MR. RYMAN:  I traveled but it was all business.  I mean, it was all for shows.  I did very little sightseeing except for the town or city that I was in at the time.  It wasn’t any kind of vacation.  In fact, it was very much work the whole time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what kind of reception did you have in the German galleries?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, very good.  They were at that time, and still I think, are – maybe not so much now but at that time – very enthusiastic about American art.  They were very prosperous.  A lot of people were buying work of American artists, I mean, not just me but all of the pop art and –

MR. CUMMINGS:  How did you get associated with them in the first place?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, first Heiner Friedrich had come by to my studio sometime ago, I guess ’68, ’67.  And he wanted to have a show of my work.  He liked it very much.  Then shortly after that Konrad Fischer visited the studio, and he also wanted to do something immediately.  And I said, “Okay.”

MR. CUMMINGS:  It all happened.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, so I went over and did the shows there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So, you really had more shows in Europe than here, by the time you started showing.

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, many more.  Well, ’69 was the biggest trip and also probably the worst on me physically [laughs], because I had a show at Friedrich’s [Robert Ryman Drawings], Konrad’s, Yvon’s [Robert Ryman], Francoise’s in Milan and in Basel at the museum there.  The Kunst Museum.  And also I was to have one in Turin at Sperone’s.  I had all these shows within a month’s time, and I was going from one place to another.  I had the paintings done for all of them except for one that I was going to do there.  And well, that’s quite a story.

But I broke down at the end and I caught a very bad cold.  I was pretty ill and things went wrong; and things got lost in the shipping; and so I never did have the show at Sperone’s because I just couldn’t do it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But you had all the other ones?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  So it ended up having the five shows.

MR. CUMMINGS:  That’s an awful lot of work, isn’t it though? You know, enough paintings for five galleries at the same time.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, it was.  Yeah, and they were all different.  I mean, they were not the same paintings by any means.

MR. RYMAN:  Different years?

MR. CUMMINGS:  No.  They were all recent work.  Let’s see, the paper paintings were shown at Konrad’s.  Oh, you’re right.  The group that were shown at Heiner’s were 1968, and those were on the linen.  And some paintings that I’d done on mylar were at Yvon’s and also a different group at Francoise’s.

MR. CUMMINGS:   What was at Basel?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, that was [laughs] – there was a snow storm, and the paintings were sent from Heiner’s [in Munich] to be shown there [in Basel].  They were on linen also, but were not shown in that show [in Munich], they were to be shown there [in Basel]. One had gotten water damage from this snow storm.  I don’t know.  They’d left the paintings out on the ramp in the snow or something.  One was all right; that was shown.  And then I did a new painting there [in Basel] that I had planned to do at Yvon’s [in Paris] but I did it there instead.

And from there, I was going to Paris and so I had to reschedule my work for Paris [laughs] because I’d done what I was going to do in Paris at Basel.  So there were two paintings, one very large one and one of five panels on mylar.  They were fairly large panels, each a little over three feet each square.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, you only started doing really large paintings recently didn’t you?  You know the ones in the Guggenheim show [Robert Ryman, 1972]; there were a couple of immense canvases there.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Those are the largest paintings on a single surface that I’ve done.  I’ve done larger with panels before that, one that was at the Whitney Museum in that process thing [Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, 1969].

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh, the process show.

But I’m just curious about this whole European business for another minute.  What was your reception like with the artists and collectors and museum people?  You had a whole view of it within a month visiting so many cities.

MR. RYMAN:  As I say, it was very good.  Of course, I couldn’t speak the language.  I don’t speak German or French or Italian, so I couldn’t communicate with everyone that I came in contact with.  Of course, most of them spoke English, so it was really no problem.  Still many of the artists and others didn’t.  So it was a little strained in that respect.  But the reception was – Well, I felt good about my work.  I felt that was good and it went really well.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Have you continued to show there in the last few years?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I haven’t in the last year.  Well, I have yes, but I haven’t been there.  Yes, there were two shows at Heiner Friedrich’s.  He has since moved to Cologne, too.  He has a gallery in Cologne and his print gallery is now in Munich. So there was a show both in Cologne [..] and in Munich [..] this last year.  There was a show of the circle lithographs and the trial proofs of it in Munich.  So I didn’t actually go there.  I haven’t been to Europe in two years, but I am going now.  There will be a show [1972-73] in London where I’ve never been.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Where’s that going to be?

MR. RYMAN:  In December, the first of December at Lisson Gallery.  Nicholas Logsdail is the person [founder].  And then I’ll go to Dusseldorf and do a show at Konrad Fischer’s.  But I don’t want to go any place else.

MR. CUMMINGS:  [Laughs.] That’s enough there.  No more five shows in –

MR. RYMAN:  In fact, I had a breakdown after the ’69 trip [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  That’s very exhausting.

Well, who has your work?  Fischbach still represents you now?

MR. RYMAN:  No. No, they don’t.

MR. CUMMINGS:  That’s right.  It’s Weber [John Weber Gallery, New York].

MR. RYMAN:  Marilyn Fischbach has some paintings of mine, mostly that she has in her own collection.  I really don’t know if they are for sale or not, but she does have oh, I guess five, six, seven paintings that she owns.  But I’m not actually represented there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Then you were with Dwan, right?  Then Weber became Dwan.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Well, at Dwan the situation came about because I thought it would be interesting to have a show in the Dwan space and also the Fischbach space at the same time.  Since they were both in the same building and only three floors apart, it would be ideal.  And so we worked that out and that was in ’70 [1971], I guess.


MR. RYMAN:  And so there was the double show with Dwan and Fischbach.  My thinking at the time was that I wasn’t represented by Fischbach exclusively or Dwan exclusively; but I was represented by many people, Dwan, Fischbach, and the European galleries.  As long as I kept the shows different in each place, there shouldn’t be too much friction as to prices; because no one would have the same thing that everyone else had.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Did it get complicated?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah. [They laugh.] It got out of hand, and it was too complicated.

MR. CUMMINGS: Too much.

MR. RYMAN:  I mean businesswise.  Ideally, I guess it should have worked out right.  I didn’t like the idea of being owned by any one person, or being the exclusive property of any one gallery, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS: They could each have their piece of the pie.

MR. RYMAN: I wanted to be able to show wherever, whoever had a good space and was willing to work at it.  But anyway, the Dwan folded right after that, and then I pretty much went with John Weber and his space because, as I said, it was getting complicated and it was a better situation.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What about the Guggenheim show [Robert Ryman, 1972]?  How did that come about?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, very surprisingly for me, Diane Waldman [Curator] asked me if I wanted to have a show of my work at the Guggenheim.  At first it was to be a show with Bob [Robert] Mangold and myself together.  But then the plans were changed by Diane.  She didn’t really say what reason she changed her mind, but I assume because it would be maybe a little confusing with the two of us in one show because of certain similarities of the work; and possibly also because there wasn’t enough space at the time for both of us.  So it was decided that there would be two separate shows.  That’s really the way it came about, and she just asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes, fine.  I didn’t know what would be in the show.  Actually, I planned to have all new work in the show but that didn’t come about because –

MR. CUMMINGS:  How was the work selected?  Did you do it with her?

MR. RYMAN:  We both did it.  I decided I didn’t want any work before 1965 in the show.  I mean, there was never any intention for it to be a retrospective in any way, because that would have taken up the whole museum, and then some, if we had really done that kind of thing.  But it isn’t time for that kind of thing, I don’t think, so I wanted it to be a very concise group.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Kind of recent paintings –

MR. RYMAN:  Recent work, a very good showing of examples of certain series and certain recent work.  That was really the main thing.  It was to be whatever we could get hold of actually.  It turned out to be from ’65 to the present and then, of course, not only what we could get hold of, but what would fit in the space, you know.  There was just so much space.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How did you like the installation and everything?  Did it work for you as an exhibition?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, I was pleased with it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  The space worked all right with those bays? [They laugh].

MR. RYMAN:  Well, the Guggenheim – Well, I don’t have to explain that; it’s the strangest museum in the world, you know.  There isn’t anything like it.  You just have to do the best you can with the curved walls and those bays.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And that was it?

Well, what was the reaction that you got?  It’s been eight or nine months now.  It was January, wasn’t it or early in the year?  What kind of reaction have you gotten from people – artists, dealers, collectors?

MR. RYMAN:  Lots of people liked it, I think.  Some didn’t like it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But was it useful from your point of view as far as people becoming interested in your work is concerned?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, sure, because a lot of people got to see the work.  Much of it, even though it was older work, had never really been seen here in New York.  A few of them had, but very few.  Some were from private collections in Europe, and I would say only maybe three or four [telephone rings] paintings of the whole group had been seen here in New York.

[Audio break]

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, do you think – just the one more thing on the Guggenheim – that it has affected your market in any way?

MR. RYMAN:  It could be, indirectly.

MR. CUMMINGS: It’s hard to tell.

MR. RYMAN: I don’t know exactly, but I would think so.  It is a prestige kind of thing to have a show at a major museum in New York, and many people saw it who had not seen the work before.  So I think it did have some kind of prestige value.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what was your reaction to seeing it, because you haven’t seen these all together either?

MR. RYMAN:  That’s right.  It was interesting for me [laughs], and it was very good to see them together like that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  In what way?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I could see, you know, the different years.  The paintings have gone from one year to another year.  Of course, many were left out and some really major ones were left out.  But I could tell – I got the feeling of what I’d been doing, you know, because you could see them all there.  But the main thing was putting the show together and then after it was up and I saw them all there and everything seemed right, then I forgot all about it.  In fact, I only went to the show one time while it was up.  I mean, I had seen it of course putting it up, [laughs] so I knew the show and I knew the paintings.  But I really only went to the museum once, because it was done; it was finished and there wasn’t any need to see it really because I had seen it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You know it’s interesting, do your paintings look different to you in different circumstances?  I mean the same painting in different galleries or different –

MR. RYMAN:  Well, sometimes if the lighting isn’t too good or if the space is cramped or the walls are maybe brick or something else, it might change things.  But they –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Stand up pretty well.

MR. RYMAN:  Sure, they are always there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  There’s one thing I noticed, at least among the titles of the paintings.  It seems as if they are done in series.  Do you work in series or are they just titles in series sometimes?  Like General or Veils or Standing or various things like that.

MR. RYMAN: Oh, yes –

MR. RYMAN:  Is that a theme or is it just a handy title?

MR. RYMAN:  No. Some are not titled, but I try to title them if I can because I think it’s better for information just for –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Discussion or records.

MR. RYMAN:  That’s right because you know what you’re talking about.

MR. CUMMINGS:  [Laughs].

MR. RYMAN:  You know if you say number one or two it’s kind of vague.  But I try to pick titles that don’t interfere with the work.  The General title I meant just as general.  I mean, general anything, not as anything specific.

MR. CUMMINGS:  I see.  But are the paintings conceived of in series?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, those were – the Generals.  I intended to do I think fourteen of them, and in that case yes, each was a half inch difference in size than the other.  I intended each one to be pretty much the same but different because of the size.  And because as the size changed, also the paint area changed.  And the application changed because the frame became larger each time.  That was definitely decided to be fourteen, or actually I think there were fifteen and one was damaged, so I think I ended up with fourteen.

But, yeah I usually work in groups.  Well, with the Surface Veil paintings, there were four of those big ones. There were some smaller ones that were not really studies but a similar procedure on a much smaller scale than the big ones.  I’d planned to do two actually in the beginning of the large paintings; and then after I finished the second one, there were some problems.  I could see that I was getting into something that I hadn’t really completed yet.  I was getting into different problems, and I really needed to do two more.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of problems?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, with the way I had been handling the paint.  The first two were oil on linen, and I was using a small brush and they were very large – 12 feet.  And after I finished the second one, I could see there was much more to do with this, that this wasn’t finished at all.  I mean the painting was finished, but I mean this –

MR. CUMMINGS:  The idea and everything.

MR. RYMAN:  The process.  There were many things I wanted to get into, and so the second two I used cotton.  I kept the same size brush, but I approached it in a different way although it was very similar and still keeping with the same paint.  So with the other two, I felt I had really got it down or got this out of my system, working on that scale with the paint.

MR. CUMMINGS:  One thing that interested me and thinking about what you said and looking at all the photographs here which are very convenient [laughs] – are your paintings thought out very much ahead as far as planning the sizes and the way the paint is going to be put on or not?

MR. RYMAN:  To a certain extent, yes, they are.  With the Surface Veil paintings, I wanted them to be twelve feet, and that was planned right from the beginning.  And I knew what size that was.  I decided on the brush and I decided on the paint.  And, as I said, I had done some smaller ones before in somewhat the same way, so I knew pretty much the way the paint was going to work.  But when it actually came to working on those paintings, then it – Well, it evolves itself –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Once you put the pieces together.

MR. RYMAN:   Yeah, the image, what the paint does when it’s on, that I don’t have that planned.  I know a little about what it’s going to be, but I don’t see it until close to the end of the painting.

MR. CUMMINGS:  I often wondered about that because one gets the feeling that you do set up sizes and brushes and kinds of paint –

MR. RYMAN: Yeah, yeah.

MR. CUMMINGS: – and whether it’s going to be a very controlled stroke or a freer one.

MR. RYMAN:  Yes, that’s to begin with, but then the painting –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Do the subsequent paintings work the same way, or is it in the first one where all the technical decisions take place and the other paintings sort of grow out of that?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, the first one you see sometimes fails.  I mean, I can plan the scale and the brush and the paint and all that; but if it does not work the way I think or if I’m not pleased with the result, then I have to make some adjustments because I know it isn’t going to be right.  So then I have to go back and maybe change the scale or change the brush or change the paint so that I get the feeling that I want at that time.  Then it works pretty smoothly after that up to a point until it’s finished.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So there’s still actually a lot of activity happening once you’ve started the picture.  There’s a certain amount of chance involved in it.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it’s not chance.  I mean, I’m very aware of what the paint is going to do.  I know how the paint is going to react on the surface because I know it; I’ve tried it; I’ve done it.  It’s more the feeling that’s the chance of it.  That’s difficult to explain.  It has to be a very direct feeling and a very sure approach to it.  There can’t be any doodling.  I mean –

MR. CUMMINGS:  It has to happen.

MR. RYMAN: – it has got to come out right away; and if it doesn’t, you can always tell when it’s been fussed with.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But there’s not much overpainting is there?

MR. RYMAN: No, never.

MR. CUMMINGS: When a stroke goes down, that’s it.

MR. RYMAN:  That’s what I mean.  If I miss, then there isn’t any overpainting.  It just has to be right the first time.

It’s actually very much like playing jazz [they laugh] now that I think about it.  It’s that kind of thing.  It’s when you’re playing an instrument and you’re composing and as you play, there isn’t any second chance.  Once you play, that’s it for that time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You can’t go back and say, “Well, I want to change that.”

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, it’s very similar to that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, because even in a jazz number, you’re following a certain kind of idea and a pattern.

MR. RYMAN:  There’s a certain, sure, structure set up before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  One of the other things that I find interesting is that your surface varies from what is almost very flat, shiny enamel to a rather heavily textured one to some paper ones where there’s hardly any – I mean, it’s almost not there; it’s on thin paper and the paint seems to be very thin.

MR. RYMAN:  Yes. Right.  Sometimes the paint will be very heavy; sometimes very thin.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Do those alternate?  When you work on a series of paintings, is it just one theory that you work on or do you alternate?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  It’s one at a time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So that the thin paintings would be six or eight or ten, and then there might be a change to something else.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah –

MR. CUMMINGS:  A contrast [inaudible] –

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, but it’s not exactly in that way though.  I mean, I usually work on one group of paintings at the same time with a certain type of paint that I’m working with, but sometimes there won’t be very many of the same.  They’re not always in a series.  Sometimes there will only be maybe two or three in the same manner, shall I say, and then something will evolve from those and then that will change.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So really there’s almost a direct line of evolution in a way.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Usually one comes out of what came before that; because always when working on paintings, you make discoveries while you are working and that leads on.  That demands that you do certain other paintings with what you found out, what you felt with the ones before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You mentioned before that you had done some teaching at the School of Visual Arts [New York].  Is that your first teaching activity?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  I taught before, just briefly, at New York Institute of Technology – this was for a year, I believe it was, two days a week, before Visual Arts.  That was my first time teaching.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How do you like teaching?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, [laughs] I enjoy it sometimes.  I mean, it’s interesting to talk with students and to find out what they are thinking and what they are involved in and to be able to work out problems with them.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of students do you have there?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, they are fourth year students.  Most of them are involved with painting, but some are involved in other things, you know, film and construction or sculpture, whatever.  They are very interesting [laughs] –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Keep you moving, right?

MR. RYMAN:  As I say, they’re involved with all kinds of ideas.  And some of them work very hard, and they are excited about it and trying, learning about materials and technical problems.  But it’s kind of demanding, very draining.  One day a week is all I can really take; although, as I say, I enjoy it sometimes.  Other times, it can be really very hectic because you become so involved in their problems and what they are doing, it’s hard to get back into your own work.  But that has become much easier to do though as I’ve taught more.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How long have you taught there?

MR. RYMAN:  I guess this is the third year.  The first year I taught a foundation course in painting, and that was in a way more challenging than the fourth year students because they were right out of high school and it was their first year.  You have to tell them everything about brushes, canvas, right from the beginning, you know, paints and composition and color.  And, of course, you don’t have to go into all that with the other students, with the fourth year.  Although, [laughs] you’d be surprised.  Sometimes you do. [They laugh.] Sometimes you find that they don’t know which brush is which or whatever.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, how do you like being at that school?  Because it’s full of all the zippy people, teaching the –

MR. RYMAN: [Laughs.]

MR. CUMMINGS:  – some of the people have told me that their students are about one jump ahead of them half the time.

MR. RYMAN:  No.  You know, they are young.  Sometimes they can come up with some interesting ideas, you know, but that’s not really what they can only later – and that’s experience and that just takes time.  They might do one or two pretty good paintings, pretty competent paintings.  But can they do a dozen?

MR. CUMMINGS:  Right, right.

MR. RYMAN:  That just takes time and experience.  And certainly, then they have to stick it out.  Actually what it amounts to is they really have to be dedicated.  That has to be their life and maybe not even five out of a hundred will do that.  They’ll probably end up doing something else.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Do you think there is any way to tell when there are students like that who really are going to go on and work and paint, or is it very difficult to judge?

MR. RYMAN:  Sometimes I have a feeling about some of them that they probably will, but you can never know really – Some you have a feeling about, that they will probably do something.  It’s usually the person who isn’t the best in the class that will end up going into it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  It’s tenacity sometimes.

MR. RYMAN:  There are a lot that are very, very intelligent, and they do a lot of reading and are up on the latest art [laughs]. There are some who are very skillful technically.  They really are – what’s the word?

MR. CUMMINGS:  Proficient.

MR. RYMAN:  They can handle materials well, put things together well.  But they’re usually the ones that are so – I can’t think of the word – not skillful but kind of slick, I guess, in the sense of being overly knowledgeable and skillful, you know –

MR. CUMMINGS:  They pick up a style.

MR. RYMAN:  – so that they usually don’t end up doing too much, I mean, later on.  But I can’t really put my finger on why I feel some will do well.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Okay.  One thing we haven’t talked about.  You were married to Lucy Lippard [critic, curator], right?

MR. RYMAN:  Yes, for six, let’s see, six years.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You met her at the Museum [of Modern Art] when you both worked there?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, that’s where we first met.  But where we really met each other was at the [New York] Public Library in the art section there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh really?

MR. RYMAN:  Lucy was doing research there for a paper she was writing at the time.  She was getting her art history degree.  That’s where we really got together, at the library.  At the Museum, I’d see her around, you know, but I never really got to know her.

MR. CUMMINGS:  I’m curious about the business of being married to such an active critic [laughs].  Was it chaotic from your point of view?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, of course, when we were first married, she was not a critic.  That came later.  As I say, she was getting her degree in art history, and she wanted to write.  She was always a very good writer in the sense that she knew how to put words together.  She had the ability for writing, and she was very quick.  She had a very sharp sense of what was happening and how to put the words together, and she worked very hard, you know.  She was a compulsive worker form morning until night, and so she was really fantastic.  She was an excellent writer, and I helped out a little bit with the seeing part.  I would give my opinions on what I saw and what I felt about things, and she could always put it into words where I couldn’t – I mean in writing.  So I like to think I helped her a little bit [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  Did you discuss your work with her very much?  You know, occasionally –

MR. RYMAN:  No.  We didn’t talk too much about my work.  It was around all the time.  I would talk about it on occasion and she always liked the work that I did.  Of course, being married, it wasn’t ethical for her to write about my work, you know.  Then, of course, at that time I had no dealer and I had never shown.  I never had a show of my own. [Inaudible].

Well, she’s very good, I think.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Was there a lot of career conflict at a later point between the demands of your activity and her work?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  Of course, it would have been worse if she had been a painter, too.  [They laugh.] That would have been very bad.  But her being a writer didn’t really conflict with my work, and later on she became interested not so much in criticism but in writing.  She wanted to do more serious writing.  She wanted to get into other fields of writing.  So there wasn’t really too much of a conflict.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Did she bring many people to see your work?

MR. RYMAN:  No, no.  Now there were a lot of people who would come to see her because of articles that she was involved in or books that she was writing.  And, of course, she knew a lot of other critics and scholars.  So many times I would meet them when they would come to see her, and sometimes they would be interested in my work.  But there wasn’t so much of that.  Mostly it was her work and it was my work.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And that went along easily.

MR. RYMAN:  Yes.



This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Robert Ryman, 1972 October 13-November 7, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


Robert Ryman with Phong Bui

After his last show, No Title Required, at Pace Gallery uptown, painter Robert Ryman welcomed Rail Publisher Phong Bui to his West Village studio to talk about his recent paintings and other related work.

Robert Ryman, No Title Required, (2006). Enamel on wood. 10 panels, overall dimensions: 55” x 688” (139.7 cm x 1,747.5 cm); individual panels range from 50” x 50” (127 cm x 127 cm) to 55” x 55” (139.7 cm x 139.7 cm). © Robert Ryman, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York. Photo by: Ellen Labenski / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

Phong Bui (Rail): When I walk into the larger room of the gallery, there are ten panels, eight on one wall and two on the next, adjacent to the corner. What interests me apart from their framing devices, which are made out of maple, cherry, and oak, is that their rotation appears quite uneven, their proportions are not identical. Perhaps the sixth and the seventh panel are the same?

Robert Ryman: None are the same. I composed the paintings mostly by the color, but also by the size of the panels. There are no identical panels, each panel is one half inch different from the next. I forget now what the smallest is. I think the largest is 55 inches and the smallest is however many half-inches below that. One possibility, of course, was to put them from the smallest to the largest, but I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to make visual movement. So I would put a large light color panel next to another light-colored one that’s a little smaller, but not the smallest necessarily. And then a medium color, like an oak, next to that, so it was a visual composition. That was the first time I could actually see the painting, which is why there couldn’t be a catalog; because it could not be photographed until I actually installed all the panels.

Rail: It was a site-specific improvisation. I felt there was also optical ambience to it.

Ryman: The panels at both ends were the light colors. I didn’t want one of the dark ones on the ends because then that would close in visually. So the lighter colors move outward,…also, I had the spaces in between each panel to work with, and then the height, as well.

Rail: And the intervals between both panels are identical?

Ryman: Yes. Except for the corner, that was different—because it had to look like it was the same visually.

Rail: I also noticed that the frames are flush with the picture surface, and the fact that you allowed the paint to overlap the inner edges of the frame. Would it be fair to assume that the frame functions as part of the painted field?

Ryman: The painted field ended because of the line. Actually there are three lines. There’s a line made by the outer wood joining the center panel. And that’s a hard straight line. I wanted to soften the line, so I went over it with the paint. And that gave a soft, curved line next to the hard line. And the third hard line is the edge of the panel itself. So I wanted to soften the hard line. It seems like the panels have frames—they act that way in a sense. But the painting is actually the whole ten panels together.

Rail: Were they painted with oil enamel in different layers with the brush?

Ryman: Yes, several layers, three layers with high-gloss enamel.

Rail: Is that the reason why you couldn’t have direct light on them?

Ryman: I wanted to show them, if possible, in the reflected light. Because that’s where the painting can be activated, in reflected light, particularly with high-gloss enamel. You have the surface that will bounce off the light. Some people might say it is ambient light, but that’s different in my thinking. If you have a soft light that’s thrown up to the ceiling, that would be ambient light. But that doesn’t work the same, strangely enough. If the light is shone on to the floor and it bounces up, it doesn’t work the same either. The light has to come opposite the painting. The source is reflected off of something into the space and onto what it is you want to present. There’s a museum in Switzerland in the town of Schaffhausen that has a number of my paintings, and there’s a wall 150 feet long, with a passageway in front, and opposite that are three rooms with skylights. Now the 150 foot wall doesn’t have any direct light on it. The light comes from the reflections of the three rooms opposite this wall. And the light is ideal. It is a matter of seeing more clearly. So I tried to equal that experience.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail: How about in the smaller room, with the three big paintings, painted on linen stapled to the frame. Were they mounted on the frame before or after they were painted?

Ryman: The canvas was stapled onto the wooden panels. Those were the first ones I did before I did the painting in the big room. And that is a different process. The canvases themselves were begun in Pennsylvania in 1999. And at that time I lost contact with them, I didn’t like what was happening with them, so I just rolled them up and put them away. And then I brought them to New York in 2005, and I thought I would look at them to see if there was anything there at all. So, I tacked them onto the wall to see them and I thought, “What am I going to do with these?” Is there anything to do with these? And I thought, well maybe I could put them on a panel. My first thought was to staple them at the top to the wooden panel and have them drape, like paper, down over the panel so that you could see the wood support underneath, and you could see their own movement. I had the panels made larger than the canvas, so the wood would be visible. Anyway, that didn’t work at all, that was a disaster. I couldn’t control the drape. The canvases had been sized, and it just wasn’t working. So the only other thing to do was to tack them flat and do away with looking at the wood behind. And then when I saw the wood edge I thought I could paint directly on other panels. So I then had the other panels made.

Rail: So the smaller panels came after the big ones?

Ryman: Yes.

Rail: And the formats of the three largest paintings aren’t identical either?

Ryman: That’s right. They are very similar in size, but they differ by an inch, or an inch and a half. And they’re not exactly square either. The way they were originally made was they were stretched and then cut off of a strainer. So they were just sheets of canvas.

Rail: The frame piece is square, but the canvas is not.

Ryman: Well, the panel itself was made for the size of the canvas. It’s close to being square, maybe off a half inch.

Rail: The last time we spoke, you said that you spent a great deal of your time buying different materials, brushes of various sizes, all the available brands of paint, canvas, linen, panel and so on, treated it almost like a scientific experiment?

Ryman: I guess you can say that painting is a kind of experiment. That’s what I do, that’s my approach to painting, to figure out how it works, the different possibilities that can happen with painting. It’s just my sensibility. I like to know how it works and I like to know how things go together. It’s a visual experience, and with my paintings I don’t really plan them, it has to come about visually. I have to see how it’s developing, what can come from it, and then I make the decision whether I like it or not.

Rail: As Yve Alain-Bois put it, quite eloquently, ‘Ask Robert Ryman why and he will always tell you how.’ [laughs]

Ryman: [laughs]

Robert Ryman, “Archive” (1980). Oil on steel 34.1×30.2 cm (13.5×11.875 inches). Private collection. Courtesy of the artist and PaceWildenstein.

Rail: Did the experience of working as a guard at the MoMA, which you did for seven years from 1953 to 1960 (like Brice Marden, Mel Bochner, Dan Flavin, etc.) inform your study of painting? I’ve been told that during your tenure there, you deliberately and carefully scheduled your shift to look at different paintings in your rotation. Could you talk about that?

Ryman: At that time, it was a perfect job, because, well, I had no money, and I had to live by my wits, kind of. And so that was a job where I could be close to painting, close to art, every day. I could see the workings of the museum. It was very valuable, in that sense, and of course the hours were good too. The museum, at that time, was open from eleven until six at night, so I had the mornings. And it paid enough just to pay the rent, and buy new materials. And it wasn’t a demanding job, where you were expected to grow with the business; it wasn’t that kind of a thing. It was just a simple job. And I learned so much from that. One day I just left, and I had no other job, but I thought, ‘well, I’ve been here long enough and I don’t need to be here anymore.’ [laughs]

Rail: What happened after that?

Ryman: I just quit one day and had no place to go. I was sitting in Bryant Park and wondering what I was going to do next. My money had run out, and I looked up and saw the public library, and so I thought, ‘Maybe they have something.’ [laughs] So I went in and I got a job in the art division of the public library, where I was for a year. And I got to look at all the books.

Rail: You once said, ‘I decided to actually paint white rather than use it as a neutral paint,’ which is to say that you paint white as a subject matter, like the way other people paint figure, landscape, still life or portraiture?

Ryman: I started out like everybody starts out: I had to learn about color, I had to learn about different paints, and I learned about composition, and how things worked. So I worked with color… it wasn’t a matter of just painting white. Yes, those aluminum paintings, which were done in ’64, of which I did four—actually, I did five, one is in Europe at the moment— it’s difficult to talk about those because no one has seen them, no one knows what I’m talking about… [laughs] But they were working with the light, and the way the light would work with the metal, and also the composition of color, and the soft edges and the harder edges working together. And after I did those, I thought I didn’t want to go in that direction because it was too complicated working with metal in that way. And so I wrapped them up and put them away and never saw them, totally forgot about them, until a few years ago, when they were shown in Dallas, at the Dallas Art Museum, for the first time.

Rail: They seem to be the most complicated of your work.

Ryman: Well, I was going to say, from the catalog, you couldn’t really tell what these are. When you actually see the paintings, it’s quite astonishing because, as you walk around them, they change with the light.

Rail: Because of their aluminum surfaces?

Ryman: It’s because of the way the light acts with the surface of the painting, because some of these have altered surfaces. I mean, I was actually working with the surface of the metal as well as with the paint. That’s why I decided not to do it anymore, because I was getting into a different process.

Rail: When and how did you know that, besides the commitment to the color white, the square was to become and continues to be, your self-imposed format?

Ryman: Well, I don’t know exactly. I’ve always been comfortable with that because it’s an equal-sided space.. It could be large, it could be small. It just has a good feeling. I had done some things that were rectangular earlier. I haven’t done anything with that recently, maybe I will. It’s something I just do automatically. I don’t think about it.

Rail: In other words, there’s no thinking in reference to Malevich, Mondrian or Albers?

Ryman: No. It’s just that it’s a comfortable, equal-sided space.

Rail: Some critics of your work insist on the anti-biographical or anti-metaphysical aspects, which have so often been associated with your work. Others think of you as a puritan painter, or a pragmatic painter who thinks concretely through his materials. Is that a fair observation?

Ryman: Well, of course. There’s no symbolism. There’s no narrative in this painting. They’re not pictures of things that we know, so that may be difficult for some people…. You never know what a person is seeing when they look at a painting. It’s not a matter of seeing something in it… even something about it…it’s a matter of having an experience, a visual experience that is pleasing. Actually, you’re seeing something that you’ve never seen before. If someone looks at a picture of something that you know, of a landscape, things with symbolic references, that have a lot of narrative, someone can relate to those. But that’s not really what painting is about, in my thinking. The what of the painting is incidental to the how. What you experience in painting is how it’s put together. How it’s done. It has nothing to do with purity or anything like that; it’s a basic approach to painting.

Rail: When did the addition of fastenings and framing devices come about?

Ryman: In 1975, I think it was, the first ones had the visual fastening. With my approach to painting (not representing a picture of a narrative situation or symbolism) I thought I could use visible fastening. My painting didn’t have to be invisibly fastened to the wall, since it wasn’t like a picture. My painting was different than that. It didn’t have to hang invisibly. It could be visibly attached to the wall, and therefore work with the space itself. And then the fasteners could be part of the composition.

Rail: Right. So it enhances the object-ness of the painting?

Ryman: You would see the composition and you could actually see the painting attached to the wall, which makes it literally part of the wall itself. Sometimes I still use visible fastenings. It depends on the nature of the work, the nature of a certain problem.

Rail: How do you mediate your painting gesture? Do you begin from the top and work to the bottom, left to right, or from the middle? I’m curious because, despite your obtaining all-over rhythm with repetitive strokes, there are irregularities that occur sometimes in the middle, around the edges, or maybe a single corner.

Ryman: Again, it all depends on the type of paint that I’m using and the surface I’m working with and the general approach that it involves. But it’s not a crazy thing. I have a certain control from the beginning because the painting really begins with the surface itself, and what kind of paint I’m going to use, and what kind of brush I’m going to use, and whether I’m going to have a lot of actual movement in the paint, whether the paint’s going to be thick or thin, how that’s going to work. And whether it’s going to be absorbing the light or reflecting it. I think about those things beforehand, so that has to be how I might begin.

Rail: Do you often make tests or studies for your paintings?

Ryman: Well, sometimes I’ll test paint to see how the paint is going to act. Sometimes I’ll test surfaces if I’m working on metal or any kind of different surface. I have to see how the paint is going to work on that. I’ll do tests in that sense, but I don’t do any studies. I don’t know myself what it’s going to look like until it gets to the point where I can see what’s happening. [laughs]

Rail: How did the fiberglass pieces with wax paper, which are either taped or nailed to the wall, begin, and what was the impulse behind them?

Ryman: Those paintings I did in, I think it’s 1969, 1968 maybe. The approach I was taking there. (I’d forgotten about that). It was a group of six paintings, mostly about 6 &frac12; feet, 7 feet at the largest, and they were stapled to the wall. And I used the wall, and since the wall itself was the support, I could continue on the wall itself around the edge of the canvas, and on one I used wax paper. The painting itself absorbed the light, and the wax paper had this soft reflection that sort of moved the light around the painting and I liked the composition, the reflection and the absorption. And just the staples on the wall, and the wax paper was so simple; it had a different feeling to it than plastic. Plastic would not be the same, even glacine paper was different. Wax paper had this softness to it that I liked very much…The wax paper was taped to the wall and I used the tape as part of the composition. So I had these yellow dots of tape that moved around the edge of the painting on the wall.

Rail: How about the group of paintings on steel?

Ryman: Those were all relatively small. Those were steel panels made in Switzerland, and I had the fasteners attached to the steel itself. It was just something that had an interesting feeling to it. This particular one you’re looking at, with a red surface, rust red…I don’t know what I have to say about it.

Rail: I’m interested in the way that the deep rusted color of the steel surface makes you aware of the painted surface and all the edges.

Ryman: Of course compositionally the panel was very hard, the edges were very hard, and then the paint was very soft, and it made this soft edge there. I do that kind of thing many times in painting. Working with hard and soft.

Rail: When and how did you begin to incorporate the signature as part of the painting?

Ryman: That was earlier, 1957 or 1958. It was just an element of painting where I didn’t use line so much in my painting, and I felt that my signature could be a line. I generally would turn my signature on its side. If it’s on the side—one side of the signature is soft and round, and the other is hard, because the lines go out. So I could use that in various ways as a compositional element, and I thought it was acceptable because painters usually sign their paintings, so I could sign the painting and use it as a compositional part at the same time. I also used the year sometimes as a compositional element. In fact I did that fairly recently, can’t remember whether it was 1990, or I don’t remember, but I had the year—oh no it was in the ‘80s, 1984.

Rail: How do you see the relationship between drawing and painting in your work?

Ryman: One is drawing and one is painting. I think of drawing as having to do with line and so if I’m drawing, that’s what I’ll use. I’ll use different things to make the line, and different surfaces to put the line on, but its about line, and how that works with the space.

Rail: So you keep the two activities separate?

Ryman: Yes. Mostly I don’t use line in my painting. I don’t use it as a line—if there’s a line in a painting, it’s two areas of paint that have come together to form a line. But I’m not consciously drawing a line.

Rail: I’d like to shift to a different subject: two remarks that you made in the past. One was at the time of your retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1972, to Paul Cummings, when he asked, “How do you feel seeing all the works together in a big space?” Your response was, “I only went to the show once while it was up, because it’s done and finished and there’s no need to see it again.” And later you commented about your show in Dia in 1989: “I don’t do things that I know I can do.” I feel there is a strong pragmatic sense in that you finish a certain thing and move on.

Ryman: Actually, I haven’t seen the Pace show again either. I mean, I saw it very well when I put it up, so I don’t have to go back to see it.

Rail: Why do you think that is?

Ryman: I don’t know. I have seen it. I don’t know what to say about it. I saw all those things. I don’t need to see them again necessarily. I don’t know. The paintings I have in this museum in Schaffausen, Switzerland I hadn’t seen in 12 years and I just went to see them again a couple of years ago, and I was surprised actually when I saw it. It had been so long I had forgotten some of the paintings that were there, and after 12 years, I thought, let’s make a different installation, because the paintings are a little too crowded. I don’t know when, but we will do a new installation there. I like to see my paintings again.

Rail: Is there work by other artists that you would like to see your paintings hanging next to?

Ryman: No. My painting is not the kind of painting that would hang next to someone else’s work necessarily. Because it doesn’t work that way. My painting needs space and a certain situation, it needs light.

Rail: Brice Marden told Jeffery Weiss and I that he considers you our Vermeer, the American Vermeer. And Kurt Varnedoe, at his fifth Mellon Lecture, described you as a Matisse-loving urbanite. I suppose that both comments suggest the tranquility, the poetic light, as well as a joyous quality that your painting emanates. Is that a fair observation?

Ryman: Matisse was always an influence on me because of the way he put things together, and again, how he did it. It was so direct, it seemed as if he knew exactly what to do. I’m sure he didn’t exactly. But it had that feeling, which was what I liked.

Rail: Is there a certain phase of his work that you respond to more than others?

Ryman: No, not necessarily. But I guess some of his smaller paintings of interiors, with the figure, were put together in such an unbelievable way; those were some of my favorites.

Rail: De Kooning said that the reason why he likes Matisse’s work is because he doesn’t make isms, he just makes the painting. So among the Abstract Expressionists, is there a particular one whose work you prefer over others?

Ryman: All of them. Franz Kline was a wonderful painter, and De Kooning, Rothko. All of them, just really wonderful painters. And Guston, as well.

Rail: Especially those from the early to mid 1950s.

Ryman: Those were wonderful. That reminds me of a show Guston had at the Met three years ago, a very interesting show, except it was terribly put together. The galleries were cramped and the paintings were too close. It was too bad, but the paintings were wonderful.

Rail: Is there a transcendental aspect in your work?

Ryman: I don’t even know what that means.

Rail: How about the notion of the sublime?

Ryman: Oh, no. It’s nothing like that. I’m not involved in that at all.

Rail: Were you brought up with a hint of spiritual leaning?

Ryman: Oh, no. I quickly got away from that.

Rail: What are you working on now?

Ryman: Well, I was thinking about working with some epoxy paint, on a smaller scale. But I probably won’t do much of that. I don’t like to work with epoxy because it’s so dangerous. But as soon as the weather gets warmer and I can open the windows in Pennsylvania, maybe I can do a little. You get such an incredible surface with that paint. Maybe I’ll do that and maybe not. Maybe it will develop into something else that I’m not aware of.

Rail: Why, all of these years, have you never thought of having a studio assistant?

Ryman: Well, [laughs], sometimes I could use an assistant, just to organize things, but not to help me with the paintings. But they wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t want to spend time to tell them. I do everything I can myself. I used to stretch my own canvas, go through boiling the glue and sizing, all of that. I made my own stretchers. But of course I don’t do that now, because I don’t have the strength. But I like to do as much as I can myself, because the painting really begins with the surface, and how it’s going to work. So someone else wouldn’t know what to do. It would be nice to have someone at times, for organization. I spend a lot of time with paperwork, letters are not answered, not because I don’t want to answer them, but I just don’t have the time, I can’t deal with them. But otherwise, no.

Rail: In conclusion, you would agree with what Matisse said, “He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue.”

Ryman: [laughter] That sounds right.

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