painting as thought itself


It is part of Robert Ryman’s legend that he is a self-taught artist. He moved to New York in 1952, at age twenty-two, to pursue a career in jazz. A year later, he took a job at the Museum of Modern Art as a security guard. Paintings had begun to interest him “not so much because of what was painted but how they were done. I thought maybe it would be an interesting thing for me to look into—how the paint worked and what I could do with it.” So he bought some art supplies and began to experiment. At no point, then or later, did he try to depict anything—a face, a figure, a natural object like a tree or a flower, an artifact like a bottle or a guitar: “I thought I would try and see what would happen. I wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work. . . . I had nothing really in mind to paint. I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces.” He evidently found the activity sufficiently absorbing that he put music aside. By the end of the ’50s, Ryman was using white paint almost exclusively, as if color interested him far less than certain physical properties of paint. He had developed a signature style. Suzanne P. Hudson’s Robert Ryman: Used Paint is the first book-length study of the artist’s achievement, and it comes with an interesting thesis, namely that his paintings exemplify what the author calls “embodied thinking,” which I interpret to mean that his paintings are not the product of thought, but thought itself.

more from Arthur Danto at Bookforum here.