Robert Ryman at Dia:Chelsea


Robert Ryman, Catalyst lll 1985

An exhibition showing a wide range of Robert Ryman’s paintings occupies two large gallery spaces at Dia:Chelsea in New York. My visit to look at his beautiful work was on a grey and freezing wintery day in February. Vittorio Colaizzi quotes Ryman in an essay that introduces a collection of critical writings concerning his art, Ryman: ‘Painters paint in all kinds of ways, but I think that all painting is about enlightenment and delight and wonder’. (Originally published in Robert Ryman, ‘On Painting’, in Christel Sauer and Urs Rasmuller, 1991). In an interview with Ryman in September 2002, the artist who was then approaching his eightieth birthday, described a collector placing one of his paintings in the dark hallway of his home. Deprived of the light and space it needed, Ryman reflected ‘But it’s odd that they seemingly like the painting but yet they don’t understand what it is. Or how it works.’ (Robert Ryman, Critical texts since 1967, ed. Vittorio Colaizzi and Karsten Schubert, Ridinghouse, 2009: 20).
His paintings intrigue me in that on the one hand when faced with walls of mostly white paintings I experience quietude, but when drawing close I am fascinated by the marks and surfaces and his seemingly endless capacity for experimentation. In the Dia show I was particularly drawn to one work, so much so that after leaving the gallery I went back after a while to look again. This work seemed to me to be perfect in its simplicity and slight detail. After an earlier showing of Catalyst III (1985), Ryman spoke of this work, which is an aluminium support held to the wall by four bolts:
‘It’s one of my favourite drawings, that was shown at the Modern, in Bernice’s show (MOMA, New York). It’s not very large 23 x 23 inches, but it’s probably my favourite drawing. It’s just one of these things that is so amazingly simple, but it’s very complex and everything works…What you’re not seeing in the photograph is this line [the aluminium edge of the drawing]. It’s just the line of the metal, but it’s there and it’s important’.


Sharon Phelps: recent work on paper

Sharon6The ‘Constructions’ series made in 2013 consists of taped and glued paper; compositions arrived at by a process of reconfiguration and editing – they are residues of the process of making. Folded, torn and cut, they are selected and positioned. A dialogue takes place between the works in progress as sections are removed, interchanged and layered. This process is not hidden from the viewer, who is able to re-interpret the narrative of the making procedures.

These compositions do not refer to anything that exists in the real world. Loosely based on the grid and the possibilities it offers for re-invention, they move beyond tight geometric forms to play with our perception of scale and our understanding of where the edges may be. Small compositions sit within larger pieces. The eye picks up primary elements quickly, but is rewarded by prolonged looking as smaller or slighter details become apparent. It is hoped that the meditative nature of making the work is communicated to the viewer. Sharon3


Joanna Phelps

Joanna18There is a strong sense of theatricality in Joanna Phelps’ drawings and paintings. Elements are suspended or balanced within a vertiginous space; often at tipping point or actually falling. The compositions are playful and are a celebration of colour. Recurring motifs in the paintings include small dots of colour that heap and spill like juggling balls, piano keys, kites and multi-coloured twisted threads or ropes. The coloured dots could also be a myriad of small lights. Odd shapes behave like anchors in the picture plane, keeping the tilted compositions in place. There is often a feeling of implied movement, in spaces where the viewer is left reeling and trying to find stability. Floors are never completely horizontal – small rooms hold furniture which could slide away. As if entering a wonky house in a funfair, the viewer feels their way through the space in a strange trajectory while grasping any fixed points if they exist.

Drawing inspiration from diverse sources that include curtained stages and performances by the circus troupe Cirque de Soleil, it is hard to find artists to whom this work relates. Yet it can be encountered in the finely balanced sculptural and filmic compositions of Marijke van Warmerdam and the colourful abstract paintings of Thomas Nozkowski. Although not emulating them in any way, associations can be made between Joanna’s lines of thought and the playfulness and delicately balanced elements in those works. The stage sets could equally be imaginary places. Joanna references Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, in which a city such as ‘Diomira’ has “sixty silver domes” and “multi-coloured lamps…lighted all at once”. Having graduated from the Royal Academy School of Arts, London in 2008, Joanna has shown her paintings in the UK and internationally.

Agnes Martin paintings at Dia:Beacon

Dia:Beacon is located about 60 miles north of Manhattan, New York. The train from Grand Central Station runs alongside the Hudson river, with a slate beach close to the track. The train passes jetties and wooden houses on its way to Beacon, a small place that houses the Dia art galleries within surrounding grounds of trees. On the day that I visited it poured with rain. I arrived just after the gallery opened around 11am and stayed until it closed at 6pm. There were enough paintings and sculptures to keep me occupied all day, with an excellent bookshop and cafe.

Agnes Martin’s paintings occupy two adjoining galleries, with the ‘Innocent Love’ series from the 90s purposely made for the gallery in one space and some older works in the second space. The natural light filters in from slanted roof windows and changes according to the light outside. I had seen some of Agnes Martin’s paintings before in the Tate galleries, London but in the Dia galleries the paintings seemed to emanate light. Particularly along the top edge, where they seemed to have an afterimage that extended into the space above the paintings. The arrangement of paintings allowed the works to be in dialogue with each other. I moved from side to side, towards their surfaces and away. At a distance they seem to float, close up I became aware that the paint was so thin in some areas as to seem to be only a residue on the surface. The earlier works showed the logical sequence of progression from geometric shapes and grids to the later works with bands of pale washy paint. The pencil lines of the grids seemed to have dissolved into the paint. I became aware of how important light is to Martin’s paintings and how slight the traces of paint were upon the surfaces of her later works.