Entering MOMA’s ‘Gallery 20’ two summers ago, I remember being stunned as a tour group was shepherded past one of the most beautiful works by one of the twentieth century’s greatest painters. Robert Ryman is our Vermeer. He makes surfaces play delicately with light and space. He is often pigeonholed as ‘minimalist’, above all due to his white-on-white colour scheme, but his works are never static or impersonal representations.
He is concerned with painting not as product, but as process: not what to paint, but how. Twin was painted in 1966, and is remarkably simple, even for Ryman. From afar, it blends almost perfectly with the wall. But as we approach we are made aware of its interactions with light and space, of how its presence seems to make these properties real. His trademark tactile surface, scruffy and vague, is preserved in the faintly scored lines that run horizontally across the canvas, catching light faintly on each frayed lip. Ryman leaves the edges of canvas unpainted, as a document of the process of its making.
Twin situates Ryman with other contemporary artists, specifically Brice Marden, who painted The Dylan Painting in the same year, also leaving an edge of canvas exposed. Marden’s concept of ‘Plane Image’ – a nicely clunky and conceptually rich pun – emphasises that an apparently dimensionless painted surface can have, in fact, enormous depth.
Ryman wrote, “You hear it occasionally, that everything’s been done in painting. Well, it’s not so. There’s everything to do in painting. I feel that in a sense painting is just beginning.” A painting like Twin cannot be reproduced by ideas or by photographs. It is continually ‘just beginning’ because the work is formed by an experience of it, and its surrounding light and space. I spent almost an hour in front of Twin. I still don’t think I’ve seen a more delicate or subtle painting.
This painting invites meditation, simultaneously a part of its construction and the act of viewing. The painting’s deliberate imperfections, similar to Agnes Martin’s approximated grid paintings, demand even more intense concentration, despite its plainness. It is humble: what Ryman has done is ostensibly only a little different from the worker who painted the gallery walls. Yet it is irreproducible, conceptually intricate, and masterfully finished.