Robert Ryman at the Musée de l'Orangerie

Robert Ryman (1930-2019) is best known for his white on white paintings. His work is included in the collection of almost every museum of modern art, because it fits nicely into the standard narrative of twentieth century art. It can be seen as an exponent of minimalism, as a reaction to abstract expressionism and as the end point of painting. 

If you’ve ever painted a wall inside your home you’ll know that white actually comes in various pigments (e.g. RAL 9010 and RAL 9001) and that there can even be tiny differences between different brands. Some whites tend towards yellow others towards blue. Some whites look warm, others look cold. When looking at a painting by Robert Ryman there is more that meets the eye than the words white on white suggest.

Ryman himself always rejected the notion that his paintings were abstract (as opposed to figurative) or monochrome. He liked to think of himself as a painter, whose medium happened to be white paint. 

Throughout his career Ryman tirelessly explored the possibilities of painting, experimenting with the type of paint (oil, acrylic, resin), the size and material of the support (canvas, paper, Plexiglass, etc.), how paint can be applied (with a brush or a painter’s knife, in thick layers, in broad strokes and so on) and the ways in which a painting is displayed (with or without frame, screwed to the wall, or why not, horizontally as some kind of a table). 

All of this only becomes clear once you see multiple paintings side by side. And so I was glad to visit the Robert Ryman retrospective at the Musée de l'Orangerie. I’m still a bit puzzled why of all places the Musée de l'Orangerie would organize a Robert Ryman exhibition, but the juxtaposition with Monet’s "Water Lilies" and the work of Chaïm Soutine worked quite well. 

I came away with a deeper appreciation for what Ryman was after. His work doesn't resonate with me though. I think of him mostly as a figure of art historical significance. Having said that, if you’re interested in art and if you happen to be in Paris you should definitely include it in your itinerary.

Robert Ryman: The Act of Looking is at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris until 1 July 2024.