#7. The Light of Robert Ryman

Today is Monday. Last Thursday I joined a workshop based on focusing your energy into what you think is your purpose in life, whether it is a start-up, learning a new language or be just a pleasant presence to those who run into you. This workshop, entitled “Trust your Truth” by Sade Gryffin, resonated with me since, for the last decade, I have developed participatory artistic projects which contain those two heavy words.

Last Thursday February 7th at 9pm I did the first exercise, which consisted of imagining myself connected to a cord anchored to the center of the earth. (Imagining such a connection is an exercise that I would recommend to any artist.) Then I had to imagine my name engraved to the core of the earth. This way I would be aware of who I really was regardless of all those high expectations that we impose on ourselves and many others project on us. It’s a good thing to remind ourselves that we are more than the echo of our name. We are the essence of who we are plus the potential of who we might become.

I tried to imagine my name engraved to the core of the earth, but all I could see was my name engraved in a drawing and a painting made a decade ago by a great American artist. And I remembered the moment I had recognized my name. And I realized that an artist had already taught me that lesson: “be present in the moment and believe in your work. Be true to yourself wherever you are.”

It’s an artist’s responsibility to tell our very peculiar truths by spreading the seeds of our very peculiar knowledge to a nurturing soil. It’s not our job to peek out and see if anything grows. It is about giving, not harvesting. Such is the greatness of any great artist.

I didn’t share any of these thoughts with the rest of the participants. The fact that a great living American artist had engraved my name in one of his paintings in order to encourage younger artists to believe in our own potential and peculiar truths (regardless of how challenging that can seem) was something too big to be shared just like that. So, as I had already done for a decade, I remained quiet. The time wasn’t right.   

That was last Thursday night. Today is Monday. I went to sleep with the image of a paintbrush drawing letters on the back of a kitchen tile. The following day, Friday February 8th, at 88, my dear friend Robert Ryman passed away.

***

I met Robert Ryman on November 25, 2008, thanks to the American artist Merrill Wagner, also Mrs. Ryman.

Merrill had told Bob to meet me that morning at the Museum of Modern Art to collaborate in a secret project that I was developing based on the intersection between art and education, which consisted of maintaining dialogues in front of art pieces.

I had a photograph exhibited at the MoMA’s Staff Show and, after meeting individually with friends to see my framed piece, we would walk around the permanent collection. (I still believe that the best way to embrace art is by looking at it allowing the work to reveal itself to us, and whenever possible in good company).

Merrill had already participated in this project entitled TELL ME and, recognizing that both Bob and I had worked at the museum (he as a security guard and myself as an educator) while trying to survive as artists (like many, many others) and recognizing also that we both had been inspired by the paintings to the point to have the need to do something else, she had told her husband to participate in what would become the first project of a trilogy.

Ryman arrived to the lobby right on time. We talked briefly about how a remunerated job in the galleries of a museum can influence an artist’s work, and then we went upstairs to see Mirós.

In front of the first painting I began to talk about the color, composition and texture of the oil. Not even a minute had passed when he turned towards me with eyes wide open and, as if I had said something wrong, he exclaimed: “You are a painter!”

That moment was more surreal than all the surreal paintings that surrounded us, because there I was doing an art project based in conversations when Robert Ryman himself had just told me that I was a painter. He didn’t ask. He confirmed it.

“Well, yes,” I said almost apologizing. “I’ve studied painting in Madrid, London, San Francisco… You knew it because of how I was describing the brush stroke.” He smiled and nodded.

From that moment our conversation was very fluid. We analyzed Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, which were creamy, sometimes slightly sticky, and discussed how each one of them was fighting to maintain its own identity. We even analyzed the way in which the roller had left its mark on the wall, like the almost invisible presence of the security guards.

During our conversation, in front of an Andy Warhol, we ran into a curator from the museum who recognized him.

“Hello. What are you doing here?” she said.

“Hi,” he replied.

“How are you? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, and allowed a couple of seconds of silence before adding: “Ok. Nice to see you.”

“Bye,” she said.

We continued walking and he asked me if the curator knew that I was an artist. I said no. Then Ryman told me that he had no doubt that the museum would support my project because it was good. “This is a good project. The museum will like this project. They will help you,” were his exact words. But I told him that I wasn’t so sure about that. He asked me why and I replied: “Because they don’t know yet that it’s happening.” 

Back in the lobby we sat on a bench and I gave him the notebook where the previous participants had written down their impressions. He signed as a collaborator and turned the page. Then, he remained a couple of seconds looking at the white rectangle and asked me: “How do you spell your name?” And right there, sitting on a black leather bench, he drew the four letters of my name and the numbers 08, indicating the year.

He handed back the notebook, still open to the page with his drawing, and with such happiness we took a selfie under a Miró.

***

After TELL ME came FIND ME because we still had to be found. This is what we talked about during the coffee talks that Merrill, Bob and I had every other week during quite a few years.

Since our project seemed to have been swallowed by the museum’s walls, I came up with the idea of doing a second project called FIND ME. It would consist of hiding masterpieces on the streets.

Bob agreed to make a painting on a tile from my kitchen that, like magic, I had taken out of my purse during one of our tertulias, like Mary Poppins. Merrill would make another painting on a grey rock. All the pieces of the project would be hidden in secret places, only known to the author of each piece and myself. Nine artists were invited to participate: Lars Chellberg, Barbara Holub, Paul Kos, Ester Partegás, Merrill Wagner, Robert Ryman, Arne Svenson, Lawrence Weiner and Maria Yoon.

I am aware today, as I write, that since last February 8th I’m the only carrier of the story of Ryman’s secret painting. And I feel on my shoulders the weight that is the responsibility of telling this story accurately, because Ryman’s legacy and generosity are immense, and he deserves no less than an extraordinary story. That’s the job he put me in charge of a decade ago because he believed I could deliver. Now, a decade later, I believe it too.

The day Ryman agreed to make the painting on the kitchen tile, I told him that we would need a curator in order to present the project all together with the artworks of the other artists, but he said no.

“But without a curator no one is going to know anything, like already happened with our first project,” I told him.

He said very clearly: “You have to do this project on your own. This painting is not for a curator. This painting is for Gema’s project.”

I had to choose.

I remember that I looked at him right in the eye with many doubts, since I could not understand how an emerging artist could believe in herself up to the point of ignoring curators. And then I understood who was in front of me: not my friend Bob but an exceptional artist who had dedicated his whole life to believe in his peculiar truth while planting seeds without worrying about the outcome. If you don’t understand that, it doesn’t make any sense to be an artist, I thought. And we both remained quiet for a while.

Then came to my mind the white paintings by Robert Ryman that I knew from MoMA’s fourth floor, where iconic pieces by iconic artists are on view. And I realized that—for a moment—I had forgotten the power and the strength of the “good artist” who creates work for eternity. Good artworks reveal themselves to the public slowly, layer after layer, when they are given time and dedication. They are not in any hurry to talk because they are already made.

Then Bob told me that I had to believe in myself because “I was a good artist and I had very good intuition.” Those were his words. And he also told me that the only thing I had to worry about was to make sure that I began and ended well my projects because “when the work is good, time takes care of everything else.”

I had to believe in my truth.

Then I told him: “I want the painting.”

***

The day I gave Ryman the white tile from my kitchen we had talked about hiding his painting under a bridge in Central Park. Ryman had calculated that it would last around three months in such conditions. A couple of weeks later, when he showed me the finished piece (which came wrapped up in a white waxed paper which made crunchy noises when I opened it) I couldn’t help but saying: “My God. What a great painting. We can’t put this under a bridge.”

He smiled, nodded, and said: “Yes, I didn’t know the painting would turn out so well.”

Then we both laughed and began to think of a place where his painting would be always protected. Up to this day his oil remains hidden in the exact location that Ryman himself chose. And that’s another story.

The day he signed the document of authenticity of the piece, he left blank the space reserved for the title of the painting.

“We need a title,” I said.

He remained in silence, so I asked again: “Which title do I give it?”

He continued to be in silence, looking right at me with a smile as if I were unable to decipher a riddle. He made me laugh and I told him once more:

“I have to put something!”

Then he laughed too, but still remained silent.

“Should I call it Untitled?” I insisted.

“If that’s what you want,” he said. Up to this date, the space reserved for the title of Ryman’s painting remains blank.  

James, his assistant, took a picture of us to document the moment, and I jumped back to the subway direction to Queens. It felt funny to carry an original Robert Ryman, still fresh, in my purse.  

When I arrived home and unwrapped the painting I tried to digest the fact that I was in charge of hiding a Ryman. And, as I was observing it, I had the feeling of having seen those brush strokes somewhere else. Then it came to my mind the drawing that he had made the previous year in TELL ME’s notebook, when we were sitting on the museum’s black leather bench under the Miró.

I ran to the shelf and picked up the notebook. I opened it to the page with the letters of my name and placed it near the painting. Then I saw it: a white G drawn with white oil, and glued to the G there was an E, and on top of the E, around the rest of the tile, were the left overs of my name. And I understood then why the painting hadn’t had a title just a couple of hours ago. It had a name!

I remembered our first conversation inside the museum when Ryman had told me that I was a painter. As the painter that I am, I allowed the work to talk to me.

I analyzed each one of the brushstrokes and the painting revealed each movement of the hand which had given those brushstrokes, as well as their order. The first brushstroke came from the upper left corner towards the center of the tile, in a wavy line half an inch thick. It had been placed there to test the texture of the oil in contact with the surface. That first brushstroke informs a painter what’s ahead, especially when there’s only one tile.

Then I saw the second brushstroke, which barely touched the first one but created oily waves, like those at the shore of the ocean when two waves run into each other before they die. In order to achieve that you need to apply the exact pressure on the brush. To paint with absolute control in a way that looks like a kids’ game is something that very few painters have mastered in the history of human kind.

Those masterful brushstrokes reminded me of Van Gogh’s, but Ryman’s were peaceful, coming along effortlessly as if a magic wand had dictated them, or as if they were going for a walk. That painting, made in a couple of minutes, contained the wisdom of a whole life.

As a painter, it’s almost impossible to describe the feeling of wonder that overwhelmed me as I was observing the oil, and how fun was following the slippery brush strokes sliding against each other, covering the shiny ochre surface. It was like making waves with a finger on top of a creamy cake; a delight for the eyes.

The painting has two different tonalities of white, almost invisible to the eye. I moved the tile slightly to the right, and then to the left, in order to see the effects of the light from different angles. Now I could see the G; now I couldn’t. Now I could see the third brush stroke; now it got mixed with the fourth. Now I could see the fifth; now I got lost. And I wondered what else could the painting reveal. 

I remained for a while with the painting in my hands as if it were a medieval book of hours. That’s the secret of a good painting: the multiple experiences that it can provoke in us.

I dialed Bob’s number. He picked up the phone and I said: “your painting has a message!” Then, as if he liked the fact that I had finally discovered his riddle, said: yes.

***

Artworks are made to be shared so that they can fly or generate cultural domino effects. They can even be stepped on or simply do nothing, but never an artwork was made to be placed inside a volt.

Robert Ryman’s paintings don’t need explanation and they barely have titles. They allow curiosity, understanding, respect, time to be seen and, above all, light to enlighten us. A good artist doesn’t need to explain a thing. The work does.

I learned from Ryman that a name cannot block the right light to see. We need to see beyond. We can’t be afraid either when our name is hit by the light. We simply have to believe in what’s authentic, because that’s the essence artists leave in their work when they are sincere with themselves. No one—institutions, critics or curators—can impose anything to a good artist. Nor even the ego of the artist.

There’s no rush in letting know the important stories if the time isn’t right. And how to know when the time is right? When things make sense. When the story can illuminate a path that is becoming too narrow. No one lights up an emergency candle in the middle of the day if that same candle can illuminate many when darkness challenge us.

***

I remember a conversation with Bob visiting another museum. Merrill was absorbed looking at a sculpture. He and I walked ahead to look at a painting. When I read the text of the label he said: “that’s not true.” I laughed thinking of all the inaccurate information that might be written explaining the legacy of an artist, when most of the time what we need to do is to allow the piece to reveal itself to us.

I told him jokingly: “You can say that because you knew the artist. You’ve seen everything.”

Ryman kept walking towards the next painting, pointed at it with his finger, and said: “I hadn’t seen that one!”

And that’s how the concept for the third project of the trilogy TELL ME – FIND ME – TRUST ME came to my mind.

It’s when we allow a painting to speak to us when we become aware of the instant we inhabit, as well as the light that enlightens us, whose speed remains one of the only known constants. Sometimes the right light to see a painting is a reflection, other times is the light that comes from within.

In order for a painting to enlighten others, it’s needed a soul that wants to paint it and another soul that wants to observe it. Sometimes one needs to allow silences and questions that have no answer. A painting has the power to make us feel anchored to the center of the earth.

There are paintings that have the ability to reveal space-time aspects of life. A painting is not responsible for its actions. The viewers are responsible.

***

TRUST ME consists on one-on-one verbal descriptions of artworks. The first participant of TRUST ME was Robert Ryman, when I described to him one of his paintings as an official tour guide for people who are visually impaired or legally blind. He listened to the description and then we went for a walk. This is your best project, he said. And I didn’t know how to respond to that.

The official day when TRUST ME took place inside two museums, with the participation of other artists, was May 14th, 2010. It’s just a coincidence that May 14th marks the day of all women named “Gema” in honor of the Italian Saint Gemma Galgani, well known in Spain for being the patron of students who are about to take a test. In an uncanny way, the third project that Ryman was part of also had that name in it.

Thanks, Bob, for teaching me how to be present in the moment; for all those questions that sharpened my intuition, and for all those silences which encouraged me to be alert. And ultimately, thanks for your body of work, which enlightens us.

***

The day Ryman gave me his painting with the letters of my name engraved, he said: “Make sure you place it in the right light.” I asked, which is the right light? And he explained.

In order to understand, as it happens in life, we need to be under the right light.

The Light of Robert Ryman © 2019 Gema Álava

TELL ME
© 2008 Gema Álava
Notebook that documents TELL ME.
© 2008 Gema Álava
Drawing by Robert Ryman, 2008
TELL ME
© 2008 Gema Álava
Robert Ryman and Gema Álava
FIND ME
© 2009 Gema Álava
FIND ME
© 2009 Gema Álava
Painting by Robert Ryman, 2009
FIND ME
© 2009 Gema Álava

Published by Gema Alava

Be Part of a Cultural Beehive. Forma parte de una Colmena Cultural.

2 thoughts on “#7. The Light of Robert Ryman

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