Reviewed by Weronika Trojanska
I am trying to remind myself if I have ever seen any of Robert Ryman’s famous white paintings “live”. Some of them are apparently in the collection of Museum of Modern Art in New York. I remember perfectly that I was there, but I am not able now to call up his paintings. I don’t remember whether I saw them or not. Maybe because their surface is white and it just simply merged with the wall, becoming invisible. While on the same trip to United States, I missed visiting the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon (which has a vast collections of Rymans), but I remember the white snowfields in Central Park, when an extreme snowstorm came one night. I know from the experience that pervasive white could be more compelling and even more disquieting than darkness.
Ryman’s paintings at Dia:Beacon are the core of the narrative, The day my mother touched Robert Ryman created by Swiss conceptual artist Stefan Sulzer. I flick through the small white publication with simple black letters on the cover. Shuffling pages very fast reminds me of a flip book with sequences of images that set in motion create an animation. Only here there are no drawn pictures. The images are hidden in words of the short poem-like story, interspersed with a collage of quotations. During her visit to the museum, the artist’s mother, our main character, couldn’t stop herself from touching the elegant surface of Ryman’s painting, becoming a reflection on receptions to art in general.
Except the simple font of the letters there is apparently nothing else. No pictures. No page numbers. No footnotes. Only the white surface of paper. Some of the pages remain blank, as they want to leave a time for the image to arise. “In Ryman’s case, white functions not as a signifier, but as a condition of visibility” – says the fragment of the book. “They are all white, but they are not without the images.” The longer we follow the plot, the more it becomes self-reflexive. The “deeper” we experience, the more the narrative tells the story of the book we are reading. “Mallarmé talked about the white page as a void that gives relief from the intensity signified by the blackness of print”.
“In a time oversaturated with images, where the production of art objects is a sector of the leisure industry…the silence of Ryman’s square…bespeaks a mysticism that is the necessary antidote to the tiresome communicativeness of the world.” A powerful cogitation on the existence of the graphically modest artist’s book being an art work in the commodity of visual culture today.
Every sentence has been placed on a separate page, appearing more powerful than the narrative assembled together as one piece of prose. They behave like action shots, triggers of imagination – each evokes another frame, as in a movie.
On the last page with the imprint, it states: “The text of this book is based on the eponymous video piece from 2013…” I was afraid to watch the film. As in many cases of film adaptations of the book, it could that happen that the disappointment could destroy the vision you have created.
I didn’t want to my vision to fade away. For more than twenty years I didn’t want to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s as I was afraid of the same. When I finally did, I didn’t feel anything, only the sentiment. In the end, I watched the video and breathed a sigh of relief. The video, “The day my mother touched Robert Ryman” uses the same story, only fills the blank pages in the book with a spoken text. The narrative is read over the images of passing landscape on the way to Beacon. The movie and a book complement each other. Personally I prefer the latter one. I like size of it and the fact that it fits in a coat pocket, so you can read it on a train on the way to Dia Art Foundation. “You don’t know really what people would think about it. But you hope that someone will feel good about it” – said Robert Ryman, when interviewed by Art21.
Stefan Sulzer. The day my mother touched Robert Ryman. Edition Taube, 2015.
Reviewed by Weronika Trojanska