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All words by Francis Chung.

All photos courtesy of the Phillips Collection.  (Image credits below.)

The color white occupies a privileged place in the history of abstract painting.  Again and again, from Kazimir Malevich’s groundbreaking rematist Composition: White on White (1918) to the Cage-inspired “blankness” of Robert Rauschenberg’s WhPaintings (1951) to Gerhard Richter’s white stract Paintings (2009), artists have returned to this visual tabula rasa, fascinated by its unique physical properties and myriad metaphoric connotations.  This summer, the Phillips Collection examines two remarkable episodes in the avant-garde’s adventures in white with a pair of exhibitions showcasing the work of Robert Ryman and Richard Pousette-Dart, artists who put their own distinctive inflections on one of modernism’s signature aesthetic tropes.

Robert Ryman, Untitled, c. 1964.

Beautifully displayed in one of the Phillips’ sunlit galleries, with the artist himself having personally overseen the installation, Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations features 25 small-scaled works that embody the rigorously self-reflexive nature of Ryman’s art.  Resolutely non-representational, the subject of these paintings is nothing more or less than painting itself.  tled (c. 1965) is a case in point.  Comprised of a roughly 10″ x 10″ square linen canvas marked only with horizontal rows of broad, textured white brushstrokes, the work distills the art form to its necessary and sufficient conditions, foregrounding the fundamental material properties of the medium.  This, Ryman reminds us, is what painting essentially and inevitably is:  pigment applied to a flat surface.  Throughout the exhibition, Ryman (a former jazz saxophonist) riffs on the same basic motifs:  rectangular forms that echo the shape of the supports, with various shades of oft-impastoed white paint inflected by occasional bursts of other colors, such as the red and blue tinges of Uled (c. 1964). The minimalist economy of means does not, however, result in a paucity of visual incident or interest.  On the contrary, it encourages viewers to look longer and more closely, focusing the eye and mind on differences and modulations in texture, hues, process, and materials, while calling attention to the very experience of seeing and the spatial and temporal context in which it takes place.

Occupying three galleries upstairs at the Phillips, Pousette-Dart: Predominantly White Paintings is a slightly larger show, featuring 27 works mostly made in the early 1950s.  The aptness of the exhibition title is somewhat debatable, as a number of pieces, such as the gold-suffused <hite Sound (1949-50), contain other colors in considerable quantities, though an ample use of white is certainly a connecting principle of this body of work, most of which was first shown together at a New York solo show in 1955.  In addition to several concurrently produced wire sculptures, the majority of the pictures on view are not strictly paintings in the traditional sense, and many of them might be more accurately described as hybrids of painting and drawing.  In ite Cosmos (1950-51), a web of gestural graphite pencil lines frames fields of sparsely-applied white oil paint, creating a dynamically fluctuating space in which perception and imagination are invited to wander.  While the grid-like pattern at the right side of that image is perhaps reminiscent of Ryman’s squares and rectangles, Pousette-Dart’s abstractions lend themselves much more readily and explicitly to pictorial readings-in, with biomorphic shapes and geometric forms generating ever-shifting evocations of landscapes, bodies, and archetypal symbols, while surrealistically resisting stable interpretations.  The intense richness of these works stands as a fitting dialectical counterpoint to the relative starkness of Ryman’s white paintings, reflecting the expansive range of meanings and effects that intrepid painters continue to cull from a single, iconic color.

Richard Pousette-Dart, White Sound, 1949-50.

Ryman: Variations and Improvisations and Pousette-Dart: Predominantly White Paintings are on view at the Phillips Collection from Saturday, June 5 to Sunday, September 12.

Image credits (from top to bottom):

1.  Robert Ryman, <ntitled, c. 1965. Oil on stretched sized linen canvas, 10 1/8 x 10 1/8 in.
RR 65.006 ©2010 Robert Ryman.<

2.  Robert Ryman, <ntitled, c. 1964. New Masters vinyl polymer paint on aluminum, 7 x 7 in.
RR 64.0512 ©2010 Robert Ryman.<

3.  Richard Pousette-Dart, <hite Cosmos, 1950-51. Oil and graphite on board, 36 x 48 in. Courtesy of Knoedler Gallery. © 2010 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.<

4.  Richard Pousette-Dart, <hite Sound, 1949-50. Oil and graphite on linen, 58 1/2 x 49 1/4 in. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Sam Mandel, Palm Beach, Fla. © 2010 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.<

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