Abstract Critical

Bad Infinity

Written by Dan Coombs

Apparently it is possible to put painting to the test, to try and discover in a manner similar to a scientist what its essential components are. For example, in 1963, Robert Ryman drew a grid in charcoal onto a stretched canvas, un-mounted it, and then re-stretched it (‘Stretched Drawing’ 1963, Collection of the Artist). The grid has been altered, infinitesimally, by the act of stretching. Slight shifts in the layout of the original drawing can be perceived, as the drawing seems to bend against the edges of the stretcher – or is this an illusion? Perhaps the drawing did not change at all, and it is only our knowledge of the process it underwent that causes us to look for differences that are in fact imperceptible.

Robert Ryman, Eagle Turquoise 7H#4, 1966. Pencil on coffee filter paper with artist's frame, 13 x 13" (33 x 33 cm). Ruth Vollmer Bequest. © 2011 Robert Ryman

I would disagree with Yves Alain Bois who says that part of the charm of Robert Ryman’s work is that “…when the norms of painting are put to the test, what is arbitrary will have the last word “[1]. Ryman’s paintings don’t feel arbitrary, and neither is arbitrariness satisfying. What for me is powerful about Ryman’s work is that he seems to be continually forcing us to look for an element that might not be present, for something that though appearing to be the point of the whole painting structure, in fact turns out, when one searches for it, to disappear. Ryman’s paintings create the illusion of having no beginning and no end. They are tantalising- structured according to laws that are invisible. Ryman seems to want to make us look at something that in fact is completely absent, the structuring facture that leads only onto nothingness, like thousands of tiny white rabbits disappearing into tiny white hats.

Thus Ryman is more of a magician than a materialist, and seems to embody a paradox: that the more one emphasises paintings material components, the more illusion creeps back in, the more dishonest to actual materiality the act of painting seems. Painting can never simply be a purely material thing, and this is not just because it goes on the wall to be looked at and not touched. Its inability to rid itself of illusion, to expunge itself of its own illusory capacity, is a reflection of the fact that the artist can never totally absent him or herself from the work. The artist is always present as the ghost in the machine- and the painting is always pretending to be something it is not. This is notwithstanding the desire of many commentators, to reduce painting to an essential state, the essence being proper, empirical materiality, the final literalisation of painting into something we can all agree on. The total failure of anyone to theoretically reduce painting to a single identifiable essence, its continuing ability to proliferate into unexpected areas and to be irreducible to anything except paradox, is what guarantees its continuing evolution.

Robert Ryman, Pace, 1984. Synthetic polymer paint on fiberglass on wood with aluminum, 59 1/2 x 26 x 28" (151.2 x 66 x 71.1 cm). Gift of anonymous donor and gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder. © 2011 Robert Ryman

Ryman has said of his work; “What the painting is, is exactly what you see… the way it’s done and the way it feels. That’s what’s there”. [2] Yet this statement, like many statements by artists, seems more like an invitation for the viewer to go against the artists professed intentions. What we see in ‘Stretched Drawing’ is not what we get; what we sense is the perception of an infitessimally small shift, and it reminds us that the infinity can be an infinite regress, as well as infinite expansion. Its the sense of the infinite that Ryman’s materiality gives way to, and it is this opening out that gives his work an elusive metaphysical quality, and transcends its own materiality. That this capacity within contemporary painting is often denied by commentators is not surprising. Emmanuel Levinas writes

“Classical thought, faithful to the ideal of completeness and measure that inspired its art and religion, was suspicious of the infinite…finite forms, clear and intelligible, constituted the cosmos. The infinite, a source of illusion, got mixed up in it and had to be driven out, like the poets from Plato’s city.”[3]

Much contemporary art (just think of Martin Creed for example) has become an art of “completeness and measure”, or at least of ordered systems and rationalisable commodities.  As T.J. Clark has written, “Modernism and materiality go together”.[4] Yet many painters, following in Ryman’s footsteps, would make use of materiality only to allow it to give way to its other; the irrational, the beautiful, the infinite and the sublime.

Thus in a show of art that makes a subject of its own materiality, it is not surprising to find that much of the work alludes to the opposite, its immateriality. The division of colours in Caline Aoun’s ‘Paperplanes’ create perspective lines that recede to infinity, as does the receding points of Richard Clements’ ‘Javelin’. With the work of all the artists in the show, in whatever medium, we find objects that are alluding always to something tantalisingly unreachable. That seems to be a definition of materiality that the works in this show embody; that they always give way to something beyond the reach of thought, something ultimately unknowable. The material opens to the immaterial, objects are realigned and point towards infinity.

Dan Coombs is a painter whose recent solo shows include “Heaven and Earth” at the Fine Art Society, London. He is associate editor of Turps Banana magazine and visiting lecturer in Painting at Wimbledon College of Art.


[1] Yves – Alain Bois ‘Ryman’s Tact’ in ‘Painting as Model’, October Books, MIT Press 1990

[2] Phyllis Tuchman ‘Interview with Robert Ryman’ Artforum 9, May 1971, quoted in above article.

[3] Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Alterity and Transcendence’, Columbia University Press 1999. The title of this essay is taken from the section in Levinas’ essay ‘The Other Transcendence: Infinity’.

[4] T.J.Clark, ‘Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism’, Yale University Press, 1999.

A symposium on the exhibition Matter will be held by abstractcritical on Friday 4th November.  Visit our Events section for more information.

  1. Sam Cornish said…

    I thought this was a carefully considered piece of writing and one that accompanied a very skillfully curated show. Yet both (separately and in conjunction) left me basically unsatisfied. The suggestion of the ‘tantalizingly unreachable’ too often seemed to be more a plausible apology than a telling description. It acts to excuse work which simply failed to deliver anything very much at all, beyond a thin poetry, faint absurdity and hopelessness or the barest scuffing into existence. Though the exhibition undeniably looks very good indeed this seemed almost entirely dependent on the placement of the works, rather than the works themselves.

    The one thing (and I think that ‘thing’ is a very accurate description of it) which stood out for me was Richard Clement’s Javelin. This was perhaps because, rather than pointing to the invisible beyond, Javelin was a stubborn presence, despite its small size. The important aspect of it was not that its two slopes slide away from each other and toward the infinite but rather that the way in which they join creates an illusion that rests firmly within the material. Rather than hanging our hopes on ambiguities we are not quite sure if we can see, would not a more satisfying abstraction involve consideration of ambiguities that are more present than absent? Though slight and somewhat cold it seems to me that this is the direction which Javelin points in.

    Sam