I came across Robert Ryman’s Classico 5 – an art piece comprised of white paint on white canvas – when I was a freshman in college. My reaction to the painting was visceral, akin to WTF!?!?! I was a student of biology at the time. But that encounter changed everything. Curiosity had taken root.
As a newly minted design student, I learned a few things quickly. Avoid drop shadows like the plague. Keep your sketchbook sacred. Coffee matters. And: never speak of style.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to say there is something inherently wrong with style. Ryman’s distinctive aesthetic is style. Style as a pursuit is problematic. As a student awestruck by white on white, this can be tough to swallow. But design thrives in a space driven by purpose. Style results as a natural outcome of a dedicated working process. It shouldn’t be the goal. It’s an attribute of a subject, not the subject itself. Design’s focus is substance, it is problem-solving – with forward-vision.
Another lesson of design. In critique, do not use like or dislike. Style lives in the arena of like/dislike. I like a lot of things. Hell, I love a lot of things. (Hot pink, for one.) But the people I respect, and the work I find fascinating, are problem-solvers. They are fixers. Like Robert Ryman.
If abstract expressionists embraced the materiality of paint – with drips and drops applauded as wins – minimalism threw on the brakes. Ryman is pushing us to seek the quiet, to pay attention. Paint need not shout. The surface need only exist. The whisper is as poetic as the exclamation. Classico No. 5 may be the epitome of this approach. With common materials and purposeful production, twelve pieces of paper become one, speaking softly to a field dominated by grandiose proclamations.
That is why, in my eyes, Robert Ryman was and will forever remain a designer. While his toolkit remained firmly rooted in the practice of painting, his methodology was that of a designer. He was, on the one hand, seeking to solve something with every piece, and on the other seeking to be expressive in limitations. His paintings are, with little exception, white on white, with simple yet complex surfaces. He investigated the seemingly limitless possibilities of painting while purposefully reducing the materiality of his approach. He embraced this reduction and built a career.
As I began this post, I learned that Ryman had passed away. It is hard for me to fully explain how much influence he has had on me over the years. The student that discovered his work so many years ago has gone through various stages of development. The constant through it all has been the voice with which my work speaks. I trust the process and I accept what the materials give me and allow me. Any stylistic cues are a product of each investigation, each uniquely their own.
Ryman’s style (and my own) is for someone else to judge. I see a man who had a toolkit and chose to pursue a series of questions. He was seeking to find a series of answers. Ryman’s white paint is no different than my Mac, mouse, and knowledge of typography. Ryman’s pursuit is one of design, as each client’s outcomes are my own. I have a responsibility to seek that outcome, to seek an answer that can last. I fully expect that each outcome will be different. I fully expect that an outsider may view similarities between projects in my portfolio and dare to call it style.