Robert Ryman’s Aesthetic: Beginnings and Loose Ends

Robert Ryman has never been as approachable as he is in the exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery, the first devoted to his works on paper. Mind you, I said “approachable” with a proviso: If you’re of the opinion that Mr. Ryman’s 40-odd-year investigation of the color white has been an exercise in futility, don’t expect to undergo a change of heart. Blum’s exquisitely appointed show can’t conceal the fundamental skimpiness of the Ryman aesthetic. Stepping off from Philip Guston’s abstract impressionist phase, Mr. Ryman took its constituent parts-in particular, the fleshy slurs of oil paint-and distilled them until they became shells of their former selves. He operates under the assumption that style is a buffet from which you pick and (barely) choose. He mistakes puttering for painting, dabbling for the real thing.

The works on paper are more of the same. A bit of green here, a piece of masking tape there, a wallpaper sample, a scratchy grid and an abundance of white-these are artful maneuvers, clumsily stated yet unfailingly elegant. The pieces do benefit from a modesty of scale and demeanor. They date between 1957-1964, the years Mr. Ryman was settling into his signature style. The inquisitive playfulness is welcome. You even forgive him the use of his signature, childlike and teetering to the right, as a pictorial element-it gives the eye something to hang on to. It doesn’t hang long, though. Why should it? Mr. Ryman intimates relationships but can’t bring them to fruition. The work is all beginnings, loose ends and no tension. The exhibition is recommended to people who profess a love for art but don’t much enjoy looking at it. The rest of us can attend to more important matters-doing the laundry, putting out the cat, that kind of thing.

Robert Ryman: Works on Paper 1957-1964 is at Peter Blum, 99 Wooster Street, until Sept. 25 (the gallery is closed Aug. 1 to 23).

Art as Adjunct

The abstract paintings of Susan Wanklyn, the subject of an exhibition at Cheryl Pelavin Fine Arts, have a lot going for them. A colorist of sensitivity and distinction, Ms. Wanklyn has a self-effacing touch suited to the appealing, unkempt lyricism that is her stock-in-trade. The grid, having been a mainstay of the work, has been jettisoned; the compositions have become open in their structure. Ms. Wanklyn’s vocabulary of forms doesn’t have much variety-it includes unfurling bands of silky color, hasty scrawls of paint and that’s about it-yet it seems enough for her spare, poetic purposes. She juxtaposes the marks upon grounds that are dense, muted and luminous. The paintings evince their evolution more through suggestion than hard evidence. Understatement is one of Ms. Wanklyn’s strengths.

Notwithstanding its virtues, Ms. Wanklyn’s art points to a problem common to artists who have come of age since the rise of Conceptualism: a disconnect between form and content. You remember that old saw-well, it’s been so thoroughly trounced upon by deconstructionists, postmodernists and nihilists of one stripe or another that it’s time to take the saw out of the closet, run a damp cloth over it and look at it anew. The legacy of Conceptual art is not a culture bereft of artistic talent, but a culture that is merely talent.

The scene is full of painters and sculptors with impressive technical skill who have, in essence, nowhere to go with it. So they paint about something , burdening the work with Meaning. The ambition to imbue color or space or shape with meaning-to grace form with a full-bodied and independent life-is alien to a generation conditioned to believe that art is an adjunct to something else. Ms. Wanklyn has done some fine paintings in the past; she’s likely to right herself in the future. But when her snarled doodles reveal themselves as stick figures of riders on horses, the eye cringes and the heart sinks. If a painter as nuanced as this one can’t escape the grip of the literal, then you have to worry about where we go from here.

Susan Wanklyn: Outer Mongolia is at Cheryl Pelavin Fine Arts, 13 Jay Street, until June 26.

Functional Banality

You want to find the life of the party? Best not to head over to the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where the paintings of Anna Hostvedt are on display in the back room. Ms. Hostvedt practices a wan, almost affectless brand of realism. The titles of the pictures- Parking Lot #18 (2003) or Field by an Overpass #9 (2001)-point to her innate resistance to elaboration and an abiding commitment to the functional, the descriptive and the banal. Ms. Hostvedt puts brush to panel as if she was covering her tracks-her reticence is so pronounced you begin to wonder why she bothers. The pictures, gray in tenor and palette, pull at the eye all the same. They stir with barely discernible moments of electricity: a pinkish fog; an abrupt tumble of space; two cars engaged in an illicit transaction; and a distant electrical tower that looms over the horizon like Godzilla heading for downtown Tokyo. Ms. Hostvedt’s pictures pique our curiosity; within them is a painter of rare and humble promise.

Anna Hostvedt: Recent Paintings is at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until July 2.