Five Myles - Murray / Ryman Review
Rebellion or Random Discovery
At Five Myles Gallery at 558 St. Johns Place on Saturday, March 23, a new show opened displaying works by two artists, Judith Murray and Cordy Ryman; the show was curated by Lilly Wei. The show was advertised as putting up works by two different generations. Judith Murray has more years behind her than she has ahead, and Cordy Ryman is in the opposite situation. The relationship between the two is even more complicated by the fact that Judith was a close friend of Cordy's father, Robert Ryman, the minimalist conceptual artist, famous for his all-white paintings. She was around as Cordy was growing up and knew him from the time he was a baby until the present. So I first examined the art and then I interviewed Cordy, Judith and Lilly, and, also almost by accident, Cordy's son who was at the show.
Cordy's work rests against the wall, but it would not be wrong to call it sculpture. It is made out of wood and is almost entirely made of squares and rectangles. The coloring is very simple, white and brown painted and there is quite a bit of exposed wood. There are only a few works in the show and they are all recent. It should be pointed out that a review of past work shows much more variety. For whatever reason, he imposed limits on himself for the pieces in this show. Judith's work actually comes from the 1980's and she discovered it when there was a leak in her studio. She wanted to save her stored work, and as she took it out of storage, she discovered the works on the display, the most commanding of which is a triptych of three fairly large canvases all the same size that have black backgrounds and very colorful shapes and movement on each. Again, this is just a snapshot from a long career in which there has been large variety.
Long ago when I was in Graduate School in English I became aware of a book that I understood so well, I never read it. It was Harold Bloom's “Anxiety of Influence.” It is one of those books like “Das Kapital” or “The Origin of the Species” that one knows without having actually read. Its argument as best I understood it without having actually read it, was that Western art changed in the Renaissance from craftsmanship in which the the artist learned to imitate what was done in the past and produced more of the same. With the Renaissance and the diminished influence of the church, artists had to be original and respond not to the church but the art market, largely dominated by aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Dealing with literature, Bloom argued that artists developed their originality through a process of rebellion. They misread their predecessors, rebelled against them and created new work unlike anything before. There was a good dose of Freudian psychology in this. Overthrowing the father was an essential part of this process. It seemed to me that Bloom's essential idea was correct. If you are not going to do what came before you must in some sense rebel against it to create something new.
Another piece of my preconceptions had to do with an understanding of some of art history. For various reasons I was very aware of two artists, Alice Neel and Thomas Hart Benton, and I knew that both of them had been put in the shade by the advent of Abstract Expressionism. They were both very angry about it because it destroyed their market and indicated that their talents were passé. This seemed to me a good example of what Bloom had described in literature. The rebels stopped doing figurative art and started to produce something radically different which then became the dominant work of the time. I remember how Jackson Pollock shook up the art world by spattering paint across canvases. One had to be pro or con and whether he won the vote, he took up most of the air in the room.
First of all, Judith Murray is part of the Abstract Expressionist movement but she came later. When I talked to her, she said the leaders of that movement were her idols. They profoundly affected her outlook and thinking. The artist who meant the most to her then was Ad Reinhardt who put on a show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1958 of all black paintings. She told me she went to this exhibit when she was still a student at Pratt; she saw the black rectangles on the wall and thought the pictures had not been installed yet, and she left. Out on the street she encountered someone who told her that those black things were the pictures. She went back and looked closely and saw the subtle effects that could be seen with careful observation. This led to a period when she was interested in all the work by Abstract Expressionists. The movement opened up a period of freedom and the possibility of transcending cultural boundaries. She made her own discoveries and started using black backgrounds with only three other colors – white, yellow and red. Her pictures in the show are from that period. So there went the first part of my theory derived from Bloom. Murray was not a rebel but someone who began by imitating and then making her own discoveries by limiting her options as the minimalists had done before her. However, her work is hardly minimalist; the limited colors are starkly defined, making clear shapes, and the pictures are dramatic with lots of movement and energy in them. So I would say that she made a discovery almost at random (what if her informant had not been outside to send her back to the exhibit?). And then she moved on from that discovery to make other discoveries within the general idea of Abstract Expressionism. However, Lilly Wei says, despite what Judith says, that her work goes beyond Abstract Expressionism into something else. I really can't say, both ideas make sense to me. Abstract Expressionism is a big territory and the borders are not defined so clearly.
So then we get to Cordy, son of the recently deceased Robert Ryman. His work is so different from Judith's that I took it that he was a rebel, resisting Abstract Expressionism to create a new kingdom. He doesn't see it that way. He told me he was not aware of Judith as artist when he was growing up. She was just a person who was often in the house. On the other hand, if you look at his father's work, one might well think that his father was his starting point. This is not how Cordy sees it. He writes, “As a child and a teenager the majority of the adult people I knew and interacted with were artists. This was and seemed normal in my world; I knew that each person did some strange and crazy thing as their 'art' and that this thing they did was unique and important to each of them personally. I did not often think of even always know what each person's specific works was, but the overall impression that each person did their own thing was instrumental and influential on me.” Rather, he seems to be saying that he was more influenced by a general atmosphere rather than one specific person the way Judith was when she was young.
Well, then there is the seemingly sharp contrast between the two artists of the two different generations. That idea is confused by the fact that Judith's work is much older than Cordy's. One would want them fighting it out in the present. However, hers came long before and he apparently had different influences that were not negative put largely positive. When I asked Lilly about the differences between the artists, she said what she was trying to show was, that despite age differences, the differences in when the works were created and the differences in medium, what struck her was the similarity in underlying theme. Well, that was a bit of a shock. So I went back and looked again, and by George, I think she is on to something.
I won't try to define what that similarity is. It would be like telling you how a novel ends and might ruin the experience. Rather take this review as a hint, go to the exhibit, and see what you think. I found the exhibit surprising in more than one way. I came with a preconception that turned out to be a misconception, and now I am glad I never read Harold Bloom. In searching for an overall theory I would now turn to Thomas Kuhn's work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Writing about science, he tells how revolutions do happen in science but then there is a period of consolidation in which scientists figure out the implications of the revolution. Newtonian Physics, Evolution, Relativity are examples of such revolutions each followed by a long period of careful development. With Newtonian physics you can send someone to the moon. There is still ground breaking work going on in evolution and relativity but it is not revolutionary. I would say Abstract Expressionism was such a revolution. The process of figuring out the implications is an on-going process
One more twist: When I met Cordy's son, I found out he does something in finance on Wall Street. So I suggested to him that he was rebelling against his artistic family. Not a bit of it. He said there is something in numbers that is not so far removed from his father's work and that he imagined the next turn in his career might be to become an artist. Well, I actually did read Freud, but I may have to throw out all that stuff about the Oedipal Complex. Whatever ideas one has, it is always good to see how they stack up with the data.
⁃ John DeWind
( A first draft of this review contained some serious blunders. I thank the artists and Lilly for setting me straight. The opinions expressed are of course my own.)