In one of the final remarks of her talk last Monday for the Dia Art Foundation’s Artists on Artists lectures, Frances Stark hit on the essence of the series: “Being an artist is about falling in love with other artists.” Rather than simply lecture about Robert Ryman’s art, Stark used slides showing scanned pages of text, juxtapositions of both artists’ work and studios, and silent video clips to demonstrate the feeling of another’s influence on your own practice.
Stark, whose work is often self-referential, uses both visual and verbal means of communication to examine references ranging from art history to online chat-room culture. When she began her graduate studies in studio art, though, she had no formal background in art or art history. “As an artist, I come to art as a reader,” she said at Dia. Her presentation emphasized experiencing and consuming art as a type of reading. “What readers do is they touch texts, and texts touch them,” she explained, while showing a spread from her Collected Works that illustrated several poems annotated by hand. Ryman’s work reached out and touched her.
While developing her practice in graduate school, she began to tack up pictures of source material and scraps of paper as inspiration along her studio wall — much like Ryman’s practice of hanging thought-provoking and interesting images on his studio walls. “People would visit my studio and say, ‘Oh Robert Ryman, Robert Ryman.’ I had no idea who that was, so I thought I better go look him up,” she said, eliciting chuckles from the audience. But, as she stated early on, her lecture was not going to be just her thoughts on Ryman; rather, she hoped to “speak on another’s practice through myself.” In discussing the development of her own work, the evidence of Ryman’s influence would become clear.
This didn’t preclude her from sharing what she’d since learned about the iconic painter. Ryman, who came to art through his job as a museum guard at the Museum of Modern Art, is most famous for his gestural paintings and works on paper in various shades of white. Once, when shipping work overseas, to avoid paying the hefty customs taxes on art, Ryman marked a group of his as “used paper.” “I’ve often wondered,” Stark mused, “about paintings as used paint.”
Following this story, Stark showed some of her early mark making on paper, in which she used song lyrics as source material. Never going so far as to explain explicit connections between Ryman’s work and her own, she simply let the visual parallels do the talking, as with a slide that paired a lyric drawing of hers with Ryman’s “Surface Veil” (1970). Both works share a palette of warm and creamy white layered rectangles, as well as scraps of tape on the edges that reference their own physicality as works on paper. The visual pairs were not always so clear, however; at times, the images Stark flashed onto the screen seemed unrelated to Ryman or to each other, leaving the audience wondering whether this was a presentation or a performance.
I suspect Stark would have preferred that it be considered a form of reading. “Being an artist is about the intimate act of being a receiver,” she said at the end. Tearing a page from her notes, crumpling it up, and then unfolding again, she claimed, “the act of reading creates a ghost text” — echoing her earlier image of annotated poems. With her reading of Ryman, Stark performed as the ghost of his work, tracking the traces of his mark making in her art.
“Frances Stark on Robert Ryman” took place on June 16 as part of the Artists on Artists Lecture Series at Dia Art Foundation.