In his current exhibition, Cordy Ryman: Constellations, at Freight + Volume, Ryman’s debut with this storefront gallery on the Lower East Side, the artist made a specific installation for each of its three joined spaces. “Hall Wave II” (2021) narrows and evens out the long, irregular space of the first room. The installation consists of an undulating row of two-by-four planks leaned against an elevated support a considerable distance from the wall, shrinking the room’s navigable space.
I was reminded of “Melville” (2016), a row of evenly spaced two by fours, which Ryman installed along the left wall of the main gallery at Zürcher (September 15–October 30, 2016), in a more upright position. In that exhibition, which I reviewed, he painted the two by fours white on the three outward-facing sides and fluorescent red on the wall-facing side. The fence-like installation cast a pink glow on the wall behind it.
Ryman also painted “Hall Wave II”’s boards white on three sides and fluorescent red on the back, but he left the knotholes in the wood untouched. The boards extend further into the space than those in the Zürcher show. In fact, when I reached the far end of the installation, I turned around and looked down the open space, which was wide enough to enter and walk along the inside of the installation, though I was unsure if it would be possible to turn around, partly because of the vertical supports, so I did not try.
By not painting over the knotholes, Ryman slows us down and makes us, or this viewer at least, aware that, for all their uniformity, none of the boards are exactly alike.
It also occurred to me that Ryman is gently reframing and pushing back against his legacy, and determinedly making a space for his own work. He is the middle son of the artist Robert Ryman (1930-2019), who was married to two strong women, Lucy Lippard and Merrill Wagner. Wagner, who is an artist, is his mother.
While his father explored materials, surfaces, and processes, he was known for what he achieved with white paint. He would never have used fluorescent red or explored the possibilities of the glow it can cast on the wall it faces.
What Ryman brings to the table is a sense of humor marked by a refusal to regard the role of the artist too seriously. This does not mean he defines himself as a jokester. Rather, he is dealing with the more tricky challenge of his generation’s legacy, which some have regarded as the end of painting and sculpture — the move into what Rosalind Krauss defined as the expanded field, in which “sculpture is rather only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured possibilities.” But hasn’t the expanded field become a capitalist playground, where expensively fabricated works or unblemished objects are celebrated and fetishized?
This is the part of the legacy that Ryman rejects and in which his father did not participate.
After passing “Hall Wave II,” the viewer walks down a very narrow hallway before entering the second gallery. On the right-hand wall, Ryman has installed “Baker’s 9 Bar,” nine evenly spaced, stacked rows made of thirteen cut sections of two by fours. According to the specifications given in the checklist, each cut section measures 3 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches.
Together, the grid of stacked rows is almost a perfect square (47 3/4 by 45 1/2 inches). While many of the sections are painted white on the front, with their knotholes left unpainted, they are not all the same color, nor are they uniformly painted.
There are continuities among the parts — for instance, the sides of one of the vertical rows are painted the same tint of muted green — but there are also exceptions. The fact that the grid never settles into a fixed pattern keeps us looking.
There is something funny and smart about Ryman’s ironic, self-mocking use of two by fours as his primary material, as they are often used as supports in building construction but are seldom seen. What is behind the wall, and holding it in place, is now cut into sections and arranged on the front of the wall.
This space is joined to the last one, the largest of the three, which is situated at a right angle to the other. It is in this final space that the viewer sees the fecundity of Ryman’s approach, while working within his circumscribed means, which is to put paint on a cut section of wood.
On each of the four walls, Ryman has arranged more than 30 painted pieces of wood of varying dimensions, angles, and thicknesses. All of these aggregations are given the same title, but are differentiated by the wall on which they have been placed: “Constellation 1 South,” for example, or “Constellation 2 West” (both 2021).
Each constellation is made up of groupings of six to eight pieces, which Ryman refers to as his “clouds.” Each piece within the group is individually titled; the titles include “Wood #2,” “Angle Down #3,” and “Latitude #2” (all 2020). The pieces are painted on all five of the visible sides. As with the unpainted knotholes in “Hall Wave II,” Ryman uses acrylic paint to interact with the wood grain as well as the space and the surface of each piece.
When I was standing in the last room, dazzled by Ryman’s different responses to the scraps of wood he accumulated, I thought about the pandemic and lockdown in New York. This was work that did not require expensive equipment. It was not fabricated. Ryman applied acrylic paint to wood that measured around 3 1/2 by 3 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches. This was DIY aesthetics raised to a high level of sophistication while remaining modest and self-effacing.
There are well over 100 individual artworks in the exhibition. Working within his own limits, Ryman kept reaching toward something different. In various pieces, he painted rectangles within the chunky block’s rectangular shape; made a cluster of ovals rift across a surface; applied paint to every other band of curving wood grain; defined an oval within the space of the block; or painted a form that extended from the front to one of the sides. These are only a few of his interactions with the wood. He also used different colors, without any clear preferences.
It would seem the isolation of the pandemic did not stop Ryman from making large bodies of work. The Constellations series exemplifies resourcefulness, devotion, and imagination during a time of duress. I found it extremely heartening.
Cordy Ryman: Constellations continues at Freight + Volume (97 Allen Street, Manhattan) through April 11.