Cordy Ryman: Constellations

David Rhodes, The Brooklyn Rail, April 11, 2021

Cordy Ryman has long made a practice of installing works to suit the context of a specific gallery space, and his current exhibition at Freight + Volume is no different. Ryman, for example, places Hall Wave II (2021), an undulating, vertical, fence-like assemblage, along one wall of the gallery's narrow front gallery. Likewise, the four "Constellations"-East, West, South, and North (all 2021)-are wall-based configurations of small scale works that radiate out according to a matrix that anchors them and provides underlying structure to the way they inhabit Freight + Volume's second, more squarely proportioned, space. Despite this environmental specificity, however, the composition of the works could be altered by switching out pieces one for another without undermining the integrity of the structure as a whole. 


Baker's 9 Bar (2021) comprises nine vertical bars made up of square sections, with space between each one that could be extended or reduced depending on a particular spatial context. In placing Baker's 9 Bar en route to the "Constellations," Ryman ensures that when walking from a frontal to an oblique view of the work, the intensely hued sides of each stack of wooden blocks are revealed. Next, the "Constellations" face each other across adjacent walls. The arrangement of each grouping of pieces within a limit implies a shaped area within the wall as a whole-to completely extend the arrangements to the actual limit of each wall would suggest a more thoroughly non-hierarchical, all-over composition. Ryman, instead, favors a controlled scatter, recalling the floor-based pieces of Barry Le Va, however distantly, or the extension of painting into physical space that Allan Kaprow identified as a crucial consequence of Jackson Pollock's practice.


In such physical handling of materials-often manifested by cutting and reusing fragments-Ryman not only maintains a resourceful playfulness, over time he reveals an evolving vocabulary of form and color that informs the consistent freshness of these works. The recursive nature of Ryman's approach produces distinctive combinations that are always open to further recombination-an approach that is always aleatory, intuitive, and hands-on.


All the works here clearly have a relationship to their exact position within the space of the gallery: Ryman optimizes the size, scale, and proportion of each wall, its length, and the proximity of facing walls or openings to other adjacent spaces of the gallery. But the independent life of each work, and the forms that make it up, does not depend only on Ryman's process of material improvisation, of cutting the wood pieces to size, reclaiming off-cuts from previous works, painting, and repositioning. The works also contain specific references, both for the artist himself and the viewer-this is exemplified by Ryman's approach to titling.


Topographic, map-like, and geographic, each of the "Constellations" are titled with a cardinal point-a poetic and factual referent, both indexical and mobile. Take for example Constellation 1 South, where the titling of the individual pieces within the grouping is typically orienting, positional, and relational. Some examples: Northeastern Curves #1, Frame Trace South West #1Mini Moon #1Compass West #1 (all 2020). Each one of these works, here presented within a circumscribed grouping, can be seen individually and from different vantage points, as they are all painted relief objects. The surface face, left, frontal, right, top, bottom, are all different: varying in color, pattern or mark-making.  Northeastern Curves #1, located in the upper right section of Constellation 1 South, is, when thinking of the incremental divisions of the compass dial, within the territory identified by its title. The drawn graphite lines and orange paint that alternate in a quadrant of radial curves centrifugally reference the implied epicenter of the overall work-it is a fragment that is both complete in itself and inescapably relational.


There is an evocative, conceptually expansive, effect-travel, location, movement, viewpoint, transit, all come to mind. Think of the specificity, and openness of the title Alfred Hitchcock gave his 1959 film North by Northwest, or Blinky Palermo's installation The Four Cardinal Points, made for the Venice Biennale of 1976. The restraint on physical travel during our current pandemic situation makes such geographic referents poignant and provocative. The leanness of means present in Ryman's work does not come at the expense of complexity or variety of scale, nor does his resourcefulness in recycling or revisiting forms and formats inhibit the inventiveness of this, the latest installment in Ryman's unfolding oeuvre.