My colleagues in the Department of Drawings and I are often asked about our criteria for defining what a drawing is. The short answer is that a drawing is typically defined as any unique (non-print) work of art with a paper material support. Taking this question one step further, I often think: Why did the artist use paper and not, for instance, a canvas? In what ways do the materials used by an artist lend themselves to the work, and how do they play out in the composition itself? Considering these questions I found myself thinking recently about the work of Robert Ryman, and in particular his 1968 work Classico 5, which is in our collection. Since the late 1950s Ryman has continually explored the notions of “anti-illusionism” and pure painting by focusing on the physicality of paint as material, and the way it is applied to and relates to its support. In his first solo exhibition at Paul Bianchini Gallery in 1967, he exhibited his Standard series—thirteen flat-rolled steel panels painted white and hung flush against the wall. Ryman had begun working solely with white paint at this time, believing that the color white, in its purity, best highlighted the manipulation of paint on a given surface. The focus of the Standard works was on the painting process and the material surface.
Following the Standard paintings, Ryman made his seminal series of paintings executed on Classico paper in 1968. He had been working with unstretched linen and tape, which he used to “frame” each painting to the wall, and from the unstretched linen he then transitioned into working on paper. In his 1993 retrospective catalogue copublished by MoMA and the Tate Gallery, London, Ryman recalled, “I wanted to work with something thin, and I was thinking of paper. I had just finished the Standard paintings, and they were very heavy. I liked the thinness and I liked the way the Standard panels sat on the wall softly. They were heavy and hard, but didn’t look that way. I wanted to continue in a sense, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. I came to paper, because there was the thinness and it was light.”
In Classico V, Ryman taped three rows of four cream-colored sheets of paper directly to a wall with pieces of masking tape placed along the edges of each sheet. He then painted a large, off-center white square over the conjoined sheets. After the paint dried, the tape was removed with traces of its former presence visible through small, unpainted rectangles along the edges of each sheet. The tape not only aided Ryman in his process by keeping the sheets of paper attached to the wall, but was also integral to how the final composition turned out. The square arrangement of the sheets of paper is mimicked in the white squares of paint and the shapes left by the tape, the materials all reasserting what is literally made present. This work is one of six Classico paintings Ryman made in 1968 and is part of one of his first major bodies of work on paper.