Lara Saget in conversation with Cordy Ryman at Zürcher Gallery about his new solo exhibition Chimera 45, on view through May 7th. Zürcher Gallery is located 33 Bleecker Street in New York.
Cordy Ryman. Chimera 45, 2015. Acrylic, enamel on wood. Installation view. Courtesy Zürcher Gallery.
Lara Saget: It seems that you respond to objects in a very visceral way. Did you collect objects as a child?
Cordy Ryman: I don’t think that I collected objects, but I grew up in a big house and there was a lot of stuff so I didn’t have to collect it myself. From the time we were young, my mom gave my brother and I free reign over our rooms so we were allowed to draw on the walls. I couldn’t use drawers, so I would keep all of my clothes in a pile. I would have three piles: the clean, the medium, and the dirty.
LS: I see how you began organizing from an early age. Do you see yourself as a collector of sorts now?
CR: Yeah, I collect materials. When I first started making artwork with this sort of language in the early 90’s, I would get things off the street, take them apart, and make stuff. It was not just all wood; it was metal, or a copy machine. I would take things apart, flatten them out, and make abstract paintings out of the panels and such. Over time, I stopped grabbing stuff off the street; it happened kind of gradually. It somehow phased out somewhere between 1996 and 2000. It became more of collecting my own debris. After I had been making work for a long enough period of time, I had a lot of work. I would take something that maybe I had started or worked on in 1993, and I would chop it up and reassemble it in 2001. I had generated enough stuff to make it interesting, but it wasn’t really planned that way.
LS: In terms of studio etiquette, is there any sort of system that you need to have in place in order to work?
CR: Not really. I guess it is harder for me to work without anything in my studio; it would be harder to work from zero, I need something to respond to. But in my studio right now, there is always stuff that I am working on and that I have been working on and things that failed in the past that are still there. I don’t really have to strategically think about what my next move will be; I just kind of do what I feel like doing. I will work on something for a while and out of the corner of my eye, I will notice that beam has been sitting there for years that I half painted and didn’t like, and I chop it in half and quarter it, and do something else with it. Then I will move on from that, and I just kind of bounce around. I need stuff or stuff to respond to. It is nice to have paint, but if I didn’t have it, I could probably figure something out. Sometimes it is good to have parameters also.
LS: Do you find yourself self-imposing specific sets of parameters?
CR: I do that. I will set up parameters, but I do allow myself to break them.
LS: Do you play with material parameters or restrictions?
CR: Sometimes, but they are pretty loose. And I reserve the right to change my mind. My great fear is to have some kind of manifesto where I have to do this or I have to do that. Sometimes I have to set up parameters to get me going, but then once I am going, it can take its own course.
Cordy Ryman. Rouge 45, 2014. Enamel, acrylic and shellac on wood. 96 x 96 x 4 in. Chimera 45. Courtesy Zürcher Gallery.
LS: What were the parameters for Rouge 45?
CR: I wanted to paint the wood different ways as a test. I knew that I wanted to do a 48” x 48” that was red, one that was white with oranges, and one that was mixed. I had to see what it looked like. I wanted all the lengths to be slightly different. I wanted it to merge, but not completely. I liked it, and I thought it would be awesome to expand it. I first thought of this piece last spring. I was actually at a different gallery then, which went out of business. They had a huge two-story wall, and I knew that I was scheduled to have a show there before they closed. My idea for that was to make that sort of thing, but go corner to corner and floor to ceiling. When I saw this space, I knew that it would be good here.
Cordy Ryman. Chimera 45, 2015. Acrylic, enamel on wood. Installation view. Courtesy Zürcher Gallery.
I love this space because I grew up in New York and both my parents were artists. We spent a lot of time in Soho and Tribeca in these artists’ lofts, and they all looked and smelled exactly like it does here. The columns and the dimensions reminded me of the lofts and playing with other wild kids.
LS: When you were making the large installation work for this space, was the architecture on your mind?
CR: I made the piece for the space. I had to navigate around all the little nooks and crannies, and I think it works.
LS: It does work. Is there a formula for the color choice?
CR: Initially there was a formula and an order. I had a red palette for the red ones and an orange palette for the orange ones. I knew the red ones would be different lengths than the orange ones. Then there would be a white one, which would also be a different length and a wild card one where I knew that I would paint it or not paint it, or paint part of it depending on how I felt. The other thing that I did was that I split all the squares into triangles. Each triangle has a plus side and I minus side. So there is A plus and B minus, right? You see that? (Pointing at the installation)
LS: Yes, I do.
CR: So the plus ones always go right to the edge. The plus ones always have the beam on the edge and the minus ones are always one less. I would start out by doing A plus with A minus and B plus with B minus, and on and on. But I wanted to make it so that any plus could go with any minus without throwing it off too much, but throwing it off a little bit. So there were set parameters, but gradually they shift.
The red palette was static in the beginning. Part way through, I would decide to change one of the reds, and then I would change another one of the reds. Then I would do the same with the orange. Somewhere along the line, I wanted to bring more yellows into the oranges. So some of the oranges are pure orange while others are orange and yellow. I had a lot of loose rules, which at some point I would change.
I think that makes it more interesting. I can look at it forever and try to figure it out; I mean I know I’m biased. I know there is a pattern, but I can’t quite figure it out because I had that set of 4 or 5 parameters that I shifted or stopped. So it gives the impression, of one thing, but you can’t solve it. And that somehow is to me more organic or true to life because that’s how people are, not to get too philosophical. No one is pure pure.
LS: Yes, it’s very true. Did you set this installation up in your studio like you did here at Galerie Zürcher?
CR: My space is different so I had to break up the installation. I lost lots of sleep over how to figure out where the wall in here ended. I worried about that, the unevenness of the floor boards, the spacing between the pillars and the floor, and if I should fill in the top with an extra sliver.
LS: Why in the end did you decide not to fill the top up to the ceiling?
CR: When I did it both ways, it seemed like the way to go. It is tricky because there is no wrong answer. I just felt it would be cleaner this way. I still made them in case I put it up and panicked. But then I will make stuff out of that. I already started making things out of the debris.
LS: In terms of your process, can you pinpoint when you started working on things in tandem?
CR: That started in art school. When I first thought I was going to make art, I thought I was going to make sculpture. It was all sort of representational at that point. I would generally work on one piece at a time. Then I would knock the nose off or the lips would pop off, and it would be devastating.
When I started painting, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew that I needed to make something. I have always needed to make something. I guess if I stretched and primed a canvas, I would need to figure out what to make, and that was always the hardest; again, it’s starting from zero. If I put all that work into preparing something, then I feel like I have to have an idea or some concept that is worthy of the time that was invested. I would solve that by working on something that I had no investment in so there was nothing at risk so I would be free to do whatever.
I think for me, working on multiple things is along the same lines. When I am working and I become attached to something and it starts to feel precious, it becomes harder to work. Then I slow down and I tighten up. At that stage — where you have to risk knocking the nose or lips off — when it’s the only thing I have, I can’t do it.
As soon as I start becoming afraid of ruining it, I will start another thing. That would be my solution. And then out of the corner of my eye, I will see the first one and I will knock that nose off and do something else to it and it won’t matter. If I have a couple things going, and maybe my ego isn’t invested in any of them, I can risk destroying it.
At this point, I know how to make a nice painting. There are certain things I know will look right, but may be boring or something. I have to be able to be free. If I work on a lot of things, I can be free and take chances. The chances of magic happening are greater. There is something that happens, I don’t know exactly how to define it, but it’s more likely to happen if I am not tightened up and afraid.
LS: That makes a lot of sense. Do you listen to music when you make work?
CR: Yes. It doesn’t have to be anything in particular, but it has to be not me. It can be any type of music or NPR.
LS: Do you see a connection between what you are listening to and what you produce?
CR: I think that anything that is happening connects. I think anything and everything that is going on in your life, if you are open in your process, will make its way in and have an effect. I think we should allow it to.
LS: I couldn’t agree more. Are you reading anything right now?
CR: I read a lot. I am an insomniac so I read to sleep. I bounce around. I go back and forth between novels and history. I tend to go through the rolodex in my mind so when I sleep, I try to get out of my head. Now I am reading The Guns of August, which is about the start of World War I. I was going through a phase in which I was reading novels, but they were keeping me up. I found they were too easy to relate to the human condition so I went back to reading history books.
LS: When you are making work do you feel like you enter another space?
CR: I am in another space. One thing I really like about making stuff is that it is its own kind of separate thing. It is kind of connected and it kind of matters, but then it doesn’t. It is an amazing thing, and I feel very lucky that I am able to do it. I’m not curing cancer or saving kids, but I still think it’s worth doing.
LS: You grew up in the art world, what do you think is important in terms of artistic movement or evolution?
CR: You have to make work. I have seen so many different types of artists and personalities. It’s like anything else. I don’t know the formula for making a career in the arts. There are so many different things that go into that. A lot of them are out of your control. I think that the bottom line is that if you want to make things, and you do it, and you take whatever opportunities to get out there and you don’t quit, it’ll happen, it’ll get out there.
If I am making something — and I am a human — and it is interesting to me, and I keep making it over years, the chances are that it will be interesting to other people. That being said, I don’t think that art is something you should do if you want money. There are easier ways to make a living.
LS: Very true. And who do you draw inspiration from?
CR: For me, that is a hard question. I feel like I have an internal drive to do something, and I have to do something. I don’t really know what to do, but somehow I started doing this 20 years ago, and it has become much more interesting, and it has fed me much more than I thought it would, emotionally and such. Sometimes I feel like I could fulfill that same thing doing any number of creative things, but I have never tested it.
LS: Growing up, was there anyone who you just admired in a way?
CR: There were so many people like that and they were all different or contradictory. I would find someone really gregarious, very cool, or I could think of the sweetest, most gentle guy and find that pretty cool, too. There are lots of people I admire for different things, but when I think of artists I knew growing up, I admire them because of their person.
When I was a kid; I didn’t really know or care what their work was. It was only later that I was able to connect people with what they did. There were people I would deeply admire for how they were, for just how they were true. That didn’t necessarily correspond with the work.
Ideally, everyone does the work that they need to do. I also saw that commercial success in the art world, and all the cash prizes, don’t matter. They weren’t what made someone happy or unhappy, or a real artist or not a real artist. It was kind of a separate thing. I came away with that you have to find your thing and do your thing as honestly as you can, and when you get bored, do something else.
You want to try to make your career, but you can’t be overly focused on that aspect because if you are overly focused on that aspect, you are going to lose something, and the work suffers.
LS: How do you consider your work in connection with relational aesthetics, abstract expressionism, and optical art?
CR: I think that, again, I kind of come to it in a weird way because I have seen so much art without thinking about art at all. When I was growing up, my mom drove me around to openings and everything, and I hated it. But art was everywhere. And I didn’t really think about it that much. I think that visually I know or have seen a lot of art, but I don’t necessarily think about it like that or categorize it in that way. I think that when I work it is all there. There are probably aspects of everyone and everything. Some might be conscious and direct and some not. I mean if you took art of the last 50 years and put it in a blender; that would be my cerebellum. So it’s all in there.
LS: Do you keep a journal or a sketchbook?
CR: No. When I was a teenager, I kept a journal of my very personal thoughts, between 16 and 18. I was making representational art back then, and I thought I was going to change the world. Sometimes if I can’t work, I will make little sketches, maybe just so I can feel like I am working or doing something. I have never really executed a sketch; I kind of have to work it out first.
LS: How do you title your work?
CR: I actually only title the works when they leave my studio, like when I’m having a show. Suddenly I have an hour to come up with titles. I try to make it fun. I’ll be in the studio and whoever happens to be in the studio, I’ll be like “Okay John, the first thing that pops into your head.” Sometimes I will go with their titles, and when I hear their titles, it is usually easier for me to come up with something on my own. Again, starting from zero, it’s my big Achilles’ heel. The titles are usually sort of spontaneous.
LS: I see. Would you title them if they weren’t to leave the studio?
CR: Yes, because it would get so confusing. I do think of them as little entities, little babies in the hospital.