- What’s Not There
I don’t remember which Robert Ryman painting was on display at the MOMA, but I remember its pull, the spark from the canvas directed right at my chest.
It was the same color as the walls, white on white, alone. The paint was thick, in repeated waves, whitecap after whitecap, energy contained, reaching. A white canvas on a white wall in New York City.
Giddy seems most apt: from Old English gidig, “insane,” literally “possessed by a god.” Dizzy, whirling, I was giddy, not with God but with art. I wanted to stand by its light for a very long time.
“If I look at some white panels in my studio,” Ryman says in an Art21 interview, “I see the white—but I am not conscious of them being white. They react with the wood, the color, the light, and with the wall itself. They become something other than just the color white. That’s the way I think of it. It allows things to be done that ordinarily you couldn’t see.”
It almost hurt to stand near it. Gidig.
“But white is such a neutral situation that, when you see it, you’re not thinking ‘white.’ You’re just able to see something as what it is,” adds Ryman.
I wish I had stayed, paused longer than one minute. I wish I had fallen further into my gaze. But I moved on, self-conscious, passed too quickly into the crush of the crowd, an hour before the museum closed, so much more to see.
Open any page of Mary Ruefle’s erasures; lines of the novel are whited-out, page after page, white with a texture like a Ryman painting, almost tactile. By [End Page 139] removing most of the original text, the leftover writing reimagines the story into a poem, the absence of words as imperative as the words still present.
The disappeared text looks like birch bark, a half-remembered dream, heavy fog. The patchy white-out hints at ghosted words below, some closer to the surface, each line squared into a blunt, pale end-stop. A whispering, a hushed echo, a dusting of snow over old snow, excitement rising as a new tale emerges above the one erased.
Ryman says, “White has a tendency to make things visible. With white, you can see more of a nuance; you can see more.”
“So what is it like,” I write, “cancer treatment, chemo?”
So far, when I shut my eyes, it’s absence, white, a pale canvas of loss, of light, of lack, of otherness. Making a story of what’s left out, what’s left behind.
I open Ruefle’s book A Little White Shadow, and my heart leaps.
During my five months of medical leave for breast cancer treatment, I watched every art movie I could: five seasons of Art21, Sally Mann’s What Remains; Helvetica; Ross McElwee’s documentaries; Synecdoche, New York; Rivers and Tides.
I looked to visual artists for something physical, made by the hand and the eye. I was trying to see common objects, learning how to relearn the world. I wanted to work with more than just a pen, not knowing what that meant. I wanted to be outside, not stuck at home with a low white-blood-cell count.
I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t read, couldn’t follow a movie with dialogue. I watched Wall-E by Pixar: scant spoken lines and me falling into the colors. I was floating away from everyone else: here is my lane, there is yours.
I thought about my high school photography—black, bare, salt-wracked live oak trees on a beach, their shadows on the sand, water encroaching. Was that world, was that trajectory really so far away?
The artists in the documentaries possessed me. I envied the tall, empty walls of their studios, waiting for new work, cool cement floors splattered with paint, a scrap pile of wood stacked to the side.
I retyped all my medical records into one document, worked through [End Page 140] my path into cancer, word by word, out the other side, and...