Untitled (no. 327), Collage, 7 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
For 37 years Henri Matisse owned a small canvas, The Three Bathers, by Paul Cezanne, regularly drawing from it intellectual strength and vindication for his own experiments with the painted surface. “If Cezanne was right, then I am right.” He observed, in acknowledgement of the lessons he had learnt from this small painting, before he finally donated it to the City of Paris. Matisse’s gift was a characteristically generous gesture, and a good example of his belief in the formative importance of research in an artist’s development. Matisse had by no means reached an end point with Cezanne, but simply wanted to share with others the source of so much of his artistic conviction.
Occasionally, an artist’s introduction to the work of another can have such a profound effect that it can shape their work from that moment on; very much like discovering a vocation. And if a vocation is founded as much on an intangible sense of compulsion as it is on compatibility, then the attraction one artist can feel to the work of another is driven by a combination of equally mysterious forces.
Untitled (no. 324), Collage, 5 1/2 x 4 3/8 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
The American artist Anne Ryan (1889 – 1954) made a personal discovery late in her career, which would shape the work that she produced for the last six years of her life. In 1948, during a visit to the Rose Fried Gallery in New York, Ryan was introduced to the collages of Kurt Schwitters. Anne Ryan effectively began her career as a visual artist in the early 1930s, having already established herself as a writer of fiction and poetry. Following a short period spent living in Majorca, Ryan, originally from Hoboken NJ, returned to the American East coast, where she began to form connections with the New York visual arts scene, and was encouraged to paint by Hans Hofmann. Instead of observing the prevailing tendency for large scale abstract painting however, Ryan settled upon the modestly scaled collage format which had so impressed her in the Schwitters’ work she saw at the Rose Fried gallery on that day in 1948. It is the work she produced following this brief encounter which has sealed Ryan’s reputation.
Ryan, in her collages, remained so true to the delicate aesthetic and finely-balanced formalism of Kurt Schwitters’ collages, that in some of the more geometric pieces it can seem that the artist has relinquished much of her own identity to the task of pure imitation. And even after revisiting Ryan’s collages several times, they can still seem to reverberate to the frequency of early century European avant garde collage, rather than mid-century Manhattan. However, context is everything, and below the surface, the respective strengths of Schwitters’ and Ryan’s experiments with collage rest on distinct circumstances and influences.
Untitled (no. 232), Collage mounted on paper, 6 1/2 x 5 7/16 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
The trajectory of Schwitters’ life can be read in the muted surfaces of his collages. Many of his collage works were produced when the artist was living hand to mouth as he escaped Nazi Germany. They were assembled from whatever was available to him, and the small scale to which the medium of collage is suited meant that Schwitters could continue to explore, whilst on the move, the artistic territory of the immersive installation he had had to abandon in his Hamburg residence, The Merzbau. Schwitters also brought his well-established talent as a typographer and designer to his collages.
Anne Ryan is routinely mentioned alongside the American Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were a generation younger than Ryan herself. Gail Levin, in her 2011 biography of Lee Krasner, suggests that Ryan must have made an impression on the younger painter. This influence which Ryan possessed over some of her more flamboyant colleagues* suggests something which was common to, and easily transferrable between Ryan’s low key, small scale experiments and the super-sized canvases of the Abstract Expressionists. Collage of the kind which Ryan, and Schwitters before her, made is a slow and considered discipline; more about arranging the surface than attacking it, very much the best territory for a poet.
Untitled (no. 438), Collage, 10 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
Ryan also designed scenery and costumes for theatre and ballet. The artist’s feel for material comes across in some of the less dense collages such as Untitled (no. 438). The torn edges of the handmade paper elements in this piece are reminiscent of Hans Arp’s Papiers Déchirés, as much for the rawness of the torn fibres which soften the edges of the paper segments as for their sophisticated placement within the tight confines of such a small scale. Ryan creates the illusion of a much larger space; an abstract space which might have satisfied the critic Clement Greenberg’s taste for an all over surface, from which no single figure emerges as dominant.
Untitled (no. 376), Collage, 9 1/16 x 7 1/16 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
Anne Ryan’s influence on a number of other artists who were producing painting, and working on a much larger scale, says as much about the influences which brought about Abstract Expressionism in the first place as it does about the power of Ryan’s collages. Ab-Ex did not exist in a void, and the lessons of European painting were fresh in the minds of American artists trying to push the artform in new directions. If it is easy to speak about Ryan’s collages and Lee Krasner’s large scale paintings in the same context, it is because they both absorbed, and sometimes rejected, the lessons of painting’s recent past. What Ryan assimilated almost instantaneously when she first saw Schwitters’ work, was a set of formal instructions which she could take up and run with to produce work into which she could then pour her own experience. When Matisse studied Cezanne’s Three Bathers every morning he was similarly recharging before the day ahead, to be spent thrashing out the lessons of his research in the studio.
On their own terms, Anne Ryan’s collages are objects of exceptional beauty, which expand on a visual language which is at once already familiar to us through Schwitters, but also uniquely accented with the artist’s own personality.
*Gail Levin, Lee Krasner – A Biography, 2012, p.274, WM Morrow, New York NY.