"Convert" is a 1988 painting by Robert Ryman. It's approximately six feet by six feet. It was done with synthetic polymer paint and graphite on canvas stretched over fiberglass and redwood. Exactly how the backing is composed of those materials and how the canvas is affixed to it is not apparant from looking at it.

The work has a half-inch to quarter-inch border of bare canvas around its edge, dividing it into concentric squares. Along the inner edge of that border is a fairly regular graphite line, making yet another square, though an outline of one rather than a filled one. The space inside the line, another square, is filled edge-to-edge with white paint, mostly a smooth coat, with some irregularities.

Now, all this is fairly indiscernable from a distance. Only from a few feet away can one notice the canvas border, and one must be even closer to notice the thin graphite line, or the minute variations in surface texture and shade of the white paint. From a reasonable viewing distance, the work looks like nothing but a large, white square.

There was a picture of it, or of an uncannily similar work by Ryman, here:

So why is this painting in the Met's "Collection Highlights" gallery?

At first looking at it, I decided I had better read the small descriptive card1 on the wall next to it. I learned that the work was donated to the Met by a collector of art2 who apparantly specializes in finding wonderful work overlooked or looked down upon by the mainstream (Not their exact words, but the gist of it).
So it's avant-garde, eh?

First of all, it's boring. There's not much to it; simple shapes can be exciting and interesting, if combined with things like color, composition, and texture. "Convert" has minimal elements that blend together, and they're hardly composed. It's got an almost total lack of aesthetic value - there's hardly anything there to interpret or respond to. Also, it's not really got anything in it which attracts attention; except, in this situation, its position between two other paintings and next to a descriptive plaque. It's the same color as the wall it hangs on, though a smoother texture. My first thought looking at it was that it was an awful lot of work to create and present something so nondescript and purposely inconspicuous. My second thought was that it looks rather like an access panel for electrical or other utilities.

As I later noticed, directly across from "Convert" in the gallery it hangs in is an electrical access panel on the wall. The main differences between the panel and "Convert" are the size, some of the materials used, the absence of the painting's small canvas and graphite borders, and the panel's hinges. From halfway between them, they're nearly indistinguishable. I thought that the panel might be another Ryman work, until I was close enough to see that it had hinges and no descriptive plaque.

Some would see this work as a Dadaist triumph, that something so simple and unexceptional could be treated as art, and that this painted square of wood and canvas could get me to look upon something like a painted square of wood intended as structure, not art, and think that it might be an artwork.

I don't buy it.
Dadaism has had its day; it's made its point. Anything can be viewed as art if one wishes; this does not need to be restated. What "Convert" really is is an example of art-through-context, and of something becoming art because someone with enough money to be heard says that it's "art".

Furthermore, Rauschenberg did the same white-painted canvas gimmick years before Ryman did. It's old news, and has been since it was made. There's no room for innovation when you're painting a canvas white to prove a point.

It did not change my perception of what could be art. It did not make me think that an electrical access panel could be an artwork, but simply made me think that the Met might label an access panel an artwork. "Convert" has little to no visual or aesthetic appeal to me. It says nothing to me, besides a statement that was revolutionary when Marcel Duchamp said it and has become perfectly acceptable since. To me, it is an indication of what derivative blandness people will call revolutionary and show as art today. I think that the museum would be better off without it, since something more interesting, more visually active, with more to say could be put in its place.

However, would I be better off if sitting in "Convert"'s wall space was a painting I liked? I would not have written this. I would have had to seek out another work to discuss in a paragraph on "A Painting at the Met I don't like" for my Paint & Color class. And most importantly, I would have not had any of the thoughts or feelings that hopefully come across in the above.

In short, I detest Ryman's "Convert" as a painting; but I am glad it is there.

Node your homework.

1: The source of most of the information in my first paragraph.
2: Whose name I did not write down, do not recall, and do not care to know.

Con*vert" (?), v. t. [imp. & p.p. Converted; p.pr. & vb.n. Converting.] [L. convertere, -versum; con- + vertere to turn: cf. F. convertir. See Verse.]


To cause to turn; to turn.


O, which way shall I first convert myself? B. Jonson.


To change or turn from one state or condition to another; to alter in form, substance, or quality; to transform; to transmute; as, to convert water into ice.

If the whole atmosphere were converted into water. T. Burnet.

That still lessens The sorrow, and converts it nigh to joy. Milton.


To change or turn from one belief or course to another, as from one religion to another or from one party or sect to another.

No attempt was made to convert the Moslems. Prescott.


To produce the spiritual change called conversion in (any one); to turn from a bad life to a good one; to change the heart and moral character of (any one) from the controlling power of sin to that of holiness.

He which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death. Lames v. 20.


To apply to any use by a diversion from the proper or intended use; to appropriate dishonestly or illegally.

When a bystander took a coin to get it changed, and converted it, [it was] held no larceny. Cooley.


To exchange for some specified equivalent; as, to convert goods into money.

7. Logic

To change (one proposition) into another, so that what was the subject of the first becomes the predicate of the second.


To turn into another language; to translate.


Which story . . . Catullus more elegantly converted. B. Jonson.

Converted guns, cast-iron guns lined with wrought-iron or steel tubes. Farrow. -- Converting furnace Steel Manuf., a furnace in which wrought iron is converted into steel by cementation.

Syn. -- To change; turn; transmute; appropriate.


© Webster 1913.

Con*vert", v. i.

To be turned or changed in character or direction; to undergo a change, physically or morally.

If Nebo had had the preaching that thou hast, they [the Neboites] would have converted. Latimer.

A red dust which converth into worms. Sandys.

The public hope And eye to thee converting. Thomson.


© Webster 1913.

Con"vert (?), n.


A person who is converted from one opinion or practice to another; a person who is won over to, or heartily embraces, a creed, religious system, or party, in which he has not previously believed; especially, one who turns from the controlling power of sin to that of holiness, or from unbelief to Christianity.

The Jesuits did not persuade the converts to lay aside the use of images. Bp. Stillingfleet.


A lay friar or brother, permitted to enter a monastery for the service of the house, but without orders, and not allowed to sing in the choir.

Syn. -- Proselyte; neophyte. -- Convert, Proselyte, Pervert. A convert is one who turns from what he believes to have been a decided error of faith or practice. Such a change may relate to religion, politics, or other subjects. properly considered, it is not confined to speculation alone, but affects the whole current of one's feelings and the tenor of his actions. As such a change carries with it the appearance of sincerity, the term convert is usually taken in a good sense. Proselyte is a term of more ambiguous use and application. It was first applied to an adherent of one religious system who had transferred himself externally to some other religious system; and is also applied to one who makes a similar transfer in respect to systems of philosophy or speculation. The term has little or no reference to the state of the heart. Pervert is a term of recent origin, designed to express the contrary of convert, and to stigmatize a person as drawn off perverted from the true faith. It has been more particulary applied by members of the Church of England to those who have joined the Roman Catholic Church.


© Webster 1913.

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