Robert Ryman (b. 1930)
Robert Ryman (b. 1930)


Robert Ryman (b. 1930)
signed and dated 'Ryman65' (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
10 x 10 in. (25.4 x 25.4 cm.)
Painted in 1965.
Fischbach Gallery, New York
Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, New York
By descent to the present owner
S. Hudson, Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Cambridge and London, 2009, p. 137 and 139 (illustrated in color).
Bordeaux, CAPC Musée d'art contemporain, Art Minimal II: De la surface au plan, December 1986-February 1987, p. 87 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work will be listed as catalogue number 65.131 in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being organized by David Gray.

In these two paintings, some of the most significant early works of the artist’s career, Robert Ryman declares the essence of his own practice. “Yes, it’s very true,” he said, “there is an image, the image is the paint, the procedure, the brush, the way the painting is done—this is actually the image. The size of it, the thickness, the type of paint, all these things become image as soon as it is put on the wall: then it becomes an object, an image” (R. Ryman, “Interview, New York 1972,” in A. B. Oliva, Encyclopaedia of the Word: Artist Conversations, 1968-2008, Milan, 2010, p. 110). In Lot 3B, a double register of horizontal and vertical strokes is carried out in twelve vertical striations, cut cross-wise in ghost-like fashion to create the effect of a grid around which a support material appears, evidence that the artist stopped just short of the bounding edge. In the second, two sequences of paint strokes, horizontal and vertical, the first extending from the upper right-hand corner in perpendicular formation. Following the shape of the square to its lower left edge, the progression ends at the physical limit of the support. No modulation of the stroke is evident as the brush moves across the canvas, no gradation into recessional space to create illusion: thick white paint cleaves to the stretched canvas as objective evidence of the fact that it has been painted.

For Ryman, the materiality of his practice begins with a focus on paint and the support, the way paint behaves on the surface of a square or rectangular form. From early on, as he relates, “My work has always been abstract. I mean it has always dealt with very abstract issues. I have never worked otherwise.... Basically it has to do with putting paint, with using paint, putting it on a surface, and… seeing if I can do something with it. It’s very basic” (ibid., p.111). It’s as if Ryman has taken the conventions of painting and endlessly reworked them to create an ever changing sequence that paradoxically, never replicate themselves.

The present two works are prime examples of Ryman’s determination to keep alive painting’s boundless mutability, its freshness and invention. Rather than images, Ryman represents the act of painting itself in all its possible variations. This practical model of experimentation began in 1953 during his tenure as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art when he took a course in experimental painting at the People’s Art Center in MoMA’s Department of Education. Aside from providing exposure to certain techniques such as life drawing and collage, Ryman sought no further art education per se from that point on. “I was completely open to everything because I didn’t know anything. I was totally naïve, and so I just looked and looked” (R. Ryman, in R. Ryman and P. Blum, Robert Ryman: Works on Paper 1957-1964, New York, 2004, 63). A jazzman, who moved from Tennessee to settle in New York in 1950, Ryman put away his saxophone for good when he became immersed in the myriad ways the materials of painting behaved, “how the paint worked” (Y-A. Bois, “Ryman’s Lab,” Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture: Paintings from the Daros Collection, Zurich, 1999, 120-121). From that moment, Ryman educated himself through observation—the Museum of Modern Art was at his fingertips—and through physical engagement with the materials and formal properties of his new profession, as we see over a decade later in the L-shape and grid in the present untitled two works. Through this experimentation, ultimately, Ryman produces an expression of a pure aesthetic. For no matter the factual, practical, pragmatic engagement with paint, its support, or ultimate form, Ryman creates singularly beautiful objects. Their beauty consists in their simplicity of form, their hushed silence, their self-absorption, and their refusal to draw attention from the viewer beyond the fact of their mere presence.

This sense of concentration—the way in which both of these works cluster into a focused space represents so much of what preoccupies the artist and speak to Ryman’s process as well as his commitment to pure abstraction. For Ryman, in contrast to his contemporaries (one thinks of Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella), was neither reacting against tradition nor engaging with it. Rather, as the historian Susan Hudson asserts, Ryman’s project inheres in “abstracting the conventions of painting—paint, the support structure, the signature, and otherwise”—in order to reassess painting beyond its modernist historical sense—purely by its “effect” (S. Hudson, Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Cambridge and London, 2009, pp. 140-141). It is through material means that Ryman searches for pictorial expression, but those means evoke an extraordinary optical charge. Not only does light glance off their surfaces, but textures create a tactile attraction. Form and content are one in these two exquisite untitled works, offering an opportunity to experience their physicality, their presence, as the total statement of Ryman’s project. As Robert Storr avers, “The seemingly infinite nuance of which his work avails itself can only be arrived at by total concentration on sensory fact” (R. Storr, Robert Ryman: Making Distinctions,” Art in America 74, no. 6 (June 1986): 92).

It is only by looking that one can fully take in Ryman’s commitment to process and materiality. For Ryman’s work admits nothing but what it is—it is an unfaltering, steady accumulation and elaboration of only the options the artist admits. That is to say, the shape, form, material, support, and quality of paint, its thickness, thinness, and tonal range, are the mainstays of Ryman’s practice. These two untitled works stand at a significant moment in Ryman’s trajectory, one of endless experimentation, mutability, and discovery over six decades. Yet, each work remains fresh, because each work represents the moment at which the artist once again engages in revision, reassessment, and discovery. These untitled works from 1965 are significant examples of the way in which the artist constantly renews his practice. “At the beginning I have to somewhat blindly find my way and it is only after several months that I can finally see how the paintings are developing. Then it becomes more clear how they are working, how they feel. How paintings look can be deceiving, but they way they feel is more important. … I have learned to accept doubt as part of the process” (R. Ryman, Robert Ryman, New York 2004, p. 6).

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