Robert Ryman (B. 1930)
DEATH IN AMERICA: Selections from the Zadig & Voltaire Collection
Robert Ryman (B. 1930)

Series #24 (White)

Robert Ryman (B. 1930)
Series #24 (White)
signed, titled and dated 'RYMAN04 "SERIES #24" (WHITE)' (on the overlap)
oil and gesso on canvas
16 x 16 in. (40.6 x 40.6 cm.)
Painted in 2004.
PaceWildenstein, New York
Private collection
Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
S. P. Hudson, Robert Ryman: Painting Pragmatism, Ph.D. dissertation, New Jersey, Princeton University, 2006, p. 314 (illustrated in color).
V. Colaizzi, "'How It Works': Stroke, Music, and Minimalism in Robert Ryman’s Early Paintings,” American Art, vol. 21, no. 1, Spring 2007, p. 47 (illustrated in color).
S. P. Hudson, Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 251 and 302 (illustrated in color).
New York, PaceWildenstein, Robert Ryman, November 2004-January 2005, pp. 38-39 and 53 (illustrated in color).
52nd Venice Biennale, Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense, June-November 2007, vol. 1, pp. 308 and 391 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray under number 04.024.

Across the active surface of Series #24 (White), Robert Ryman educes an extensive span of atmospheric and evocative brushstrokes. Divided into a series of edges—wide, thin, and extensively overpainted—an interior rectangle of heightened white sits within a square. In this and other works from 2004, Ryman extends his use of the basic elements of his aesthetic position, the materials of his arts’ making, into a new area. This astonishing group of pictures, of which the present example is among the most sensuous, presents what the artist describes as “white paintings,” something distinct from his earlier practice. Previously, he could say that his paintings were not white monochromes: “The white just happened because its paint and it doesn’t interfere… It’s a challenge for me to use paint and make something happen with it, without having to be involved in reds, greens, and everything which would confuse thing. I don’t think of myself as making white paintings. I make paintings; I am a painter (R. Ryman, in P. Tuchman, “An Interview with Robert Ryman,” Artforum 9, no. 9, May 1971, p. 46). But here, on this magnificent canvas, Ryman challenged himself to use white as the subject of his painting. According to art historian Suzanne P. Hudson, he asked of himself “Could white be the painting but not its image? Could white paint smeared against a dark ground enact composition without standing apart from its support?” (S. P. Hudson, Robert Ryman: Just Paint, Cambridge, MA and London, 2009, p. 249). In other words, could laying down a dark ground and then painting over it with white resist being read by the viewer as illusionistic, as referencing things depicted in the world?

Other painters who used the brush stroke here as Ryman does with such insistence were the Impressionists, as art historian Yve-Alain Bois suggests (Y-A. Bois, Robert Ryman: New Paintings, New York, 2002, p. 8). Comparing Ryman’s strokes with the manner in which the brushstroke became “independent” in the hands of the Monet, he suggests that like the Impressionists, Ryman has isolated the gestural stroke of the brush to heighten the effect of light, of texture, and of spatiality, the sense not that one can dive into the picture plane as through a window into perspectival space, but rather the sense that the eye perceives hills and valleys, minute projections and recessions within shallow space. The dark underpainting emerges from the opaqueness as dampened ground emerges from Monet’s snow-laden landscapes.

As with much of Ryman’s work, the notion of objecthood is as important to the artist as the painted surface. For the artist, it is a question of definitions, of boundaries and breaching them, not so for the sake of rupture, but rather for the investigation of limits. For five decades Ryman’s interests have played out through variations on the square format, generally working with white pigment, and an array of material supports. For Ryman, though, the harder question is “how to paint?” “There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint” he said (R. Ryman, in E. H. Varian, Art in Process IV, New York, 1969, n.p.). Here, with its distance from the wall, Ryman opens up a question into traditional art categories, whether the viewing situation, a flat square surface suspended from the wall into the space reserved generally for the viewer partakes of both, or at the least calls each into question. This position away from the wall calls into question its status as an easel picture. And this is precisely Ryman’s point: to change the aesthetic situation without necessarily breaching the category of painting. Ryman’s Series #24 (White) is a brilliant example of the artist extending categories, of revising viewing situations, limning the issue of perception (how we see) and in the midst of this reorientation creating a work of breathtaking beauty. As Ryman has said, when a painting is held before a wall, “The aesthetic would be totally different. I wanted to attach it so you could see behind it” (R. Ryman, quoted in G. Garrels, “Interview with Robert Ryman at the Artist’s Studio,” in Robert Ryman, New York, 1988, p. 13). This subtle, perspicacious “difference” suggests pardoxically the extensive investigation, the seemingly endless permutations of the relationship among the constituent elements of pigment, paint application, and support.

Ryman here is playing with the notion of deconstruction to some degree, a subtle shift from what might be perceived in historical terms as the traditional easel picture. This he does in such a way that he is releases the painting from its abstract or imagistic meaning and moves it toward object status. So that while one may initially perceive the work as frontal and thus as a painting, its projection from the wall gives the viewer two vantage points. The first vantage point is to consider the present work as a traditional painting, the second as an object. And yet, Ryman insists, such works are paintings and their sculptural or three-dimensionality is “incidental,” neither essential to their conception nor to their making (R. Ryman in C.Kinley and L. Zelevansky, “Catalogue Notes, in R. Storr, Robert Ryman, London and New York, 1993, p. 178). For these works are, as art historian Suzanne P. Hudson avers, examples of Ryman opening up “issues of perception and modes of reading” paintings. And that mode ascertains for Ryman a purely pictorial register: “The painting remained a painting and not a sculpture or even an installation work because it made visible the spectatorial conditions that underlie the conventions of painting as pictorial… effect” (S. Hudson, op. cit., p. 203).

However much one delves into Ryman’s analyzing of materials, it is here in a work like Series #24 (White) that the sheer beauty of touch; the lusciousness of viscosity; the seduction inhering in the undulations of the scalloped tails of each brushstroke; along with the charge of the underpainting as it breaks through to the surface bespeak the work of an artist whose feeling for his art compels beholding. As Ryman wrote in the catalogue text for the exhibition in which this work was first shown, feeling rather than seeing has always compelled his creative imagination: “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 became more clear how they are working, how they feel. How the paintings look can be deceiving, but the way they feel is more important” (R. Ryman, Text for Robert Ryman, New York, 2004, p. 6).

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