Celebrated for his singular approach to the art of painting, Robert Ryman rose to prominence by exploring the materiality of paint, and the innate qualities which the medium holds. Extracting romantic fervor from one of the most restrained palettes seen heretofore in the history of art, Ryman’s exquisite handling of material and questioning of process cemented a place for him as one of the most innovative New York painters of his generation. This large-scale canvas, Times is a distinctive example of the artist’s output in that it displays something not often seen in works from his oeuvre: color. Though still predominately made up of the painter’s trademark ruminations in white, an underpainting of Carolina Blue serves as a reminder that Ryman continually reinvented and questioned his own practice in a never-ending exploration of the art form. Talking about his use of color, and its relationship to his process, Ryman noted: “[It] was a matter of making the surface very animated, giving it a lot of movement and activity. This was done not just with the brushwork and use of quite heavy paint, but with color which was subtly creeping through the white” (R. Ryman quoted in David Batchelor, “On Painting and Pictures: In Conversation with Robert Ryman”, Frieze, Issue 10, London, 1993). Visible in Times is a light blue that flits about the edge of the work is periodically glimpsed through Ryman’s signature inundation of gestural white strokes.
As is typical of Ryman’s oeuvre, Times exhibits a conscious confluence of orderly structures and active brushwork. Though it initially may look to be nothing but a white square, closer examination rewards the viewer with the nuances of paint for which the artist is so well known. At the edge of the picture plane, a small area of raw canvas is visible, separating the snowy expanse of the piece from the exterior world. Between this canvas and the white paint, a surprising area of blue protrudes. Color is not something for which the artist is usually known, but the fact is he often experimented with other shades and hues in order to create a feeling or to pull an atmosphere from the world around the work. However, this process was rarely visible in the final product, and would only occasionally peer through Ryman’s monochromatic veil. Peter Schjeldahl, describing the artist’s work, noted, “…Ryman eschewed imagery and any apparent irony. There was, as there remains, something monkish about his submission to austere forms and procedures. For a while, in the early sixties, he flirted with color and with mildly decorative effects, such as layering whites atop reds and blues. It was as if he were straining against a principled compunction and toward an indulgence in the hedonistic rewards of painting” (P. Schjeldahl, “Shades of White,” New Yorker, December 21, 2015). Times returns to these early studies in layering proving that Ryman was continuously referencing and reinventing the past while pushing toward a deeper understanding of his own work.
Because of Ryman’s consistent use of white throughout his lifetime, whether it was in paintings, prints, or other works on paper, the artist is often lumped in with the Minimalists who rose to prominence in the 1960s at the same time as the then-fledgling painter. At first glance, the seemingly spare compositions, often monochromatic palettes, and insistence on the primacy of materials pushes Ryman into this camp. However, if one but looks at the bevy of brushstrokes in Times, the true power of the artist’s oeuvre comes into focus. Ryman’s paintings are about painting itself; the art form is laid bare when there are no pretenses, no illusionistic qualities, nor any perceivable subject or color. Instead, the audience is immediately thrust into the fluid nature of paint on canvas and the ways in which it interacts with the light flooding over each careful stroke. “I approach a painting beginning with the material,” Ryman intoned when questioned about an exhibition in 1993, “I say the surface that I’m using, whether it’s canvas or whatever it is, isn’t empty; it’s something in itself. It’s up to the paint to clarify it, in a sense… to make the surface or the structure something to see” (C. Kinley, L. Zelevansky, and R. Ryman, “Catalogue Notes,” in R. Storr, Robert Ryman, London and New York, 1993, p. 164). For Ryman, there was a sensuousness to his works’ materiality. Instead of the calculated constructions of fellow artists like Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt, both champions of the Minimalist aesthetic that eschewed the artist’s hand, Ryman insisted on the importance of merging human fallibility with pure material. Works Times are nearly mathematical in their order and structure, but through exquisite handling of brush the artist is able to transform these treatises on painterly components into expressively dynamic compositions.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Ryman moved to New York in the early 1950s after serving in the armed forces. With the pretense of studying jazz. Eager to take full advantage of the city’s bustling music scene, he took lessons on while keeping odd jobs to pay the bills. One of his employers was the Museum of Modern Art where he worked as a guard. The consistent viewing of the museum’s collection while he worked inspired the young Ryman to try his own hand at making art. Though he hadn’t studied painting during his school year, his keen eye and knack for experimentation served him well when he first started out. “I wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work. That was the first step. I just played around. I had nothing in mind to paint. I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces” (R. Ryman quoted in N. Grimes, “White Magic,” Art News, summer 1968, p. 89). Ryman became a master of controlling paint and material as he deftly worked to explore each facet of the art throughout his career. His more impastoed works like Times, finished nearly forty years after his rise to prominence, proves that he was truly a force of American painting who continued to improvise and explore throughout his life.