ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
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The Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann
ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)


ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
signed and dated 'RRyman 61' (lower center)
oil on Bristol board
12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Mayor Gallery, London, 1977
Peder Bonnier Gallery, New York, 1977
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Von Twombly bis Clemente. Ausgewählte Werke einer Privatsammlung, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Basel, Basel, 1985, no. 14 (illustrated).
Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Einleuchten. Will, Vorstel und Simul in HH, November 1989-February 1990, p. 50, no. 99.
Further details
This work will be listed as number 1961.110 in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray.

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Lot Essay

A singular talent in the history of American painting, Robert Ryman’s oeuvre is marked by an ever-evolving commitment to unlocking the painting process. Employing myriad paints, inks, surfaces, and materials, the artist’s insistence over many years on a monochromatic palette and compositions devoid of representation or machismo forced a reconsideration of the artform that set the stage for countless future artists. An intimate example of the artist’s early explorations in oil, Untitled exudes the unquenchable curiosity and dynamic innovation for which Ryman would receive numerous accolades for decades to come. By limiting himself to a specific starting format with near-infinite variations, the artist did away with the need to find a subject or a mood and skipped directly to examining the process. Tellingly, he noted, “There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint,” (R. Ryman, in E. H. Varian, Art in Process IV, New York, 1969, n.p.). In bypassing the subject, one of the pillars of traditional painting, Ryman was able to unmoor his practice from any reliance on narrative or emotional content so as to more fully delve into the very core of the art form.
Rendered on a square of brown Bristol board, Untitled is a quintessential early Ryman. The meticulous brushwork filling over two-thirds of the composition, hovers between a flat white surface and a delicate impasto. A sense of bemused play is inherent in the way the artist alters his stroke from gentle squiggle to delicate curve to short, wispy mark. Though the image is given to a preponderance of his signature white, subtle additions made in various shades of green and yellow peer out from beneath the dominant color. Toward the bottom of the picture plane, the work is signed in a lemony tone, the carefully placed letters reading ‘RRYMAN61’.

Over the course of his expansive career, Ryman worked within a specific niche of his own making. “Scientists try to find solutions,” he noted in an interview, “and they pick one problem out of thousands to explore and work on. It’s a similar thing, I think, that painters do. You can’t work on everything, so you take what interests you most and you explore it, and you find what solutions are possible” (R. Ryman, quoted in B. Diamonstein, Inside New York’s Art World, New York, 1979, pp. 337-338). Purposefully distancing himself from the emotional abstraction of the past as well as the return to figuration in the late twentieth century, all the while eschewing the mechanical processes and hyper-accuracy of Minimalism, the painter plotted a course through the years that became one of the most thorough investigations of the medium to date.

Works like Untitled set the stage for Ryman’s later inquiries into the very building blocks of his creative output. Emphasizing the raw board beneath, it’s as though the artist has pulled back a painted curtain to reveal the underlying structure. Like a diagram illustrating the various strata of the earth, the painter lets his audience observe the layers of process involved in his exploration. Ryman’s need to dispense with any pageantry, to create a direct connection between the painting and the viewer, is obvious when he declares, “I call it realism because the aesthetic is real. Realism has a different approach than representation and abstraction. With realism, there is no picture. The aesthetic is an outward aesthetic instead of an inward aesthetic, and since there is no picture, there is no story. And there is no myth. And, there is no illusion, above all. So lines are real, and the space is real, the surface is real and there is an interaction between the painting and the wall plane, unlike with abstraction and representation . . . I think it is more of a pure experience” (R. Ryman, “On Painting,” in C. Sauer and U. Raussmüller, Robert Ryman, exh. cat., Espace d’Art Contemporain, Paris, 1991, pp. 59-65). Forthright about his intentions, Ryman highlights the formal elements of his work without the added haze of lyricism or historical allusion. Beginning in the 1970s, the very mounting hardware, wall, and framing joined the more traditional materials of paint and surface in his minutely-considered visual vocabulary. Expanding outward in his investigations, Ryman further blurred the boundaries between art and everyday objects.

Though his practice developed at the same time as Minimalism and his work displays some of the reductive tendencies used by his peers, Ryman’s oeuvre is discrete from this movement for the emphasis he placed on the painted surface and the artist’s hand. After studying in Tennessee, the artist moved to New York in the early 1950s and began painting in earnest after taking up a post as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. Though he distanced himself from the more prominent Abstract Expressionist vein, he nonetheless focused on a particular media specificity that tangentially related to the prevailing Modernist trends. During the early 1960s, he investigated the interactions between materials by establishing his own strict visual vocabulary. The critic Peter Schjeldahl, when placing Ryman within the history of American art, noted, “Ryman is rooted in a phase of artistic sensibility that was coincident with early minimalism and Pop, and is still in need of a name. Call it the Age of Paying Attention, or the Noticing Years, or the Not So Fast Era...What you saw, while not a lot, stayed seen. The mental toughness that defined sophistication in art back then is rare now” (P. Schjeldahl, “Shades of White: A Robert Ryman Retrospective,” The New Yorker, December 21⁄28, 2015, p. 112).

Not until the late 1960s did the artist begin to exhibit with any regularity, and by then his singular approach to painting was firmly established. Though he kept in conversation with his Conceptual and Minimalist peers like Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt (both of whom worked at MoMA with him early on), Ryman followed a path that purposefully diverged from the artistic tendencies of the era. A fleeting categorization might lump the white canvases and earnest compositions into either movement, but a more thoughtful historical examination will reveal works of unparalleled ingenuity and finesse that remain compelling to this day.

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