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Robert Ryman (1930-2019)
Robert Ryman (1930-2019)
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Robert Ryman (1930-2019)

Large-Small Thick-Thin 1

Details
Robert Ryman (1930-2019)
Large-Small Thick-Thin 1
signed, titled and dated 'RYMAN08 "LARGE-SMALL THICK-THIN 1"' (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
46 x 46 in. (116.8 x 116.8 cm.)
Painted in 2008.
Provenance
PaceWildenstein, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray under number 08.011.


Devoid of representation, abstraction, and only occasionally venturing beyond his signature monochromatic palette, Robert Ryman’s oeuvre is a testament to the artist’s continued fascination with the very practice of painting. Large-Small Thick-Thin 1 is a supreme illustration of the painter’s conflation of the physical object and his meticulous process. Ryman noted about his work, “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). By stripping his paintings of any reference to the real world while still emphasizing the hand of the artist, Ryman broke from the Abstract Expressionist tendency without giving in completely to the machine aesthetic of Minimalism. Occupying a singular space within the course of American painting, his practice has informed countless others who continue to question and scrutinize how such a pervasive but seemingly limited field can continually surprise and enthrall.

As is typical of Ryman’s practice, the cursory visual takeaway of Large-Small Thick-Thin 1 is that of a white painting. However, looking past one’s initial reaction and taking into account the decades of work the artist has produced in a similarly restrictive vein, something greater begins to emerge. At just under four feet square, the cotton surface is stretched taut around its support. Each corner is perfectly manicured so that the edges are crisp and even. Upon this surface, Ryman has applied a varied layer of white oil paint. At times, the media builds up into small ridges at the edge of the brush and leaves the slightest shadow on the work’s face. In other instances, the artist has only barely painted the cotton and the understructure shows through. This is especially true around the edges of the work as the bare support is visible like a border. This central conglomeration of brushstrokes is similar in practice to Ryman’s earlier works that take on a much more impasto quality. In Large-Small Thick-Thin 1, the paint is applied so as to invoke a feeling of uniformity under non-ideal lighting conditions. However, under a perfect bulb or the rake of a window’s light, variations make themselves known throughout the composition and animate the snowy expanse of Ryman’s composition.

Born in Nashville, Ryman made his way to New York City in 1950, but it was not until 1955 that he made the first of what would become a lifelong interrogation of painting. Working as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art with other young artists like Dan Flavin and Sol Lewitt, Ryman did not easily fall into the evolving modes of Minimalism and Conceptual Art. Instead, while sharing some visual connections to these movements, his paintings are more about the experimental nature of process and the essence of materials. Critic Peter Schjeldahl situated Ryman within the art historical timeline when he 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). More interested in the interactions of substances and supports, Ryman approached painting like an explorer and a scientist. His works reflect a deep inquiry into their own making, and get to the very heart of what painting can be.

By focusing on the strict materiality of his work and the way in which it might transform into something more, Ryman has proven to be one of the most inquisitive painters of the 20th and 21st centuries. Taking everything at face value, the artist frequently combined various types of paint, structures, supports, and other materials to establish a career-spanning treatise on the nature of painting. “I approach a painting beginning with the material,” Ryman noted, “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). Holding the components themselves accountable instead of focusing only on the emotive or illustrative qualities of each work, Ryman had much in common with those minimal artists creating their own inquiry into the nature of materials. However, works like Large-Small Thick-Thin 1 are exemplary of the painter’s full spectrum examination of the art form. Not only was he interested in teasing out formal juxtapositions, but the careful, painterly application of each brushstroke plays into Ryman’s zest for the act of painting and the romantic ideals harbored in its tradition. The artist pares down each work to bare essentials in order to obtain the most concise explanation of a work’s physicality and its connection to the history of art. Ryman noted about his continued questioning, “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. Ross Miller, Robert Ryman, exh. cat., Espace d’Art Contemporain, Paris, 1991, pp. 59-65). Eschewing illusionism, abstraction and even color, the artist is able to evacuate the picture plane of any distractions and allow for a more direct interaction with the process of painting.

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