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)

Untitled

Details
ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
Untitled
signed 'Ryman' (lower left)
oil on linen
66 1⁄2 x 66 3⁄4 in. (169 x 169.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1961.
Provenance
Peder Bonnier Gallery, New York
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich, 1981
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Exhibited
Cologne, Museen der Stadt Köln, Westkunst. Zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939, May-August 1981, pp. 279 and 464, no. 720 (illustrated, dated "1963").
Kunsthalle Basel, Von Twombly bis Clemente. Ausgewählte Werke einer Privatsammlung, July-September 1985, n.p., no. 15 (illustrated, dated "1963").
Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Einleuchten. Will, Vorstel und Simul in HH, November 1989-February 1990, p. 50, no. 101 (dated "1963").
Aarau, Aargauer Kunsthaus, Das Gedächtnis der Malerei, August-November 2000, pp. 290 and 423 (illustrated, dated "1963").
Monaco, Grimaldi Forum, New York New York. Fifty Years of Art, Architecture, Cinema, Performance, Photography and Video, July-September 2006, pp. 320 and 530, no. 260 (illustrated).
Post lot text
This work will be listed as number 1961.011 in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray.

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Michael Baptist
Michael Baptist Specialist

Lot Essay

A lush large-scale work painted early in the artist’s career, Untitled (circa 1961) exemplifies the subtle splendors of surface, light and scale that define Robert Ryman’s practice. For more than half a century, after he began painting in earnest in the mid-1950s, Ryman worked almost exclusively in white and on supports that were square in format. Within these outwardly restrictive tactics—varying little more than the type of paint he used, its means of application, and the medium and size of the square support—he conjured an endlessly diverse and nuanced body of work. Spanning nearly six feet square, the present painting consists of an expanse of smooth white oil paint that is whipped up, over a large, square portion of the canvas, into a roiling section of thick impasto. The short, billowing brushstrokes push and pull in different directions, creating a dynamic, active surface. Beneath them can be glimpsed chinks of raw canvas and a phosphorescent underlayer of ochre and leaf-green paintwork. These colors enhance the area’s optical shimmer, and together with its location—flush with the upper right of the canvas—impart a sense of buoyant uplift to the painting. Anchoring the lower left corner, Ryman’s signature is also structurally integrated into the composition: the compact yellow-green script has the effect of spotlighting the surrounding bright white space, while its graphic curves echo the linear buzz of the textural field opposite. Luminous, serene and unpretentious, the work unfolds its riches with extended viewing, offering an intimate conversation with painting as a physical and aesthetic presence.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1930, Ryman moved to New York in 1952 intending to become a professional jazz saxophonist. He gave up music not long afterwards to concentrate on art, but a rhythmic, playful sensibility would continue to permeate his work: his admiration for bebop in particular, with its basis in improvisations on harmonic structure, might be seen to inform his continual testing of painting’s underlying systems, conventions and frameworks. Ryman had no formal art education, and it was his protracted, direct study of individual paintings at the Museum of Modern Art—where he worked as a guard from 1953 until 1960—that first inspired him to paint. The lessons he learned there, from looking at masters as diverse as Mark Rothko, Henri Matisse, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Paul Cézanne and Willem de Kooning, would go on to inform his work in myriad different ways. He devoted himself to painting full-time in 1961, around the time the present work was painted.

Ryman’s rise to acclaim over the ensuing decade coincided with the emergence of Minimalism. While he counted Minimalists among his close friends—including Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt, who had both worked at MoMA alongside him—his works, for all their seemingly reductive qualities, are very different to the hard-edged, seamless sculptural objects that defined Minimalism, whose manufacture was often outsourced to mechanical means. The human touch of painting, and its interface with the body, is essential to Ryman’s practice. He preferred to define himself as making neither abstract or representational art, but as a “realist”, working plainly with the physical realities of paint and support. “I don’t think of myself as making white paintings”, he said. “I make paintings; I’m a painter. White paint is my medium” (R. Ryman, quoted in P. Tuchman, “An Interview with Robert Ryman”, Artforum, May 1971, p. 46). That modest definition covers a cornucopia of pigments and materials, each employed for their unique properties and behaviors in combination with one another. As well as painting in oils, Ryman applied media including polyurethane, shellac, casein, graphite, enamel, pastel and gouache to supports as varied as copper, fiberglass, wallpaper, canvas, steel, wood, Plexiglass and coffee-filter paper.

In the dynamic contrasts and optical flux of the present work, Ryman’s painterly hedonism comes to the fore. Its animated brushstrokes might be seen to recall the gestural tumult of paintings by de Kooning or Philip Guston; this area is vividly offset by the smooth white surround, which is as weightless and glowing as a “color field” by Mark Rothko. Ryman was guided more by feeling and instinct than by analytical precision, and he shared in the romantic bent of many Abstract Expressionists. Rothko—whose works were not only “all-over” but “all-around”, their paint extending over the visible edges of the unframed canvas—was a particularly important inspiration. Here, too, however, Ryman’s focus on painting as a set of physical interactions sets him apart. As Robert Storr has written, “... rather than evoke a diffuse and remote ‘sublime’ … Ryman’s paintings mate hypnotic luminosity and tactile immediacy. Standing in front of them, the viewer is at once drawn toward and held in place by the surface of these paintings. Their radiance releases the spirit, but the spirit remembers its body and takes satisfaction in the tangible proportions the body registers” (R. Storr, “Simple Gifts”, in Robert Ryman, exh. cat. Tate Gallery/Museum of Modern Art, London/New York 1993, p. 26). This absence of mystical or metaphysical concerns makes Ryman’s works distinctively refreshing: they always return us, ultimately, to the palpable wonders of the world.

Similarly, Ryman’s white paint is not intended to symbolize the “purity” or conceptual blankness so often accorded to monochrome artworks. Whiteness in itself is not his subject, but is used instrumentally, as the best way to bring to light the nuanced surfaces and underlying preparation of his paintings. The incorporation of other hues, as in the present work and others from the early 1960s, serves to heat, cool or otherwise modulate the overlaid and surrounding whites. “Where these substrata are most pronounced”, writes Storr, “the welts of underpainting exert pressure on their white mantle such that one begins to feel the temperature of the buried color like a pulse or sinuous movement beneath the skin. Submerged colors seem to irradiate and be subsumed by the bleached plane that confronts the viewer, as if one were witnessing white light be created, as it theoretically is, by the chromatic fusion of the total spectrum” (R. Storr, ibid., p. 21). Here, the tangs of yellow and green interact with the daubed white paint in a surface of both tonal and textural complexity, heightening its remove from the expanse of thinner white pigment. Through these visible layers, complete with glimpses of the pale brown canvas below, the painting bares its construction freely: with nothing to hide, its magic lies simply in the relations among paint, canvas and light.

Rather than any austere principle of withholding or rejection, it is this fundamental openness and surety of approach that drives Ryman’s work. The straightforward nature of his paintings—while not produced without serious effort—lends them a light and even blissful presence, and their surfaces bear the traces of human warmth and wit. Unburdened by the suspension of disbelief required by illusionistic and even much abstract art, the viewer’s attention is rewarded by a communion with the painting on actual, real-world terms: in the right conditions, to view a work by Ryman is an energizing and mindful pleasure. There is no great mystery to the meaning of his art. “The poetry of painting has to do with feeling”, he said. “It should be a kind of revelation, even a reverent experience. If you can tune in to the frequency of what you are experiencing, you come away feeling very good, you feel sustained” (R. Ryman, quoted in M. Poirier and J. Necol, “The ’60s in Abstract: 13 Statements and an Essay”, Art in America, October 1983, p. 124).

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