ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)


ROBERT RYMAN (1930-2019)
signed and dated twice 'Ryman97' (lower center); signed again, titled and dated again 'Ryman97 "File"' (on the overlap)
oil and acrylic on canvas
20 x 20 in. (50.8 x 50.8 cm.)
Painted in 1997.
PaceWildenstein, New York
Marguerite and Robert Hoffman, Dallas,1999
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2013
J. Gili, "La doble jaula,” Lápiz 22, no. 195, July 2003, p. 50 (installation view illustrated).
F. Colpitt, “Robert Ryman, Dallas Museum of Art.” Art US, no. 14, Summer 2006, p. 63 (illustrated).
New York, PaceWildenstein Gallery, Robert Ryman: Small Format Paintings, January-February 1999.
Dallas Museum of Art, Robert Ryman, December 2005-April 2006, pp. 42 and 55, no. 17 (illustrated).
Further details
This work will be listed as number 1997.007 in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray.

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Lot Essay

Robert Ryman’s 1997 painting, File, epitomizes his unique approach to painting. Ryman first moved to New York in 1952 with dreams of becoming a professional jazz saxophonist, though soon after deviated from music to concentrate on the visual arts. However, his rhythmic sensibility and admiration for the improvisation and harmonic structure of the bebop genre, continued to strum beneath his painterly impulse. With no formal art education, Ryman learned the most from his shifts as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked from 1953-1960. Though many of the masters housed within the museum’s walls acted as teachers to the young artist, none were as so impactful on his practice as the work of Mark Rothko. In 1959, a handful of years into Ryman’s serious pivot to painting, Rothko’s Number 10, 1950, entered the MoMA collection. The artist stated of the experience: “When I saw this Rothko, I thought "Wow, what is this? I don't know what's going on but I like it." What was radical with Rothko, of course, was that there was no reference to any representational influence. There was color, there was form, there was structure, the surface, the light—the nakedness of it, just there. There weren't any paintings like that'” (R. Ryman quoted in R. Storr, Robert Ryman, New York, 1993, pp. 13-14).

Not long after this encounter, Ryman dedicated himself to painting full-time, and his subsequent rise to recognition brushed closely with the emergence of Minimalism. Due to this coincidental timing, and because Ryman was close friends with figures such as Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt, who had both worked at MoMA alongside him, his work was often spoken in conversation with the movement. It’s an understandable visual association as well, with Ryman’s use of monochromatic palettes, especially white ones. However, this is where the resemblance begins and ends. The human presence in Ryman’s work, the way the medium holds a sort of sense memory from it’s bodily application through its texture and manipulations of light, divorces it from the mechanical fabrication of Minimalist works. Though, Ryman’s works are not so neatly abstract or representational either. Rather, he preferred to define himself as a “realist”, working with the material 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).

File certainly makes use of this particular medium, and to great effect. Though Ryman’s early works began in color, first green, then orange; white became the axis on which his practice turned, saying: "The use of white in my paintings came about when I realized that it didn't interfere. It's a neutral color that allows for a clarification of nuances in painting. It makes other aspects of painting visible that would not be so clear with the use of other colors" (Ibid., p. 16). For File, the primarily matte-white expanse of canvas is comprised of energetic brush-strokes and sloping peaks of impasto. The canvas is almost sculptural with its pronounced edge. It is a composition instantly recognizable as Ryman’s work, not only because of its treatment of white, but because his oeuvre is colored by a continuous momentum of artistic output. The energy of one melts seamlessly into the next, in what Robert Storr calls “an endless sequence of paintings.” And this makes more potent still the immediacy of Ryman’s work, how his paintings are vessels for a perpetual meditation on form, material, and light, which change as the days themselves change.

Born in Rodez, France in 1919, the young Soulages was fascinated by the rich history of the area, including the standing stones (menhirs) that dappled the landscape and the Romanesque Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy in neighboring Conques. The church in particular introduced the artist to the possibilities inherent in the play of light and shadow. Standing within its barrel-vaulted stone interior, he saw the sunlight merge with the inky recesses of the structure. “Even today in Soulages’ handling of paint,” wrote James Johnson Sweeney, “there is something which recalls the warm darkness of that Romanesque interior of Sainte-Foy. For, there, it was no dead blackness, but a live and gently palpitating dark suffused with a subtle illumination which reached its fullness in slashes of light from the high narrow windows and the soft glow where it struck the floors and walls” (J. Johnson Sweeney, Pierre Soulages, New York 1972, pp. 10-11). This interest in the past extended to Prehistoric art as well, and the cave paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet served as frequent inspiration as Soulages thought of ancient artists painting in the dim light of the caverns. In his oeuvre, the promise of light in the face of darkness finds itself in the obfuscating black paint as it momentarily catches a reflection of light from the environment before swallowing it up once again.

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