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


Robert Ryman (1930-2019)
signed and dated 'RYMAN82'; titled "COURIER" (on the reverse)
oil and enamel on fibreglass and aluminium honeycomb panel with two aluminium fasteners and four bolts
34 5/8 x 32in. (88 x 81.2cm.)
Executed in 1982
The Mayor Gallery, London.
Saatchi Collection, London (acquired from the above in 1982).
Anon sale, Sotheby’s London, 5 December 1991, lot 60.
Victoria Miro Gallery, London.
Acquired from the above by Jeremy Lancaster, 20 October 1992.
P. Schjeldahl, Art of our Time: The Saatchi Collection 1, London 1984, p. 8, no. 109 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
D. Britt (ed.), Modern Art: Impressionism to Post-Modernism, London 1989 (illustrated in colour, p. 368).
L. Garrard, Minimal Art and Artists in the 1960s and After, Maidstone 2016, p. 81.
London, Mayor Gallery, Robert Ryman: Recent Paintings, 1982.
London, Saatchi Collection, Andre, Chamberlain, Flavin, LeWitt, Ryman, Stella, 1985-1986.

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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord

Lot Essay

Previously held in the Saatchi Collection, Courier, 1982, is a lyrical white painting by Robert Ryman. Far from taking a blank, nihilistic stance, Ryman used colourlessness as a beginning: white was his basis for a long-running, nuanced and heartfelt exploration of painting’s underlying structures, conventions and accruals of meaning, often resulting in objects of surprising warmth and wit. In Courier, he has painted a square fibreglass panel with white Enamelac – a hard, pigmented resin. The panel is bordered by a slender ‘frame’ of oil paint, which bars the work’s left- and right-hand sides in white, and its upper and lower edges in a soft grey. A pair of aluminium struts, each bearing two screws, protrude from behind the top and bottom of the panel, making visible the work’s connection to the wall. The relationships between paint, support and fixture are all brought into the open with total clarity. What initially appears an empty whiteness becomes a complex, sensitive surface with extended looking, as the subtleties of brushstroke, texture and opacity unfold: gentle imperfections at the painted border, the relative reflectiveness of oil and resin, areas of translucency that bespeak the hard fibreglass behind. These qualities alter according to the ambient light of the work’s display, shifting character and interacting anew. With heightened attention, we experience painting distilled to a state of quiet wonder.

While Ryman has often been described as a Minimalist – and was friends with many, including Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin, whom he met in the 1950s when all three were working as security guards at the Museum of Modern Art – he always resisted such classification. Minimalism was truly a sculptural movement, and Ryman’s sensibilities were far removed from those of his hardline contemporaries like Donald Judd or Carl Andre. He worked within systematic and deliberately limited means, but with a painter’s love for surface and touch. He had moved to New York in 1953 intending to become a professional jazz saxophonist, and there is a musical pleasure to his feel for brushstroke, rhythm and play. Restricted to white and all square in format, his paintings conjure a near-magical diversity from their outwardly reductive tactics, deploying media from oil and Enamelac to casein, graphite, pastel and gouache on an array of supports including fibreglass, wood, canvas, cardboard, Plexiglass and coffee filter paper.

Writing in the 1984 Saatchi catalogue in which the present work was included, Peter Schjeldahl observed that Ryman’s ‘approach is anti-“expressive” in the extreme, and yet, mysteriously, in his work something does get expressed. It can only be painting’s deeply rooted hold on us, its concordance with the grammar of our imaginations.’ The metal fittings in works like Courier enact a key part of this grammar, as Schjeldahl continues: ‘… In most of his work throughout the 1960s, Ryman gave primary attention to the surface, really a coefficient of two surfaces: paint and support. More recently, his interest has shifted to the edge, painting’s at once physical and metaphysical frontier. He dramatises it by highlighting the canvas’s attachment to the wall, employing aluminium brackets to make visible this commonly invisible protocol’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘Minimalism’, Art of Our Time: The Saatchi Collection, vol. 1, London 1984, p. 26). Such delicate, telling gestures lie at the heart of Ryman’s practice. He not only illuminates our expectations of painting, but makes us stop and look, sensitively and presently. Works like Courier can retune our very way of seeing, bringing us alive to the interplay of surface, light and hue that makes up our whole visible environment. As Roberta Smith has written, ‘Ryman’s art reminds us that it is paint, scale and colour that we look at first and last in all painting, but that at its best, painting also leads us inexorably outward toward the world’ (R. Smith, ‘Robert Ryman Derives Poetry From White on White’, New York Times, 24 September 1993).

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