Robert Ryman is an artist who digs deeply into the expressive qualities of his surfaces–qualities that arise purely through his technique, his handling of materials, and his intention to release the potential of graphite, wax, and hue “to act on their own behalf” (Anne Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality, London, 2001). The work itself, rather than a representational image or a series of painterly abstract gestures, creates an open field within which the eye can wander. Untitled, 1995, is such a work. Its compelling presence is indelibly imprinted both materially and optically on the eye of the viewer: no distinction exists between the process of creation and its final result. “There is never a question of what to paint but only how to paint. The how of painting has always been the image–the end product” (R. Ryman, quoted in R. Storr, “Robert Ryman,” On the Edge: Contemporary Art from the Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Collection, New York, 1998, p. 114). Conflating form and content, process and product, has been foundational for Ryman’s art practice for over six decades, and the result is nowhere more in evidence than in the evocative, if ephemeral, aesthetic vocabulary of the present work. No apparent inflection of the surface attracts specific notice; the field is an open arena. Yet, with more focused looking, what at first appears blank becomes an invitation to examine the details of tonal variation that inhere. As the curator and art historian Robert Storr has remarked, it slows viewing down (R. Storr, ibid., p. 116). One begins to understand that in a drawing such as this, nothing appears by accident; every fiber, every “bleed,” and every variation in its surface is a matter of intention on the part of the artist. What is at stake here is our perception, the time we take to rove the relationships between its details and the whole, a stage “where pure form becomes pure pictorial poetry” (Ibid.)
A creamy surface of lush wax covers the plane, a hint of darkened hue projecting from the left top corner, its triangular shape given texture by only the slightest hint of graphite filament delimiting the sides and upper perimeters–a suggestion of defined space within the larger square field. Ryman has partially overdrawn this wisp of edging with a lighter-hued wax crayon, obscuring even as he creates rhythmic optical accents, through color and texture, presence and erasure. The obvious comparison is with the luscious surfaces of Brice Marden’s encaustic drawings and paintings from the 1970s. Marden has said that Ryman is, for him, the greatest living artist, and there can be no doubt that it is from Ryman that Marden has taken inspiration. When comparing two seemingly monochromatic encaustic works by each, affinities exist, yet the two artists engage the medium toward different ends. Marden is concerned with realizing and expressing the surface to its fullest extent; Ryman, on the other hand, is investigating the artwork as an expression of action, exploring the way the material performs by means of its various applications. But it is always about the way in which the wax, graphite, paint and hue interact with the support, whether made of paper or canvas. Throughout his career Ryman has sought out ways of activating his surfaces while challenging the viewer’s perceptual acuity. He is concerned with making a painting real–not as an object per se, but as an experience.
Ryman’s search for pictorial expression that is focused on material means has at the most fundamental level, allied him with Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko as well as Conceptualists such as Sol LeWitt. The latter association points to the apparent austerity of his strict format and white or neutral hues, while his affinity for Rothko elicits subtler comparison: “Rothko is not a mathematician; his work has very much to do with feeling and sensitivity… [Rothko’s work] might have a similarity with mine in the sense that they may be both kind of romantic” (R. Ryman, quoted in R. Storr, op. cit.). While created as one of twenty-two in hi his series of Core paintings from the same year, Untitled, 1995, stands on its own as a fully realized expression of Ryman’s deep commitment to ensuring that the act of making art exists only for itself.