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Post Lot Text
This work will be listed as catalogue number 02.023 in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné being organized by David Gray.
In both title and image, Link is a complete statement of Robert Ryman’s conceptual and material program. Its surface texture and expanse of blazing light-white coloration are among the most emotionally expressive of his decades-long investigation of subject matter. That subject is nothing less than the foundational elements of the modernist abstract painterly program—a richly expressed, deeply focused commitment to the act of revealing the material elements that define the essence of abstract pictorial structure. The interaction between the three primary components of this structure—the brushstroke, the color and the support—make up what Barnet Newman identified as the “problem of subject matter” for Modern art, which he identified as devolving from the “technical problems of the medium” (B. Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John O’Neill, New York, 1990, p. 80). While Newman sought in his paintings a metaphysical or otherworldly “sublime,” he also recognized that the “image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete…” (B. Newman, “The Sublime Is Now,” The Tiger’s Eye, Vol. 1, no. 6, December 1948, pp. 51-3). Ryman, too, sees an image in the “real and concrete,” i.e., in a painting’s material structure, which Link embodies with rare elegance and grace. “Yes, it’s very true, 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. If you mean an image like a figure or a landscape, or something like that—well, then, no, of course. That isn’t there, but these things are never the image, I mean, the image we are talking about. In paintings someone uses landscape, or still life, or figures, but that’s really something just to begin the paintings with. The painting itself is the image. Always” (R. Ryman, “Interview, New York 1972,” in A. B. Oliva, Encyclopaedia of the Word: Artist Conversations, 1968-2008, Milan, 2010, pp. 110-112).
The interaction of all three elements—their variables and combinations—is Ryman’s preoccupation in Link, a work that stands as among the fullest expressions of Ryman’s aesthetic concerns. On an open field, brushed marks are smoothed and scraped with a palette knife, their multidirectional formation evoking earlier Abstract Expressionist painterly gestures. Ryman uses the overall white coloration to reveal the directional rhythms and topography of these physical markings, the impasto suddenly breaking open to reveal the weft and weave of the linen or piling up in thicknesses that seems almost a grisaille version of a fiercely chromatic gestural masterpiece by Willem de Kooning.
The surface also behaves in ways that call to mind the Impressionist brushstroke, which during the latter part of the nineteenth century was emblematic of the artist’s authorial hand at work, a reaction against the smoothly finished glazes and veneers of earlier masters.
Ryman’s use of the brushstroke, planar textures and color, and support color and material, however, is utilized in a new way—one that is neither figurative nor allusive, but rather reveals the artist’s evolving investigations. The historian and theorist Yve-Alain Bois contends that in Link and others of the series made in 2002, Ryman “fully energize[s]” the interaction of these elements in ways that are defining not only for his practice but also for abstraction in the twentieth—and twenty-first centuries “ (Y. Bois, “Undercurrent,” in Robert Ryman, New York, 1990, n.p.). Ryman’s intention here is to release the potential of what paint can do on a surface, to activate the interaction of material properties of support and ground, and to expose the resulting activity to view. A conflation of form and content, Link, both in title and means, speaks of a formal address to limitations per se: there is nothing to know other than what one sees. It is an invitation to slow down looking, to examine the myriad details of surface and support, and to contemplate the way each challenges the viewer’s perceptual acuity. What we see is that Ryman is concerned with making a painting real—not as an object , but as an experience.
Ryman moved to New York in 1953, taking a job as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. His first paintings were made during that year. Among these works, Untitled (Orange Painting) is now hanging in the very museum that first hired him to guard others’ masterpieces. We see Ryman already working in “monochrome,” a rubric he resists, since this work—as in most of the artist’s oeuvre—is not strictly a single color, but rather is a blend of subtle tonal shadings and slight chromatic variations.
By the early 1960s, Ryman was foregrounding his supports, such as metal, which he would continue to use throughout his career. Moving swiftly from inclusion in seminal group exhibitions, such as Lawrence Alloway’s 1966 Systemic Painting (a general rubric covering artists who worked in repeated, often geometric patterns) and When Attitudes Become Form, a 1969 exhibition of works by Minimalist and Conceptual artists, it nonetheless became clear that such shows did not fully address the concerns and investigations of painting in which Ryman was engaged. It was only in 1972, when the Guggenheim mounted a small retrospective of the artist’s output from 1965 to 1972 that critics and artists alike identified the extraordinary uniqueness the interplay of elements enacted on Ryman’s painted surface. Awards and fellowships followed, including retrospectives in 1977, 1983, and 1991, along with major gallery exposure. Through it all, Ryman has insisted on the fundamental task underlying his work: to generously and without apology present the anti-illusional, literal surface of a picture in intoxicating interaction with its ground, its support and its orientation relative to the viewer: “What the painting is, is exactly what [you] see: the paint on the [surface] and the color of the [surface] and the way it’s done and the way it feels. That’s what’s there” (R. Ryman quoted in Y. Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge, MA, 1993, p. 215).
For over six decades, Ryman’s essays in the interaction of surface properties —incisions, reliefs, and crevices—have used reflected light to magnify myriad such surface incidents. Rebounding off or skidding over the surface, Ryman’s “white” color is greyed or bright white, “… hot or cold, light or dark. [Ryman’s ‘white’] can exist as oil, acrylic, casein, enamel, or pastel, among many other mediums, and can be applied in all sorts of ways and with a variety of implements” (P. Tuchman, quoted in S. Hudson, Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Cambridge, MA, 2009, p. 10). To these elements, Ryman adds the mode in which such pictures are attached to the wall as the orientation of their hanging. Further, Link explores the characteristics of opacity and viscosity of the painting medium and is among a series of works created in 2002, characterized by Ryman’s preoccupation with what Bois considers “a return to the basics of basics …. Each component is perfectly differentiated, nothing is hidden from view—[whether] sized linen or cotton, occasional priming (more often than not a warm creamy yellow color), underlaying of color, overlay of nervous, wormy, white brushstrokes” (Y. Bois, op. cit. 2002, n. p.).
The beauty and elegance of Link resides in its pure expression of the idea of painting, not as a process—that would be too rigid, turning this magnificent work into a mere document of its making. Instead, what is fully realized here and what makes this painting deeply engaging is the tension at work between elegant brushwork made with a lusciously flexible gait, and the way the surface interacts with the colored underpainted ground. In addition, Ryman sets in motion the opposing linear regularity of its support with the undulating, rhythmic agitation of its surface texture. To become lost in the maze of winding curves and mellifluous impasto, to follow the line of bristles and the delicate edging of the palette knife into the blinding brilliance of vertiginous white, and then to be suddenly confronted by the smoothly gessoed support in the upper left corner and by a graphic mark —an upward-pointing arrow, placed with a sly wink to our directional compass—is to be taken on an exuberant, intoxicating optical and haptic ride. This appeal to our urge to orient ourselves, to resist becoming lost in Ryman’s ambiguous matrix, suggests that there are, indeed, “limits” to the seductively liminal space into which the eye wanders. Ryman brings us up short with this particular edging as well as with the clearly visible steel picture fasteners. The opposition between painterly image and its absolute evidence is both a perceptual challenge and an incitement to endless optical fascination: this is both Link’s mystery and its allure.