‘Scientists try to find solutions, and they pick one problem out of thousands to explore and work on. It’s a similar thing, I think, that painters do. You can’t work on everything, so you take what interests you most and you explore it, and you find what solutions are possible’
(R. Ryman, quoted in B. Diamonstein, Inside New York’s Art World, New York 1979, pp. 337-338).
‘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’
(R. Ryman, quoted in ‘Interview, New York 1972’, in A. B. Olivia, Encyclopaedia of the Word: Artist Conversations, Milan 2010, p. 110).
An exquisite insight into Robert Ryman’s early practice, Untitled distills the essence of painting, exploring the mystery and mutability of materiality. With intense, hypnotic concentration, the artist layers each successive mark onto the un-primed, tactile canvas. A vivid, russet red is painted over the surface, the strokes breaking up to reveal the weft beneath. Directly over it, Ryman applies a sumptuous layer of pristine white, manipulating it in a series of staccato horizontal and vertical movements, each of which implicitly echoes the geometry of the support. Like precious, glimmering jewels, these delicate squares of embellished white glow fiercely, set within haloes of burnished red. The passage of the brush through the viscous paint creates a rippling impasto of rising ridges and falling furrows; light and shadow play over the resulting texture, glinting and reflecting from its peaks, dappling its precipices. Speaking of his dedication to the materiality of painting, the artist affirmed, ‘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’ (R. Ryman, quoted in ‘Interview, New York 1972’, in A. B. Olivia, Encyclopaedia of the Word: Artist Conversations, Milan 2010, p. 110).
The enticing, delicate surface of Untitled invites an intense study of its detail the viewer rehearses the visible traces of its making, apprehends its exquisite scale, observes its mercurial changes according to vantage point and ambient light. This close, studied observation has underpinned Ryman’s investigation into painting over the course of a career spanning five decades. Throughout, his aim has been to purify, to distill: ‘I kept trying to make it more basic, more simple,’ he explained. ‘I didn’t want anything in the paintings that didn’t need to be there, because anything that’s in a painting that doesn’t need to be there, shouldn’t be there’ (R. Ryman, quoted in B. Kurtz, ‘Documenta 5: A Critical Preview’, Arts Magazine, vol. 46, no. 8, Summer 1972, p. 42). For Ryman, the essence of painting is contained in the materials he uses: in the viscosity and reflectivity of paint, in the glide and stutter of the brush, in the texture and pliability of the support. Throughout his practice, Ryman has explored the elaborations and permutations of these elements, savouring and scrutinising their nuanced physicality. Yet despite the self-imposed limits within which the artist operates, each of the iterations retains freshness and invention, infused with the energy of the artist’s constant revision, reassessment and discovery of the boundlessness of the material.
Ryman developed this intensely sensory appreciation of painting in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1953, he took a temporary job there, working as a guard, a means of supporting himself whilst making a career as a jazz saxophonist. Hours whiled away in the galleries taught him to look at art better than any formal education ever could: Ryman became intimately familiar with masterpieces by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, observing their every detail and attending to the play of light across their surfaces. Inspired by this daily contact, Ryman began drawing in the galleries and painting at home, instinctively drawn to testing the physical tactility of his materials: ‘I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces’ (R. Ryman, quoted in N. Grimes, ‘White Magic’, Art News, vol. 85, no. 6, Summer 1986, p. 89). Created only a decade later, Untitled showcases an early stage of the artist’s evolving investigation. Elements which would later become the mainstays of Ryman’s visual language are here scrupulously considered: the use of white pigment, chosen for its ability to starkly foreground texture; the square shape of the support, a format chosen for its uninflected geometry, a neutrality which hints neither at horizon nor window. Through a practical, pragmatic engagement with paint and support, Ryman creates a work which is entrancingly subtle and intoxicatingly cerebral. Yet in its simplicity of form, in its hushed silence, in its self-absorption, Untitled transcends these factual considerations, becoming an object of distinctive, exquisite beauty.