Robert Ryman's paintings are almost all exclusively square and painted with white paint. Ryman sees within the square the ideal "space," the perfect standard form which spares him of all concerns about proportion. He found in white paint the painting material with the greatest range of properties; whether water-based or oil, it could be at once, dense and shiny or luminous and matte.
Ryman's early pictorial investigations coincided with his tenure as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. From 1953 to 1960, he studied the newly accessioned paintings of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Kline. Struck in particular by the distilled clarity and elusive physicality of Rothko's abstractions, Ryman found inspiration for his art form. Rather than elaborating on Rothko's experiments with color, Ryman found inspiration with an abstract effulgence in white. "The use of white in my paintings came about when I realized that it doesn'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" (Robert Ryman, as quoted in Robert Storr, Robert Ryman, London 1993, p. 16).
The period from 1957 to 1962 was extremely fertile for Ryman's development as a painter. Using diverse materials and a wide range of applications, Ryman embraced the square canvas with various textures, surfaces and compositions. In the early 1960s, Ryman painted a group of larger canvases with accumulated all-over textures produced by a build up of highly articulated brush strokes, often concentrated off the center of the canvas, leaving one side with a smooth white surface.
Untitled, 1960 relates clearly to a painting with the same title in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In both of these paintings, Ryman was interested in the coexistence of a straight and curved line, a result of the contoured edge of the field of white brush strokes which face the hard edge of the canvas. In the smooth white paint on the left side of the canvas, Ryman completely integrates his signature into the composition thus neutralizing its sign value and becomes a "drawing" unto itself.
Fissures and cavities filled with saturated colour are common in his works of this period, providing unexpected depths and highlights to the vibrant white crusts. Far from being a monochrome painter, Ryman in the early years almost always fleshed out his paintings over a polychrome bed of terracotta browns, blood reds, golden ochres, putty-like Naples yellows, deep leafy or acidic greens and cool cobalt and cerulean blues. In short, Ryman's palette encompassed a modified but full spectrum of primaries. Before he ever introduced white, the artist laid in these rich hues, and in the finished painting their presence is papable even when they were not actaully exposed." (R. Storr, Robert Ryman, London 1993, p. 20-21)
The sensual contrast between the two "states" on the surface of Untitled, 1960 gives the painting an unexpected physicality. The right side, with its flourish of brushstrokes and vivid underpainting jumps and moves, while the left panel remains tranquil and contemplative, all the while giving the viewer the pleasure of experiencing a small universe of pure painting.