Provocative in its immense purity and radical candor, Robert Ryman's Untitled bristles with an unrivaled dynamism and a clear vitality that renders it a timeless explication of the very essence of beauty. Ryman dates his earliest painting to 1955, but as widely noted, the years 1958-1962 were the most significant for the painter’s artistic development. Executed in 1961, the present work is one of the earliest examples of Ryman’s painting; in a career that spans more than a half-century, works from this remarkably significant period are notoriously rare as fundamental exemplars of the practice that would come to cause a quiet revolution in the medium. Works of comparable scale and complexity from this period number extremely few, with most belonging to international museum collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Enrapturing our eyes and enriching our souls, Ryman’s Untitled is one of the most crucial works ever painted by the artist; every peak of crisp phosphorescent white that emerges from its flurry of activity ineffably and incontrovertibly confirms the artist's painterly genius.
The sureness of Ryman’s hand is astounding. Frothing in a turbulent squall of luscious impasto in brief, all-over contractions, the surface of Untitled erupts before our eyes while maintaining a fundamental exactness and precision. The warm luminous white strokes are layered above underlying greens, pinks, and yellows, appearing simultaneously calm and agitated—as if frozen mid-motion in a precise choreography of staccato brush movements. Breathtakingly stirring in its vital exuberance of directional vigor, while configured in a meticulous cross-hatched pattern governed by self-containment, Untitled retains the vitality of experimentation but is rooted firmly in the thoughtful exactitude that is so resolutely Ryman. The vehement motion of Ryman’s brushstrokes impel a substantial spontaneity, however restrained by the given format of the square canvas. While the surface of Untitled proposes a similar additive gestural syntax to the oil-encrusted abstraction of de Kooning, Pollock, and other of Ryman’s Abstract Expressionist influences, Ryman’s work completely eschews the notion of action painting. As explained by Robert Storr of works from this formative period, “Ryman’s are the product of the fingers and hand, not the arm. Gesture, for him, served paint rather than the painter; painting was a question of application rather than of ‘action.’ Contrary, then to Harold Rosenberg’s view of abstraction as an exercise in the rhetoric of self-affirmation, Ryman understood it even at that formative state as a problem of material syntax. What paint had to say was its own name, and it said it best in measured tones.” (Robert Storr, Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery (and travelling), Robert Ryman, 1993, p. 15) In its expansive surface, the size of the present work provided Ryman generous room to explore the whims of his brush and to compose the reaction of his variously toned paints as they intermingled. Like an open set of parentheses bounding a vertiginously poetic set of verse, the nature of Ryman’s canvas is as important to the artist as the pigment that builds its voluminous picture plane.
Ryman’s assertion that the content of painting came from the paint itself and not the pictorial outcome revolutionized the characteristically modernist understanding of painting for painting’s sake. Following the fertile period of artistic development in New York after the second World War, the predominant mode of painting that emerged was one that broke entirely with European traditions—gigantically scaled, gesturally uninhibited, and chromatically varied, this method of expressionism was one which brought the optical properties of color to the fore. Ryman broke free of this influence, instead finding in the enclosed square format an ideal retreat from concerns of proportionality, and locating in the color white the physical properties that enabled him the most freedom to experiment within this perfect formal arena. The characteristics of white paint that were alluring to Ryman are innumerable: its tone, transparency, vibrancy, richness, and cohesion all provoked grand inspiration for the artist. While Ryman is compared often to Malevich or Albers in his utilization of the monochromatic square, his painterly concerns align more closely to with those of Jasper Johns—repelling associations with conceptual art, his pictures rather are embroiled in the corporeal properties of the paint instead of the theoretical capitulations of such influential modernists. Ryman’s paintings do not stand in service to an idea—they stand in service to the surface.
After moving to New York City to be a jazz musician in 1952, Ryman took a job as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. He exposed himself equally to all of the various styles that surrounded him, and this concentrated absorption of artistic influence ignited an experimental drive, leading him to purchase a set of brushes, some oil paint, and canvas boards. As he remembers, “I was just seeing how the paint worked, and how the brushes worked. I was just using the paint, putting it on canvas board, putting it on thinly with turpentine and thicker to see what that was like, and trying to make something happen without any specific idea what I was painting.” (the artist cited in Ibid., p. 12) This initial investigation into the nature of the painterly medium evolved into a pioneering exploration of the very limits of painting as a genre, and came to define the style of one of the most celebrated painters of the post-war era. Untitled of 1961 is a spectacular early example of Ryman’s inimitable technique. In every moment that we are taken aback by the painting’s heart-stopping splendor, we yearn for more time to be immersed in the infinite circuit of the picture; in every stroke resides the kernel of groundbreaking innovation.
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