Contemporary Art

Bare Minimalists: Ryman, Martin & Kelly

By Sotheby's

W ith an emphasis on a cool and detached approach to art making, Minimalism emerged in the 1960s as a rejection of the dramatic gestures of Abstract Expressionism so dominant in the previous decade. Artists working in the Minimalist mode favoured unencumbered materiality and precision over emotion and overt action. 

Works by Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly – three pioneers of the aesthetic – will appear in Sotheby’s upcoming Contemporary Art Evening auction, illuminating the varied nuances of minimal painting. 


ROBERT RYMAN, MERIDIAN, 1971. ESTIMATE $4,000,000—6,000,000

Robert Ryman is known for his consistent use of two essential materials: a square-format canvas and white paint. Executed in the early 1970s at the height of artist’s creative practice, Meridian is distinguished in Ryman’s oeuvre by its uniquely poetic title. Much like ascending latitudes on a globe, subtle horizontal bands line surface, created by brushstrokes that Ryman methodically ends just before the edge of the canvas, framing the incandescent expanse of white pigment within a border of raw canvas. The work is a testament to its materiality – as the meditative motions of the artist’s hand across the canvas articulate the means by which it was created.

AGNES MARTIN, UNTITLED #12, 1996. ESTIMATE $3,000,000–4,000,000.  

For Agnes Martin, the formal constant was the grid, a methodical structure she began using in the 1970s, after several years of not making art. In Untitled #12, imperceptibly thin lines of graphite demarcate six equal and minimally painted horizontal bands of incandescent powder blues and pale yellow. From a distance, the subtle tones only faintly assert their singularity, and while the consistent pattern is evident closer up, the compositions have a deeper conceptual, even spiritual aspect. “My paintings are not about what is seen,” Martin said. “They are about what is known forever in the mind.”


AGNES MARTIN, UNTITLED #5, 1981. ESTIMATE $6,000,000–8,000,000.

In Untitled #5, slender bands of powder blue, hazy pink and shimmering ivory alternate in an immersive and variegated rhythm of lines.  Within an oeuvre defined by precise and exacting fidelity to Minimalism, Untitled #5 asserts the implication of chance—  the diaphanous bands of colour lack a defined pattern — making Untitled #5 truly exceptional in the artist’s later practice. 


With Purple Panel with Blue Curve, Ellsworth Kelly channels Minimalism’s exacting aesthetic and precise paint application while alluding to the colour-driven work of Paul Signac and Henri Matisse. Comprising two distinct panels – one a rectangle, the other an elegant curve – Kelly achieves sublime compositional equilibrium. Conflating the categories of painting, sculpture and relief, in Purple Panel with Blue CurveKelly achieved a powerful unified visual vocabulary, in which colour occupies space.

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