- Robert Ryman
- signed; signed and dated 62 on the overlap
- oil and charcoal on sized stretched canvas
Acquired by the present owner from the above
There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint. The `how’ of painting has always been the image – the end result.’’ Robert Ryman, 1969
Ryman is an artist of unerring continuity whose oeuvre has many consistent themes and principles, with none more prevalent than his use of white and the square. The most obvious elements of Ryman’s work, they are the neutral starting point for his thorough examination of the act of painting. In works such as Untitled (ca. 1962), Ryman from the beginning, made non-illusionist paintings focusing on basic material elements: the paint, the support, paint application, scale, texture, the stretcher edge and the wall. Untitled, with its square-within-a-square format and its various approaches to pigment, is a superb and rare example of Ryman’s empirical exploration of the structure of painting.
A square, with its universal symmetry, is inherently `composed’, obviating the need to assign pictorial order or balance. For Ryman, ``if you have an equal-sided space and you’re going to put paint on it…, then [the square] seems like the most perfect space. I don’t have to get involved with spatial composition, as with rectangles and circles.’’ (Interview with Phyllis Tuchman, Artforum, May 1971, pp. 44-65). The same minimalist impulse influenced the paintings of Agnes Martin whose paintings and drawings are almost exclusively based on the square, particularly in the 1960s. In both cases, the square was the universal space for nature’s inherent balance and harmony.
In the same literal fashion, Ryman does not choose white for symbolic reasons, but for its suitability in revealing the inherent properties of paint: color, texture, density, light and reflectivity. The whiteness of Ryman’s paintings is, in any event, only superficial because the color of the ground to which the paint is applied optically tints the overlying white. As Ryman stated, ``Always the surface is used. The gray of the steel comes through… the linen comes through… all of those things are considered. It’s really not monochrome painting at all. The white just happened because it’s a paint and it doesn’t interfere.’’ (Ibid.) The transparency or opacity varies according to the type of paint Ryman chooses, as well as the method and density of paint application. Using different kinds of brushes and lengths of strokes, Ryman’s pigment may be heavily impastoed and layered, or dragged thinly across the surface. In the paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s such as Untitled, Ryman reveals his affection for the impastoed and shimmering abstract expressionist paintings by Philip Guston of the 1950s. In both artists’ work, the subtlety of color balance is enhanced by the carefully structured and textured paint application, constructed of short strokes applied with supple ease and fluidity.
Ryman also chooses the material on which he paints for the properties of the surface – the smoothness, absorbency, hardness or texture – whether the support is canvas, wood, cardboard, Fiberglas or metal. Often, the exposure of the support and the absence of paint on one or more edge as in Untitled, served to unify the whole, by emphasizing its construction. Even the artist’s signature becomes a compositional element, refined to its essence of color and line.
As early as 1957, Ryman painted small works on pre-primed canvas or paper, predominated by white pigment but often revealing glimpses of colored pigment to varying degrees. By 1961, Ryman chose unstretched linen canvases as his support, with heavy curls of white paint layered on top of similar strokes of colored paint beneath. In discussing this group of works, Ryman recalled ``I found that I was eliminating a lot. I would put the color down, then paint over it, trying to get down to a few crucial elements. It was like erasing something to put white over it.’’ (Nancy Grime, ``White Magic’’, Art News, Summer 1986, p. 90).
Painted circa 1962, Untitled enlarges this cumulative approach to paint application onto an expansive field of stretched linen canvas with a 1 ¾ inch wood depth. With the added dimension of a deep stretcher, Ryman encorporated the wall as an element of this painting in much the same manner as Frank Stella’s Black Paintings of the late 1950s which were also stretched over deep wood supports. As Christel Sauer noted in 1991, ``Considerations regarding the size and depth of the painting, that is, the effects of the painting in space are closely related to decisions concerning materials and their reaction on the incidence of light. Very early on, Ryman concerned himself with the question of where the borders of the painting are and how its transition to the wall and the room is constituted. As early as 1958, he incorporated the sides of the painting corresponding to the width of the stretcher into the painting’s surface.’’ (Exh. Cat., Schaffhausen, Hallen für neue Kunst, Ryman, 1991, p. 25). In Untitled, Ryman considers the border, demarcated from the pigment by a dark charcoal line, as a continuous field with the linen wrapped around the sides of the stretcher, identifying the painting as an object of dimensionality and not simply a two-dimensional frontal picture plane. As an object, the wall becomes the ground or support for the painting, and its white expansiveness is integral to the viewer’s experience of the painting as a whole. Ryman adopts a very sophisticated approach to the gradations of painterly method on the transitions from wall to center which are revelatory of the painter’s process. The unpainted linen of Untitled is treated with rabbit skin glue as the ground for subsequent paint application, creating a subtle shift in tone and color along the treated border different from the untreated sides. The design element of the signature further encorporates the border into the `painted’ portion of the work that is in turn framed by the charcoal line.
This unification of ground by gradations of painterly process serves as an inclusive field for a variety of strokes in Untitled from the near invisible application of the rabbit skin glue to thick dollops of oil paint in the activated center. Textures alternate throughout the painting from the nubby weave of the linen support to the underlying mustard gold and green to the peaked white pigment of the interior square, just as color varies from the pitch and tone of the composition. Ryman first came to New York to be a musician and his comments on jazz are illuminating. Ryman ``was never interested in free jazz. I was interested in jazz with a structure.’’ In similar fashion, Ryman’s painterly aesthetic is based on a clearly defined range of variables, within which he is capable of amazing permutation and inventiveness. This paradox of freedom within structure is beautifully evident in the bright green and mustard gold hues that offset the brilliant white that predominates the present painting.