This work will be listed as catalogue number 62.037 in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné project being organized by Amy Baker Sandback
“Painting does not exist independently as a thing, but exists in relationship. The meaning of painting depends not only on the interaction between the paintings and the viewer, but on the painting’s relationship with space (the wall, ceiling, floor, light) and with the viewer. It is the interaction that initiates the experience.” (the artist cited by Amy Baker Sandback, ‘On Location’, in: Artforum, November 1985)
With its square format and its nuanced tonal gradations of white pigment, Untitled is a stunning and early example of Ryman’s empirical exploration of the structures of painting. From the very outset of his artistic career in the late 1950s, Ryman has exclusively made non-illusionist paintings that distil the creative process to its purest and most essential elements: the choice of paint, its support and its application. Setting himself stringent parameters and a clearly defined range of variables within which to conduct his research, Ryman interrogates individually and in unison the core decisions inherent in the creative act of painting. Paradoxically, Ryman finds great freedom in this reductivist enterprise and, as we witness in Untitled from 1962-3, his spare and inventive structures anticipate the Minimalist movement.
Completely self-taught, Ryman moved to New York from his home town of Nashville, Tennessee, in 1952 in order to train as a jazz musician. The art galleries of New York were his first taste of painting and he quickly became attuned to the prevailing atmosphere of Abstract Expressionism and Post Painterly Abstraction. Mindful of the precedents of Piet Mondrian, Barnet Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, Ryman was less interested in the understanding of the painting’s surface as an action field and more interested in the ‘functioning’ of paintings, their physical effect on the viewer as the expression of a painterly quality. Abandoning music in the mid 1950s, Ryman started to experiment with paint and embarked on one of the most fiercely autonomous careers in twentieth-century art history, independent of any school or theory.
In Untitled, executed just as Ryman hit his creative stride, we sense the artist grappling with the fundamental material elements of his metier in a painting of resounding harmony. Ryman’s conceptual premise was to restrict himself to the square format and a predominantly monochrome white palette. 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.” (the artist cited in interview with Phyllis Tuchman, Artforum, May 1971, pp. 44-65).
Indifferent to its potential interpretations as a signifier, Ryman’s decision to restrict his palette to white was the result of his practical insight into its neutral quality as a material and its suitability in revealing the inherent properties of paint: colour, texture, density, light and reflectivity. White exists in a whole spectrum of tonal effects, degrees of gloss, consistency and sonority and allows for the most subtle and nuanced gradations in tone and brushstroke. In Ryman’s work, the whiteness is only superficial, however, because the colour of the ground to which the paint is applied optically tints the overlying white. As Ryman stated, “Always the surface is used… The linen comes through… It’s really not monochrome painting at all. The white just happened because it’s a paint and it doesn’t interfere.” (Ibid pp. 44-65). This is particularly true in Untitled, in which the underlayers of paint create highly differentiated chromatic effects. Unlike other canvases in which the paint is dragged thinly across the surface in a uniform layer, in the present work the flurry of brushstrokes build up pell-mell, creating a dense and rich surface of impastoed, shimmering skeins of paint which augment the subtlety of colour balance. Constructed of short strokes applied with supple ease and fluidity, this technique is typical of his works from the early 1960s, in which Ryman experimented with different kinds of brushes and lengths of stroke, applying white paint over a coloured ground. In discussing this group of works, Ryman recalled, “I found that I was eliminating a lot. I would put the colour down, then paint over it, trying to get down to a few crucial elements. It was like erasing something to put white over it.” (the artist cited in Nancy Grime, ‘White Magic’, in: Art News, Summer 1986, p. 90).
The choice of support is of primary importance for Ryman and is used for its surface properties – the smoothness, absorbency, hardness or texture – whether the support is canvas, wood, cardboard, Fiberglas or metal. In Untitled, the exposure of the canvas and the absence of paint along all four edges serves to unify the whole by emphasizing its construction. The lacquered, reflective finish of the thick passages of pastose paint in the centre contrast with the matt, light absorbing quality of the unprimed raw canvas around the edges. Textures alternate throughout the painting from the nubby weave of the canvas support to the underlying greens, ochres and oranges to the peaked white pigment of the interior square, just as colour varies in pitch and tone throughput the composition. Even the artist’s signature becomes a compositional element, refined to its essence of colour and line, its design element further incorporating the border into the ‘painted’ portion of the work.
Despite its apparent austerity, Ryman’s painterly aesthetic is based on a clearly defined range of variables, within which he is capable of amazing permutation and inventiveness. Untitled is an exquisite example from a seminal moment in his acclaimed career in which the core variables of paint, support, colour and texture combine to create a jewel-like painting of stunning intensity.
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