This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné project being organised by David Gray under number 63.0551.
Xavier Hufkens, Brussels (acquired directly from the artist)
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Seattle, Current Editions, Robert Ryman: Drawings and Paintings, 1972
With its square format and its nuanced tonal gradations of white pigment accented with red and yellow, 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-representational 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 1963, his spare and inventive structures anticipate the Minimalist movement.
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 in interview with Phyllis Tuchman, Artforum, May 1971, pp. 44-65).
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). As commandingly redolent in the present early work, Ryman embarked on one of the most fiercely autonomous careers across the astounding breadth of Twentieth Century art history.
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