Lot 32
  • 32

Robert Ryman

450,000 - 650,000 GBP
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  • Robert Ryman
  • Reference
  • signed, titled and dated 85 on the reverse
  • oil and enamelac on fiberglass with black oxide square steel bolts and fasteners
  • 259 by 96.5cm.
  • 102 by 38in.


Galerie Maeght Lelong, New York
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


New York, Galerie Maeght Lelong, Robert Ryman: New Painting, 1986
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1987 Biennial Exhibition, 1987, p. 116, illustrated in colour
Hamburg, Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Einleuchten. Will, Vorstel und Simul in HH, 1989-90, no. 111
Bordeaux, CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain Bordeaux, Peinteure. Emblèmes et Références, 1994, p. 210, illustrated in colour
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Robert Ryman, 2002, no. 24, illustrated in colour
Moscow, Gagosian Gallery, For what you are about to receive, 2008, p. 97, and p. 191, illustrated in colour


Robert Storr, "Robert Ryman: Making Distinctions", Art in America 74, no. 6, June 1987, pp. 94-96
Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Renn Espace d'Art Contemporain; Schafhausen, Hallen für neue Kunst, Robert Ryman, 1991, pp. 36-37, 39-41
Georg Frei, Ed., Abstract Vision, Zurich 2008, no. 6, illustrated in colour


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate although fails to convey the the delicate brushstrokes and three dimensionality of the work. The centre section is also of a slightly darker hue in the original. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Very close inspection reveals a tiny rubmark to the lower centre of the extreme right edge. Examination under ultraviolet light reveals a few small spots of retouching adjacent to the bolt on the right side.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Reference belongs to the series of rectangular paintings executed by Robert Ryman in 1985. With typical understatement, Ryman here continues his celebrated interrogation of the very conditions, materials and tools of painting first initiated in the late 1950s. The artist’s constant yet ever-mutating palette of white is here archetypally deployed to harmonic and subtle effect: a controlled study of nuanced surface texture, spatial presence and the particulars of installation are foregrounded in the superbly pared-down sequence of works to which Reference belongs. Ryman here telescopes the receptivity of light on the minutiae of surface texture: the restrained variability of the ‘paint plane’ - the term used by Ryman to refer to the different painterly treatments of his surfaces - herein incites considered and tranquil contemplation. Intentionally possessing the physicality of wall-partitions, these paintings delight in the virtue of bowing surfaces and the understated impact of a ‘double paint plane’. With Reference the vicissitudes of differences between enamelac and oil paint applied to fiberglass are punctuated by deliberately positioned square metal fasteners. Monolithic, yet serene it its taxonomic deliberation of intricate permutations, Reference illustrates the great creative freedom that Ryman paradoxically finds within the stringent parameters and restricted variables dictated by his reductivist enterprise.

Reference belongs to a series of paintings that explore the variance of extremely flat grounds and subtly differing paint planes in their projection away from the wall at varying distances. Where Reference deliberates on the soft effect of fiberglass, others from this series are distinctive for their use of aluminium as a support staggered at differing degrees of layered separation. Speaking of this engagement, Ryman explains his interest in the subtle differences of paint planes in their simulation of, yet their distance from, the wall: “Generally I used two paint planes. One came off of the wall about three inches. What interested me about this was the material. The aluminium was thin, and here was the paint plane coming off the walls… the aspect of the paint coming off and being close to the wall at the same time was what interested me, but there was more to it than that, and it had to do with the light on the metal and on the paint” (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery; New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Robert Ryman, 1993-4, p. 192). Demonstrating a similar effect but with a totally different approach, Reference comprises a band of fiberglass of greenish-yellow colour over-painted with enamelac and sandwiched between sections painted in matte oil - brush strokes are here barely tenable upon close inspection. The overall effect is intentionally planar and immaculate in its flatness. Like Donald Judd, Ryman wants his paintings to engage both with the space of the viewer and with the architectural space and light of its environment. "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 in: Amy Baker Sandback, 'On Location', Artforum, November 1985).

Since the mid-1950s Robert Ryman has engendered an idiosyncratic and pragmatic genre of realism: his lifelong study and experimentation with materials constitute the ‘real’ subject and tools of his art. Indeed, Ryman’s work is informed by the physical properties inherent to his choice of materials - smoothness, absorbency, hardness, or texture - whether the support is canvas, wood, cardboard, fiberglass or metal. In limiting his palette to white, Ryman foregrounds the subtle permutations of neutrality. Distinct from the ideological evacuation signified by whiteness in the work of Piero Manzoni, Ryman treats white as a colour, affording a whole spectrum of tonal effects and degrees of gloss, ranging from cool to warm, transparent to impenetrable. Within the confines of such limitations, the artist’s practice has propagated a remarkably focussed yet astonishingly diverse dialogue that explores the self-referential vocabulary and functionality of painting itself. Telescoping these essential concerns, the subtle impact of Reference delivers an archetypal expression of Ryman’s utterly inimitable abstract investigation.