- Robert Ryman
- Versions VI
- signed and dated 1991; signed, titled and dated 91 on two labels affixed to the reverse
- oil on fiberglass panel with wax paper and painted nails
Texas Gallery, Houston
Acquired by the present owner from the above in December 1991
Carol Wood, "Robert Ryman: Versions," Art Papers, March - April 1993
“Robert Ryman,” Künstler: Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, Munich, 1993, p. 2, illustrated (photo with the artist)
Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal, eds., American Art in the Twentieth Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913–1993, Munich, 1993, p. 469, illustrated (detail with the artist)
Mildred Glimcher, ed., Adventures in Art: Forty Years at Pace, Milan, 2001, p. 446, illustrated in color (installation view)
Ryman’s curiosity in art began when he accepted a job as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953. Standing in the Modern art galleries day after day allowed Ryman to closely examine and contemplate the art around him, leading to a particular engagement with the work of Henri Matisse. Though working in a singular color palette and firmly committed to abstraction, Ryman strode to emulate Matisse’s façade of effortlessness despite a laborious preparatory process. In a 1948 letter, Matisse summarized his perpetual struggle, “I have always tried to hide my own efforts and wanted my work to have the lightness and joyousness of Springtime, which never lets anyone suspect the labor it has cost.” Indeed, Matisse’s superficial appearance of ease and facility veiled his adroit technical mastery and premeditated compositional blueprint, qualities that Ryman deeply admired. Curator Robert Storr reinforces the lasting impact of Matisse’s paintings on Ryman: “However stressful their genesis or seemingly careless their detail, Matisse’s works in their final form appear wholly deliberate, economical and fresh. These qualities, Ryman came to understand, were equally essential to non-figurative painting.” (Storr in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Robert Ryman, 1993, p. 13)
During Ryman’s time working at MoMA, he also developed a deeper appreciation and recognition of the burgeoning movement Abstract Expressionism, particularly with the 1958 show New American Painting, featuring Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and others. Particularly dazzling for Ryman was the way the Abstract Expressionists emphasized the texture and tactility of paint on the surface of the canvas. When Ryman began painting in the late 1950s, however, he was not drawn towards the dramatic gesture of his New York contemporaries and certainly did not consider himself an “action painter”; instead, he focused on meticulous paint application and the immense potential of the color white.
With the Versions series in 1991, Ryman continued his exploration of materials by choosing fiberglass as the support, which lent a soft, delicate quality to the overall composition. Ryman carefully applied the paint onto the fiberglass, adding soft tufts of white paint until they slowly blended together and billowed into soft accumulations of white. The negative space in Versions VI emerges as its own distinct shape, and the tactile texture of the fiberglass provides a subtle contrast to the thick dabs of white paint. Under close inspection, Ryman’s signature and the date of the painting emerge from the mass of paint and are incorporated as an essential part of the overall composition. Ryman also chose to add a strip of wax paper along the top edge of the Versions works and affix them to the wall with painted white nails in order to minimize the transition from the painting to the white wall behind it and give the impression of floating and weightlessness.
The swarming mass of white paint in Versions VI recalls the painting of Clyfford Still, whose early impression on the artist appears to have remained with him well into his later career. Both artists focused closely on the painting texture and edges of the paint masses. The way Still paints the jagged, uneven edge of his white paint bordering along the other colors in 1949-F PH-343 from 1949 unquestionably recalls the edge of Ryman’s white paint against the raw fiberglass background. Ryman has stripped down Still’s study of texture to its essence, focusing only on the subtle nuances of the paint itself. Ultimately, Versions VI is an entirely fresh and dazzling exploration of the artist’s essential tools. Even at this point in his later career, Ryman maintained his singular fixation of the capabilities of his paint. As he simply stated in a 1992 interview with Robert Storr, “I wanted to paint the paint.”