Lot 11
  • 11

Robert Ryman

3,500,000 - 4,500,000 USD
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  • Robert Ryman
  • Convention
  • signed, titled and dated '02 on the overlap
  • oil on canvas
  • 72 x 72 in. 182.9 x 182.9 cm


PaceWildenstein, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2007


New York, PaceWildenstein, Robert Ryman: New Paintings, October - November 2002, frontispiece, illustrated in color (detail, in the artist's studio)
London, Haunch of Venison, Robert Ryman: New Paintings, January - March 2003
London, White Cube, Structure & Absence, October – November 2011, p. 26, illustrated in color and p. 45 (text)


Andrew Renton, "The White Stuff," Evening Standard (London), January 7, 2003, p. 39, illustrated (detail, in the artist's studio)
"Robert Ryman," Haunch of Venison Newsletter, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 4, illustrated in color (installation view at Haunch of Venison)


This painting is in excellent condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art department at 212-606-7254 for the condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is not framed.
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.

Catalogue Note

Robert Ryman is a self-declared, and steadfast, realist. His formidable career, and the notable body of work that emerged from it, are governed by an unerring continuity of themes and principles, none more prevalent than his use of white paint and the compositional device of the square. The most characteristic elements of Ryman’s work, they are the neutral starting point for his thorough examination of the act of painting. In stark opposition to figural realism, Ryman’s practice is founded on a complete absence of illusion, and is qualified by his lifelong study and experimentation with painting materials, the ‘real’ tools of the artist. In a masterwork such as Convention of 2002, Ryman employs all of the tools in his artistic arsenal – composition, color, complexity, surface, light, texture, and line – making it a superb example of his empirical exploration of the structure of painting.

Featured in a photograph of Ryman’s studio in the frontispiece of his 2002 PaceWildenstein exhibition, Convention is superlative among his more recent works. Impressive in scale, and mesmerizing in its complex surface texture, the present work is a supreme celebration of the possibilities afforded by painterly technique.  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, he 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) This tendency towards whiteness would combine with Ryman’s proclivity for the square support to become his signature style.

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) 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. Since its formal adoption in the mid-1950s, Ryman afforded the color white a whole spectrum of tonal effects and degrees of gloss, allowing nuances ranging from cool to warm, transparent to impenetrable. In Convention we experience simultaneously, throughout the surface of the canvas, Ryman’s thick impasto and the edges of his paint strokes that allow glimpses of the canvas color and an underlying paint layer of dusky rose that emerges from beneath the white.

The slightly uneven white square – with its upward sloping top edge and its absent upper right corner – that dominates the composition of Convention is bordered by its own canvas support; Ryman considers this 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 also 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. The unpainted linen of Convention is treated with rabbit skin glue as the ground for subsequent paint application, and this surface treatment optically tints the overlying white, adding another dimension of tonality. 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.) Ryman adds further complexity to this composition and the optics of his white with the underlying layer of dusky rose that acts as both a framing device and as a base for the white. Where Ryman has layered waves of thick white brushstrokes one upon the other as overlapping crescendos, the dusky rose acts as counterpoint with its quiet and smoothly applied surface.

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 Ryman’s energetic manipulation of white pigment within the compositional confines of the square, splendidly demonstrated in the present work. Convention incorporates all of the defining elements of Ryman’s artistic theory, resulting in a painting that is truly breathtaking to behold.