Lot 15
  • 15

Robert Ryman

1,500,000 - 2,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Robert Ryman
  • Basis
  • signed, titled and dated '98 on the overlap
  • oil on canvas
  • 32 x 32 in. 81.3 x 81.3 cm.
  • This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray under number 98.015.


PaceWildenstein, New York
Barbara Mathes Gallery/Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in March 2003


New York, PaceWildenstein, Robert Ryman: Paintings, January - February 1999
New York, James Cohan Gallery, Painting Matter, May - June 2002

Catalogue Note

Robert Ryman’s textured flurry of white pigment dances across the surface of Basis, 1998, creating a subtle but complex visual sensation exemplary of the artist’s most captivating paintings. Absolutely unwavering in his aesthetic theory, Ryman is indubitably one of contemporary art’s most resolutely consistent artists. His prodigious oeuvre has become a dissertation on the possibilities of abstraction, founded upon his steadfast reliance on the use of white paint and the compositional device of the square. As such, Ryman’s corpus perpetuates the critical art historical lineage established by pioneering abstractionists such as Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian at the beginning of the last century, who jettisoned the figural in favor of an art inspired by the power of unadorned geometric shapes. Similarly, Ryman’s practice is founded on a complete absence of illusion, and is qualified by his lifelong study of and experimentation with painting materials, the ‘real’ tools of the artist.  The present work is archetypal of Ryman’s most sophisticated painterly explorations in its seeming simplicity and dazzling beauty.

In Basis, Ryman’s distinguishing white paint rises from and recedes into the neutral hue of his canvas in a nuanced, wave-like rhythm that beckons our eye to swim freely through the textured surface. The artist’s proclivity for the square format stems from his aversion towards the act of composing an image. 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 interviewed by 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 into his practice 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 Basis we experience simultaneously, throughout the surface of the canvas, Ryman’s thick impasto along with thin veils of paint that allow glimpses of the canvas color to emerge from beneath the white.

Ryman’s concept of creating a layered plane, built up with varying materials in muted shades and tones led to a lifetime of works inspired by medium. Never a question of what to paint, but rather how to paint, Ryman used the surface of a square as a starting point to create compositions reflecting light, defining edges and exploring relations within a space. Within the prevailing structural device of the square, Ryman does allow some slight variation, as witnessed in the present work. Far from creating a static or rigid shape, the white pigment in Basis gathers in a concentrated, intricately impastoed mass at the center before organically dispersing out at all sides.  Ryman chooses the material on which he paints for the properties of the surface – the smoothness, absorbency, hardness or texture – whether the support is canvas, wood, cardboard, Fiberglas or metal. Often, the exposure of the support and the absence of paint on one or more edge as in Basis, serve to unify the whole, by emphasizing its construction. At the edges of his abstract design, Ryman’s paint is applied in an extremely thin, diaphanous way so that it appears to merge naturally with the canvas, resulting in a consummate realization of his fundamental artistic philosophy of conferring an equal level of importance upon each element that combines to create his final work. This equal emphasis indicates his predilection for identifying his paintings as objects of dimensionality and not simply as two-dimensional frontal picture planes. 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.

In his own words, Ryman elaborated on the theory of relation that defines his laudable corpus: “I’m trying to make very clear that the painting exists only on the wall, and once it’s down from the wall, the fasteners are lost and so the composition is lost and the painting is not alive. You know, it doesn’t exist until it’s in a situation, it’s in a room on a wall.” (the artist interviewed by Barbaralee Diamonstein in 1977, published in Inside New York’s Art World, 1979) Always concerned with surface, color, scale and their relationship to architecture, Ryman’s paintings exist as ultimate artistic objects, which are only fully realized once exhibited. Basis, exemplary of Robert Ryman’s distinguished, iconic and inherently artistic technique, provides a level of unparalleled engagement for its viewer who, in the course of absorbing its physical presence, becomes part of the work itself. Ryman’s art is all-encompassing and Basis is fully consuming in its intoxicating blend of simplified beauty, intricate painterly detail and theoretical brilliance.