From the time that Robert Ryman first set his paintbrush to a canvas over six decades ago his artistic program has remained steadfast in its aversion to self-expression and its embrace of the mechanical aspects that govern the physical act of painting. After moving to New York City to be a jazz musician in 1952, Ryman took a job as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. He exposed himself equally to all of the various styles that surrounded him, and this concentrated absorption of artistic influence ignited an experimental drive, leading him to purchase a set of brushes, some oil paint and canvas boards. As he remembers, “I was just seeing how the paint worked, and how the brushes worked. I was just using the paint, putting it on canvas board, putting it on thinly with turpentine and thicker to see what that was like, and trying to make something happen without any specific idea what I was painting.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery (and travelling), Robert Ryman, 1993, p. 12) This initial investigation into the nature of the painterly medium evolved into a pioneering exploration of the very limits of painting as a genre, and came to define the style of one of the most celebrated painters of the post-war era. Untitled of 1963-64 is a breathtaking early example of Ryman’s inimitable technique; in every stroke resides the kernel of groundbreaking innovation.
The unconventional and highly rare aluminum support of Untitled has a metallic quality that glints through the ridges and recesses of the thickly applied pigment. As opposed to a canvas ground, the metal presents an impenetrable surface for the paint to rest upon, thereby actively encouraging the accumulation of dense impasto. Reflecting the light ever so subtly, this metallic underlayer presents the perfect coloristic counterbalance to the striking and impressive vibrancy of Ryman’s red and the cool elegance of his much beloved white. The pronounced texture of each swathe of pigment conveys the narrative of the painting’s creation, and while the swirling quality of the white pigment formally recalls the impassioned outbursts of artistic energy so distinctive to masters of Abstract Expressionism such as Willem de Kooning, there is no agenda of self-expression here. Instead of communicating emotion, Untitled communicates a pure materiality that affords the viewer the opportunity to experience it as both painting and sculpture. Ryman’s distinctive conceptual method, grounded in a steadfastly realist approach to exploring the physical relationship between medium and support, is made wholly manifest in this phenomenal work.
Absolutely unwavering in his aesthetic theory, Ryman is unquestionably one of contemporary art’s most resolutely consistent artists. His prodigious oeuvre has become a dissertation on the possibilities of abstraction, and while he has challenged the conventionally held notions of what defines painting, he has always remained resolute in describing himself as a painter. Unlike his stalwart abstractionist forebears such as Kazimir Malevich, who declared the death of painting at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Ryman embraces the jettisoning of figuration and allusion not in an effort to make painting obsolete, but rather in order to reach the absolute core principles of the medium. Untitled is a simply stunning exemplar of Ryman’s lifelong study and celebration of painting materials, the ‘real’ tools of the artist.
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