Ryman’s artistic practice began when he moved to New York from Tennessee to become a Jazz saxophonist, working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art to make ends meet. Ryman was exposed to the major works of Modern art that lined the museum's walls and allowed time and space to analyze the components of painting to their most elemental degree. Not coincidentally, this period coincided with the solidification of Ryman’s style, characterized by the rejection of color, a process that narrowed his focus on the inherent qualities of paint, as articulated by Untitled.
In the present work, paint is both order and chaos. Untitled is broken down into uniform and regimented passages of acrylic pigment, each rectangular section defined by a border of fine impasto. The remainder of the work functions as a counter to this sense of stasis, introducing an absorptive concoction of shape, line and movement. Ryman’s rectangular sections of paint are off the axis of his fiberglass support, leaving a sliver of off-white along the left border, crafting a sense of disorientation. Further, the work is displayed using two meticulously hand-painted screws which are situated so that they do not align on the wall, compounding this sensation. These highly intentional and pointedly off-putting visual idiosyncrasies are archetypal of Ryman’s practice, utilizing the mundane and the neutral to craft masterworks which are anything but.
Further subverting the established tenets of painting, Ryman extends the work beyond the edges of its support, using graphite lines along the border of the fiberglass to incorporate the installation environment into his composition. The artist’s radical departure from the confines of the picture plane destabilizes the traditional role of painting, making his work’s environment integral to its identity as an artwork. For Ryman, “considerations regarding the size and depth of the painting, that is, the effects of the painting in space are closely related to decisions concerning materials and their reaction on the incidence of light. Very early on, Ryman concerned himself with the question of where the borders of the painting are and how its transition to the wall and the room is constituted'' (Christel Robert Sauer, Ryman, Schaffhausen 1991, p. 25). An artistic strategy that is singular to Ryman’s practice, making his work synonymous with its environment, allows Ryman to craft paintings which are not only visually engaging but performative and experiential.
Ryman considers his works to be dimensional objects, in the case of the present work, one composed of screws and graphite which extends onto the installation wall. These nuances in the production of each work problematize readings of Ryman’s painting as oriented solely toward reduction. As the artist explains, “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” (Robert Ryman quoted in Phyllis Tuchman, Artforum, May 1971, p. 11). Untitled is the quintessence of Ryman’s contention that paint is a means to access nuanced concepts and a heightened emotional plane, existing as a series of dissonances and prepositions, a playing field of pure expression and creative inquiry.
Untitled exemplifies Ryman’s interrogation of how paintings are assembled, gain meaning, and come to fruition; in the present work, paint is applied with a regimented quietude, whereas in others, it might be slathered with an expressionistic swagger, allowing for wildly disparate results. Through his range of techniques, as well as his range of pigments, including oil, acrylic, casein, enamelac, gouache, and pastel, Ryman insists on the role of experimentation and play as the source of meaning.
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