Incandescent in its purity and breathtakingly touching in its exquisite intimacy, Robert Ryman’s Untitled bristles with an unrivaled dynamism and vitality that renders it an exquisite example from the most important years of the artist’s oeuvre. Executed in 1961, the present work is among the earlier examples of the artist’s foray into painting; in a career spanning more than a half-century, early works from this period are particularly rare, with most residing in the permanent collections of international museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Although executed in the artist’s signature style of monochromatic white paint on a square canvas, the present work possesses an urgency and tactility that distinguish it as a unique embodiment of the artist’s masterful painterly dexterity.
Across the unstretched canvas, Ryman builds up an undulating surface of thick curls and billows of luscious white impasto. Shorter daubs erupt against longer drags, the intersections of which create ridges and crests of oil paint, lending the present work a physicality rare in an oeuvre characterized by paintings that more frequently softly murmur rather than vibrate with kinetic energy. The shoals and dips of paint alternately catch light and cast shallow shadows across the heavily textured topography of the work. Like dunes of newly fallen snow or whorls of cloud on a sunny day, the pristinely white paint glows in tactile touches, inviting the viewer to lean closer and tempting him or her to reach out and caress the surface. The jewel-like size of this deceivingly 'Minimalist' painting demands the viewer inspect the surface carefully, the better to fully appreciate the frothy undulating surface, which reveals Ryman’s stunning painterly bravura.
Like Jasper Johns, Ryman’s monochrome palette of white paint allows him to more fully explore its varied possibilities and properties: color, texture, density, light, and reflectivity. Indeed, the artist himself notes: "…there are a lot of nuances and there’s color involved. Always the surface is used. The gray of the steel comes through; the brown of the corrugated paper comes through; the linen comes through, the cotton (which is not the same as the paint – it seems white): all of those things are considered. It’s really not mono-chrome painting at all. The white just happened because it’s a paint and it doesn’t interfere." (The artist in an interview with Phyllis Tuchman, May 1971, reproduced in Exh. Cat., Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Robert Ryman, June – October 2002, p. 26) Beyond the furls of glossy white paint, Untitled offers slips of sea green, teal, china blue, and cerulean in varying tones. The vehement motion of Ryman’s brushstrokes across the agitated surface impels a substantial spontaneity, however restrained by the given format of the square canvas. This veritable ocean of serene colors and tempestuous surface recedes into thinly applied gesso at the untouched corner of canvas at the lower right corner of the painting. Of this specific work, Ryman noted: "I’ve used this corner a number of times and I do not know why exactly. It’s an unconscious thing. It gives me an angle which I have used very seldom in my painting. Here, I felt it gave the painting an interesting, slightly different feeling than some of the others, because many times I was using a rectangle and a corner, or a square and a corner, but almost never a triangle. What happened was not planned. It was not planned to leave the corner but I was painting this area and I stopped and came back the next morning and there was definitely an area where the corner had been left. I thought, maybe I will not go any further with the main paint plane area." (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery (and travelling), Robert Ryman, 1993, p. 92)
Ryman’s initial investigation into the nature of paint evolved into a pioneering exploration into the nuances limits of the genre; he posits that the content of painting comes from the paint itself and not the pictorial outcome, a tenet that revolutionized the characteristically modernist understanding of painting for painting’s sake. In contrast to the predominant artistic mode of the gestural, chromatically varied, and large-scaled works of the Abstract Expressionists, Ryman instead focuses his techniques in the enclosed square format as an ideal formal arena in which to better delve into his medium. A square, with its universal symmetry, is inherently 'composed,' obviating the need to assign pictorial order or balance.
While the surface of Untitled proposes a similar additive gestural syntax to the oil-encrusted abstraction of de Kooning, Pollock, and other Abstract Expressionist influences, the present work completely eschews the notion of action painting. As explained by Robert Storr of works from this formative period, "Rymans are the product of the fingers and hand, not the arm. Gesture, for him, served paint rather than the painter; painting was a question of application rather than of ‘action.’ Contrary, then to Harold Rosenberg’s view of abstraction as an exercise in the rhetoric of self-affirmation, Ryman understood it even at that formative state as a problem of material syntax. What paint had to say was its own name, and it said it best in measured tones.” (Robert Storr, "Simple Gifts" in Ibid., p. 15)
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