Robert Ryman cited in: Exh. Cat., Zurich, Halle für internationale neue Kunst (and travelling), Robert Ryman, 1980, p. 15.
Executed in 1963, Robert Ryman’s Untitled #32 exemplifies the American artist’s empirical investigations into the nature and structure of painting. Once housed in the Collection of Jean-François and Marie-Aline Prat, the work possesses superb provenance. Composed of impasto brushmarks in vivid hues of white, red and green oil paint on a square of unstretched and fraying linen, Untitled #32 is provocative in its raw immediacy and radical candour. Ryman dated his earliest painting to 1955, but as is widely noted, the years 1958-1963 were the most significant for his burgeoning artistic development. Composed at the very height of his artistic breakthrough, the present work hence encapsulates Ryman’s most significant mature output. From the very outset of his artistic career in the late 1950s, Ryman exclusively made non-representational paintings that distilled the creative process to its purest and most essential elements: the choice of paint, its support, and its application. Setting himself stringent parameters and a clearly defined range of variables within which to conduct his research, Ryman interrogated the core decisions inherent in the creative act of painting. Paradoxically, Ryman found great freedom in this reductivist approach and, as is evident in Untitled #32, his spare and inventive structures anticipated the Minimalist movement.
Untitled #32 invokes a sense of the artist grappling with the fundamental material elements of his metier in a painting of resounding harmony. Ryman's conceptual premise was to restrict himself to a square format with a controlled and reductive palette. With its universal symmetry, the square is a symbol of harmony, order and 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" (Robert Ryman in conversation with Phyllis Tuchman, Artforum, May 1971, pp. 44-65).
Unlike other canvases in which the paint is dragged thinly across the surface in a uniform layer, in the present work the flurry of brushstrokes build up pell-mell, creating a dense and rich surface of impastoed, shimmering skeins of paint which augment the subtlety of colour balance. Constructed using short strokes applied with supple ease and fluidity, this technique is typical of Ryman’s works from the early 1960s, in which he experimented with different kinds of brushes and lengths of stroke, applying thick white paint over a coloured ground. In discussing this group of works, Ryman recalled, "I found that I was eliminating a lot. I would put the colour down, then paint over it, trying to get down to a few crucial elements. It was like erasing something to put white over it" (Robert Ryman cited in: Nancy Grime, 'White Magic', Art News, Summer 1986, p. 90). With its harmonious simplicity and conceptual rigour, Untitled #32 beautifully encapsulates the very ethos of Ryman’s pioneering practice.
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