Lot 25
  • 25


800,000 - 1,200,000 USD
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  • Robert Ryman
  • Untitled
  • signed
  • oil on unstretched sized linen
  • 11 1/2 by 11 1/4 in. 29.2 by 28.6 cm.
  • Executed circa 1963.


Private Collection, New York (gift of the artist in 1963)
Sotheby's New York, May 14, 1998, Lot 19 (consigned by the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above

Catalogue Note

Provocative in its immediacy, purity, and radical candor, Robert Ryman’s Untitled bristles with an unrivaled vigor and a clear painterly ingenuity that renders it a timeless explication of the very essence of its creator’s distinctive vernacular. Ryman dates his earliest painting to 1955, but as widely noted, the late 1950s into the early 1960s were the most significant for his artistic development. Executed circa 1963, the present work is among the earliest examples of Ryman’s mature output; in a career that spanned over six decades, works from this remarkably important period are exceptionally rare as fundamental exemplars of the practice that would come to cause a quiet revolution in the medium. Every peak of crisp phosphorescent white dances in perfect harmony with its equally luminescent green partner across the intimately scaled surface of Untitled, achieving a flurry of vital dynamism that enraptures our eyes and ignites our senses. Indeed, Untitled is a critical memento to an instance of profound artistic discovery and innovation, distinguished by its execution on unstretched linen. Naomi Spector notes of this limited group of paintings: “Their irregularity is increased by the scalloped effect which resulted from stretching the linen out further at certain points to staple it flat on a board for sizing… They are like an honest part of the material and are like a found image.” (Naomi Spector, Robert Ryman, Amsterdam, 1974, pp. 8-9) In each glorious stroke of paint bestowed upon the surface of Untitled with exacting economy and mesmerizing restraint, we bear witness to the critical early explorations of one of the great artistic pioneers of the last half century. Untitled represents the astounding assuredness, substantial spontaneity, and thoughtful exactitude that comprise the core tenets of Ryman’s practice. While the surface of the present work proposes a similar additive gestural syntax to the heavily-impastoed canvases of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other Abstract Expressionist forebears, Ryman eschews the notion of action painting. Of this formative period, Robert Storr describes: “Rymans are the product of the fingers and the 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 in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery (and travelling), Robert Ryman, 1993, p. 15) A clear indicator of the brilliant exploratory nature of the present work, Ryman left a portion of his unprimed and unstretched canvas ‘naked’ as an unequivocal testament to his steadfast admiration for the very principles of painting: the chosen ground, the materials, and the method by which those two entities are united are all of equal importance to the artist’s conceptual framework.

Across the unstretched canvas, Ryman builds up an undulating surface of thick curls and billows of luscious white impasto. Shorter daubs erupt against longer strokes, the intersections of which create ridges and crests of oil paint, lending the present work a physicality and tactility rare in an oeuvre defined by paintings that more frequently murmur in soft susurrations, 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 present work. Like mounds of newly fallen snow or whorls of cloud on a bright sunny day, the pristinely white paint glows incandescently atop the sinuous brushstrokes and curves of electric green. The full spectrum of Ryman’s painterly bravura is on brilliant display in the sparingly used green oil that has seeped delicately into the weave of canvas, juxtaposed with the heavily worked impasto of white paint, all gathered in a slightly off-center centrifugal form. Here, Ryman contrasts vibrant green and pure white, and a built-up composition with margins of negative space to create a jewel-like masterpiece that demands prolonged engagement. Like an open set of parentheses bounding a poetic verse, the nature of Ryman’s canvas is as crucial to the artist as the pigment that builds up the picture plane. Untitled, therefore, does not stand in service to an idea – it stands in service to the surface, enduring as an archetype of the very ethos of Ryman’s revolutionary practice.

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray under number 1963.003.