Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction


Robert Ryman
1930 - 2019
signed and dated 61
oil on paper mounted on masonite
30.8 by 30.8cm.
12 1/8 by 12 1/8 in.
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Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Mayor Gallery, London (acquired from the above in 1977)
Saatchi Collection, London (acquired from the above in 1977)
Irena Hochman, New York
Private Collection, Japan (acquired circa 1986)
Sale: Sotheby's New York, Contemporary Art, Part I, 14 May 1998, Lot 39
Acquavella Galleries, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


London, Saatchi Collection, Andre, Chamberlain, Flavin, LeWitt, Ryman, Stella, 1985-86
Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Contemporary Collecting, 2010, p. 115, illustrated in colour


Michael Auping, et. al., Art of Our Time: The Saatchi Collection, Vol. 1, New York 1984, no. 104, illustrated in colour
Kenneth Baker, Minimalism: art of circumstance, New York 1988, p. 75, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

The apparently simple Untitled by Robert Ryman is a wonderful example of the consistency with which the artist has explored absolutely every aspect of painting. Arriving in New York in the early 1950s with the intention of becoming a professional jazz player, his fate changed when he started working as a guard at The Museum of Modern Art. A visit to an art-supply store around the corner from his apartment building led to a discovery that would impact the trajectorary of his future career: this was the moment at which Ryman discovered painting. As the artist remembers: “I went in… and bought some oil paint and canvas board and some brushes – they didn’t have acrylic at that time – and some turpentine. I was just seeing how the paint worked, and how the brushes worked…trying to make something happen without any specific idea what I was painting” (the artist, cited in: Robert Storr, Robert Ryman, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate Gallery, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993-94, p.12).

Robert Ryman’s work benefits from close and paused contemplation. When looking at Untitled in such a way one can appreciate the subtle nuances that set it apart from the rest of the artist’s squared works. Ryman’s choice to use white pigment in all of his paintings lies far from any mystical interpretation. White paint enables the painter to concentrate in all the subtleties of the medium. As the artist described: “The use of white in my paintings came about when I realized that it doesn’t interfere. It’s a neutral color that allows for a clarification of nuances in painting. It makes other aspects of painting visible that would not be so clear with the use of other colors” (the artist, cited in: Nancy Grimes, ‘White Magic’, Art News, Summer 1986, p. 89).  His choice of the squared format is not arbitrary either. For Ryman, a squared canvas is automatically composed, allowing him to focus on the aspects of painting that interest him more: colour, texture, density, light, and reflectivity. Indeed, these are centrally important compositional elements of Untitled.

Characteristic of this period is Ryman’s exploration of different ways to apply the paint on the canvas. This is clearly evinced by Untitled, where the white pigment has been applied combining thick, heavy impasto made of short and vigorous brushstrokes on the top-left corner, which then diffuse into a thin layer of paint that reveals the surface beneath on the bottom-right. The artist painted a square within a square, incorporating the sides of the painting into the resulting rhythmic composition. He had started to do so as early as 1958, and in subsequent years he would continue to explore the results of this incorporation, even working on a series of unstretched canvases during the early sixties.

The years spent working at MoMA enabled him to experience in-depth some of the greatest artworks of modern Art History. Fascinated by composition in Cézanne’s paintings and enthralled by Klee's manipulation of texture, he started mixing wax with the pigments he used in his work. Ryman felt a profound respect for these icons of art history, however it was particularly the work of Mark Rothko that perhaps affected the artist most profoundly. It was from him that he learned to consider canvases as objects themselves rather than simply a surface on which to represent light or onto which shapes could mimic reality. From the abstract expressionists, as well as from Matisse, whom he regarded most highly, came Ryman’s discovery of paint and its intricacies, and his desire to understand how the medium worked.

Despite its apparent austerity, it is clear that Untitled is an exquisite example of Ryman’s never-ending curiosity, which even if based on a defined range of variables, is capable of rendering an almost endless array of permutations to broadcast the artist’s inventiveness. As Robert Ryman once said: “There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint. The how of painting has always been the image” (the artist, cited in Robert Storr, Robert Ryman, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate Gallery, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993-94, p. 18).

Contemporary Art Evening Auction