The white pigment in the present work gathers in a concentrated mass, blanketing the surface in squalled layers at the center before organically dispersing out towards the edges of the canvas support. Ryman’s use of white does not define his paintings and it is by no means an expression of rigidity. Rather, it represents a means of revealing the painting as a whole, exposing the slightest variations in surface, stroke, tone and format. For Ryman, white is a symbol of purity, of austerity, and most significantly, of autonomy: “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” (Robert Ryman, quoted in Robert Storr, “Simple Gifts,” Exh. Cat., Tate, Robert Ryman, London 1993, p. 16). In Stamp, his chosen chalky white is impeccably equipped to highlight his tremendous variety of application. From the gestural and expressive to constrained, staccato marks; from immaculate, smooth surfaces to vigorously applied impastos, Ryman’s brushstrokes quiver animatedly, as if they might shift into a different form as soon as one looks away.
Evincing his true painterly mastery, Ryman also knows when to make exceptions. In the present work, his signature white is accentuated by the other hues and textures he has expertly applied. The uppermost layer of pure white strokes leaves glimpses of the dusky rose palimpsest that ambles beneath it, acting as both a framing device and a base for the white. These shadowy tiers meter out and flutter in the negative space, lending the whites a heightened brilliance. Where Ryman has layered waves of thick creamy brushstrokes into overlapping crescendos, the rosy hue offers a counterpoint with its quiet and thinly applied surface. He adds further complexity by allowing the warm honey canvas to remain visible through the painterly surface of white pigment, while the ochre red fence posts bind the central melee at its left and right. As stark white fades to sepia and recedes into neutral canvas, the activity of the artist’s gesture is intensified by the contrast. Format is as much in play as color. For Ryman, the square canvas is crucial to communicating the intended neutrality of his work, as the shape, like the white, is stripped of any connotations and directs our focus to the medium. In creating this interplay between the internal gestural storm and the symmetrical, elemental geometry of the support, he establishes paint itself as the subject of his work.
Ryman’s paintings evade verbal approximation and have been compared to musical symphonies, in that they can only be fully appreciated when experienced in person. His mellifluous impasto is infinitely rewarding, offering innumerable opportunities for reevaluation and reflection. Primarily concerned, for over half a century, with the driving interplay of surface, color and scale, Ryman’s paintings exist as ultimate artistic objects. Each chromism is meditatively studied, each brushstroke intimately considered, and each composition meticulously designed. Stamp, archetypal of the artist’s illustrious, iconic, and inherently artistic technique, is fully consuming in its intoxicating blend of simplified beauty, intricate painterly detail and theoretical sagacity.
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