In a flurry of painterly bravura that belies the adamantly non-expressionist bent of Robert Ryman’s artistic philosophy, his pure white pigment crests across the surface of Gate, 1995, ensconcing us within its utterly indescribable elegance. Initially transmitting a breathtaking stillness, the closer we get and the longer we observe Ryman’s textured whirlwind of impastoed oil the more we succumb to the dynamic tempest of disciplined strokes that radiate with incomparable brilliance against the neutral ground of the present work. Within the scope of an oeuvre characterized by a number of consistent themes and principles, Ryman pursued two above all with unerring continuity and dogged determination: his use of white and the deliberately non-compositional device of the square. The most prevalent elements of his work, they are the foundations of his thorough examination of the act of painting in all of its physical and theoretical complexity. Unlike other premier abstractionists of his generation, and the New York School of Abstract Expressionists that preceded him, Ryman never explored figuration in his art whilst en route to a distinctive style; instead, since the very incipit of his critically acclaimed career, his sole concern has been non-illusionist works that focus on the essential behaviors of his material elements. Embracing and celebrating the physical characteristics of his chosen paint and support, he proceeds to take these idiosyncrasies and stretch them to their absolute limits through application and scale. Gate, a truly captivating exemplar of Ryman’s prodigious corpus of mesmerizing canvases, typifies the strongest aspects of the artist’s lifelong dissertation on the possibilities of abstract painting within the realm of Contemporary Art.
With Gate, Robert Ryman cements his critical place within the pivotal art historical lineage established by pioneering abstractionists such as Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian in the early Twentieth Century, who jettisoned all allusion to the figure in favor of an aesthetic inspired entirely by the power of unadorned geometric shapes. Similarly, Ryman eschews any attempts at narrative or self-expression in favor of an unfettered and unabashed reverence for what he refers to as the ‘real’ tools of the artist. A square with its universal symmetry is inherently ‘composed,’ forestalling any compositional intervention or pictorial order provided by the artist: “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 or circles.” (the artist interviewed by Phyllis Tuchman in Artforum, May 1971, pp. 44-65) In a comparable ode to pure methodology, Ryman’s proclivity for a predominantly white palette arose from its suitability in revealing the inherent properties of paint – color, texture, density, light, and reflectivity – and not out of any attempts at symbolism. Since its formal adoption into his practice in the mid-1950s, Ryman afforded the color white a whole spectrum of tonal effects and degrees of gloss, encouraging nuances ranging from cool to warm, transparent to impenetrable. Rising from the neutral ground layer, the stark white pigment that bristles across the surface of Gate is spectacularly offset in passages of thinner application by a subtle, but distinctly perceptible, black oil underlayer.
Ryman’s desire to generate a layered plane of varying materials in muted shades and tones led to a lifetime of works inspired by medium. Never a question of what to paint, but rather how to paint, Ryman used his square as a starting point to create compositions reflecting light, defining edges, and exploring relations of space. Within the regnant structural device of the square, Ryman does allow for, indeed incite, slight variation, as witnessed in Gate. 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. Primarily concerned, for over half a century, with the driving interplay of surface, color and scale, Ryman’s paintings exist as ultimate artistic objects. Gate, archetypal of the artist’s illustrious, iconic, and inherently artistic technique, provides a level of unparalleled engagement for its viewer who, in the course of absorbing its physical presence, becomes part of the work itself. Robert Ryman’s art is all-encompassing and Gate is fully consuming in its intoxicating blend of simplified beauty, intricate painterly detail and theoretical sagacity.
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