- Robert Ryman
- 11 x 10 1/2 inches
Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2006
Brussels, Xavier Hufkens Gallery, Robert Ryman: Paintings from the Sixties, September - December 2000, p. 31, illustrated in color
Robert Ryman cited in Exh. Cat., Zurich, Halle für internationale neue Kunst (and travelling), Robert Ryman, 1980, p. 15
Provocative in its immediacy, purity, and radical candor, Robert Ryman's Untitled #29 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 years 1958-1962 were the most significant for his artistic development. Executed in 1963, the present work is one of the earliest examples of Ryman’s mature output; in a career that has spanned over six decades, works from this remarkably significant period are notoriously 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 concert with its equally luminescent green partner across the intimately scaled surface of Untitled #29, achieving a flurry of vital dynamism that enraptures our eyes and ignites our senses. Indeed, Untitled #29 is a critical memento to an instance of profound artistic discovery and innovation. In each glorious stroke of paint, bestowed upon the surface of Untitled #29 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.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1930, Robert Ryman moved to New York City when he was twenty-two years old, after serving two years in the army during the Korean War. At that time, his dream was to become a jazz musician – a passion he had cultivated as a teenager in Tennessee and indulged during his two years as part of an army band – and the bustling New York music scene beckoned. When he arrived in 1952, however, an entirely new world opened up to him as he began to explore the city’s world-class museums and burgeoning gallery scene. It was a heady period, one of art historical legend, the metropolis churning with the insatiable vitality of Abstract Expressionism in its surging ascent. 1952 was the year Harold Rosenberg famously coined the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, yet the giants of that ground-breaking movement had already completed many of the seminal masterpieces that would come to define their legacy: three years earlier, Jackson Pollock had resolved his initial Surrealist inspired compositions into the iconic monumental all-over dripped canvases that would herald his critical acclaim; Barnett Newman’s eponymous ‘zip’ had already become the unequivocal and definitive mark of his corpus; Franz Kline’s impassioned gestural swathes of black pigment on white ground had evinced a number of grand and muscular monochromatic abstractions; Willem de Kooning was on the brink of abandoning what is perhaps the defining masterpiece of his career, the still technically ‘un-finished’ Woman I, after working and re-working it obsessively since 1950; and Mark Rothko was in the midst of a critical apex in his career, wherein his towering theses on the absolute limits of abstract art, his vessels of pure color and light, had achieved a new sublimity. By 1954, this riptide of artistic inspiration had fully subsumed Ryman within its limitless depth, and he transitioned his focus from Jazz to painting.
In 1954, like so many aspiring artists before and since, Ryman took a job as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art. To this day, the artist acknowledges his time at the Modern as profoundly transformative and utterly fundamental to the evolution of his particular aesthetic vision. The young Ryman, just twenty-four years old, was given unprecedented access and a first-rate experiential art historical education. In addition to his daily interaction with the wide array of masterpieces in the museum’s permanent collection, Ryman had a front row seat for the nearly 100 exhibitions hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in the four-year period that he worked there, from 1954 to 1958. Among these, the artist specifically recalls being affected by the posthumous Jackson Pollock memorial exhibition, originally intended as a mid-career retrospective prior to Pollock’s untimely death, which opened in December 1956. While working at the Modern, Ryman sought out what would become his only formal art training: a beginner’s course in experimental painting offered through the museum’s school. Once or twice a week, for three or four months, Ryman pursued a rudimentary study that included drawing from models, the basics of sketching, and how to work with paint and color. Ever the voracious learner, Ryman supplemented this elementary technical experience with a self-imposed course of study by absorbing as much as he could about the painters and paintings he admired most. Today, a consideration of the artists that Ryman felt a particular affinity for provides a clear blueprint for the establishment of his inimitable corpus, each of these men buttressing a distinct pillar of Ryman’s deliberately constructed conceptual practice.
As we approach Untitled #29, we become privileged witnesses to the astounding assuredness of Ryman’s hand. The vehement motion of his brushstroke impels a substantial spontaneity yet, as spontaneous as the composition of Untitled #29 may appear, its execution is rooted firmly in a thoughtful exactitude that resolutely describes the core tenets of its creator’s practice. While the surface of the present work proposes a similar additive gestural syntax to the oil-encrusted abstraction of de Kooning, Pollock, and other of Ryman’s Abstract Expressionist forebears, his work unconditionally eschews the notion of action painting. As explained by Robert Storr in his discussion of works from this formative period, “Ryman’s are the product of the fingers and 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 has left a good portion of his unprimed and unstretched canvas bare as unequivocal testament to his steadfast admiration for the very principles of the painterly arts: the chosen ground, the materials, and the method by which those two entities are united are all of equal and paramount importance to the artist’s conceptual framework. Like an open set of parentheses bounding a poetic set of verse, the nature of Ryman’s canvas is as important to the artist as the pigment that builds its voluminous picture plane. Ryman’s paintings do not stand in service to an idea—they stand in service to the surface. As such, Untitled #29 endures as a singular archetype of the very ethos of Robert Ryman’s revolutionary practice.