Robert Ryman - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    PaceWildenstein, New York
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    New York, PaceWildenstein, Robert Ryman: New Paintings, October 11 - November 9, 2002
    London, Haunch of Venison, Robert Ryman: New Paintings, January 29 - March 1, 2003

  • Literature

    Y. Bois, Robert Ryman: New Paintings, PaceWildenstein, New York, 2002, p. 29 (illustrated)
    L. Wei, "Robert Ryman at PaceWildenstein," Art in America, April 2003, p. 130

  • Catalogue Essay

    “I guess you can say that painting is a kind of experiment…it’s a visual experience, and with my paintings I don’t really plan them, it has to come about visually.” Robert Ryman, 2007

    Rarely has an artist dedicated his entire career to the pursuit of a singular ideal in the manner of Robert Ryman. Unfailingly devoted to his stark canvases of thickly applied white and cream, Ryman has redefined the role of the visual artist, transforming the eye of the spectator from a searcher to a seer. Ryman’s vast surfaces are an end in and of themselves, purposefully crafted to emphasize the minutiae of their construction against the luminous sources that complete them: this is Ryman’s great gift, which (with a career now approaching 60 years in length) he has industriously delivered time and time again in variegated textures and mediums—but always in the same shade of frosted white. As whimsical in his titular prescriptions as in his style of working, Ryman’s present lot, Hour, 2001, is a pristine example of his indelible artistic legend, where an Hour might as well be a century in the making.

    As Ryman’s most historically reliable format, the square canvas is not only a conventional and functional surface for his medium, but also a necessary vessel for communicating the intended neutrality of his pictures. First creating his work on the heels of the great American Abstract Expressionists, Ryman’s use of the square canvas appeals to the concept of geometrical abstraction, effectively guaranteeing the greatest level of narrative detachment for the spectator. In doing so, Ryman manages to direct the focus of his viewer almost exclusively upon the use of his painterly medium. In doing so, he establishes paint itself as the main feature of his work.

    Hour, 2001, exhibits the continuation of Ryman’s artistic ideal—a marvelously successful devotion to specific artistic principles. While Ryman occasionally has ventured into the use of a wider chromatic spectrum, he has done so with caution, employing a greater breadth of color simply to highlight the already remarkable qualities of his monochromatic canvases. The present lot is such a quintessential adoption of Ryman’s most enduring and recognizable tropes—the square canvas, the texturally thick use of white, the impressively subtle integration of hints of color—that it qualifies as one of his most essential canvases of his late period. Indeed, what is so spectacular about Hour, 2001, is that it could have been painted during any era of Ryman’s career, so unified is his work from era to era.

    The space of the canvas allows for a magnificent border of variegated width, all dependent upon the single brushstrokes with which Ryman dresses his picture. While almost linear at both the central right and left borders, Ryman’s sublime symmetry shifts towards all four corners; here, we find a playful bit of strategy on Ryman’s part, almost conjuring the carefree strokes of fingerpaint. Indeed, along both the top and bottom borders of Ryman’s medium, the threshold continues in this vein— sometimes scattered with abandon, sometimes flush with saturation.

    Ryman’s medium itself is a chromatic wonder. While he teases us with minor hints of red and sienna behind his imposing foreground, it is no wonder where Ryman’s enthusiasm lay in the present lot. Almost woven together, Ryman’s use of single brushstrokes to achieve an overall impact is reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh—the curved back of each small gesture a contained work all by itself. Ryman creates a paradoxical effect in his application of brushwork: while the surface of his painting is never completely obscured, allowing for frequent spots of raw canvas and protruding bits of color, Ryman also manages to forge a layered picture, each series of hooked brushstrokes sitting either above or below a separate series, as if they were impossibly interlocked rings of white gold.

    In addition, the occasionally subtle yet frequently heavy strokes are the main feature of Hour, 2011, creating a holistic effect of manifold surfaces, each reflecting the light of their luminous sources and each other as well. From wild complexity comes a poignant unity of texture, combating the notion that a monochromatic canvas has less to offer than its more flamboyant counterparts. Texture is the most fascinating aspect of the present lot, and the one in which Ryman chooses to exhibit his most ingenious artistry.

    This conjures the work of Agnes Martin, especially in her own reduction of the chromatic scheme and increase of emphasis on textural make-up in order to induce the viewer’s transcendent appreciation for her pictures. In Ryman’s measured strokes, which assume a textural unity over the course of the painting, we find Martin’s controlled grids and use of the line to achieve an objective work of minimalism. Both artists adhere to strict principles in order to create their canvases. Indeed, this veneration of symmetry highlights the concept of material portraiture—or making the medium itself the subject of each painting.

    But Ryman’s textural obsession with his medium finds several stranger bedfellows as well, namely Piero Manzoni in his widely varying emphasis of texture in his groundbreaking sculptural paintings, known as the Achromes. Manzoni’s own preoccupation with material subjecthood was one of the greatest forbears to the work of both Martin and Ryman, and we can find his tactile influence in Ryman’s deep swaths of white and cream. Both Ryman and Manzoni share an affinity for non-representation, elevating the materials of the artist to their place as worthy subjects.

    Yet perhaps we are neglecting an equally crucial element of Ryman’s artistic process, and certainly one that Hour, 2001 requires in order to be a successful piece: luminescence. As Ryman stated in 2007, “that’s where the painting can be activated, in reflected light, particularly with high-gloss enamel. You have the surface that will bounce off the light. Some people might say it is ambient light, but that’s different in my thinking. If you have a soft light that’s thrown up to the ceiling, that would be ambient light. But that doesn’t work the same, strangely enough. If the light is shone on to the floor and it bounces up, it doesn’t work the same either. The light has to come opposite the painting. The source is reflected off of something into the space and onto what it is you want to present.”(P. Bui, “In Conversation: Robert Ryman with Phong Bui”, The Brooklyn Rail, June 7, 2007) Therefore it is of particular importance that the light source for Ryman’s picture is both powerful and direct, for only then will we be able to discern the nuances of Ryman’s every brushstroke.

    The necessity of a pure light source is evident in the work of Ryman’s direct predecessor, Lucio Fontana, as well, for whom the monochromatic canvas was a stepping stone to the exploration of the intrinsic properties of a surface. Through puncturing and slashing his canvases, Fontana established the three-dimensional aspect of his work as the main attraction, utilizing the features of a breached canvas to explore the changes in illumination as the surface retreats inward towards its incision. Ryman’s work utilized similar properties, except in the exploration of positive space: the three-dimensionality of the medium itself. It is here that Ryman explores the effects of light on a monochromatic yet texturally variegated surface, creating a multitude of surfaces on a single canvas.

    But the machinations that allow Ryman’s medium to take center stage lie in his brilliant sense of focus, and his use of a neutral geometry in directing the spectator’s attention. This measured approach to geometry has remained a mainstay of Ryman’s for his entire career, and finds a concurrent purpose with the work of Sol LeWitt, whose unflinching veneration of the square has come to embody the greater part of his own artistic project. This use of mathematical perfection in attaining a neutrality of surface has an alternate function as well in Ryman’s work—it disallows the viewer to develop narrative associations with the piece. Ryman’s devotion to non-representation is fully formed in this regard, as he takes steps to ensure that his medium is the central focus:

    “They’re not pictures of things that we know, so that may be difficult for some people….you never know what a person is seeing when they look at a painting. It’s not a matter of seeing something in it… even something about it…it’s a matter of having an experience, a visual experience that is pleasing. Actually, you’re seeing something that you’ve never seen before. If someone looks at a picture of something that you know, of a landscape, things with symbolic references, that have a lot of narrative, someone can relate to those. But that’s not really what painting is about, in my thinking. The what of the painting is incidental to the how. What you experience in painting is how it’s put together. How it’s done.”(P. Bui, “In Conversation: Robert Ryman with Phong Bui”, The Brooklyn Rail, June 7, 2007)

    Ryman’s own testimony points to one of his most enduring legacies—that of the process-oriented artist who desires to have his technique be seen and experienced by others. At his core, Ryman is a pure abstractionist, but one who establishes the viewer’s experience with a picture as the most important part of the creative process. This dedication to transformative subjecthood, to establishing the painting itself as the prime focus of the spectator, is one of Ryman’s greatest achievements. And, as both light and paint are perfectly interdependent mediums in Hour, 2001, the picture comes to us as an excellent encapsulation of Ryman’s career.

    As Roberta Smith stated in 1988, “Mr. Ryman has concentrated on nothing but the facts: that a painting is above all a flat, rectilinear surface covered by a second material and fastened to the wall at roughly eye level. Working exclusively with white paint, producing surfaces that harbor not the faintest suggestion of an image, he has proceeded to show us just how flexible and expansive his particular set of facts can be and how optical and spiritual their ultimate effect.”(R. Smith, “Review/Art; Works by Robert Ryman In Redone Dia Galleries”, The New York Times, October 7, 1988) Though Ryman’s modest aims remain steadfastly grounded, they cannot undo the ultimate effect of a painting such as Hour, 2001: enlightenment through light.




oil on canvas
40 x 40 in. (101.6 x 101.6 cm)
Signed, titled and dated "RYMAN01 'HOUR'" along the overlap.
This work will be listed as catalogue number 01.004 in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray.

$5,000,000 - 7,000,000 

Sold for $5,205,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 13 November 2014 7pm