Robert Ryman - Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I New York Tuesday, November 14, 2023 | Phillips
  • “There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint. The how of painting has always been the image.”
    —Robert Ryman


    Robert Ryman’s Untitled, Prototype, 1969, rewards close looking. Viewed from afar, one sees a white square punctuated by four brown notches, one in each corner. Take a step closer, however, and a wealth of texture is revealed. The artist’s application of the white paint is almost cross-hatched in nature, creating subtle ridges and channels of paint, a mountainous terrainwhile the brown gaps remain flat and untouched.


    Untitled, Prototype is part of a series the artist began after 1967, in which he purposefully used the thinnest possible supportssuch as canvas, card or fiberglasswith the intention of having the work lie as close to the wall as possible, as if part of the wall itself.i The four unpainted tabs in Untitled, Prototype are the result of sticky tape that Ryman used to hold the sheet of fiberglass against the wall while painting. There is an intentionality to the absence of paint at the cornersa deliberate reminder that Untitled, Prototype is just board and paint. The present work is also one of the first in the artist’s oeuvre to bear the title Prototype—Ryman began using the term in the late 1960s to distinguish the paintings he identified as models for subsequent works in their respective series.ii Untitled, Prototype, then, is quite literally the exemplum of its kind.


    Piero Manzoni, Achrome, 1961. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Image: © CNAC/MNAM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

    Ryman was born in Nashville and moved to New York in 1952 with the intention of becoming a jazz musician rather than an artist. However, his abstract painting practice would ultimately be equally informed by both his day job as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art, and his nightly devotion to modern jazz. Inspired by the strict and theoretical teaching style of his jazz mentor Lennie Tristano, Ryman’s art practice was similarly structured in pursuit of “nonreferential and self-sufficient objects.”iii Throughout his life, he would remain committed to four tenets in his practice: white paint, square format, brushstroke, and support.


     “I don’t think of myself as making white paintings. I make paintings; I’m a painter. White paint is my medium.”
    —Robert Ryman


    Ryman’s use of white paint holds no hidden symbolic or mystical implications; rather, it is a technical choice, an engagement with material over imagery. For the artist, white paint allowed him to focus on the subtleties of colormore specifically, the color that arose when white paint was applied over various supports. Moreover, Ryman saw too much color as confusing, for which reason he largely limited himself to white.


    Robert Ryman, Classico 5, 1968. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2023 Robert Ryman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Untitled was painted the same year as Ryman’s exhibition at the Konrad Fischer Gallery in Düsseldorfthe artist’s second exhibition in Europe. This exhibition presented the artist’s “Classico” series, named after the brand of paper support used for each work. Classico 5, 1968, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, consists of one dozen vertically orientated sheets taped to the wall to create a horizontal composite that was partially covered with a synthetic polymer white. Once the paint dried, Ryman removed the tape, exposing small tabs of untouched paper beneath. This pattern of notches serves to visually reinforce the grid of papers and the painted rectangle.iv


    Like Classico 5, Untitled makes use of tape to create a palpable tension between presence and absence, and to disrupt what would otherwise be a uniform application of paint. It is these tensions and disruptions which make Untitled such a pivotal work in Ryman’s oeuvre, and which grounds the work in the artist’s ultimate fascination with the fundamental properties of the materials he employs.



    i “Untitled, Robert Ryman, 1969,” Mercedes-Benz Art Collection, accessed Oct. 4, 2023, online.

    ii Jeffrey Weiss, “Radiant Dispersion: Robert Ryman’s Philadelphia Prototype, 2002,” Artforum, vol. 41, no. 1, Sep. 2002, online.

    iii “The man who turned Robert Ryman onto jazz,” Phaidon, May 30, 2018, online

    iv Robert Storr, “Robert Ryman,” The Museum of Modern Art, accessed Oct. 5, 2023, online.

    • Description

      Please see main sale page for guarantee notice

    • Provenance

      Konrad Fischer, Düsseldorf
      Private Collection
      Sotheby’s, New York, May 3, 1989, lot 220
      Private Collection, Chicago
      Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, New York, May 15, 2003, lot 9
      Private Collection, Santa Fe
      Private Collection (acquired from the above)
      Sotheby’s, New York, May 15, 2008, lot 116
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2009

    • Exhibited

      Rotterdam, Kunsthal, Avant-gardes 1870 to the present: The Collection of the Triton Foundation, October 7, 2012–January 20, 2013, pp. 397, 561-562 (illustrated, p. 397)
      The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Zero Art/Minimal Art, May 18–October 13, 2013

    • Literature

      William Anastasi: Paintings, Small Works, Drawings, exh. cat., Galleria d’Arte Contemporanea, Modena, 2009, pl. 80, n.p. (illustrated)



Untitled, Prototype

signed and dated "Ryman 69" lower center
acrylic on fiberglass panel
18 7/8 x 18 7/8 in. (47.9 x 47.9 cm)
Executed in 1969.

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné project being organized by David Gray under number 1969.036.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $254,000

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1206

Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I

New York Auction 14 November 2023