Exceptional Works: Robert Ryman | David Zwirner
A header graphic on a brown background with the following information:  Robert Ryman, Untitled, c. 1963, Oil on stretched sized linen canvas, 77 5/8 x 77 1/2 inches, 197.2 x 196.9 cm.
A detail from a painting by Robert Ryman, called untitled, dated circa1963.

“There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint.”

—Robert Ryman, in a statement for Art in Process IV, 1969

A painting by Robert Ryman, titled Untitled, circa 1963.

Robert Ryman

Untitled, c. 1963
Oil on stretched sized linen canvas
Image: 77 5/8 inches x 77 1/2 inches (197.2 x 196.9 cm)

Dating from the early period of the artist’s career, Untitled (c. 1963) is an exceptional large-scale painting by Robert Ryman. Emblematic of his work from this period, the painting’s glyph-like, curving brushstrokes embody a unique abstract vocabulary, conveying a sense of dynamism and movement that is a departure from Ryman’s more formally organized compositions of the preceding years. Drawing on the artist’s interest in music and jazz, Untitled marks a crucial moment in a widely celebrated career devoted to novel and sensitive explorations of the visual, material, and experiential qualities of paint. This work is featured on the occasion of the gallery's presentation at Art Basel, 2021.

A black and white photo of Robert Ryman standing in his studio in New York in the late 1960s

Robert Ryman in his studio, New York, late 1960s

Robert Ryman in his studio, New York, late 1960s

Widely celebrated for his tactile monochromatic works, from the outset Ryman gave precedence to the physical gesture of applying paint to a support. As Suzanne Hudson writes, “Unlike so many of his peers, he never passed through a landscape phase, tried for the human figure, or abstracted from objects.”

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Ryman moved to New York in 1953 to pursue a career as a jazz musician. The same year, he took a job as a security guard at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. His time working at the museum in part inspired Ryman to devote his life to painting, with which he began experimenting in 1954.

“In 1960, 1961 and 1962 [Ryman] produced a number of small unstretched paintings on linen. These … are dominated by an area of dynamic … strokes of white oil paint between which particles of blue-green pigment glow. The area of paint stops short of some or all of the edges, revealing the thin gesso and the raw canvas.”

—Naomi Spector, 1974

A painting by Robert Ryman titled untitled, dated 1961.

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1961. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1961. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

“It was a matter of making the surface very animated, giving it a lot of movement and activity. This was done not just with the brushwork and use of quite heavy paint, but with color which was subtly creeping through the white.”

—Robert Ryman, 1993

An archival material test on brown canvas by Robert Ryman in 1963

Archival material test, 1963

Archival material test, 1963

An oil painting on brown canvas named Untitled #32 by Robert Ryman made in 1963

Robert Ryman, Untitled #32, 1963

Robert Ryman, Untitled #32, 1963

“The clusters [of paint] renounce ‘relational’ juggling in order to express themselves most economically as instances of painting. Yet they are stubbornly meaningful as configurations because they signal an obstinate refusal of hierarchical order and a glib finessing of the problem of what to paint…. The final application of white is crucial, because the opaque substance’s ridges and shadows suppress the colors’ flickering opticality. And at the same time it does no such thing.”

—Vittorio Colaizzi, Robert Ryman, 2017

A white oil painting named Untitled by Robert Ryman in 1962

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1962. Whitney Museum of American Art 

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1962. Whitney Museum of American Art 

While unique in terms of scale, Untitled relates to paintings made in 1962 that demonstrate denser, more static facture. 

Expanding across a square field of more than six feet, the forms in the present work have a new rhythmic quality; like syncopation—a musical term that describes a variety of rhythms played together to make a piece of music—the flashes of color create unexpected visual incidents that further enliven the surface.

“Music was, I think, important to my painting.… I was involved in jazz, and jazz is where you improvise.… You have a structure that you’re working from.… You play or you paint, and something comes from it.”

—Robert Ryman, 1980

 
An album cover for the title Lenny Tristano by Lenny Tristano in 1955

Lenny Tristano, Lenny Tristano, 1955

Lenny Tristano, Lenny Tristano, 1955

In 1952, Ryman, who had long been fascinated by jazz and studied the saxophone at college, began studying with Lennie Tristano. A blind pianist, Tristano played a central role in the New York jazz scene of the 1940s and 1950s. 

As a teacher, Tristano was notable for his systematic breakdown of the elements of improvisation. While some criticized what they saw as an over-intellectual approach to an intuitive art form among Tristano and fellow musicians like Lee Konitz, whom Ryman also admired, Konitz defended their style in a way that echoes Ryman’s attitude to painting. Konitz’s “sitting back and putting everything right into the groove where it’s supposed to be” seems to anticipate Ryman’s description of his own approach: “If I miss, then there isn’t any overpainting.… Once you play, that’s it.”
A painting by Robert Ryman, titled Love Lines, dated 1962.

Ryman named one of his paintings from 1962 Love Lines, after a piece on Lennie Tristano’s album, The New Tristano, released the same year.

Ryman named one of his paintings from 1962 Love Lines, after a piece on Lennie Tristano’s album, The New Tristano, released the same year.

“There must be something about the relationship between art and music that makes the transition from one to the other easy and natural in some way.… Maybe it’s just all patterns and deviation. Maybe it’s the same way a jazz player plays the melody straight the first time.… Good art sets up a structure that everyone is familiar with … and then departs from the expected ‘tune’ and inspires you to go home and think.”

—Robert Ryman, 2005

A painting by Ryman called Untitled (background music), dated 1962.

Ryman’s Untitled (background music), 1962, may refer to a composition of the same title from c.1962 by Warne Marsh, a saxophonist who played with Tristano and Lee Konitz

Ryman’s Untitled (background music), 1962, may refer to a composition of the same title from c.1962 by Warne Marsh, a saxophonist who played with Tristano and Lee Konitz

An Installation view of an exhibition titled, Robert Ryman, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1993.

Installation view, Robert Ryman, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993

Installation view, Robert Ryman, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993

An Installation view of an exhibition titled, Robert Ryman, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1993.

Installation view, Robert Ryman, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993

Installation view, Robert Ryman, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993

Untitled represents a literal break from the denser mark making seen in the paintings from 1962. Here, the artist’s brushstrokes break apart as they descend from the upper left corner to the lower right of the canvas, loosening up and moving off of the classic picture plane. 

A detail from a painting by Robert Ryman, called untitled, dated circa1963.

Robert Ryman, Untitled, c.1963 (detail)

Robert Ryman, Untitled, c.1963 (detail)

“[I want to communicate] an experience of enlightenment. An experience of delight, and well-being, and rightness. It’s like listening to music. Like going to an opera and coming out of it feeling somehow fulfilled that what you just experienced was extraordinary.”

—Robert Ryman, 1986

A scale shot of a painting by Robert Ryman, called Untitled, dated circa 1963.

You can see this painting in person at Art Basel, September 24–26, 2021

Learn More about Works by Robert Ryman

 

    Read More Read Less

      Read More Read Less

          Inquire

          To learn more about this artwork, please provide your contact information.

          By sharing your details you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions.
          This site is also protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

          Inquire

          To learn more about available works, please provide your contact information

          By sharing your details you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions.This site is also
          protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.