This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being organized by David Gray under number 75.523.
“I’m not really interested in white as a color, although I have at times used different whites for different purposes. Sometimes I used warm white because I wanted to have a warm absorbing light. At other times I’ve used colder white...it has to do with light—softness, hardness, reflection and movement—all these things.” Robert Ryman
Ryman’s creative energies build on what he has done before. Not in the sense of development, as in “artistic development,” but rather in the sense that new possibilities are catalyzed from previous work, like a chain reaction. When confronted with five successive panels, unvaried and in a rectangular form, a rare move for Ryman, one has the sense of the elaboration of an idea, a move to structure a total environment. These seemingly stark surfaces reflect not only their own materiality—in this case copper that has been covered with porcelain enamel—but also the wall on which they are mounted. They reach laterally and forward in a sense, but their succession, their length, carries with it a durational element. The viewing of these works comes one after the next. Rather than being able to visually absorb all five panels instantaneously, one moves to each with a sense of exploring their horizontality, their edges, their tactility, and the density of their pigment. Thus, the directional pull of each succeeding panel moves the eye, if not the entire viewing body, along its trajectory. It is in this sense that this work accounts for its situation within a space. Further, the process of baking enamel onto metal creates an unmistakable look and feel of durability and smoothness.
Art historian Yve-Alain Bois made the point when discussing certain of Ryman’s production that his finishes, particularly those aligned with the trace of the artist’s hand—such as the brushstrokes of the Impressionists—leveled a challenge to the refined, layered high-gloss finishes of paintings from the Venetians. The Impressionists’ repost was to do away with the glazes and “sauces,” as he wrote, and did not allow the underpainting that defined the ground to interrelate with the image (Y-A. Bois, Robert Ryman, New York, 2002, p. 7). Here, in Untitled, Ryman’s edges come very close to what Bois meant when he wrote that Impressionists “dropped the complicated stratification of the subsurface” (Ibid., p. 8). Instead, Ryman—like the Impressionists—brings the substructure to the fore. This is to say that Ryman allows the revelation of the copper substructure to mark a vertical line in the left register of each as well to create the faint irregular darkening around the limits of the support. Here Ryman is, as Bois remarks, “point[ing] out forgotten items, bring[ing] things out of oblivion” (Ibid.).
Untitled was conceived in a burst of creative energy in 1973. Ryman was given the opportunity to work in collaboration with the artist Tünn Kondering at the Werkkunstschule in Essen, Germany. Ryman created thirteen works, among which Untitled figures as pointedly distinctive and significant. For this work brings to the fore the ongoing debate about whether Ryman should be considered a minimalist artist in line with Donald Judd or whether, as most critics and historians concur, he eludes categorization. What aligns him with minimalists is the method on view here, the repetition of like forms. In the late 1960s, artist Mel Bochner proposed that this kind of repetition manifested two organizational paradigms. The first is what he labeled “The Serial Attitude” (M. Bochner, Artforum 6:4, December 1967, pp. 28-33).
For, like Judd’s method of organization, his identical “one thing after another,” lacking affect and based on a predetermined theme such as modular repetition (examples might range from Untitled 1966-1968, or Sol Lewitt’s scheme based on variations, Serial Project, I [ABCD], in which the basic idea is to center one shape within another). Ryman’s Untitled does seem to articulate recurring modules according to a scheme. However, upon closer examination, this work does more. For Ryman’s black edges are emphatically painterly and continuously variable: no one panel of white with black edging—the left sides wider than the hint of edging around the other three sides of the rectangle—repeats configurations nor do any of the edge formations seem predetermined other than that they occur on in the left register. Rather, these are the natural result of withholding paint, of copper oxidizing in irregular forms, uncontrolled by the artist. To the extent that Ryman allowed the materials to speak, to create form unaided, to aide in the evacuation of authorial intention,
one might be tempted to align him with Judd’s fabrications. But as Untitled makes clear, Ryman’s work enters the visual field by a different door. Ryman is involved is not only in the making of the work, in the application of the enamel, in the size of the reserve bands on the left, in the question of edges, but he is invested in making these elements literally present.
One senses in viewing Untitled, 1973 that Ryman is an artist whose “plain” painting is anything but. The subtle modulations in texture, edging, support, and paint application are there to be noticed and thought about. In particular, the edges declare the limit of the pictorial activity they contain, tighten it, and focus it into
a pictorial statement.
Ryman is also an artist who engages with such heady concepts as “aesthetic integrity,” as the following notice affixed to the back of one of his paintings makes clear: “Notice: The aesthetic integrity of this painting by Robert Ryman depends upon its being installed according to he accompanying instructions. None of its physical components and no part of the installation process should be omitted. Nor should any element whatsoever, such as any sort of framing—either for protective or aesthetic effect, be added. Thank you.”
Ryman cares that much. Each element, each measurement, such as the precise space between panels at 3 1/8 inches, is to remain intact. And yet, the sense of a handmade work of art, its painterly attributes, its variation within a range of seemingly like objects, sets up a relationship between the work and the viewer that is not unlike masters of the easel picture in Western art. For despite their modular formats, each panel presents a slightly different combination of surface texture, paint application, and natural oxidation processes, not as illusions of things, but as things in themselves, which bear the traces of their making. So that even as Ryman avers that his art is about making things and not representing them, the process of making each panel resulted in different images of the thing made. Ryman energizes the viewing experience as the beholder investigates similarities and difference between each panel, as both independent objects and collective visual statement. Taking up the prior argument from decades earlier about Ryman’s art being “cool” art, Marcia Hafif wrote that on the contrary, “Ryman’s work is not cool, it is contemplative and human… Ryman’s painting has a great deal to say to the viewer willing to engage it” (M. Hafif, “Robert Ryman: Reductionism to Entropy,” Art in America 67, No. 4, September 1979, p. 88).