This work will be listed as catalogue number 80.417 in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné project being organized by David Gray.
Both rigorous and radical, Robert Rymans entirely unique body of work is, above all, a celebration of the act of painting and of paint itself. Executed in 1980, the year of Ryman's first internationally touring solo show, Mission exemplifies the integrity of the Tennessee-born artists ambition. A rare example of Ryman charging the underlying surface with an emotive color, Mission resonates with aesthetic and conceptual intensity. Interweaving, overlapping strokes of white paint play upon a deep, rusty red ground, creating a vibrant, shimmering white form in a marriage of grace and gravitas. Each slender, writhing white brushstroke is integral to the whole mass yet is not quite consumed by it; rather, the individuality of their shape, weight, direction and movement are emphasized by the smoothness and richness of the dark background as well as the strict linear confines of the square canvas upon which they dance. Created shortly after Ryman began to first integrate the system of hanging into the compositional whole, Mission embraces its spatial surroundings via its painted metal supports. Used for both formal and practical effect, they serve to highlight the works strong, almost sculptural presence.
Ryman's work emphasizes that painting can be a performance in itself, and that its essential material components, its medium and its structural support, also deserve to take center stage. By always placing these elements in lead roles within his work, Ryman demonstrates that they are able to assume infinitely various characters, with nuances and subtleties that have been able to continually resonate and generate interest over the course of a long and distinguished career. From his very earliest work to today, Ryman's distinctive and radical approach to painting eschews its traditional potential as a conduit for narrative, symbolic and even abstract meaning. Choosing to work within strictly delineated parameters, the majority of Rymans works manipulate only scale and medium, and maintain the unframed, square format and the use of the color white. Using this reduced vocabulary, Ryman heightens the viewers sensitivity to the intricacies of brushwork, the texture of the paint, the warm and cool tones of white, and the relationship of the content of the canvas with its external physical context.
This method has proved far from restrictive. In fact, it has presented contemporary art with wider implications for the understanding of what painting is, and has challenged long-accepted notions of what to expect from a painted work of art. As Ryman has pointed out: "We have been trained to see painting as pictures, with storytelling connotations, abstract or literal, in a space usually limited and enclosed by a frame which isolates the image. It has been shown that there are possibilities other than this manner of seeing painting. An image could be said to be real if it is not an optical reproduction, if it does not symbolize or describe so as to call up a mental picture. This real or absolute image is only confined by our limited perception" (R. Ryman, quoted in Wall Painting, exh. cat, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1979, p. 16).
The freshness and immediacy of Mission demonstrates Ryman's belief in creating a real visual experience. By resolutely avoiding representation, this type of realism urges the viewer to exist in the present. Although his work is often linked to conceptual art because of its intellectual rigor and shared Minimalist aesthetic, meaning is contained entirely within the painting, and is inextricable from the moment of looking. "The painting has to be seen," Ryman has insisted. "But there is no meaning outside of what it is" (R. Ryman, quoted in Robert Ryman: Light and Music, accessed March 3, 2014 http://www.art21.org/texts/robert-ryman/interview-robert-ryman-light-an d-music).
Ryman's unerringly direct approach to painting perhaps comes from his circuitous route to becoming an artist. Moving to New York from his native Nashville in 1952, Ryman's original intention was to become a jazz musician. To support himself, he took a job at the Museum of Modern Art, and became increasingly fascinated by the paintings that surrounded him. Curious, he bought some canvas boards, paint and brushes to try and see what would happen. "I wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work. That was the first step. I just played around. I had nothing really in mind to paint. I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces" (R. Ryman, quoted in S. Hudson, "Robert Ryman: The How and The What, Flash Art, n.263, November 2009).
In many ways a logical extension of his musical training, an intimate understanding of the underlying structure and techniques of painting swiftly became his raison detre. "I think that the type of music I was involved withjazz, bebophad an influence on my approach to painting," Ryman has said. "Its like Bach. You have a chord structure, and you can develop that in many ways. You can play written compositions and improvise off of those. So, you learn your instrument, and then you play within a structure. It seemed logical to begin painting that way. I wasn't interested in painting a narrative or telling a story with a painting. Right from the beginning, I felt that I could do that if I wanted to, but that it wouldnt be of much interest to me. Music is an abstract medium, and I thought painting should also just be what its about and not about other thingsnot about stories or symbolism" (R. Ryman, op. cit., p. 16).
Ryman saw parallels between the confident ease of the jazz musician, the satisfying wholeness of a tune and the work that surrounded him daily at MoMA. The apparent effortlessness of Matisse's line, the completeness of a Cézanne composition and the immediate energy of Jackson Pollock became inspirations to the young Ryman, and continue to influence him today. "In painting, something has to look easy, even though it might not be easy. [Matisse's work] looked like everything just came together easily and naturally. And I try to do that myself. Maybe Im not always successful, but thats an important part of painting, that it has to have that feeling, like it just happened (R. Ryman, ibid.)
Ryman found working with the color white perfectly suited this quest. Whether the quality of the paint is glossy, matte, dull, translucent, opaque, Ryman's technique and application has displayed an immense variety over time. As Mission demonstrates, white is a remarkably effective way of rendering these possibilities visible. Without the distraction of color, Ryman is able to demonstrate the infinite potential of the medium itself as well as the significance of any supporting structure. Its neutrality enables us to see the various options of application with greater clarity, which consequently enables us to access fundamental questions regarding the relationships between material and method, the object and its surroundings, and ultimately, the artwork and the viewer. Mobilizing the delicacy attainable with a paintbrush in conjunction with the physical presence of sculpture, Mission is a powerful assertion of the dialectics of painting itself.
Robert Ryman (b. 1930)
Oil and rust preventative paint on canvas with four painted metal bolts and fasteners
Property of The Phillip Schrager Collection
Signed, titled and dated 'Ryman80 "Mission"' (on the overlap)
Robert Ryman , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Contemporary
Düsseldorf, Galerie Konrad Fischer, Robert Ryman: The New Paintings, October-November 1980.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
38½ x 36 in. (97.7 x 91.4 cm.)
The Pacesetter Corporation's Collection of Contemporary Art, Omaha, 1983-1986, vol. 2, n.p. (illustrated in color).
D. Fischer, ed., Austellungen bei Konrad Fischer/Konrad Fischer Galerie: Düsseldorf, November 1992-Oktober 2007, Düsseldorf, p. 181.
Peder Bonnier Gallery, New York
Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
Sperone Westwater Fischer, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1981