``A painting is - before it represents a battlefield, a naked woman or some anecdote - above everything else, a level surface covered in a particular order with colors.''
Maurice Denis, Théories 1890-1910, Paris 1913
Robert Ryman is a self-declared realist. There is no story in my pictures, he says. There is no myth. No illusion. What qualifies Ryman's notion of realism - as opposed to the more accepted figural type - is his lifelong study and experimentation with painting materials, the 'real' tools of the artist. His lines and gestures are genuine, physical evocations of painterly qualities. Masterful works such as Sector embody Ryman's compelling evocation of 'reality' while simultaneously employing every device associated with abstraction and representation: composition, color complexity, surface, light, texture, and line. The only element not used is pictorial illusion.
Even the highly regulated space of the square format, his preferred shape since the mid-1950s, is treated as an integral realist structure. The square, with its universal symmetry, is inherently 'composed,' obviating the need to assign pictorial order or balance. For Ryman, "if you have an equal-sided space and you're going to put paint on it..., then [the square] seems like the most perfect space. I don't have to get involved with spatial composition, as with rectangles and circles." (Interview with Phyllis Tuchman, Artforum, May 1971, pp. 44-65). Ryman's pragmatic approach to painting is also evident in his choice of materials, selected on the basis of their physical properties - smoothness, absorbency, hardness, or texture - whether the support is canvas, wood, cardboard, fiberglass or metal. In the case of Sector, the support is comprised of layers - aluminum on a polythelene panel - with honeycombed fiberglass strips at top and bottom. Ryman stated, ``Always, the surface is used. The gray of the steel comes through...the linen comes through...all of those things are considered. It's really not monochrome painting at all.''(Ibid., p. 44) Moreover, the choice of white is the result of the color's superior ability to provide "neutrality," and not an ideological resource as it is used by other contemporary artists such as the Italian Piero Manzoni. Since its formal adoption in the mid-1950s, Ryman afforded the color white a whole spectrum of tonal effects and degrees of gloss, allowing nuances ranging from cool to warm, transparent to impenetrable. Together these formal characteristics define Ryman's work. What we see, is what we get. In the present work, the aluminum of Sector is glimpsed beneath the painterly surface of the white pigment, while the warm honey color of the fiberglass brackets the white square at its top and bottom.
Ironically, in spite of Ryman's apathy toward group affiliations and stern ideological considerations, his self-imposed restriction to the format of the square monochrome allowed him to create some of the most consistent - and deceptively simple - pictures of the 20th century. Greater scrutiny of his work reveals no modernist progression, no dramatic stylistic rupture, no critical moment. And yet, Ryman's work demands to be taken in formally. Each painting encodes a world of subtleties to be understood only in relation to other works, past or future. A look at the 'mini-retrospective' exhibition permanently featured in his studio firmly establishes the internal dialogue in his oeuvre. To an extent, Ryman's success has been dictated by his ability to focus attention on that which directly impacts his métier; carefully disregarding the noise around him, and those influences and tastes which so often distract great talent.
For Ryman, the circumstances in which the picture is experienced are as essential as the elements that compose it. The addition of the polyethelene panel increases the depth, albeit marginally, at which the surface projects out from the wall toward the viewer. The integral fasteners that attach Sector to the wall are meant, according to Ryman, to bring the "wall plane into the painting. When the painting is removed from the wall it loses its composition and ceases to exist. Without the fasteners it is not complete" (Interview with Robert Storr in Exh. Cat., Vienna. Galerie Nächt St. Stephen,Abstract Painting of America and Europe, 1988, p. 219 ). Ryman's treatment of edges is also a highly revealing, yet little explored subject in his oeuvre. The exposure of the support and the absence of paint on one or more edge, as in Sector, serve to unify the whole by emphasizing its construction. As Christel Sauer noted in 1991, ``Considerations regarding the size and depth of the painting, that is, the effects of the painting in space are closely related to decisions concerning materials and their reaction on the incidence of light. Very early on, Ryman concerned himself with the question of where the borders of the painting are and how its transition to the wall and the room is constituted.'' (Ryman, Schaffhausen, Hallen für neue Kunst, 1991, p. 25).
Sector, one of the most elegantly conceived works of this period, illustrates both Ryman's foremost legacy as a plastic artist and his insight into what paint can do. His pictures are absolute wholes in which sensuous gestures are operative not as emotional, capricious elements relating images and viewers in mystical levels, but rather original creations revealing the innate possibilities of paint.
Oil on aluminum on polyethylene with two fiberglass bands and four round steel bolts
Chicago, Young-Hoffman Gallery, Robert Ryman, March - April 1982, illustrated on exhibition anouncement
Kassel, Documenta VII, June - December 1982
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: total risk, freedom, discipline, February - May 1996, cat. no. 199, illustrated in color
59 3/4 x 57 3/4 in. 152 x 146.5 cm.
Rosemarie Schwarzwälder and Robert Storr, "Robert Ryman" in Exh. Cat., Vienna, Galerie Nächt St. Stephen, Abstract Painting of America and Europe, 1988, p. 223, illustrated in color
Young-Hoffman Gallery, Chicago
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1983