Robert Ryman

Summary

Robert Ryman (Nashville, May 30, 1930 – New York, February 8, 2019) was an American artist identified with minimalism, abstract expressionism and conceptual art. He was best known for abstract paintings where he used white on white. He lived and worked in New York.

Ryman was born in Nashville, Tennessee. After studying at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville from 1948 to 1949 and at George Peobody College for teachers between 1949 and 1950, Ryman enlisted in the United States Reserve Corps. He was subsequently deployed during the Korean War. In 1953, Ryman moved to New York with the intention of becoming a professional jazz saxophonist. He took lessons from pianist Lennie Tristano. To make ends meet, he began working as an attendant at the Museum of Modern Art during the day, his colleagues being the artists Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin. The year after he resigned from his job at MoMa, Ryman worked in the art department of the New York Public Library. In 1950s period, he met the artist Roy Lichtenstein.

While working at MoMa, he became captivated by the newly acquired works of the abstract-expressionists Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Clyford Still, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Ryman became curious about painting. His job at MoMa allowed him to be close to the works. He bought some painting materials and began experimenting with them in his apartment. In 1959, he also completed what he says is his earliest professional work, a large monochrome canvas titled Untitled (Orange Painting) (1955-59) that is currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1961, Ryman married the art historian Lucy Lippard. The marriage ended in divorce. Later he married the artist Merrill Wagner. Their sons from this marriage, Cordy Ryman and Will Ryman, are also artists and work in New York.

Ryman”s painting Bridge (1980) sold for $20.6 million at a Christie”s auction in New York in 2015.

Ryman is often seen as a minimalist, but he himself prefers to be called a “realist. This is because, in his own words, he is not interested in creating illusions, but only wants to show the material he uses in his compositions as it is. As he indicated in a statement he gave for an exhibition at Pace Wildenstein in 2010 “I am not a picture painter. I work with real light and space, and since real light is an important aspect of the paintings, it always presents some problems.” The majority of his work is characterized by white or off-white brushwork on a square background of canvas or metal. Ryman has experimented with different types of media throughout his career. For example, he painted and or drew on canvas, linen, steel, aluminum, plexiglass, lumasite, vinyl, fiberglass, newspaper, burlap, wallpaper, fiberboard, and handmade paper, among others. He has painted and or drawn with oils, acrylics, pastels, oils and graphite. He also experimented with printmaking such as etching, aquatints, lithography and screen printing. His most beloved quote is “There is never any question of what to paint only how to paint.”

From 1975 until the late 1990s, Ryman attached his paintings to the wall with metal brackets. He designed each set of brackets specifically for each work and then had them manufactured by a local metal factory.

Ryman has stated that the titles of his paintings are meaningless, existing only as a form of identification. He prefers the word “name” for a painting rather than “title” because, in his own opinion, he is not making a painting or referring to anything else except the painting and the materials used. These names of the paintings are often derived from brand names of the materials or companies, or they are ordinary general words that carry no connotation.

When he was 36, Ryman had his first solo exhibition at Paul Bianchini”s gallery in New York in 1967. His first exhibition in Europe followed the following year at the Heiner Friedricht gallery in Munich. A year later, Ryman participated in the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, an annual event featuring work by minimalist and conceptual artists organized by the Kunsthalle Bern. His first exhibition in a museum was at the Guggenheim in New York in 1972. This exhibition featured thirty-eight works he made between 1965 and 1972. Ryman”s work was included in Documenta”s 5 (1972), 6 (1977) and 7 (1982) in Kassel. His work was also shown at the Venice Biennale (in 1976, 1978 and 1980) and the Whitney Biennale. His first retrospective was organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1974. In 1992, a large traveling retrospective of his paintings was mounted by the Museum of Modern Art and Tate Gallery. This exhibition had venues such as the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Robert Ryman was represented by Pace Gallery in New York, and by Xavier Hufkens in Brussels.

The Hallen für Neue Kunst, a former contemporary art museum in Schaffhausen, Switzerland had the largest public collection of Ryman”s work. They exhibited 29 of his artworks, created between 1959 and 2007. In 2010, Ryman began a large-scale reinstallation of his galleries at this museum. He came to this decision after visiting the museum in 2008. He had not been there for twelve years at the time, but wanted to see the work that had been on display there for the first time since 1983. As a result of this visit, he decided to transform the galleries into a gesamtkunstwerk; an installation consisting of 30 paintings that together covered 50 years of work. The museum closed in 2014.

In 2017, Ryman donated 21 paintings to the Dia Art Foundation”s permanent collection, making it the only place to see a comprehensive permanent collection of his work. This collection includes early work fabricated in the late 1950s to work created in 2003.

Other major museums where his work is present are the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim in New York, Tate Modern in London and the Art Institute of Chicago. In the Netherlands, his work is present in the collections of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven.

Sources

  1. Robert Ryman
  2. Robert Ryman