American Painter and Conceptual Artist
Born: May 30, 1930 - Nashville, Tennessee
"Monet did a lot of waterlilies and also some haystacks, a number of haystacks, that were very similar, but very unique, and I think it's the same with me."
When Robert Ryman and his first wife Lucy Lippard were expecting their first child, the two went through a protracted search for the right name, leaving the unborn baby without a clear identity for several weeks, before they eventually settled on "Ethan." The absence of a name was fitting, given that many of Ryman's painted progeny are both untitled and noted for their absence of color due to his overwhelming use of white paint. Despite Ryman's difficulty in finding names for either his human offspring or his artwork, the paintings have endured and in latter years have raised his stature as one of the most important and committed figures of Minimalism, though his fame did not come as immediately during the 1960s as some of as his comrades in the movement. Nonetheless, Ryman's attachment to one idiom and its variations have proven remarkably resilient, allowing him to move away from content and instead raise larger questions about the nature of art and its exhibition.
Most Important Art
Robert Ryman Artworks in Focus:
Untitled (Orange Painting) (1955 and 1959)
Ryman considers this painting to be his first "professional" work. Though primarily orange, small points of green paint can be seen, mostly at the edges of the canvas. Inspired by Abstract Expressionist works at MoMA, Ryman bought some art supplies from a local store. He later recalled his thought process when approaching his early works: "I thought I would 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."Read More ...
Unlike almost all of Ryman's later works, this piece is essentially a study of color and the interaction between pigments. It appears at first glance to be monochromatic, but a closer inspection reveals the subtlety both in texture over the surface as well as in the variations in tone. At the edges of the canvas, the orange contrasts sharply with the green paint behind it, and in certain areas, such as the bottom right, it is possible to see where thinner regions of orange paint have begun to blend with the layers of color underneath them. Also unlike Ryman's other works, there appears to be no underlying "strategy" that creates a sense of unity; instead, there is an uneven application of thickness to the canvas. This, however, forecasts the way that Ryman's use of paint in his mature work tends to be nearly sculptural relative to the picture plane, and like the rest of Ryman's work its form assumes that of the square canvas, devoid of representation.
Robert Ryman was born in Nashville, Tennessee. After finishing high school in 1948, he matriculated to the Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (now Tennessee Tech) in Cookeville, where he studied the saxophone. The following year, he enrolled at the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, now part of Vanderbilt University.
He subsequently enlisted in the US Army and completed his national service in the reserve corps during the Korean War, when he was stationed in Alabama.
Early Training and work
After leaving the army in 1953, Ryman moved to New York, planning to become a professional jazz saxophonist. He studied with well-known pianist Lennie Tristano, while reportedly renting a room in the home of a Russian cello player on 60th Street. His musical background was to have a strong influence on his art later.
He needed to get a job flexible enough to allow him to practice the saxophone regularly, so he applied to work at the Museum of Modern Art as a security guard. There he met and became friends with the Minimalists and fellow MoMA employees Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt. At the museum, Ryman spent much time exploring the work of artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne, who were to have a strong influence. He was also intrigued and inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko, whom he once met in the museum cafeteria in 1957. The work of the Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko and Jackson Pollock intrigued Ryman and inspired him to explore the medium of painting himself. In 1955, Ryman bought some art supplies and produced his first painting in his apartment.
Around this time, Ryman entered a life-drawing class to learn more about fine art, but found it less interesting than he anticipated and only went to six weeks' worth of lessons. Later, he took another course that explained the fundamentals of painting. His skill and unique style was otherwise self-taught.
In 1958, Ryman attended the reopening party for MoMA (which had been damaged by a fire), where he met Lucy Lippard, an art critic known for her feminist perspective and her seminal book The Dematerialization of the Art Object. The pair married in 1961.
One of Ryman's paintings was shown for the first time in the MoMA staff exhibition in 1958. Although his very first extant painting was orange, almost all of his subsequent works have used white paint. The color (or absence of color) fascinated Ryman and he swiftly found his mature style, although it was several years before the art world seemed to take note of his work. His first solo show was held in 1967 by gallerist Paul Bianchini, who had also helped launch the careers of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
In the 1960s, Ryman and Lippard immersed themselves within the New York art scene, becoming close friends with Sol LeWitt, as they were neighbors living in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Lippard had supported LeWitt in his early career, and later founded a bookstore with him. The pair were also friendly with artists such as Eva Hesse, a dear friend of LeWitt, who lived nearby.
During this period, the major preoccupation for Ryman and Lippard besides work was Lippard's pregnancy with their son, (eventually) named Ethan, whom she accused of "systematically destroying my insides and outside shape. We can't agree on a damn thing (Bob wants a boy named Jazz), yet. If it's a girl we seem to temporarily agree on (don't laugh) Delancey." Lippard then added, "It took the Rosenquists a month to decide on John. Hope we don't get to that stage of dilution."
Ryman's marriage to Lippard ended in divorce, but he later married artist Merrill Wagner, and together they had two sons, Will and Cordy. Will later recalled that his father was very private about his working practice, and would rarely let anyone into his studio. Cordy, who is also an artist, sums up his father's career thus: "Dad started working in the mid 1950s and no one cared, and in the '60s no one cared, and then in the '70s maybe a couple people cared. He worked on his own style of painting for a long time before they blew up." In 1969, Ryman's work was included in an exhibition in Berlin called When Attitudes Become Form, which was key in drawing together work by several important Minimalist and Conceptual artists.
Will Ryman also remembers adding some White-Out to one of his father's white paintings, wondering if it would be noticed (it was, and had to be fixed). The Rymans loved pets, living with seven cats and four dogs, as well as a parrot that apparently copied sound effects from the boys' video games. Two of the dogs notoriously hated each other and had to be kept apart at all times.
The first retrospective of Ryman's work was organized in 1974 by the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam. He continued to produce his series of white paintings in the intervening years, and in 1992 a significant touring exhibition of his work was arranged by MoMA and the Tate.
Ryman continues to work in the style that has characterized much of his lifelong artistic output, usually using white paint on square mounts. However, he has also recently been working with brackets to give his paintings an element of three-dimensional life, designing many of these brackets himself and having them custom-made. In 2009 he participated in a contemporary art project entitled Find Me, working alongside artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Paul Kos.
In 2014, the Hallen fur Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, which had held many Robert Ryman works in its permanent collection, permanently closed. The paintings were acquired by the Dia Foundation and exhibited in a landmark career-spanning show in Chelsea, New York City.
Ryman's work has always been difficult to define and classify, a facet that has prevented it from receiving extensive coverage in the academic or popular press, and in some ways, has limited his sphere of influence. Nevertheless, Ryman was a key figure as a pioneer of Minimalist painting, which took the movement in a different direction from its typical industrial aesthetic. His reliance on a single color (or absence thereof) has also inspired several painters more recently, as painting has seen a revival. These include Brazilian artist Fernanda Gomes, whose simple semi-sculptural works use white paint on a variety of surfaces.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Useful Resources on Robert Ryman
| Robert Ryman: Used Paint |
By Suzanne Hudson
| Robert Ryman |
By Janet Boris, Walter Hopps and Deborah Schwartz
| Robert Ryman: Works on Paper 1957-64 |
By Peter Blum
| Robert Ryman: Critical Texts Since 1967 |
By Vittorio Colaizzi and Karsten Schubert
| Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations |
By Vesela Stretenovic
| Shades of White |
By Peter Schjedahl
| Robert Ryman Interview: Color, Surface and Seeing |
| Robert Ryman Review - more than simply pale and interesting |
By Jason Farago
| Home is Where the Art Is: The Ryman Family |
By Howie Khan
| Much Ado About Nothing |
By Dalya Alberge
| In Conversation: Robert Ryman with Phong Bui |
The Brooklyn Rail
| Robert Ryman: Large-Small, Thick-Thin |
By John Yau
| When a White Square is More than a White Square |
By Daniel McDermon
| In 'Robert Ryman', One Color with the Power of Many |
By Roberta Smith
| Robert Ryman and the Many Shades of White |
By Lidija Haas