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Artists Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman

American Painter and Conceptual Artist

Movements: Conceptual Art, Minimalism

Born: May 30, 1930 - Nashville, Tennessee

Quotes

"The painting can be very thin, very close to the wall. Sometimes it can come away from the wall. I think it's important that it stay connected to the wall; I think it needs the wall itself to be complete."
Robert Ryman
"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."
Robert Ryman
"There is never any question of what to paint only how to paint."
Robert Ryman
"I would begin by putting down a lot of color, and then it was always a matter of taking out, painting out the color; painting out the painting to where I ended up with very little color left."
Robert Ryman
"White has a tendency to make things visible. With white, you can see more of a nuance; you can see more."
Robert Ryman
"I'm not limited by a certain narrative that I want to get across. There's no symbolism or story that I need to tell or some kind of political project that I might want to do."
Robert Ryman
"the painting needs a certain reverent atmosphere to be complete. It has to be in a situation so it can reveal itself - since it is what it is, on its own. It's not representing anything else - what you're seeing is really what it is - so it has to be in a certain visual situation because anything else will dilute or disturb it. The paintings do not signify anything other than how they work in the environment."
Robert Ryman
"It may look easy, but any good painting looks easy, as if no struggle was involved ... If you look at a Matisse, it looks like he just picked up a brush and did a few strokes, as if by magic. That's the mark of a good painting."
Robert Ryman
"The work's a combination of radicalism and humanism. When I stand in front of these paintings, it forces me to be there in a way I recognize as essential to my well-being."
Roni Horn
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"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."

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

Though not as well-known as figures such as Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, or Dan Flavin, Ryman is nonetheless one of the pioneers of Minimalist painting, whose works attempt to empty the painting of content - and color - in order to focus almost entirely on form and process, an idiom in which he has continued to work for some sixty years, long past the demise of Minimalism as a cutting-edge movement. He thus might be termed one of the movement's most committed adherents.
Like much Minimalist art, Ryman's work often asks the viewer to reconsider larger questions about the work of art - its placement within the gallery, the figure-ground relationship, its manufactured qualities vs. the hand of the artist, its permanence and boundaries, and others, and in many ways his paintings become more like objects than flat images.
Ryman's works are nearly universally characterized by his wholesale use of white paint - almost to the exclusion of all other hues - which tends to be worked extremely thoroughly to give the surfaces a varied, almost tectonic, three-dimensional quality, so that his working process becomes plainly visible, a technique that can be traced to his formative experiences viewing Abstract Expressionist works.

Most Important Art

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."

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.
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Biography

Childhood

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.

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Robert Ryman Biography Continues

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.

Mature Period

Robert Ryman Biography

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.

Current practice

Robert Ryman Photo

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.


Legacy

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

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Robert Ryman
Interactive chart with Robert Ryman's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Henri Matisse
Mark Rothko
Jackson Pollock
Barnett Newman

Friends

Dan Flavin
Sol LeWitt
Eva Hesse

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Robert Ryman
Robert Ryman
Years Worked: 1955 - present

Artists

Fernanda Gomes

Friends

Lucy Lippard

Movements

Conceptual Art
Minimalism



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Useful Resources on Robert Ryman

Books
Articles
Videos
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Robert Ryman: Used Paint

By Suzanne Hudson

Robert Ryman

By Janet Boris, Walter Hopps and Deborah Schwartz

artworks
Robert Ryman: Works on Paper 1957-64

By Peter Blum

Robert Ryman: Critical Texts Since 1967

By Vittorio Colaizzi and Karsten Schubert

More Interesting Books about Robert Ryman
Shades of White

By Peter Schjedahl
The New Yorker
December 21, 2015

Robert Ryman Interview: Color, Surface and Seeing

Art 21

Robert Ryman Review - more than simply pale and interesting

By Jason Farago
The Guardian
December 23, 2015

Home is Where the Art Is: The Ryman Family

By Howie Khan
Wall Street Journal
November 17, 2015

More Interesting Articles about Robert Ryman
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised by Peter Clericuzio

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised by Peter Clericuzio
Available from:
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Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory: Minimalism
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
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Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt was an American artist commonly associated with the Minimalist and Conceptual movements. He rose to prominence in the 1960s with the likes of Rauschenberg, Johns and Stella, and his work was included in the famous 1966 exhibit Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum. LeWitt's art often employed simple geometric forms and archetypal symbols, and he worked in a variety of media but was most interested in the idea behind the artwork.
TheArtStory: Sol LeWitt
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin was an American artist best known for his Minimalist constructions of color and light. Often using nothing more than a few dozen fluorescent bulbs for his work, Flavin was a crucial figure in the Minimalism of the 1960s and '70s. His light installations altered the physical exhibition space, and were designed as experiential art rather than visual art.
TheArtStory: Dan Flavin
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
TheArtStory: Henri Matisse
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory: Pablo Picasso
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
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Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
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Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory: Jackson Pollock
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard is an American art scholar and curator who has focused on postmodern movements such as conceptual art, feminist theory, and land art.
Lucy Lippard
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
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Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein was an American painter and a pioneer of the Pop art movement. His signature reproductions of comic book imagery eventually redefined how the art world viewed high vs. lowbrow art. Lichtenstein employed a unique form of painting called the Benday dot technique, in which small, closely-knit dots of paint were applied to form a much larger image.
TheArtStory: Roy Lichtenstein
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse was a major New York artist whose sculpture, assemblage, and installation brought issues of feminism and the body into Minimalism's formal vocabulary. She is heralded as one of the quintessential Post-Minimalist artists.
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Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
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Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
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Fernanda Gomes
Fernanda Gomes
Fernanda Gomes
Fernanda Gomes is a Brazilian artist who lives and works in her birthplace of Rio de Janeiro. Gomes creates works from "leftover" objects: old furniture, glasses, mirrors, magnets, string, hair, and cigarette butts are just a few of her materials. With these discarded items Gomes plays with space, dimensions, and subtext, leaving the interpretation of the art to the viewer.
Fernanda Gomes
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