American Painter and Conceptual Artist
New York City
Summary of Robert Ryman
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.
- 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.
Biography of Robert Ryman
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.
Important Art by Robert Ryman
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.
This work from 1960 shows the development of Ryman's mature style and his habitual use of white on a square canvas, but it also suggests a lingering influence from his early experiments with color, as the edges of the canvas reveal layers of blue and green underpainting. It also points to Ryman's debt to the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, characteristically termed "action painters" by critic Harold Rosenberg due to the way their painting revealed the process of creation. Ryman's work constitutes "action painting" in the sense that it indicates how the thick layers of white are built up with a knife or another tool, with more paint deposited towards the upper left corner, thus making the composition appear "off center." Even a neatly painted white rectangular form is visible along the bottom edge, along with the green and blue streaks, making evident each method that Ryman has used in compiling the final product. Also like the Abstract Expressionists, Ryman inserts his bright yellow signature at the bottom, signaling the work's completion.
Ryman's use of color here also serves a second important function, which is to reveal the substantive nature of the materials. Though traditionally white is treated as a background or for its distinct absence of other characteristics, here its application on top of the blue and green parts of the painting reveals its active quality, with distinct mass, shape, pliability, and opacity that proves its ability to literally cover and fully hide the other regions - as well as to seemingly "pull" the center of the painting up towards the top corner.
This painting emphasizes the importance of color in Ryman's work; even when the key color he uses is white, shade and tone are always carefully calculated. Here, the thickly laid white paint acts as a type of screen for the red, purple, and yellow hues behind it. The screen-like quality of the white painting dovetails with the title, possibly a reference to Ryman's attempt to become a professional saxophonist. By 1962, he had abandoned his musical career for one as an artist, thus relegating the former to the background with respect to his new profession.
The textured surface of Untitled (Background Music) seems to ripple if the light changes in the gallery space, emphasizing the importance of the work's context for the viewing experience, but also the general experience of background music, which by its nature is always partially blocked or indistinct for the listener, due to the screen created by distance or interposed barriers. The work presents the viewer with a set of choices, since it is possible to ignore the overlaid white paint to focus in on the regions of color, and vice versa. Much in the same way that one can "tune out" background music by refusing to strain one's ears to capture the sound or, alternatively, focus on the background music completely.
Finally, the "rippling" of the color in the painting parallels the way that some clips of background music seem clearer than others depending on the screening conditions and variability of volume. Such variation can be extended to a sense of randomness in both the nature of improvisational jazz music as well as the absence of any clear logic in the painting to undergird the way that Ryman covers the colored paint with white. The random quality is underscored by the square format of the canvas, which presents no obvious orientation for up, down, left, or right for the way that the painting must be hung.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Robert Ryman
- Robert Ryman: Used PaintOur PickBy Suzanne Hudson
- Robert RymanBy Janet Boris, Walter Hopps and Deborah Schwartz
- Robert Ryman: Works on Paper 1957-64By Peter Blum
- Robert Ryman: Critical Texts Since 1967By Vittorio Colaizzi and Karsten Schubert
- Robert Ryman: Variations and ImprovisationsBy Vesela Stretenovic
- Shades of WhiteOur PickBy Peter Schjedahl / The New Yorker / December 21, 2015
- Robert Ryman Interview: Color, Surface and SeeingArt 21
- Robert Ryman Review - more than simply pale and interestingBy Jason Farago / The Guardian / December 23, 2015
- Home is Where the Art Is: The Ryman FamilyBy Howie Khan / Wall Street Journal / November 17, 2015
- Much Ado About NothingBy Dalya Alberge / The Independent / February 16, 1993
- In Conversation: Robert Ryman with Phong BuiThe Brooklyn Rail / June 7, 2007
- Robert Ryman: Large-Small, Thick-ThinBy John Yau / The Brooklyn Rail / March 4, 2010
- When a White Square is More than a White SquareOur PickBy Daniel McDermon / New York Times / February 8, 2016
- In 'Robert Ryman', One Color with the Power of ManyBy Roberta Smith / New York Times / December 10, 2015
- Robert Ryman and the Many Shades of WhiteBy Lidija Haas / Apollo / April 16, 2016