Robert Ryman - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Conceptual Artist
New York City
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.
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 Bern, Switzerland 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.
In the last 20 years of his life Ryman continued to work in the style that had characterized much of his lifelong artistic output, usually using white paint on square mounts. However, he had also 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 passed away, at the age of 88 in New York City.
The Legacy of Robert Ryman
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.