American painter and printmaker Robert Ryman is best known for his body of work that explores a wide range of possibilities using only white paint on a square support. Although the actual materials vary – from canvas to paper to steel fiberglass among other supports, and paints including oil, enamel, and latex – the artist remains loyal to a particularly minimalist use of color throughout his oeuvre (1). The different combinations of support and paint affect the painting’s surface, texture, and hue. Thus, materiality is of marked importance in Ryman’s particular mode of art-making.
Ryman considers himself to be a realist, but perhaps in a different way than what a viewer might anticipate. His paintings are realist in the sense that while they lack any sort of representation, they embody nothing less than painting in its purest form. Suzanne Hudson, in her essay from October entitled “Robert Ryman’s Pragmatism,” articulates this point, writing, “Ryman’s increasing experimentation with white paint and various support structures has constituted a practice marked by a careful, even methodological, working of the conventions of painting in their most radically reduced, and paradoxically expanded possibilities. Through such a reduction, Ryman’s paintings exhibit a way of making apart from representing, and he produces paintings as objects as much as images, or, more exactly, as images without illusions.” (3). Furthering the notion of the pure identity of his painting, in 1976 Ryman’s work began to explore the dependency of a painting on the surface of the wall plane. In this regard, the artist has often chosen to expose the fasteners that attach the paintings to the wall. Not only does this exposure add a layer of compositional interest to the work, it also establishes a clear relationship between the wall and the painting. (4)
Ryman was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1930. He studied at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville, TN between 1948 and 1949, and later at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville (1949-1950). He settled in New York City in 1950. He currently lives and works in both New York and Pennsylvania.
It was not until 1953 that Ryman started painting. An autodidact, he began purchasing paints from a corner store by his apartment after he started working as a guard at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In fact, he first exhibited his work at a staff show held at MoMA, where he remained a guard for seven years. It was at this time that Ryman was also studying to become a jazz musician – a passion of his which carried over from his
years playing saxophone with the Army Reserve Corps Band. However, painting soon took over as Ryman’s preferred form of expression. After a brief stint as a clerical assistant in the Art Division of the New York Public Library, he resigned from his position and began working as a full time painter. This marked the beginning of a full career as one of the most internationally successful visual artists to come out of Nashville, Tennessee.
Ryman’s work is difficult to place into a single category within the history of American painting. While it is perhaps nearest to Minimalism, his use of brushstrokes and unabashed revealing of the artist’s hand challenges the confines of Minimal art. His work has also been associated with Conceptual art given his concern for the materiality of each individual piece and how the support, paint, and wall fixtures affect how the artwork is perceived.
Ryman did not start exhibiting regularly until the late 1960s. Notably, his work was exhibited in the show Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1966. His first solo show was then held one year later at Paul Bianchini Gallery in New York.
Since that first solo show, Ryman has enjoyed critical success in numerous other solo and group shows both within the U.S and internationally. His work is included in the permanent collections of several prestigious art institutions which include Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Washington D.C’s National Gallery of Art, the Tate Gallery in London, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, among many others.
1. Vittorio Colaizzi, “ ‘How it Works’: Stroke, Music, and Minimalism in Robert
Ryman’s Early Paintings,” American Art, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Spring 2007): np. Accessed 11 February, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/518293.
2. Quote from the artist. Phyllis Tuchman, “Robert Ryman,” MoMA. No. 15 (Autumn, 1993): 9. Accessed 11 February, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4381237.
3. Suzanne Hudson, “Robert Ryman’s Pragmatism,” October. Vol. 119 (Winter, 2007): 123. Accessed 11 February, 2015. http://jstor.org/stable/40368461.
4. Tuchman, 11.
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