Robert Ryman – artist
Born May 30, 1930; died February 8, 2019
Robert Ryman, who has died aged 88, never planned to be a painter. As it turned out, he became one of the most distinctive artists of his generation, who offered something quieter and more meditative than the wave of abstract expressionists who preceded him. Where they lashed out with excitable shades of mercurial largesse, Ryman pared things down to a more methodical, pragmatic approach, diligently setting out his store on white or off-white different sized squares. While working with such a wilfully limited palette implied a zen purity that saw Ryman dubbed a minimalist, in truth, the use of white was only there to shed light on other things going on. You just had to look, that was all, and he preferred to be regarded as a realist.
Light and space were everything to Ryman’s work, which could be regarded as an extended life-long riff that added textures and phrases to its deliberately recognisable framework as it went, pushing its self-imposed boundaries to the limit. In this sense, Ryman’s paintings arguably related to his early ambitions as a wannabe jazz saxophonist, before a job as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York exposed him to the work of Matisse and Mark Rothko. Working alongside future contemporaries Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin, the experience shifted his perspective, and subsequently changed his life.
Robert Tracy Ryman was born in Nashville to his insurance salesman father William and his mother Norah, who was a schoolteacher and amateur pianist. Trapped in a town where country music reigned, Ryman listened to what jazz he could find on the radio, and while still a teenager took up the tenor saxophone.
While the prospect of him becoming a musician was anathema to his parents, Ryman studied music at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute and then the George Peabody College for Teachers, before spending two years in the Army Reserve Corps. Stationed in Alabama, he toured army bases as part of a military band. Once discharged, like so many of his generation, he hit the road to New York, where he lived in a tiny apartment opposite Bloomingdale’s owned by a Russian cellist. Inbetween working as a messenger and in a mailroom, he studied under jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. With New York’s underground scene a melting pot of criss-crossing artforms, Ryman developed a fascination with the paintings he saw in the museums he frequented.
Getting a job at MoMA in 1954, he worked alongside fellow security guard Flavin and bookshop assistant LeWitt, and as he walked the rooms began his auto-didact’s art education in earnest. A few months into the job, Ryman bought some canvasboard and tubes of oil paint from his local art-store, and set about experimenting to see what might happen.
Initially working in green before turning to white, Ryman divided his time with playing jazz at Arthur’s nightclub in Greenwich Village, and sold his first painting in 1958 after it was shown as part of a MoMA staff exhibition. Around this time Ryman met a young art historian called Lucy R Lippard, who would go on to become a critic, championing minimalism and conceptual art. The pair married in 1960, but divorced six years later. In 1969, Ryman met painter Merrill Wagner, and they married.
By that time, Ryman’s work had been included in a 1964 group show of eleven artists in New York, and he had his first one-man show there in 1967, showing thirteen sheets of cold rolled steel, each just under a metre and a half square, and painted with white enamel brush strokes stretching in parallel from left to right. This not only set the tone of what followed, but attracted the interest of European galleries, and Ryman showed in Munich a year later. His first solo show in a museum came in 1972 at the Guggenheim, and his first retrospective in Amsterdam two years later. after Ryman’s works were seen in documentas 5 (1972), 6 (1977) and 7 (1982), at the Venice Biennale three times in 1976, 1978 and 1980, and three times again at the Whitney Biennial (1977, 1987, 1995).
Ryman’s work developed throughout in physical and practical ways as much as aesthetically.
Where in the 1960s he often painted on paper, attaching each unframed piece to the wall with masking tape, by the time of a 1977 retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1977 he was using hard surfaces, with clips, bolts and screws adding a sculptural quality to his work. Ryman expanded his range to work with materials including steel, plexiglass, newsprint and wallpaper. His final works saw Ryman’s life-long method of underpainting his white compositions abandoned entirely, again paring things down to something simpler.
One of the largest public collections of Ryman's work was held in the now closed Hallen für Neue Kunst contemporary art museum in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, with Ryman later revisiting it to reimagine the thirty paintings drawn from almost half a century of work as a total experience.
Similarly, in 2017, Ryman donated twenty-one paintings to the New York-based Dia Art Foundation’s permanent collection. This features works dating from the late 1950s up to 2003, and seen together presents an expansive and ever-developing narrative of solidity and strength that goes some way to define the all-embracing magnitude of Ryman’s uniquely determined vision. It was a vision which, whatever the direction, always looked to the light.
Ryman is survived by his wife, Merrill Wagner, their sons, Will and Cordy, and by his son Ethan, from his earlier marriage to Lucy R Lippard.
The Herald, February 25th 2019