Robert Ryman: Artist Portrait

Robert Ryman

Born 1930. Died 2019.
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Robert Ryman Biography

Born in 1930 in Nashville, Tennessee, Robert Ryman is considered one of the leading pioneers of Minimalist painting, alongside such renowned artists as Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt. Following high school, Ryman initially enrolled at the Tennessee Polytechnic Institute, but after one year of studies he transferred to the George Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University) in Nashville to study music. Following a brief stint in the United States Army, in 1952 he relocated to New York to continue pursuing music.

To support his musical pursuits, Ryman worked several odd jobs, and ultimately found a position as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. Through this position, he befriended LeWitt and fellow artist Dan Flavin, who were also employed by the Museum at the time. During his employment, Ryman took advantage of premier collection, studying the works of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, all artists who would have a profound influence on Ryman’s own work and practice. The same year in which he began working for MoMA he began painting, and the first of what Ryman would consider his professional works came just a few short years later in 1955. Despite taking brief courses in life-drawing and painting fundamentals, Ryman was largely self-taught.

Ryman met the feminist art critic Lucy Lippard at a MoMA party in 1958, and the pair wed in 1961—the same year in which he began painting fulltime. The couple immersed themselves in the New York art scene, until the couple became pregnant with their first child. It took Ryman and Lippard a protracted period of time to decide on a name for their unborn child, which some have compared to Ryman’s proclivity for leaving many of his works nameless (they eventually settled on “Ethan”). Ultimately, the marriage ended in divorce, and Ryman later married Merrill Wagner.

Although Ryman’s earliest works involve experiments with color, beginning in the 1960s he found his preferred mode, canvases—or often sheets of metal in place of canvas—that are largely devoid of color, and instead consist of white paint. These monochromatic works reflect the artist’s preoccupation with the absence of color, and the foregrounding of texture and technique.

Ryman had his first solo show in New York at the Paul Bianchini Gallery in 1967, and his first museum solo exhibition was held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1972. In the following years, Ryman enjoyed an upward trajectory of success: he was included in Documenta 5, was the subject of a retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1973, and at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in 1977, and in 1994 was nominated as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.

Ryman continues to live in New York, and his work can be found at a number of premier museum collections worldwide, including MoMA, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, York; the Tate Modern, London; and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

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