The Artist Birthday Series

Robert Ryman

Today’s Artist Birthday: Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman (born May 30, 1930) is an American painter identified with the movements of monochrome painting, minimalism, and conceptual art. He is best known for abstract, white-on-white paintings.

Robert Ryman, 2007 (from the PBS series "Art In The 21st Century, Season 4)
Robert Ryman, 2007 (from the PBS series “Art In The 21st Century, Season 4)

Ryman was born in Nashville, Tennessee. After studying at the Tennessee Polytechnic Institute, Cookeville, between 1948 and 1949, and at the George Peabody College for Teachers between 1949 and 1950, he enlisted in the United States army reserve corps and was assigned to an army reserve band during the Korean War.

Robert Ryman, c. 1950
Robert Ryman, c. 1950

Ryman moved to New York City in 1953, intending to become a professional jazz saxophonist. He had lessons with pianist Lennie Tristano, which later informed his painting.

Lennie Tristano, the underground jazz musician, was Ryman's music teacher
Lennie Tristano, the underground jazz musician, was Ryman’s music teacher

Ryman soon took a day job at the Museum of Modern Art as a security guard to make ends meet, and met the artists Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin, who were co-workers with him at MoMA. He left his job at MoMA and spent the next year working in the art division of the New York Public Library. He also met artist Roy Lichtenstein during this period of the 1950s, a meeting that was also to influence his future explorations in art.

"Eagle Turquoise," by Robert Ryman,  1966. Ryman once worked as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art, a museum that now has over 30 of his works in their collection.
“Eagle Turquoise,” by Robert Ryman, 1966. Ryman once worked as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art, a museum that now has over 30 of his works in their collection.

Captivated by the newly acquired abstract expressionist works of Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, Ryman became curious about the act of painting. From 1953 to 1960, he worked at the MoMA as a guard in order to be close to painting. He purchased some art supplies at local store and began experimenting in his apartment in 1955. That year, he finished what he considers his earliest professional work, a largely monochrome painting titled Untitled (Orange Painting) (1955–59).

"Orange Painting," 1955 by Robert Ryman
“Orange Painting,” by Robert Ryman, 1955-59

In the late 1960s he created his Classico series of compositions consisting of multi-panel paintings on a specific type of paper called Classico. For each work in the series, Ryman attached a configuration of heavy, creamy white sheets of the paper to a wall with masking tape, painted the sheets with a shiny white acrylic paint, removed the tape when the sheets were dry, mounted them on foamcore, and reattached them to the wall. The built-up paint edge tracing the outline of masking tape and the ripped paper left behind give witness to the process of creation. The various works in the Classico series differ in the organization of paper sheets, the configuration of tape traces, and the painted shape.

"Classico #6" by Robert Ryman, 1968
“Classico #6” by Robert Ryman, 1968

Just as the Classico works were titled after the type of paper used as a medium, the so-called Surface Veil works from 1970 were named for the brand of fiberglass upon which the smaller pieces in this group were painted. Some of the 12-foot square paintings from the series were executed not on fiber-glass but on cotton or linen. In each of these works the pigment appears to form a membrane over the support due to the differing degrees of opacity and translucence in the white paint juxtaposed with areas where less of it has been applied, leaving the fabric exposed. These disruptions in the painting’s skin often mark the literal pauses between the artist’s working sessions.

"Surface Veil" by Robert Ryman, 1970-71
“Surface Veil” by Robert Ryman, 1970-71

From 1975 until the late 1990s, Ryman affixed his paintings to the wall with metal brackets. He would design each set of brackets specifically for each piece and have them constructed by a local metals fabricator.

Robert Ryman during the installation of his solo show at Kunsthalle Basel, 1975. [Photo: Christian Baur © photo archives Kunsthalle Basel]
Robert Ryman during the installation of his solo show at Kunsthalle Basel, 1975. [Photo: Christian Baur © photo archives Kunsthalle Basel]
He has stated that his paintings’ titles are meaningless, and that they only exist as a form of identification. Ryman actually prefers the term of “name” for a painting instead of a title because he is not creating a picture or making reference to anything except the paint and the materials. The “names” of paintings often come from the names of art supplies, companies, or are just general words that do not carry much connotation.

"Untitled (Background Music," by Robert Ryman, 1962
“Untitled (Background Music,” by Robert Ryman, 1962

Ryman is often classified as a minimalist, but he prefers to be known as a “realist” because he is not interested in creating illusions, but only in presenting the materials he has used in compositions at their face value. As he wrote in a statement for a 2010 exhibition at Pace Wildenstein, “I am not a picture painter. I work with real light and space, and since real light is an important aspect of the paintings, it always presents some problems.” The majority of his works feature abstract expressionist-influenced brushwork in white or off-white paint on square canvas or metal surfaces.

"Untitled," by Robert Ryman, 1961
“Untitled,” by Robert Ryman, 1961

A lifelong experimenter with media, Ryman has painted and/or drawn on canvas, linen, steel, aluminum, plexiglas, lumasite, vinyl, fiberglass, corrugated paper, burlap, newsprint, wallpaper, jute sacking, fiberplate, a composite material called gator board, feather board, handmade paper, and acrilivin. He has used painted and/or drawn with oil, acrylic, encaustic, Lascaux acrylic, casein, enamel, pastel, oil pastel, graphite, guache, and enamelac. Ryman has also experimented with printmaking, creating etchings, aquatints, lithographs, and silkscreens. He once said, “There is never any question of what to paint only how to paint.”

Robert Ryman
Robert Ryman

Edited from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Ryman


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