For more than five decades, Robert Ryman has been engaged in an ongoing experiment with painting, creating works where subject, theme and medium are one. Dedicated to exploring the materiality of painting, Ryman’s work features almost exclusively white or off-white paint on square canvases, drawing the eye toward the nature and texture of the brush strokes and the viscosity and reflectivity of paint and its relation to the support. As he famously stated, ‘There is never any question of what to paint, only how to paint.’
Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1930, Ryman studied at the Tennessee Polytechnic Institute and the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville before enlisting in the United States Army in 1950. After this, he moved to New York where he intended to become a jazz saxophonist. In 1953, he started working at the Museum of Modern Art as a guard where he met Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt. Immersing himself in the art of the museum – the masterpieces of Matisse, Picasso, Rothko, and Pollock, Ryman began drawing in the galleries and painting at home, instinctively drawn to exploring the physical tactility of his materials. From this point onward, he decided to pursue a career as an artist.
Ryman has long experimented with a variety of media in his quest to explore the nature of painting. Using canvas, aluminum, and steel, as well as burlap, newspaper, sacking, and paper, among many others, he continues to test the aesthetic potentials of different materials, often heightening the effect of subtle variations by manipulating how each work is framed and hung.
Ryman’s first retrospective was organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1974. In 1992, a major touring retrospective of Ryman’s painting was mounted by the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate Gallery, London, travelling to museums including the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Today his work is held in Dia:Beacon, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, among others.