“I didn’t want any kind of job with any responsibility, because that would have been the end of everything,” Robert Ryman told an interviewer from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in 1972, as he discussed his first years in New York in the early 1950s. He worked as a messenger, and in a mailroom, and eventually became a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. He had arrived in the city wanting to make it as a jazz musician, playing the tenor sax, but spending time at MoMA looking at paintings changed things. Pretty soon he was visiting art-supply stores, seeing what he could do with what he found there.
Over the course of the more than half-century of relentless experimentation that followed, Ryman radically expanded the possibilities of abstract painting, continuously rethinking how it could be made and what it could look like, even while seeming to confine himself to a single color: white. His death on Friday, in New York, at the age of 88, brings to a close one of the singular careers in postwar America art.
Though Ryman has often been categorized as a Minimalist, that has always felt like an inadequate label for an artist who could build up paint with controlled impasto, as if styling frosting or cement, or with loose, light brushstrokes, or in a deadpan mechanical manner. His work ranges from the resolutely austere to the proudly rococo. It juts out from the wall, is affixed to the wall with tape or screws, and on some rare occasions is effectively a wall itself.
The moment you thought you had seen everything Ryman could do, he was known to surprise you. “The real purpose of painting is to give pleasure,” he told Art21 in 2007. “That’s really the main thing it’s about.”
Asked if he made “white paintings” in 1971 in Artforum, Ryman replied, “No, it may seem that way superficially, but there are a lot of nuances and there’s color involved. Always the surface is used. The gray of the steel comes through; the brown of the corrugated paper comes through; the linen comes through, the cotton (which is not the same as the paint—it seems white): all of those things are considered. It’s really not monochrome painting at all.”
As Ryman’s answer indicated, he was willing to paint on pretty much anything. And he did not necessarily shy away from using color, particularly early in his career. He just hid it. In his Smithsonian interview, he explained how his thought process evolved: “Well, I’m putting this color down, and I’m really not that interested in the color that I’m putting down. I’m only doing it because somehow being a painter I should use color. But here I am painting it out, so why not get this down a little stronger and not put the color on in the first place?”
He was, at the time, only five years out from his first solo show, at the Bianchini Gallery in New York in 1967, but his reputation was growing steadily. He had already appeared in soon-to-be-legendary shows like “When Attitudes Become Form” at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland, “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum in New York, and “557,087” at the Seattle Art Museum, which was organized by the curator and critic Lucy Lippard, with whom he was married for six years in the 1960s. In 1972, he would have his first museum show, at the Guggenheim.
Ryman was born in 1930 in Nashville, and went to school at the Tennessee Polytechnic Institute and the George Peabody College for Teachers before joining the United States Army. He served from 1950 to 1952, and then headed to New York with what he later estimated to be around $240. He took jazz lessons from the pianist Lennie Tristano for $5 a pop.
It is tempting to read the immediacy of live performance into Ryman’s paintings, which suggest seasoned improvisation around a standard structure. “In painting something has to look easy even though it might not be easy,” Ryman told Art21. “That’s an important part of painting, that it has to have that feeling like it just happened.”
However easy Ryman paintings can appear, they are never slick or simple. There is a charming workmanlike quality to them, with roughhewn bits of elegance regularly part of the mix—staples, marks from torn tape, and the like.
Pace gallery, which represented him and confirmed his death, said in a statement, “We mourn his loss, but celebrate the never-ending legacy of his art and its impact on how we see the world.”
A major retrospective of Ryman’s work ran at MoMA in 1993, exactly 40 years after he was first hired there as a security guard, and made stops at the Tate Gallery in London, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In 2015, the Dia Art Foundation staged a Ryman survey in New York, and two years later, the artist donated a number of his works to the institution. He appeared in three editions of Documenta, in Kassel, Germany, in 1972, 1977, and 1982, and three editions of the Whitney Biennial in New York, in 1977, 1987, and 1995, as well as the 1976 Venice Biennale.
Ryman told Art21 that he sometimes took a break after completing a series of works, thinking about what to do next. After a few weeks, maybe a month, though, he was typically ready to try out something new. “In all of my painting, I discover things,” he said. “Sometimes I’m surprised at the results. But I know what I’m doing. Even though I don’t know what I’m doing.”