Originally trained as a jazz saxophonist, Robert Ryman turned to painting after he began working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1953. He received little in the way of formal artistic training aside from classes at MoMA’s department of education, but devoted himself to studying painting through hands-on experimentation. Ryman’s earliest works from the late 1950s and 1960s demonstrate an intense interest in the quality of paint and in the surfaces he was able to achieve through varied facture. Belying his reputation as a painter solely interested in white, Ryman explored the relationship between chromatic and achromatic tones, as well as an astonishingly wide array of materials and structural supports. In the 1980s, Ryman moved the traditional armature of painting off the wall and into three-dimensional space. Many of his paintings created during this time period expand into the viewer’s space, either through unconventional support structures or materials, and challenge the standard interaction between viewer and artwork.
Ryman’s modes of paint application have been astonishingly various given his self-imposed, carefully considered constraints. His paintings range broadly, from gestural to self-effacing, from pristine to vigorously layered, from loosely brushed to delicately applied. Ryman’s repertoire of materials is just as assorted, including various types of industrial paints and rare pigments, supports, adhesives, and fixtures, such as fiberglass, steel, aluminum, and wood. Ryman’s wide-ranging practice has been considered by Dia on numerous occasions, beginning with a solo exhibition at Dia Center for the Arts in 1988–89, a long-term installation at Dia Beacon since its opening in 2003, and a survey exhibition at Dia Chelsea from December 2015 to July 2016.
Robert Ryman was born in Nashville in 1930. He died in New York City in 2019.