Robert Ryman, the pioneering American Minimalist painter known for his white-on-white paintings, who died in New York on Friday, aged 88, was among the most widely respected artists of his generation.
After he moved to New York in 1952, initially hoping to make it as a jazz saxophonist, he quickly discovered the joy of painting—and specifically the seemingly infinite possibilities that lay within a strictly self-imposed set of colors, almost always some version of white.
In honor of Ryman’s life and work, we asked artists, dealers, and curators to reflect on his influence and legacy.
The most fragile thought and feeling put down in the most matter of fact way. Minimalism celebrated the frontality of art by concentrating on fundamental forms and staying with the original concept in [how] those forms were put down and arranged. This can be very moving, since the thought can be slight and refined, yet it is expressed frontally, creating an emotional schism in the viewer, like a breath made concrete. [Minimalism] sought to expose fine sensibility. This is especially true of Ryman.
Bob was extraordinarily kind to me in the late 1970s, when he was unquestionably the most important artist making abstract paintings in the world. He once asked me if I wanted to trade paintings with him, and since his paintings were about 10 times as expensive as mine, I was too embarrassed to accept such generosity, and I declined. Now I’m sorry.
At Dia, we have always felt that Ryman’s work quintessentially captures the importance of repeat and durational viewing, the ever-changing presence of natural light, and the privileging of an artist’s voice in an expanded presentation.
His remarkable paintings allow visitors to understand the subtlety of material surfaces and painterly nuances, enabling an understanding of how profoundly important these tiny shifts in perspective can be. You emerge from a room of Ryman paintings not only better able to perceive other artists’ works, but indeed the world around you. Ryman’s work teaches you to better.
Ryman was an intrinsic part of Dia and we have had the privilege of exhibiting, collecting and contemplating his work for over three decades. We first exhibited his work in 1988 at the former Dia Center for the Arts and most recently staged a memorable exhibition of his work at Dia:Chelsea in 2015–16. Visitors have also been able to view his long-term and ongoing display at Dia:Beacon since the museum opened in 2003, in a light-filled series of galleries installed by the artist himself. This profound relationship with Ryman and his work is deeply important to us an institution and has shaped the way that we think about his practice, enabling us to perceive with more acuity the work of all the artists we are fortunate enough to have in our midst.
Robert Ryman’s astonishing achievements gave permission [to] subsequent generations to extend the possibilities of painting and redefine picture-making by utilizing process as [a] subject itself.
It’s always the complexities that draw me to Ryman’s work. His engagement with deprivation and , seriality and gesture, painting and artifact, denotes a bevy of Realisms and negated doubt.
Encountering his work is an unfailing relief to me, as its organization of facts firms up painting’s ever-shifting ground, resetting the vagaries of its frequently manipulated values. Moreover, Ryman’s work demands critical assessment of history, institutions, and authorship. [It’s] a pragmatic yardstick for reasoning and art-making.
Robert Ryman was contemporary painting’s greatest material poet from the beginning of his career in the mid-1950s to the end, almost seventy years later. His death is an enormous loss to art—and to me personally.
Ryman had no art school training as such. Rather, he was a patient empiricist and autodidact who learned by doing that the “image” of a painting consisted of every perceptible element of which it was composed, or what he called the “how” of it.
For Ryman, [that] encompassed the texture and tonality of the support (canvas, paper, and, in later years, many synthetic materials); the scale of the rectangle (he usually chose to use a square); and the type and tactile qualities (pastiness or viscosity) of the paint.
Although he often used color, he favored white because its relative neutrality allowed other elements and their intrinsic hues and tones to assert themselves. In this respect, his aesthetic reprises the Objectivist credo of the American modernist poet William Carlos Williams, [who wrote]: “No ideas but in things.”
This did not stop critics, historians, and theorists from trying to impose their intellectual models on his work, and in that regard his long acquaintance with Sol LeWitt and other Conceptualists proves that he wasn’t averse to their approach in its own domain, but simply had no use for it himself. Ryman was one of those rare Realists—and that is the word he preferred to abstractionist in reference to his own work—who eschewed the temptation of being “right” about the world, but instead sought exaltation in it, in the here-and-now of the things he could make and that we could see.
Just as he wanted to make every component of a work of art visible, he wanted to make the world itself more visible, and more beautiful, due to that work’s presence.