Robert Ryman in his studio in the late 1960s.

Robert Ryman (1930–2019)

Robert Ryman, the prodigious Minimalist painter whose deceptively frank canvases examine the structures and methods of painting with primarily white and square surfaces, has died in New York at age eighty-eight. Despite, or because of, the aesthetic limitations he observed, Ryman produced a body of work continually premised on discovery and reinvention, becoming one of the most influential artists to emerge in the postwar years. His subtle experiments with color, light, and form often extended to painting on gallery architecture, emphasizing support fasteners, and subverting installation modes in order to attune viewers to their environment and the experience of art.

Born in Nashville in 1930, Ryman attended the Tennessee Polytechnic Institute and the George Peabody College for Teachers and then served in the US Army before moving to New York in 1953. At first an aspiring saxophonist, he became inspired by the Abstract Expressionists and began to paint, supporting himself as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art. In addition to befriending fellow guards Sol LeWitt and Robert Mangold at MoMA, Ryman met the art critic and activist Lucy Lippard, an advocate for Minimalist and Conceptual art, whom he married in 1960. They divorced six years later, and in 1969, Ryman married painter Merrill Wagner. He had one son with Lippard and two with Wagner; all three are artists.

Ryman, whose first solo show was in 1967 at New York’s Bianchini Gallery, has exhibited widely throughout the world, and his paintings have been collected by institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. In 1993, four decades after starting his job as a MoMA guard, the museum held a retrospective of his own work. Reviewing the exhibition for Artforum’s February 1994 issue, Joshua Decter wrote, positively, that “moving through over thirty years of Robert Ryman’s production in this show was akin to taking the same commuter train over and over again but never having the same experience twice—and never actually reaching a destination.” In 2017, Ryman donated a trove of paintings to the Dia Art Foundation, where they are currently on view.

“We mourn his loss, but celebrate the never-ending legacy of his art and its impact on how we see the world,” read a statement by Pace Gallery, which represents Ryman and confirmed his death. Ryman was plainspoken about his own artmaking: “I don’t think of myself as making white paintings,” he told Artforum in a 1971 interview. “I make paintings; I’m a painter. White paint is my medium.” Though considered a Minimalist, a post-Minimalist, and a Conceptualist, Ryman categorized himself as a “realist” due to his concern with material over imagery. As he reportedly said: “There is never any question of what to paint, only how to paint.”