PRINT April 2019



Robert Ryman installing an exhibition at Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, September 1974. Photo: Robert Ryman Archives.

I MET ROBERT RYMAN IN 2003, when I was a graduate student seeking out the would-be subject of my nascent dissertation. I had been curious, mostly, about the man whose ostensibly minimal paintings had already irrevocably altered my understanding of the medium. I was shocked to discover my West Village apartment was only a few blocks north of his studio, which was located in a tall, skinny building next to a then-empty parcel that I had long walked past without really noticing it. When I rang the buzzer, Bob appeared, bespectacled and well-groomed, framed through the window grille. I was a nervous suitor, and earnestly stated my intentions; he didn’t seem much concerned. He wanted to show me paintings. So instead of talking, we stood together beneath the towering ceiling (the space had once been a theater-prop-production facility) and looked intently at a group of white panels in various states of individuation—their effects at once fugitive and steadfast—until I learned to see them.

Later came longer interviews, hours filled not with stories smoothed from repeated retellings but instead with detailed descriptions of his methods and procedures. Ever patient, Ryman cogently related his trips to art—supply and hardware stores, itemizing provisions, formulas, and the properties of his pigments and explaining their application. He volunteered the names of places where he sourced his materials and frequently interrupted himself to recall people who’d helped him along the way. A former saxophonist who had moved from Nashville to New York to play jazz, and who taught himself to paint while working as a guard at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for much of the 1950s, Ryman spent his days consuming European exemplars—Matisse’s chief among them—and the Abstract Expressionism that had begun to populate the newly permanent collection. His first exhibited painting hung at the museum in 1958 in a staff exhibition. He conducted his education in public, finding in the galleries around him a source of continual learning. His careful working-over of the medium’s conventions was coeval with the methodical testing of its myriad components—not simply paint and its application, but also the support, the edge, the means of securing the painting to the wall, the conditions of ambient or artificial lighting—that would remain his hallmark.

Ryman’s paintings are radically open, both physically and theoretically, invitations more than treatises.

Checklists read like inventories: oil, acrylic, pastel, casein, and gouache, together with rabbit-skin glue, charcoal, graphite, enamel, Varathane, vinyl polymer, or ballpoint pen, among so many others, on unstretched sized linen, stretched sized canvas, burlap, steel, printed wallpaper, or Chemex coffee-filter paper. Though Ryman’s paintings are often described as “white,” his work is in fact rich with color, the hue located in the range of matte and reflective surfaces and on the grounds of buttery-brown aged paper or cold-gray metal, the chalky white of bleached cotton or the oleaginous layers of vivid turquoise, teal, pink, red, and gold. Ryman made more out of his supplies than anyone in the past century, coaxing compositional elements from exposed nails, strips of tape, and all manner of fasteners. Reflexivity about every facet of painting remained primary. “Endlessly inventive” is how the first-responder obits characterized him, and this isn’t wrong. Despite the centrality of his work to debates around postmodernism in the early ’80s, in which his decades-long reduction of painting to matter was often discussed as a precursor to the deconstructive tendencies then becoming ubiquitous, Ryman became a paragon of anti-idealism. In retrospect, he had revealed that meaning was lodged in, not exogenous to, practical concerns and specific material choices.

Ryman, in my account, came to exemplify a pragmatic relation to circumstance. Reworking the basic possibilities of painting with each new piece, he found in his medium not ontological fixity but a potential source of knowledge, a way of coming to know the world. Impediments, for Ryman, were productive; constraints generated form. After settling on a process, he took responsibility for whatever it yielded, producing works that, despite their similarities—all were realist, which is to say, against illusionism; non-representational; created in a square format—are distinct. Each is a full elaboration of what could be, and is. Facture marks his paintings—sometimes baroque, teeming with thick brushstrokes, or applied directly from the tube—and is always keyed to the reality of human perception; his works are powerful and resolute heuristics not only for how we see, but for the ways in which the institution subtends this act in the first place. Still—and for me, this ranks among the artist’s foremost achievements—Ryman’s paintings are radically open, both physically and theoretically, invitations more than treatises.

During that first meeting, despite his legendary disavowal of the critical literature surrounding his art, Bob gave me a huge stack of rare catalogues and ephemera so that I could get to work. I lumbered back up Greenwich Street with these pages in hand, feeling the actual weight of their words. In the years to come, I would consume them many times over, but also, with the force of habit, put them aside, privileging viewing alongside reading. Ryman, a self-taught artist, was also a teacher. 

Suzanne Hudson is an associate professor of art history and fine arts at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Robert Ryman: Used Paint. (MIT Press, 2009).