Robert Ryman: Interviews, Images & Texts


The Art World March 19, 2007 Issue
Abstraction Problem
Two new shows on an old idea.
By Peter Schjeldahl


Table of Contents
An Adaptive, by the veteran Austrian artist Franz West.
An Adaptive, by the veteran Austrian artist Franz West. Credit “LISA DE COHEN WITH ADAPTIVE”(1983)/ARCHIV FRANZ WEST

Remember abstract painting? It used to be the living end of modernity in art. Now it’s just one variety of produce in the supermarket of visual culture. Two shows stir thoughts on the subject: new work by the paladin of white paintings, Robert Ryman, at PaceWildenstein, and “Comic Abstraction,” representing thirteen contemporary artists inspired by comics, cartoons, and other mediums of demotic fun, at the Museum of Modern Art. Ryman, seventy-six years old, is a Tennessean who came to New York in 1952 to be a jazz musician, and encountered the art world while working, for seven years, as a guard at MOMA. He matured as an artist in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, between the decline of Abstract Expressionism and the dawn of minimalism. He conjoined and, ever since, has stayed true to features of both movements: expressively pure painterliness and blunt matter-of-factness. His works are as much mute essays in aesthetic philosophy as objects of pleasure. They delight, if you let them, by clarifying the material givens of any painting: shape, scale, paint texture, underlying surface, and attachment to a wall.

Most of the works in “Comic Abstraction,” by younger artists, derive inspiration—albeit remote and attenuated, and, at this late date, perhaps unconscious—from the same era that formed Ryman, when abstraction was still a reigning imperative and self-consciousness in and about aesthetic experience became an iron law. But they yoke those ideals to pursuits of frisky entertainment or earnest politics. Has abstraction, since the sixties, fallen from grace, or been liberated from preciousness? Both may be true.

There are four works in the Ryman show, all of them called “No Title Required” (2006)—finessing a title, “Untitled,” so common in the heyday of minimalism as to become something of a joke. (When not using it himself, Ryman has favored astringently poetic titles, on the order of “Regis,” “Consort,” and “Journal.”) The main attraction is an ensemble of ten paintings in smooth white enamel on wood, each a different size in a narrow range from fifty to fifty-five inches square. Each incorporates a wood frame (in oak, cherry, or maple), mounted flush. Paint bleeds across the abutments between surface and frame, establishing the paint skin as the work’s forward plane. This being Ryman, every aspect of what you see counts. The units hang close together along most of one wall and part of another. The walls are a matte, muted white, in contrast to the work’s glossy, bright enamel. Ghostly reflections of yourself provide vestiges of pictureness. Illumination is indirect, from banks of lights that shine on a wall across the room. The carpentry of the frames is imperfect; slight separations at their corner joins—as well as occasional cracks in the paint between frame and panel—register as chance elements of drawing. The grains, knots, and natural colors of the frames become practically rococo in their visual appeal, amid the prevailing blankness. The units’ shifting sizes defeat a reading of them as a unified whole. The suite’s length is given as six hundred and eighty-eight inches, which works out to fifty-seven and one-third feet. Intentional or not, that gawky one-third (an infinity of threes, when expressed in decimals) seems Rymanesque, consistent with a thoroughgoing aim to pique and discombobulate comprehension.

The three other works in the show are paintings on linen stapled over frames, each more than seven feet square. (Again, painting fronts frame, this time with the added thickness of the linen.) White oil paint is applied in brushy flurries over a very slightly darker ground. Surface qualities vary almost—but never quite—enough to suggest pictures of something: clouds, perhaps, or foliage. The effect is a stammer in the visual cortex, as your brain doggedly tries and incessantly fails to make conscious sense of the sensory input. This isn’t an unusual phenomenon in abstract art, or even in figurative art. (It also occurs in daily life, when confusion about what we see triggers a double take.) But such delicate fallibilities of eye and mind are the engines of Ryman’s art, which plays with self-aware looking for its own sake. How much you like him depends on a couple of things. First, how highly do you value feeling sensitive and smart? “Getting” a Ryman can produce the thrill, at your own acuity, that comes with grasping a proposition in mathematics or a tricky passage of music. For Ryman fans—including me, off and on—the effect is addictive. Second, do you buy into a romance of painting in extremis, so imperilled by skepticism that, to survive as indispensable art, it must jettison all functions that are not identical with its conceptual scheme and physical reality?

That romance dates Ryman as one of a cohort of abstract painters who, in the nineteen-sixties, simplified painting to save it. Others were the late Agnes Martin, with delicate grids, and Brice Marden, with brooding monochromes. (Frank Stella’s insolently literal-minded designs on blocky stretchers were the height of sophisticated taste back then; their emotional numbness has consigned them, in retrospect, to period décor.) Marden, as a marvellous recent retrospective at MOMA proved, has since reclaimed for disciplined abstraction a repertoire of tensile drawing and eloquent color. Ryman has sustained the old sense of crisis, as if each of his many ingenuities—with different paints and supports, and, over time, with a hardware store’s worth of deliberately obtrusive screws, brackets, and other mounting devices—were a tale told by Scheherazade to win another night’s reprieve, never mind that the sultan who had to be propitiated is dead. Ryman is a favorite of certain academic critics who, loyal to intellectual adventures of avant-garde art in the fifties and sixties, ignore most contemporary art and seem to mark time until a new development, or Second Coming, merits their engagement. Still, Ryman stays fresh and taut. Even out of date, his conscientious integrity ought to abash today’s hordes of careering youngsters, whose idea of the future of civilization reaches little beyond the next art fair. But to be shameable, under present conditions, may be an unaffordable moral luxury.

Vivacious brassiness rules in “Comic Abstraction,” organized by Roxana Marcoci, a curator in MOMA’s photography department—an interesting choice, given that the show contains no photographs. Except for an installation by one strongly original veteran artist, Franz West, the works on hand amount to new wine in old bottles. “Mirror in a Cabin with Adaptives” (1996), by West, the sixty-year-old Austrian Pied Piper of audience participation, invites viewers to disport themselves, in front of a mirror, with odd and appealing constructions of lumpy plaster on metal rods. Even declining the offer, I feel in good hands with West, a terrific sculptor who is conceptually as rigorous as Ryman, in a hippieish kind of way. Fully seven of the artists in the show run variations on the New York School of big painting—the expansive and diffusive field that was invented by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, and that has been adopted by painters of every subsequent generation. Like the blues foundations of rock and roll, it is easy to learn and it always works, if you can keep the beat. The challenge is to give it distinctive content and style. Pop art introduced the frisson of wedding lowdown imagery to the big painting’s sublime form. Cartoonishness has been a regular recourse of master painters from Roy Lichtenstein and Sigmar Polke to Carroll Dunham and Albert Oehlen. Their number is not increased by anyone in “Comic Abstraction,” whose wrinkles of novelty are just a proliferation of peculiar techniques and an amplification, to simultaneous extremes, of the ceremonious and the vulgar.

The show’s cast of picture-makers includes the lately ubiquitous Takashi Murakami, with crisply stylized renditions of spurting bodily fluids (breast milk and sperm) in baby pink and baby blue; Sue Williams, with what look to be Pollock-like fields, until you make out their constituent cartoon imagery of orgiastic goings on; Arturo Herrera, with a likewise webby, exceedingly handsome mural in which lurk scenes of Walt Disney’s “Snow White”; Julie Mehretu, the up-and-comer in this group, with a heady, infernally complicated overlay of diagrammatic motifs; Polly Apfelbaum, with a mandala on the floor, about eighteen feet in diameter, of dyed velvet petals whose color scheme alludes to the television cartoon “Powerpuff Girls”; and Inka Essenhigh, with neo-Surrealist creepy-crawlies in shiny enamel. Two African-Americans tackle racial themes: Ellen Gallagher, with lovely Agnes Martin-like compositions that incorporate tiny caricatures of Negroid lips and eyes; and Gary Simmons, with a smeared chalk drawing of a particularly vile black cartoon character of the nineteen-thirties. For appropriate jollies, there’s an installation by the late Spaniard Juan Muñoz: a darkened room with a lit-up mousehole, accompanied by a soundtrack, composed by the artist and a collaborator, of Saturday-morning whizzes, squeals, and thumps. New to me, poignantly, are jazzy paintings and a bank of video monitors flashing fractured logos by a conspicuously gifted German, Michel Majerus, who died in a plane crash, in 2002, at the age of thirty-five. Two other artists contribute negligible works with arbitrary political associations.

Is all of this a mite thin and forced? It is, along with almost everything else of recent vintage in an art world where frenetic production has outrun any substantial supply line of ideas. Nearly a century of experiments in abstraction have become a fund of handy tropes. What’s lost—while being barely preserved, with monkish zeal, by the likes of Ryman—is a sense of risk at the frontiers of convention. Pablo Picasso once zeroed in on the fundamental problem of abstract art, which he rejected, as “only painting. What about drama?” He added, “There is no abstract art.… A person, an object, a circle are all ‘figures’; they react on us more or less intensely.” The best modern abstract artists countered with jolting demonstrations of art’s intrinsic powers, independent of worldly reference. But their project proved self-defeating, as the looks of a Pollock or a Mondrian became just additional items in the world’s image bank, alongside Titian nudes and Mickey Mouse. Picasso’s cynical wisdom (minus his driving genius, of course) is common sense now, as artists like those in “Comic Abstraction” mix and match stock elements, with ever less drama and with intensity dwindling away. ♦

Robert Ryman – White paint, not white paintings

Ryman - Surface Veil

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970-1971
22 x 29 inches, oil on fiberglass with waxed paper frame and masking tape. Collection SFMOMA.

“The real purpose of painting is to give pleasure.”
–Robert Ryman

When one’s thoughts turn to the topic of white paintings, artist Robert Ryman comes easily to mind. Ryman, born in 1930 in Nashville, was first a jazz musician until he moved to New York in 1952 and subsequently took a job as a vacation relief guard at the Museum of Modern Art. His exposure to the artwork there, including contemporary Americans Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, was instrumental in his decision give up music and turn to painting. He never had any traditional art training, although, as Suzanne P. Hudson recounts in Used Paint1, he was directly influenced by MoMA’s “widespread institutional ethos of experiential learning whereby museum educators … promoted values of thinking and making ‘outside the lines.’” He took one adult course at MoMA in experimental painting, although he would later say he didn’t remember much of it. Other than some life drawing done in the class, he never went through the traditional stages of learning to paint or draw representationally. Instead, he was interested in discovering what could be done with different kinds of paints, substrates, and other materials.

Ryman - Painted Veil (detail)Robert Ryman, Surface Veil (detail)

Although beginning in the mid-1950s he spent many years exclusively making paintings with every type of white paint, using a seemingly limitless variety of techniques on every possible surface, and he is known for work most commonly described reductively as “white squares,” he would say that he was not making white paintings. “I never thought of white as being a color. White could do things that other colors could not do. White has a tendency to make things visible. You can see more of the nuance.”2

Speaking of one of his earliest works, Untitled (Orange Painting), he said in 1992, “I’ve always thought that if I ever wanted to paint a white painting it would be in the order of the way this painting was done, because this is definitely an orange painting but there are many nuances and many oranges (and black and green). And if I were doing a white painting I would approach it the same way, and there would be whites and warm-whites and cold areas and then you would have a white painting. As it is, the way I use white it’s more as a neutral paint, in order to make other things in the painting visible, color for instance.”3

Robert Ryman, TwinRobert Ryman, Twin (1965)
6′ 3 3/4″ x 6′ 3 7/8″ Oil on cotton. Collection New York MoMA.

The interesting thing about Ryman is how he became so well known in spite of (or because of?) his unapologetically unconventional approach to painting. He confounded the critics, who tried variously to categorize his work as minimalist, or anti-form, or process, or conceptualist, while admitting that none of these could be perfectly applied. He resists the idea that his work is abstract, saying “I don’t abstract from anything. [My work is] involved with real visual aspects of what you really are looking at, whether it’s wood, or you see the paint, and the metal, and how it’s put together and how it works with the wall and how it works with the light.”

Robert Ryman - Untitled (1958)Robert Ryman, Untitled (1958)
10.125 inches square, enamel on linen. Collection SFMOMA.

He also resisted attempts to place him into a specific box or frame within the greater art world. “I’m not involved with any kind of art movement. I’m not a scholar, I’m not a historian. I just look at it as solving problems and working on the painting and the visual experience.”5 There is no attempt at illusion; the paintings are not “about” anything other than what’s right before your eyes. What you see is what you get – nothing more, nothing less.

I read parts of Used Paint a couple of years ago when I was doing research for a school project. It was a treat for me soon thereafter to be able to go to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and see some of these paintings in person. They are just what you’d expect, but somehow in person they have a surprising presence. I’m drawn to Ryman’s work aesthetically, and I admire his ability to put forth these seemingly simple objects as paintings and get them hung in the most prestigious of museums. I have an impressive number of partially finished textile works lying around my own studio, suspended from completion because I love the raw edges and I don’t want to cut, bind, or hide them in some “professional” way. If I were Ryman, that would be the end of it – I’d just hand them over to the Guggenheim and up they’d go as is.

Robert Ryman, An all white painting measuring 9 1/2 ” x 10″ and signed twice on the left side in white umber
(See full view here)


I first became aware of Ryman’s work from the wonderful PBS art:21 series. In this video from Season 4 (2007), Ryman demonstrates how his paintings consist not only of the support and the paint, but also the edges, the fasteners, and the wall itself. He tapes panels to the walls with blue painter’s tape, and then paints right over the tape and onto the walls beneath the panels. Then the tape, which has functioned as a resist, is removed. The process is repeated multiple times. This creates a variance in the surface and edge surrounding each panel. The quality of the light in the room is extremely important to the aesthetic experience, including how it changes throughout the day. Speaking about his intention, Ryman says, “It should be a soft, quiet experience that’s nice to look at.”

“In painting, something has to look easy even though it might not be easy.”
“The painting should just be about what it’s about, and not other things.”
“In all of my paintings, I discover things; sometimes I’m surprised at the results6

An Interview with Robert Ryman – By Peter Blum

Much has already been said about your paintings. But I’m interested in your life story and your origins. How did you get involved with art?

An Interview with Robert Ryman

By Peter Blum

Much has already been said about your paintings. But I’m interested in your life story and your origins. How did you get involved with art?

I was born in Nashville, Tennessee. I had never seen any paintings before moving to New York. Except for paintings of flowers -but never anything remotely high quality. There was nothing there.

And your parents? No influence came from them at all?

No. But I had music. That was what counted. That was what interested me and why I moved to New York. There I started going to galleries and museums and saw paintings for the first time. Actually not so much galleries but museums. I was like a tourist but gradually I became more and more interested in painting and such.

Was it going to the museums that made a difference? Is that what made you decide to study painting?

Well, my main concern was actually music. I was a jazz musician, a saxophonist. That was in 1952. But entertainment music didn’t appeal to me, neither did Pop or dance music, and I didn’t care much for performing in public. Actually I wanted to compose: to compose with my instrument, to improvise, to find out all the things you can do with the instrument. In that respect it’s related to painting. What’s important is the composition, the discoveries you make while working. Painting really resembles music in that way. You develop something and then you take the part that interests you. That’s how it happened

And then you decided it was time to learn how to paint. How did you go about it?

Mainly by watching. You see I didn’t know any artists at all. I didn’t know a single painter. All of my friends were musicians. Besides I was very shy. I couldn’t just go up to someone and say I want to be a painter. So what I did – I just kept at it. From the beginning, I was never interested in painting that was supposed to represent something. I knew I would be able to do that if I wanted to and if I practiced. But that’s not what I wanted. I wouldn’t make any new discoveries that way. What intrigued me were the possibilities of painting itself. I had to study the basics of painting, obviously — like what can be combined and how paint works.

And how did you learn from that?

Actually I got to know a few painters pretty much on my own at the Museum of Modern Art, like Bill Sharf. I asked him how you stretch a canvas. So he showed me, but I figured most of it out myself.

Were your paintings completely non-objective from the beginning?

Yes, I just studied color, composition, and format and I experimented with thick paint, thin paint and watercolors, and I explored the effect of light on the works. My only goal was to produce something that interested me personally and that gave me the feeling I had achieves something. But I never painted and abstraction of nature.

Has white always been an important factor?

In 1957 I still made a couple of paintings in color. White actually means taking away, eliminating. It’s not the case of painting white paintings. It’s a question of using white pigment. Of course, I use it differently today because the issues have continued to develop. I never thought that there should be a lot of things in a painting that don’t necessarily belong there. After all I didn’t simply make a decoration or paint an accumulation of things in order to see what works well. My main concern was to develop the structure of the paintings so that it contains the essentials and everything superfluous is eliminated…the composition extends to the wall and becomes a part of the wall… when you take my paintings off the wall, they don’t exist anymore. The painting needs a wall in order to exist. Otherwise it makes no sense.

Excerpts from an interview with Robert Ryman by Peter Blum originally published in DU Magazine, Zurich, August 1980 and republished in the book: Robert Ryman, Works on Paper 1957 – 1964, Peter Blum Edition, New York, 2004.



Issue 10 May 1993 RSS

On Paintings and Pictures


In conversation with Robert Ryman

imageDavid Batchelor: What led you to describe your work as realist?

Robert Ryman: The two main procedures artists have used in painting are representation and abstraction. While abstraction has been used in many ways, the two procedures still employ a similar aesthetic, one which involves illusion. Even the most abstract painting uses a picture-based approach. The painting I make is based on a different approach. It has to do with using real light on real surfaces, rather than creating an internal illusion of light. If I use line in my work it is to do with line itself, not line as a representation of something else. I think of this as working with an outward aesthetic rather than with an inward one. I work with the painting plane in relation to the wall plane. Everything points to an approach which is a real situation rather than an illusion of the kind you get in pictures. I also have to consider the way light works. In most paintings we think of light in terms of an illusion within the picture. In my painting light is used differently without any illusion. The light in the painting, so to speak, is accomplished by the different surfaces and how real light acts upon those surfaces. In some cases the surfaces are very soft and quiet and absorb the light; in others, light is reflected off certain parts of the painting, or off the fasteners, while it is absorbed in other parts.

Many abstract painters in the past have classified their work as realist – Malevich and Mondrian for example – but yours seems a very different kind of approach from the one, say, that led Malevich to paint white on white. His work is clearly spatial in an atmospheric kind of way.

I think Malevich’s work had a lot to do with Symbolism, to do with meaning outside the painting itself. Mondrian, though, was certainly a realist painter, more of a realist than Malevich. The mid-period works did not refer to anything other than painting, and that is what I would think of as realism.

Mondrian was also an artist who took a lot of care about how his paintings related to the walls, in his use of those shallow stepped frames.

Very much so. But most of his paintings have been altered, boxed in by other frames and covered in plastic. It’s unfortunate, but it’s rare to see a Mondrian the way he wanted it to be.

Do you see any similarities between what he was doing with the stepped frames and your use of fasteners?

Maybe, although I hadn’t really thought of that. In Mondrian’s case I think he felt the need for some form of protection for the canvas but he didn’t want it to interfere. So he tended to paint it in with the rest of the painting.

You have exhibited more in Europe than the States. Do you identify more with a tradition of European painting?

Certainly I have had more large exhibitions in Europe, but I don’t really think of my painting in that way. At times there has been more interest in Europe, and my painting didn’t seem to fit in, I guess, with certain fashions in America at the time. In the early 60s Pop painting was shown most widely in galleries. There wasn’t much interest in abstract painting during that time. It was mostly sculpture, and Minimal sculpture which was emerging. What painting there was was primarily bright colours and sharp edges. In the late 60s there was some interest in my painting, but this was mainly in Europe again – Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf and Heiner Friedrich in Munich.

What about your inclusion in the big ‘Systemic Painting’ show in New York in 1966, with Noland, Stella, Mangold and others?

Oh yes, I had forgotten about that. That was at the Guggenheim, or the Whitney.

And the ‘Anti-Illusion’ show in 1969?

At that time there was some interest in that type of work, of course. But it was more to do with the kind of work that could be planned and not executed – what was it called? Conceptual art.

I take it you don’t regard your work as having anything much to do with Conceptual art?

Not at all. Just the opposite. My work is very intuitive, and it has to be made. It’s painting. But somehow some of my painting was accepted, perhaps because it had certain modular elements.

Your work doesn’t look at all preconceived in the manner of Minimal and Conceptual art.

The idea that you could have your work fabricated by someone else was an aspect of Minimal and some Conceptual art of the period which became acceptable as modern art.

Which makes your work look, by comparison, like rather traditional painting. Are you happy to be seen as a traditional painter?

Yes. I have always thought of myself as a traditional painter.

I believe this is the first time your work has been hung chronologically in a gallery.

In the larger exhibitions I have had, the work has not been hung chronologically, rather the different years have been jumbled together. The exhibition here at the Tate is the first time I’ve seen the work arranged in a more or less chronological order. This has been quite interesting for me.

Basically my painting works with the wall plane and with the environment. As I said before, it has what I think of as an outward aesthetic. Unlike pictures where you look into the space, space in my work is used differently. There is an interaction between the painting and the wall plane. So what is placed next to a painting can affect it. In the past my paintings have been hung in a strictly visual capacity. There might be a contrast between a smaller work and a larger one where it benefits both paintings. The question of light is also important here. If you are hanging several different paintings together which react differently you want to take this into consideration so that each painting benefits from the one next to it.

It seems to me that you tend to counterpoint paintings – small and big, absorptive and reflective, solid and fragile. That is still the case in this show, isn’t it?

There is still a certain leeway within a group of years so I was still able to use some of that.

You mentioned this is the first time you have seen your work hung chronologically. Did this reveal anything to you?

Well, there were a number of paintings I hadn’t seen for years, so it was nice to see them again and to see them in the context of the more recent paintings. That was interesting. If this exhibition had been hung less chronologically, certain of the relationships between the paintings could have been made more clear. But overall the show has worked very well.

Does the variety in the way the show is hung indicate something about the way the work is made? Do you work small one day and big the next, or on steel then linen? Do you use any kind of systematic procedures?

No, as I said, there isn’t any system and there isn’t a plan in that sense. It’s more intuitive. Maybe there is a particular problem I am trying to work out, or I may need to work on a larger format or a smaller one just depending on how things are at the moment. I can’t really say much more than that.

This is going to sound like a dumb question, but was there a particular point at which you decided you were going to use primarily white paint, or did things just turn out that way?

There wasn’t any conscious decision. Like all painters I began to experiment with form and colour. Early on I often used a lot of white to paint certain things out. I don’t know exactly why I did that. As a few years went by this became more concentrated. The white, you might say, was beginning to take over. I could see that it was beginning to make little nuances and other colours more visible. It evolved.

In the earlier work the white looks more like overpainting. There are reds, ochres and other colours which are masked out but still visible.

It was a matter of making the surface very animated, giving it a lot of movement and activity. This was done not just with the brushwork and use of quite heavy paint, but with colour which was subtly creeping through the white.

It’s clear from this show that you have never really made white paintings, so much as used white in painting. There are always other colours in the work, the colour of the support or the fasteners, as well as other relationships bet-ween textures, degrees of reflectivity and so on.

I don’t think of my work as white paintings. There is a lot of white used, but the purpose is not to make white paintings. The painting would be quite different if that was my aim. There’s only one work about which you could say that it is a single colour painting and that’s the orange one.

As for the surfaces, they depend on the kind of support I’m using. If I’m working on aluminium which reflects light or has what I call light movement, perhaps I will counter it with a soft surface which absorbs light. I do tend to use these types of opposites.

After making some steel paintings in 1967 which were very heavy, I was looking for something light and thin. This is when I began to use the brown corrugated paper which has very different properties. I painted these with a more reflective, shellac-type paint.

As well as the relationships between surface and support you have also mentioned the relationship between the painting and the wall it sits on. You seem to put a lot into mediating that relationship with your use of fittings and fasteners. How did you come to introduce this as a visible part of the painting?

The first time I exhibited paintings with visible fasteners was in 1976. Since then I have used visible fasteners in one way or another. They have taken many forms. Sometimes the paint plane is fastened directly through the surface. Other times it sits on the wall plane and is held by some exterior means. Sometimes I use the fasteners to move the canvases off the wall plane slightly. Curiously, when the structure of the paint plane is thicker, the more you move it away from the wall plane, the more clearly you see it as attached to the wall. With the very thin materials, they logically go very close to the wall.

How did this come about? Obviously all painters have to find ways of attaching their work to the wall, but generally these means remain hidden.

It was very simple. I was just thinking that most paintings are fastened to the wall invisibly because we aren’t interested in that aspect of the work – they are pictures that we look into. You are not concerned with how it is fastened to the wall or with the wall itself for that matter. Since I was working with the wall plane and the paintings were not pictures, I felt, well, why not show that part of the work, why not let it become a part of the composition?

Was this a liberating experience?

Well, it opened up more possibilities of course. They are very much used as compositional elements. Later on it became even more directly compositional. It’s always a question of ‘where do I put these fasteners?’ It seemed logical to put two at the top and two at the bottom, the way you would pin something to the wall. That’s more or less the way I have always used them, two at the top and two at the bottom.

Do the titles of your work tie in with your type of realist approach?

These have no representational meaning, they are a means of identification. I have often taken the titles of the works from the names of the materials or the brushes or the supplier. I try to choose words which can’t be associated with very much. I wouldn’t title a painting ‘Clouds’ for instance. That would be really disastrous. They are more names than titles, a means of identification. I try to keep the word simple and familiar. It’s a lot easier than using numbers.

Another rather traditional element which often crops up in your painting is your signature, both in the earliest works and right across the centre of a big structure from 1988.

I’ve used my name as a compositional device, and for its value as line. I often turn the name on its side to make it more abstract. In the 1988 painting it is a solution to a compositional problem. There is a bar across the centre of the painting, which is structural, but it needed to have some other reason for being there apart from the structural reason. It needed some movement across it. I couldn’t put dots or something across it without getting too much into the manipulation of paint. I allowed myself to put my name across it because that was signing the painting. I go through these kinds of aesthetic problems; it was signing the work and it gave it compositional movement. I also raised the centre of the painting.

This show covers three decades of work. Are there any obvious nodal points for you where important changes of emphasis or direction have taken place, or is it all more of a flow from one thing to another?

It’s pretty much a flow except around the mid-60s the paintings became more radical, you could say. That was when I made Adelphi, which included waxed paper and was fastened directly to the wall with masking tape. There were a number of paintings around 1966-69 in which I used very thin surfaces, and it was the beginning of the visible fasteners. In 1969-70 there were the corrugated panels which were more radical than the paintings from before 1965. It was during the mid-60s that I began to use different materials more.

The catalogue lists 31 different types of support and 25 different types of paint, over the years.

Could be. Over the years I have come to use a wider range of materials – plastics, fibreglass, metals – but I also continue to use canvas.

Are the surfaces as physically worked these days as in the 50s and early 60s?

Probably not, although some of the very recent work have been worked on over a series of months.

The catalogue essay also stresses the significance of music in your work.

Well, I tend to do that also. Music is a medium that people are more tuned to, so to speak, than painting. Vocal music, which is more popular, I see as more like representational painting, because it conveys meanings outside the music itself. Instrumental music, which is rather less popular perhaps, is more abstract, but still projects feeling and emotion. I think painting can project the same kind of sense as music, its just a different medium. I sometimes listen to music while I’m painting, as long as I’m not doing some technical measurement or something. Modern jazz mostly.

Have you looked at much recent painting in the States or elsewhere?

I haven’t seen much recent painting. A lot of the younger artists seem to be doing more environmental constructions and kinds of social abstractions, I guess you could call them that. I haven’t seen much painting I could get too excited about, although some of it is quite confident. I may be wrong but I always think there is not that much going on in painting at the moment. I thought the ‘Gravity and Grace’ show at the Hayward was quite interesting. If you didn’t see the dates on some of the works from the 60s you might think they had been done by young artists right now.

David Batchelor


Oral history interview with Robert Ryman, 1972 October 13-November 7

Ryman, Robert , b. 1930
Active in New York, N.Y.

Size: Transcript: 31 pages.

Format: Originally recorded on 1 sound tape reel. Reformated in 2010 as 2 digital wav files. Duration is 2 hrs., 8 min.

Collection Summary: An interview of Robert Ryman conducted 1972 October 13-November 7, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art.

Ryman speaks of his early career as a Jazz musician and transition to painting in the early 1950<u+2019>s, after moving to New York City. He recalls working as a guard for the Museum of Modern Art and as a page for the New York Public Library, where he encountered such artists and curators as Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt, and Betsy Jones. Ryman elaborates on his development as a painter; experimentation with lithograph printmaking; his work methods; group shows at the Tenth Street Galleries; solo shows in Europe and New York, including The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; his marriage to art critic Lucy Lippard.

Biographical/Historical Note: Robert Ryman (1930- ) is a painter from New York, N.Y.

Interview Transcript

This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Robert Ryman, 1972 October 13-November 7, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Interview with Robert Ryman
Conducted by Paul Cummings
In New York, NY
October 13, 1972


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Robert Ryman on October 13, 1972. The interview was conducted in the artist’s studio in New York, NY by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose. This is a rough transcription that may include typographical errors.


PAUL CUMMINGS:  It is the thirteenth of October, 1972 – Paul Cummings talking to Robert Ryman in his studio, house.  You live up here too, right?


MR. CUMMINGS: No, just studio – on Greenwich Street.

PAUL CUMMINGS:  Are you living then, in Bowery, or [inaudible]?

ROBERT RYMAN:  [Inaudible.]

PAUL CUMMINGS:  Well, let’s just do the background.  You were born in Nashville, right, 1930? Did you grow up there?

ROBERT RYMAN:  Yeah, I went to school there.  I was in – well, I began college there, until 1950.  Then it was the Korean War.  Then that interrupted the college.  Then there was the army for two years, until ’52.  Then I came directly to New York.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, let’s talk about Nashville for a little bit.  Do you have brothers and sisters there, or family?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah [laughs]. I have a brother.  He’s a terrific person.  I like him [laughs]. He has three kids and, you know, a car and a house.  Somewhat different from my situation.  His name is John.  He has a few early paintings of mine actually, some of which were kind of student paintings but a couple that he has are very good paintings.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, you didn’t start painting until, what, ’54 or ’55?  Did you paint or draw before that?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  I was a jazz musician.  I originally came to New York for that reason.  Because I played music in the army.  And so, I came to New York because this was where the music was.  Then, when I arrived here, for the first time I saw museums and galleries and saw paintings; and I became interested in it.  It excited me and I decided around ’54 that that was really what I wanted to do.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what got you going to galleries and museums?  Was that a person or just one of the things you did in New York?

MR. RYMAN:  No, no person.  It was just, I knew they were here.  Oh, I went everywhere.  I mean, I went on top of the Empire State Building, I went to –

MR. CUMMINGS: Everywhere [they laugh].

MR. RYMAN:  – the Staten Island Ferry, I mean, everything that was available.

MR. CUMMINGS: Yeah, yeah.

MR. RYMAN: – Times Square.  I spent a lot of time just looking and kind of feeling the city.  You see, I had never seen anything with the energy that the city had.  And it excited me.  I went to museums.  As I say, just everywhere and taking in everything that was here.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And it changed your interest from the music – or was there competition for a while there?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah no, I was – Well, competition?  There wasn’t really any competition there.  At first, when I decided to make this change, there was a little emotional – [laughs] how should you put it – Well, yeah, the emotional upset I guess, because I had put so much time into the music.  You know, I had been studying it, and I had been playing it.  And I was very involved with the music world.  Not only jazz but, you know, I would go to the concerts at Juilliard and other places.  So there was a little emotional thing about just giving it all up for painting.

MR. CUMMINGS:  When had you started to study?  When did you begin to study music?  Was that around –

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, that began in Tennessee.  Yeah, you know, I was 18 and 19, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I – Well, you know, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to get into.  I think a lot of people don’t at that age.  Then, I just felt the music, the jazz.  That’s what I wanted to do.  It was kind of a crazy thing.  I mean, I was put down for it by my parents and all that, because [laughs] “what is a – what are you going to do?”

MR. CUMMINGS: “What kind of lifestyle -”

MR. RYMAN: Yeah exactly, “What kind of life are you going to have with a – playing jazz?”

MR. CUMMINGS:  What did you play?

MR. RYMAN:  Tenor sax.  But I felt it, and I liked it.  And that’s why I got into it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Was there any interest in music at home?  Was your brother interested or your family?

MR. RYMAN: It was a tough life kind of thing, too – Oh, no, no.  My brother is six years younger, you know, so he didn’t really have anything to do about that.  Yeah, well my mother used to be a pianist.  I mean, not a professional one ­–

MR. CUMMINGS: She played piano.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah – but not bad.  I think she almost went into the profession, but she didn’t.  I don’t know if that had anything to do with it at all.  It was just that I liked to listen to music and so I got into that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what were the schools like?  You went to George Peabody College right?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, that was a school for teachers.  I only went there – that was my second year in college – because it was a better music school than where I had been before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What, the Tennessee –

MR. RYMAN: – Polytechnic Institute, which was more of an engineering school.  I went there originally.  Well, [laughs] one big thing was to get away from home.  I mean – [laughs] I don’t know how to say that.  I mean to live away from home for the first time in my life, you know.  But it turned out when I decided to really go into the music that Peabody was a better music school, so that was a better place to go.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were you interested in engineering and technical things?

MR. RYMAN:  No [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  It was just a place to go.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, and they had a pretty good music department, but it wasn’t – When I first went I didn’t really know if I was going into music or what.  And as I say, it was a big thing just to live away from home at that time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were there any teachers that you remember form those schools?

MR. RYMAN:  None.

MR. CUMMINGS:  [They laugh.] Any students or any memorable events or influences or attitudes?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  Well, there were friends.  I had a lot of friends but no one that really –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were there any jazz clubs around there in those days?

MR. RYMAN:  Very few.  There were some but it was all kind of an underground thing.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Country music was it?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, yeah, exactly.  Nashville was geared to country music with the Grand Ole Opry, and that’s all you could get on the radio.  I would spend time, hours in fact, fishing around on the dial of the radio trying to get a station with jazz – some station, way off.  Of course, there were records.  At that time, well I can remember [laughs] it was the 78 [rpm] discs you were getting.  That was a big thing, you know, going to the record store and trying to find out what they could get or what they had.

MR. CUMMINGS:  I get the feeling that Nashville is so dominated by the country music.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it was, sure; it still is.  No it’s definitely not a place that has too much jazz.  But as I say, there were places, but very few.  And very kind of underground.  You see with the black community at that time, it was a whole different situation.  Everything was segregated and, of course, some of the best musicians were black.  But they couldn’t come to your school, or you couldn’t go – I mean, you could but it was difficult.  That’s one thing with musicians; there was never any racial problem.  Everyone understood each other.  It was just what they played and how they played.  But [laughs] in order to get together, it was kind of a tragic complication.  You know there were the black clubs that had some pretty good jazz blowing, and then there were the night clubs and other things going.   Big bands would come in or first-rate jazz groups, on occasion.  But it was hard.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were there any friends that were interested in jazz in college?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh yeah, sure.  There were two or three good friends that I had.  I think one is a composer, Alfred Bartles.  And another good friend was a trumpet player who ended up in the music school.  He’s the head of the music school now at Peabody.  Actually, I haven’t seen him in years.  I don’t really know what he’s doing.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Who is he?

MR. RYMAN:  His name is Del Sawyer.  In fact, his brother is a painter.  I can’t remember his first name now.  Well, that’s not important.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, did you get into the musician’s union?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS: Or any group?

MR. RYMAN:  The whole number – [Laughs.] The musician’s union was really incredible [laughs]. When I took – this is 802 I’m talking about [Local 802 American Federation of Musicians] –


MR. RYMAN:  –in New York.  You know you have to go through an audition.  But the audition, at that time at least – and I’m talking, you know, what?

MR. CUMMINGS:  1950’s.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, I’m talking about years ago, twenty years ago.  Anyway, the audition was pretty ridiculous [laughs].

MR CUMMINGS: In what way?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, they had you play a tune.  And then you had to read some notes, I mean a simple thing like Chopsticks.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Right [they laugh].

MR. RYMAN:  And you had to play a few scales or something like that, or exercises.  And if you could do this, and as long as you paid your dues –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Ah, right.  The other vital part [they laugh].

MR. RYMAN:   So that was really a joke.  But, of course, you had to be in the union to work.

MR. CUMMINGS:   To do anything, right exactly.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, you didn’t have to – I mean, you could work, but it wasn’t so good.  You had to be in the union, unless you really wanted to hassle around.

MR. CUMMINGS:  It wasn’t worth the trouble.

MR. RYMAN:  But I never really worked – I worked practically none, nothing at all as a professional jazz musician, because I was mostly studying, and playing in jam sessions and little clubs here and there that no one has every heard of.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of places?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, bars around the Village.  I think it’s still there, the Champagne Gallery, a place on MacDougal Street.   And another place off of Sheridan Square, Arthur’s it was called.  I hadn’t thought of this for a long time. [They laugh.]  Then some places on Third Avenue uptown.  But as I say, I did very little of that.  Oh, and then there was – some jazz clubs around – I can’t even remember the street, but in the center of the Village that had major groups come in.  And sometimes on a Saturday night – not a Saturday, that was a big night – but on Monday nights, when the place was half empty. Then they would have other groups that played.  You didn’t get paid for it, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS: Right [inaudible].

MR. RYMAN: But as I say I did very little of that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Did you study with anybody in New York?  Because I have you tied up with [inaudible] –

MR. RYMAN:  Lennie Tristano, the pianist.  Yeah, I studied with him for, I guess, three years.

MR. CUMMINGS:  From when to when about?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, when I arrived.  From ’52 to ’54, when I quit; when I began painting.  Actually, I was fooling around with painting – you know, doodling with paints – around ’53.  But I really wasn’t into it.  It was ’54 or ’55 when I really completely dropped the music and said, “Well, okay this is it; it’s painting. I like it.”

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what about the army.  Were you in Korea?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, no.  I didn’t go to Korea.  I was in an army band.  I was stationed in southern Alabama.  At that time it was Camp Rucker, but now I think it’s a fort.  [Laughs.] That’s where we were stationed, but we traveled around from there and we played for everything.  Anything that the army wanted music for, we played – within a certain radius – from marches, parades, service clubs, officers’ clubs, dances.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Anything and everything. [Laughs.]

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, carnivals that happened to come around. [They laugh.] We had some moonlighting on the side.
MR.CUMMINGS: Right. [Laughs.]

MR. RYMAN: We could play in the towns around –

MR. CUMMINGS: Oh, really? [Laughs.]

MR. RYMAN: -you know, for little clubs. But that was it.  It was just whatever they wanted music for –

MR. CUMMINGS: “Hey, come over here -”

MR. RYMAN: Yeah, that’s what we did.  We also did some – I mean, we went through all the groveling and the dirt, with rifles too – we went through the training.

MR. CUMMINGS: The basic training, right.

MR. RYMAN: Yeah, but primarily what we did was anything they wanted music for. [They laugh.]

MR. CUMMINGS:  New York was obviously the place to come to pretty early in life then?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, yeah, and in fact I was coming to New York before the army.  The army interrupted that; took a couple of years out.  But I don’t regret that, because I learned a lot in the army.  I was doing what – I was in the music.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So kept it on.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.  So I learned a lot.  But it was nice to get out, and it was nice to arrive in New York.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what did you do when you came here?  You obviously weren’t making a living from the music.  Did you get a job?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, I could talk about – [inaudible] I mean, is anyone interested in that? [Laughs.]

MR. CUMMINGS:  It all adds up in an odd way.

MR. RYMAN:  I came directly after I got out.  Well, I spent a week at home, and then I took a bus.  I had very little money.  I had $200 that I got from the army when – What do you call it?

MR. CUMMINGS:  Muster you out?

MR. RYMAN:  Muster me out.  Right.  I had $200, maybe $240 or so.  I came here and I didn’t know anyone in the city, although I came with a friend from the army.  We got a place in a rooming house on 60th Street across from Bloomingdale’s, which was run by a Russian cellist.  He played cello and it was a very strange scene. [They laugh.] I don’t even know how to begin to describe it.  But we had this room and it was very inexpensive, $8 a week or something like that.  We had piano. And no gas, very little heat.  You know, it was the usual.  I immediately got in touch with Lennie Tristano to begin lessons, and well, that $200 lasted for a long time.  It lasted for about three or four months.  I ate hamburgers at Riker’s and canned beans and that kind of thing.  The main thing was paying for the lessons, which was at that time $5 a lesson.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How did you pick him?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, a friend of mine had studied with him and recommended him, and said that’s the person you should see.  So, I knew about him. And I knew that he taught, and I knew that he had a group of students and a studio.  So, it was a logical place for me to start.

Of course, I was very naïve at that time.  I didn’t know the city, I didn’t know anyone, and I spent all my time just practicing.  I was pretty much a recluse.  Of course, I had no money to really go anywhere. It was a matter of paying the rent and eating and paying for the lessons.  And that was all there was, you know.  Well, of course, my $200 ran out after a while, after three months.  Well, I had to get a job. [They laugh.]  I didn’t have anything else.

My first job was as a messenger.  I didn’t want any kind of job with any real responsibility, because that would have been the end of everything.  So it was just a matter of flunky job after flunky job.  First as a messenger for an insurance company and then a mail room attendant and then I don’t know.  I went from one to another.  I don’t remember all of them.  Once I was a traffic manager at a chinaware importing place.  I mean assistant traffic manager.  I was learning.  But once they found out I wasn’t really interested in it –

MR. CUMMINGS:  That was the end.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah. So it was on and on from one job to another, just a matter of making sixty or seventy bucks a week or something to pay for everything.  Then I finally got a job at the Modern Museum [Museum of Modern Art] as a guard.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How’d that happen?

MR. RYMAN:  That was very good.  In fact, that was the beginning of an education, a very good education.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What year was that?

MR. RYMAN:  I think it was ’54 or around that time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How’d you ever come to go there for a job in the first place?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, through a friend, I met this woman – let’s see, what’s her name?  She’s still at the Modern – a very good person. [Inaudible.] Betsy Jones.  She was a friend of a singing group called The Heathertones [1946-1953], which now don’t exist anymore, and I think they didn’t last too long.  But they were a popular singing group, The Heathertones, and she was good friends with them.  And I met her there.  I don’t know how it came about.  I just said, “Well, I needed a job.”  She worked at the Modern at that time.  I don’t know what her duties were there, certainly not what she is involved with now.  I think she’s a curator now [Associate Curator, Department of Paintings and Sculpture], right?  But she said she would inquire about it.  And then I inquired about it. So I went and anyway I got the job as a guard.  I don’t know how it happened.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How’d you like that?

MR. RYMAN:  That was really the best job I’d had. It didn’t pay too badly.  I think I got around $80 a week instead of $60.

MR. CUMMINGS:  A lot of difference. [They laugh.]

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it was a lot of aggravation, of course, and a lot of boredom.  But what I got from it – In the first place, I could be pretty much left alone.  I could see all the paintings, everything that came in and out of the Modern.  Show after show.  I got to see all the movies – not just once, but six times – because I used to also take tickets at the movies.  So I got to experience a lot that I never would have otherwise, you know, from the collections and, as I say, the paintings and sculpture and everything that came in and out of the museum.  I was there for, I guess, four or five years.  Also, it was an advantage because the hours were pretty good, because the museum didn’t open until eleven.  That meant I could sleep late in the morning, and I could paint at night, you see.  It was eleven to five, something like that. So that was a very good advantage.  I learned a great deal from that, from being there and seeing the people; seeing the organization, how it worked; and, as I say, the art and movies and everything.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what about the actual activity of being a guard there?  Some shows draw enormous numbers of people and others don’t.  I suppose it depends where you are.  You know what –

MR. RYMAN:  What do you mean?

MR. CUMMINGS:  What your association with the public is?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, as I said, it was a little boring and sometimes a little hectic.  Sometimes, when they’d have openings at night, you’d have to work overtime, which I hated because I didn’t want to spend that much time.  But I got along well with everyone. It was just – You’d give directions to people and someone would say “Well, where is the Van Gogh?”  “Second floor, first gallery -”

MR. CUMMINGS:  You got to know where everything was.

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, I knew where everything was.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How’d you like the experience of being able to see the same pictures over and over and over?  Weeks and months on end –

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I never got tired of that.  I would concentrate on different paintings each week or so, you know.  Sometimes I would be into the Cezannes.  Other times I would concentrate on the Matisses or the Picassos or other things.

Well, the big thing was not necessarily – once I learned their permanent collection pretty well.  It was the one-man shows, those special shows that came in, that were really fantastic.  That was always a new experience, a Monet show or – I can’t even remember all of them.  The Pollock show at that time.  I remember people’s reactions to many of these shows.  They were angry sometimes.  Or, you know, a lot of people liked it.

And, of course, I had the benefit of lectures that went on and all of the activities.

MR. CUMMINGS: There were some good, little side-effects.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, as I say, it was the best thing that I could have done.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, this was also your first introduction to art history, wasn’t it?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.  I mean, although I’d been through the museums and galleries, not so many galleries actually, mostly museums – the Met and all – before this.  But this was a very educational job.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well they’ve often had artists working as guards there.  Were there any when you were there?

MR. RYMAN:  That’s right.  At that time they seemed to encourage artists, or at least student artists.  I wasn’t really an artist then. Dan Flavin was there.  Let’s see, I can’t remember – there were quite few painters, Bill Sharp.  I haven’t seen him in a long time.  Sol LeWitt was there.  In fact, that’s where we first met.  Only he wasn’t a guard.  He was selling tickets, I think; or he was working with the books and magazines.

MR. CUMMINGS:  The bookstore.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right. Sol was there and they were – they would work for awhile, and then they’d leave.  I stayed there the longest practically of anyone.  Dan, after he left the Modern, went to the Museum of Natural History as a guard.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Really?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah [laughs]. That was his second job.  I don’t know what he did after that [laughs]. He, well, he didn’t get along too well at the Modern.  I don’t know.  He was very –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Was it difficult to work there, or was it fairly easy?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, no.  It was very easy.  There were hectic times, and there were some hassles, and sometimes it would be very tiring and, as I said, boring on occasion.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What caused the boredom?  Was it lack of anything to do?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, yeah, the walking around so much and too much of the same thing five days a week.  You’d get a little buggy sometimes. But for the most part, it was very good for me.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of painting were you doing then?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I was just beginning to paint and I was –

MR. CUMMINGS:  You never studied painting with anybody though, did you?

MR. RYMAN:  No, no.  I went through everything that any student goes through.  Well, I did take one course in drawing, figure drawing.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Where at?

MR. RYMAN:  At the American Art School [American Artist’s School].  It was a terrible course.  I quit after six weeks.  Drawing from the model, the plaster-casts, and they had all this worked out – you know, number one shading, number two shading, three, four.

MR. CUMMINGS:  The whole system.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, it was really a mechanical kind of thing, and I wasn’t interested in doing that anyway.  I just wanted to have some experience with it, and it was awful. I quit that.  Oh no, I forgot.  I took – Yes, the museum school had a course called Experimental Painting, and I took that.  It was for adults.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh, that was –

MR. RYMAN:  What’s his name?  Who was the head of that then [Director of Education]?

MR. CUMMINGS:  The man who was there for all those years?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  He was a short man, very energetic.


MR. RYMAN:  D’Amico.  Yes, right.  What’s his first name?

MR. CUMMINGS:  Victor.

MR. RYMAN:  Victor D’Amico, right.  He was the head of –

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of class was that? I’ve heard about those-

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it was good for me, but it was strictly a beginning kind of class.  It was a little of everything actually – drawing from models; sketching; working with paint and color; some instruction about color.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Who taught those though?  Do you remember?

MR. RYMAN:  I don’t remember his name, no.  It was just someone, I have no idea who it was.  But it only lasted a short time.  It was three or four months a course, like once or twice a week, I don’t remember, for two or three hours.  And mostly you would go in and work.  But it was a nice thing for me.  It gave me a little insight into some of the techniques.  You know, pastels and –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Water color and –

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.  And even though I didn’t really do –

MR. CUMMINGS: – all the materials.  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

MR. RYMAN: Yeah, right. Paper and canvas; that was the valuable thing.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Going back again to the early first paintings, what kind of things were they?  Were they figurative things or abstract things?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, as I say, they were things like all students do.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I was just painting.  I was just doing things with paint.  No, I never did any realistic paintings except for these drawings, as I said.  No, they were always abstract.  Oh, I worked –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Why was that?  Weren’t you interested in representational art?

MR. RYMAN:  No, never.  No, because I decided right away that – I knew that I could do it.  I mean, I could paint the figure if I wanted to, or I could paint a landscape.  I knew I could do that, because it was just a matter of learning the technique.  But I knew that really wasn’t – if I could do it, anyone could do it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And it wasn’t enough of a challenge.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, that’s right.  If I was going to do something with the paint, and make something happen with it from me, then that would be much more important, and much more of a challenge.  That’s what it was.  And so it was always abstract.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What painters were you interested in, in those days?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, many, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Everybody and everything?

MR. RYMAN:  Sure.  You know, Matisse at one time.  As I said, I was moved by many things.  But I tried to always see what they were doing with the paint, how they worked with it, more than the – I was never interested too much in symbolism or story telling.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Or what kind of image they used?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  I could understand that, but that wasn’t what it was all about really.  It was how they put the painting together.  I was interested in composition and color and paint handling.  How one person would do something in a different way than another artist but still come out with the same strength, with a sureness I guess was what it was in the end. Authority, like Picasso or Van Gogh.  When they painted something, it was as if it were just put right down, just no fooling around with it.  It was right there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Bang.  There it was [laughs].

MR. RYMAN:  And, I mean, it always seemed like the easiest thing.  Some of the best paintings always seem just like anyone could do it.  They’re so easy looking –

MR. CUMMINGS: It’s part of the illusion.

MR. RYMAN:  But that isn’t so easy to get.  It’s always the paintings that aren’t so good that have this struggled look, fussed with, or painted out and over.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, were you reading books at this time?  Did you read art history and other things?

MR. RYMAN:   Yeah, yeah.  I used the library at the Modern.  Of course, that was another advantage.  I had access to that.  I didn’t read so many books; mostly there I read magazines and articles and clippings and whatever catalogues, more than I read books.  I would go through books.  I would not really read them so much as just pick out certain things that interested me.

When I got into books was after I quit the Modern.  I got another job at the public library, the art division.  And that was excellent also as far as education goes.  I was there for a year, and there again it was sort of a flunky job, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Running books or something?

MR. RYMAN:  Page supervisor.  But there I had access to tremendous amounts of material.  In fact, that place really amazes me – what they have there. I worked on the scrapbooks and the folder files, and I knew the system.  I learned the system backwards and forwards.  I knew where to find anything – and all the huge picture books they had and the print collection –

MR. CUMMINGS:  And Karl Kup, he was there.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  That’s right.  He was the head of the Print Collection.  So that was very valuable for me.  For a year I did that after I left the Modern.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So, that gets us into 1960.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  That was about 1960 when I left the library.  And that was the last job like that that I had.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, you had shown during the late fifties and early sixties in some of the Tenth Street galleries like the March [Gallery] and Brata [Gallery]?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, in ’58 and ’57, I think.  They were group shows at the March and Brata and –

MR. CUMMINGS: [inaudible]?

MR. RYMAN: I don’t know, maybe a couple of other ones.  Funny I can’t remember those.  But I was never a part of those galleries.  I was never a member of the galleries.  Usually I’d be invited, you know, for a Christmas show or something like that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh, right, when everybody brought their friends in.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.  It was when everyone –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Filled up the walls.  Yeah, I remember those shows.  How did you like that?  That was kind of the heyday of Tenth Street.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it was kind of an exciting time actually.  It was very energetic there.  A lot of action and people and artists were around, and some of the shows were very good actually.  It was an interesting couple of years there with Tenth Street.  I think that was an important time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You didn’t have any interest in being in a gallery then or showing with anybody particularly?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  I could have.  I could have joined one of the galleries, but I didn’t like the idea of a cooperative.  I mean, the way everything was run – kind of sloppily; and there was a lot of, oh, confusion.  No, no.  I thought the only thing is to have someone show my work – Well, I wanted to paint and not be involved in all of the politics and things.  So, I never wanted to be in a cooperative gallery.  That’s changed a little now, of course.  Cooperative galleries are a little – well, some of them anyway – are a little better.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But, they’re always full of politics I think.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, there’s always, you know –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Somebody starting one for some reason or another.

MR. RYMAN:  Right.  And, you know, when you get so many artists together all trying to run something, it’s really chaos.  You know, it’s just difficult.  I mean, it was particularly then, but that might have changed a little.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, when did you – when, for example, the pictures on the wall here, the photographs, when do they start? The earliest?

MR. RYMAN:  The earliest one here is ’57.  I have a few from ’56 but they’re, you know, more student things.  But around ’57 and particularly ’58 that’s when things began to – well, I began to know a little more of what I wanted and what I was doing, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS:  When did you start the, you know, the raw canvas things that are –how can you describe – you know, off the stretchers, or something?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh yeah. Well, those – huh – I don’t know exactly.  There were a few in ’58, some in ’59.  But I was doing paintings on stretchers also, you know.  But mostly around ’64 – ’63 I guess, I did quite a large group of paintings, you know not on stretchers.  But it wasn’t anything special.  It was just that I wanted the nakedness, you know, just the surface and the paint.  And really I didn’t know what to do with them, so I put them under glass, you know in a glass frame.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Right, right.  So the whole kind of thread is of work that goes on, you know like the metal ones, the support itself is not there almost, and some of the things on paper and cardboard it’s–

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Well I – For a long time, and always and still, I like this very – I wanted it to be as simple, I mean as direct, without any interference.  For instance, years ago in ’59 I think, ’58 – no it was a lot earlier than that.  Well anyway, when I first saw Rothko, I didn’t know what to make of it.  There was this very naked canvas with no frame on it and not even a strip, not even tape, you know, just the canvas.  I was very impressed by that, by Rothko’s sensibility.  As I say, when I first saw that, I didn’t know what to make of it; but then I understood it later.  And I guess I wanted that, too.  I wanted just –

MR. CUMMINGS:  That straight confrontation-

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, and no frames.  Although since that time, I have used frames, you know, taped frames and paper frames.  I’ve used – but they’re always kept very to the point.  Nothing is there that doesn’t need to be there.  If I use a frame, a paper frame or a tape frame, it’s because that’s part of the painting.  It’s not because it’s some kind of decoration.  It’s there for a reason, to pull the painting out onto the wall and not to confine. My frames never confine paintings.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Just to hold it up so you can see it.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, but also to point, I mean visually point, you know with some tape strips or something, to expand the visual vision of the painting.  And with the paper frames, they were always translucent so you saw the wall and you saw it was just kind of a, there again, an expansion of the painting itself.  And a contrast; of course, it served as that, too.  But never a thing that was boxed or confined, whereas the usual frames do that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So it’s very open-ended.  But it doesn’t still blend off into the wall or anything.  They all stand out very much.

MR. RYMAN: Yeah.

MR. CUMMINGS: [Inaudible].

MR. RYMAN:  Oh yeah, well yeah they are.  They’re objects, there’s no question.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You know the early ones that I’m sitting and looking at, all these are early pictures, there’s that grid-system-structure underneath.  And As I remember, you had painted bright colors and then kind of gone over them with white or something.  I don’t remember exactly.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  I used a lot of color.  And at the beginning when I first began the – well, the white paintings if you want to call them – I would begin by putting down a lot of color and then it was always a matter of taking out, painting out the color; painting out the painting to where I ended up with very little color left.  And it was painted over, but maybe a little red here or a blue shape slightly on the edge.  The edges were very important. But it was always subtracting, you know, putting a lot of color and then subtracting with the white.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Why’d you use white though?  What was the –

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I don’t know.  It didn’t get in the way, you know.  It was very neutral, I guess; I don’t know.  I mean, you don’t usually paint out with a color.  You paint out with a white, and that’s how it began really.  It just kind of evolved.  And then at one point, I just decided:  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?  And then, begin with the white and make something happen with that, rather than when I’m painting out the color.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What started the grid systems and the use of the squares?  Because that’s a fairly consistent quality.

MR. RYMAN:  Of course, a grid is a very classical – Probably every artist, every painter that ever worked, has used a grid in some way or another because it’s simply – I mean, you see the old master drawings.  Well, of course now, they did it for different reasons.  Everyone did it for different reasons.  You know, you’ll see a grid where they either scaled up a drawing, or did a drawing for a painting.  You know, they could scale it up with the grid.  But, of course, the grid is always one of the most direct visual things, because you have the horizontal and the vertical [laughs]. You know, and they cross.  And that’s really very perfect.  It’s a very perfect, nice thing.  Simple and right, this grid.  I never used it myself to scale anything.  I only used it as a visual guide, anchor, if you want to call it that.  If you have the horizontal and vertical lines, and then if you have other things, other movement no matter what, with paint or drawing, then it’s a very direct visual approach, a very right thing.  I don’t always use that, but –

MR. CUMMINGS:  No, but it appears here and there.  You sense it kind of underneath, even some of the more recent things.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, of course with the circle, the drawing that I did on the circle –  paper, which there were five of –  that worked very well, I mean visually, because you had the horizontal and vertical straight lines and they were broken by the circle space, I mean the space of the circle, which contrasted with that and contradicted it.  And also none of the lines were the same length, because of the circular space, so that it worked very well in that sense.  I mean, in the visual rightness of it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What led you into the circle? Because there’s that and what, some prints of the circle, aren’t they?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I don’t know exactly.  But the circle was a very – I’d worked, you know, on the square space and that I liked very much right from the beginning.  In fact, almost from the beginning I worked on a square.  I don’t know why.  I mean, except that I liked the equal sides. You know, it wasn’t two sides longer than two sides, it was –

MR. CUMMINGS:  The same all the way around.

MR. RYMAN:  It was – the square, which seemed to me the perfect space to paint on, I mean as far as what I wanted to do with the paint.  And then the circle, of course, that is a very perfect shape to work on too because there are no corners.  There are no, I mean, they’re almost – there are no sides.  It just –

MR. CUMMINGS: Goes on.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah [laughs]. It’s just a circle.  So the challenge was interesting because there were no corners.  And the circle is very similar to the square, I mean in being very –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Proportioned.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, equal.  Everything is equal.  And I guess that’s how it came about.  I wanted to try it and see what I could do on the circle space.  I’ve never done a circular painting.  I’ve only done the one circle drawing which was five parts, and the recent lithograph which was a circle.  I’ve never done a circular painting.  I don’t know why.  Somehow the painting doesn’t [laughs] – I don’t know, maybe I will do a circle painting. It just never lent itself into that the same way that drawings did or the lithograph did.

Actually, the lithograph [Circle Lithograph, 1971] came about – I had done the Two Stones [1971] lithograph in Halifax; and they said, well, if you’d like to do another one, let us know.  And I had no plans to do another one; I had nothing.  And then it just occurred to me, I wonder if they can print on a circle space?  Because I had never seen it, lithograph on a circle space.  I don’t mean a circle image, you know, but the actual space being circular.  I called them and I said, “Can you print on a circle?”  And they said, “Well, I don’t know, maybe we can.”  [Laughs]

So they made an aluminum template, you know, to tear the paper.  And so I came and then I worked out the print.  The dimensions were decided, and the type of paper, and the ink and the size, and all of that.  And it turned out that they could.  There again, it was just another challenge, you know, to do a lithograph on a circular space because I’d never seen one.  I don’t know that there are any.  Maybe there are.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So you were pleased with the solution then?

MR. RYMAN:  Yes.

MR. CUMMINGS: I mean, it did work for it?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  It took much longer than the first lithograph to do, because there were many trials.  I didn’t know the – Well, you know, first we tried different papers, and we tried – I got the size pretty much down.  Oh, well, I won’t go into that.  It’s a long story.  Many decisions were made on that lithograph.  But it finally ended up, I think, to be very good.  I mean I got rid of all the unnecessary [laughs] things, and the paper was right, and the writing on it was where I wanted it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  It worked.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, right.


MR. CUMMINGS:  It’s the seventh of November, 1972 and this is side two.  On the other side, you’d just finished talking about making the round print.  You’ve made other prints, right, besides that circular one?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah. There was the first one which was the Two Stones.  Two of the limestones that were clamped together and the actual stones were printed.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How did it come about to make those prints?  I mean, were you asked?  Did you want to do –

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, yeah.  I was asked by the people at Nova Scotia [College of Art and Design] if I’d like to make a print, a lithograph.  I was thinking about etching at the moment, and I said yes I would.  I’d had this idea with the stone and, well, first it was to print one stone.  I’d had that earlier with a printer here in New York in ’65 to print one stone, and we did one trial proof of it but with a very small stone, just to see how it would look.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Who was that?

MR. RYMAN:  Irwin Hollander [master printer].  But at that time he was moving, and there was some financial problems and so we never did the print.  I just forgot about it.  Nothing was ever done about it until I was asked to do this lithograph.  So I thought I’d continue with that. At first it started out to be one stone, and we went through all kinds of problems with the stones.  They at first said what we can do is a photographic image of the stone.  You know, we can just make it look like a stone or we can draw the stone and print it.  But I said no, it has to be the actual stone itself printed, because I don’t want the image on the stone printed.  I just want the stone.

MR. CUMMINGS:  The whole shape with the rough edges and everything.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, and, well, with ink of course.  So before it came to the actual trials, I decided to print two stones instead of one because with two they were locked together in a wooden frame so that they wouldn’t bounce when the press went across it.  I thought then I would have the edges be smooth where the press – I mean it’d be a hard edge where the press moved across and soft edges where it wouldn’t, where the press would have to stop before it went off the edge of the stone so that it wouldn’t flip the stones or break the stones.  So I decided on two stones, and we were fortunate in finding two stones that were pretty similar.  I mean, I wanted them pretty much alike.  They were both rectangular, and they were ground down so that they were even, so that when the press rolled over them, so they would both print.  Then there were a lot of problems with the paper and the ink; and the size of the print; the chop; the pressure of the press, how much we wanted to emboss it.  Those things we went through. But that was it really. And as I say, it was just fortunate that we got two stones that were very equal.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, were you happy with the results?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, very much so.  And it was very intense.  There were a lot of decisions.  It was similar to the circle lithograph.  Most of the decisions were worked out as to the stones and locking them together and everything were worked out over the phone.  Then when I went to Halifax, it was a twenty-four-hour day.  I decided on the paper and the size and the torn edges, and as I say, the pressure – It went very quickly, you know, everything was decided on and the edition number and –

MR. CUMMINGS:  That’s not a large edition is it?

MR. RYMAN: No.  It was fifty.  Plus, I think, there were five artist’s proofs.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Have you liked this activity of making prints?  Do you find it congenial or is it difficult?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I’d never thought about making prints until recently.  You know, I had never really had the opportunity.  I just began it because I thought it would be a challenge and an interesting process to try to work in, and so it began with the two stones and then the circle lithograph.  That came about – I guess maybe I talked about this before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Yeah, right.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, they asked me if I wanted to do another one, and I didn’t have any idea.  Anyway then came the etchings, and I did those because there again I’d never done etchings before.  It’s a whole different process, and I thought why not try it and see what I can do with it.  It was very interesting, the etching process I mean, very different than the lithography.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Which do you prefer? Or do they do different things for you?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, and then I did one silkscreen also.  I don’t know.  I don’t have any plans to do any more right now.  They’re both interesting.  I guess the etching is a little – the etching process is certainly more complex in a way, I mean more in an almost archaic –

MR. CUMMINGS:  [Laughs] all the technical –

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  All this stuff you have to go through to get the print, with acid and rosin and all that; and the biting; and the press itself; and the wetting of the paper.  Whereas, you don’t have all of that so much in lithography.  Of course, the results are – with the etching – very good.  It’s different.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You find it’s a stronger image?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, no, not necessarily.  But you can build up ink with the etching, of course, which you can’t with the lithograph.  Well, you can there too.  You see, they can do just about anything with any of these. [They laugh.]  But they can fake an etching.  They can emboss and they can do things with silkscreen and lithography.  I mean, it takes someone with an eye for prints to really see the difference.  I mean, the average person couldn’t tell probably one from another, but there is a difference.  I don’t know that one is any better than the other.  It’s just –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Different.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, let’s go back to our chronology here for a bit.  You had an exhibition where?  Where was the first one-man show at?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, that was at Paul Bianchini [Gallery, New York].

MR. CUMMINGS:  That was Bianchini.

MR. RYMAN:  And that was 1967, in April.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But you had shown there in all sorts of group shows and things you had been in?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, the group shows –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Since March Gallery and Brata and those things.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Well, the first kind of group show where I showed more than one painting was at Alan Auslander [Gallery], in ’64 I think it was.  I’m not sure – around that time.  But the first one-man show was at Paul Bianchini.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How long did he represent you?

MR. RYMAN:  Let’s see, about three months I think.  [They laugh].  Right after my show the gallery folded.  That was in April and the gallery closed in June.  So you can figure three months, I guess [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  He didn’t handle you when he went private did he?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  Well, he had two early drawings of mine.  But not so much –

MR. CUMMINGS:  No paintings or anything.

MR. RYMAN:  No, he had no paintings at all.  No, he really didn’t have anything.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, you had an exhibition once with something called The Lannis Museum.

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, yeah [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  Who was that again?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, that was Joseph Kosuth.  As far as I know, I may be mistaken, it only lasted for a month.  I mean, space was rented; and it was a gallery-type space.  They had this one show.  They may have had more, I’m not really sure.  But the one show that I know about was just quite a large group show of documents.  I can’t remember now the title, the name of the show, but it had to do with books and documents [Normal Art, 1966].  Anyway, that was the Lannis Museum.  I think it was called that because someone by the name of Lannis had put up the money for the space. But it only lasted a month or so.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And that was it.

MR. RYMAN:  But it was the Lannis Museum, no question about that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well what about Dwan [Gallery] –

MR. RYMAN:  I think the full title was Lannis Museum of Normal Art.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh, right, right, Normal Art.

What about Dwan?  Because you got involved with her soon after that.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, that was later.  That wasn’t until ’70.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Really? I thought that was before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  No.  Then the Fischbach [Gallery], after Paul Bianchini.  I didn’t show in New York until ’69.  I showed in Europe in ’68 [Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich and Konrad Fischer, Dusseldorf]; but I had no gallery in New York until ’69, with Marilyn Fischbach. I had a show there in ’69 and ’70 [Robert Ryman: Delta Paintings, 1966].

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, who represented you between Bianchini and Fischbach, yourself?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, really no one except Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf and Heiner Friedrich in Munich.  I had shows in both of those places.

Then a little later, in ’69, [Galerie] Francoise Lambert in Milan and Yvon [Galerie Yvon Lambert] in Paris.  Then also [Galleria] Sperone in Turin.  Those people had a lot of my work.  I guess probably Heiner Friedrich and Konrad Fischer had most of it, the work of those two years.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What was it like showing in Europe and not showing here so much?  .

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I’d never been to Europe.  That was my first time to Europe, in ’68.  And it was very good for me, very interesting, I mean, you know, the experience.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Were you there just for your exhibition or did you travel around a bit?

MR. RYMAN:  I traveled but it was all business.  I mean, it was all for shows.  I did very little sightseeing except for the town or city that I was in at the time.  It wasn’t any kind of vacation.  In fact, it was very much work the whole time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what kind of reception did you have in the German galleries?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, very good.  They were at that time, and still I think, are – maybe not so much now but at that time – very enthusiastic about American art.  They were very prosperous.  A lot of people were buying work of American artists, I mean, not just me but all of the pop art and –

MR. CUMMINGS:  How did you get associated with them in the first place?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, first Heiner Friedrich had come by to my studio sometime ago, I guess ’68, ’67.  And he wanted to have a show of my work.  He liked it very much.  Then shortly after that Konrad Fischer visited the studio, and he also wanted to do something immediately.  And I said, “Okay.”

MR. CUMMINGS:  It all happened.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, so I went over and did the shows there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So, you really had more shows in Europe than here, by the time you started showing.

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, many more.  Well, ’69 was the biggest trip and also probably the worst on me physically [laughs], because I had a show at Friedrich’s [Robert Ryman Drawings], Konrad’s, Yvon’s [Robert Ryman], Francoise’s in Milan and in Basel at the museum there.  The Kunst Museum.  And also I was to have one in Turin at Sperone’s.  I had all these shows within a month’s time, and I was going from one place to another.  I had the paintings done for all of them except for one that I was going to do there.  And well, that’s quite a story.

But I broke down at the end and I caught a very bad cold.  I was pretty ill and things went wrong; and things got lost in the shipping; and so I never did have the show at Sperone’s because I just couldn’t do it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But you had all the other ones?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  So it ended up having the five shows.

MR. CUMMINGS:  That’s an awful lot of work, isn’t it though? You know, enough paintings for five galleries at the same time.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, it was.  Yeah, and they were all different.  I mean, they were not the same paintings by any means.

MR. RYMAN:  Different years?

MR. CUMMINGS:  No.  They were all recent work.  Let’s see, the paper paintings were shown at Konrad’s.  Oh, you’re right.  The group that were shown at Heiner’s were 1968, and those were on the linen.  And some paintings that I’d done on mylar were at Yvon’s and also a different group at Francoise’s.

MR. CUMMINGS:   What was at Basel?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, that was [laughs] – there was a snow storm, and the paintings were sent from Heiner’s [in Munich] to be shown there [in Basel].  They were on linen also, but were not shown in that show [in Munich], they were to be shown there [in Basel]. One had gotten water damage from this snow storm.  I don’t know.  They’d left the paintings out on the ramp in the snow or something.  One was all right; that was shown.  And then I did a new painting there [in Basel] that I had planned to do at Yvon’s [in Paris] but I did it there instead.

And from there, I was going to Paris and so I had to reschedule my work for Paris [laughs] because I’d done what I was going to do in Paris at Basel.  So there were two paintings, one very large one and one of five panels on mylar.  They were fairly large panels, each a little over three feet each square.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, you only started doing really large paintings recently didn’t you?  You know the ones in the Guggenheim show [Robert Ryman, 1972]; there were a couple of immense canvases there.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Those are the largest paintings on a single surface that I’ve done.  I’ve done larger with panels before that, one that was at the Whitney Museum in that process thing [Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, 1969].

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh, the process show.

But I’m just curious about this whole European business for another minute.  What was your reception like with the artists and collectors and museum people?  You had a whole view of it within a month visiting so many cities.

MR. RYMAN:  As I say, it was very good.  Of course, I couldn’t speak the language.  I don’t speak German or French or Italian, so I couldn’t communicate with everyone that I came in contact with.  Of course, most of them spoke English, so it was really no problem.  Still many of the artists and others didn’t.  So it was a little strained in that respect.  But the reception was – Well, I felt good about my work.  I felt that was good and it went really well.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Have you continued to show there in the last few years?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I haven’t in the last year.  Well, I have yes, but I haven’t been there.  Yes, there were two shows at Heiner Friedrich’s.  He has since moved to Cologne, too.  He has a gallery in Cologne and his print gallery is now in Munich. So there was a show both in Cologne [..] and in Munich [..] this last year.  There was a show of the circle lithographs and the trial proofs of it in Munich.  So I didn’t actually go there.  I haven’t been to Europe in two years, but I am going now.  There will be a show [1972-73] in London where I’ve never been.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Where’s that going to be?

MR. RYMAN:  In December, the first of December at Lisson Gallery.  Nicholas Logsdail is the person [founder].  And then I’ll go to Dusseldorf and do a show at Konrad Fischer’s.  But I don’t want to go any place else.

MR. CUMMINGS:  [Laughs.] That’s enough there.  No more five shows in –

MR. RYMAN:  In fact, I had a breakdown after the ’69 trip [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  That’s very exhausting.

Well, who has your work?  Fischbach still represents you now?

MR. RYMAN:  No. No, they don’t.

MR. CUMMINGS:  That’s right.  It’s Weber [John Weber Gallery, New York].

MR. RYMAN:  Marilyn Fischbach has some paintings of mine, mostly that she has in her own collection.  I really don’t know if they are for sale or not, but she does have oh, I guess five, six, seven paintings that she owns.  But I’m not actually represented there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Then you were with Dwan, right?  Then Weber became Dwan.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Well, at Dwan the situation came about because I thought it would be interesting to have a show in the Dwan space and also the Fischbach space at the same time.  Since they were both in the same building and only three floors apart, it would be ideal.  And so we worked that out and that was in ’70 [1971], I guess.


MR. RYMAN:  And so there was the double show with Dwan and Fischbach.  My thinking at the time was that I wasn’t represented by Fischbach exclusively or Dwan exclusively; but I was represented by many people, Dwan, Fischbach, and the European galleries.  As long as I kept the shows different in each place, there shouldn’t be too much friction as to prices; because no one would have the same thing that everyone else had.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Did it get complicated?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah. [They laugh.] It got out of hand, and it was too complicated.

MR. CUMMINGS: Too much.

MR. RYMAN:  I mean businesswise.  Ideally, I guess it should have worked out right.  I didn’t like the idea of being owned by any one person, or being the exclusive property of any one gallery, you know.

MR. CUMMINGS: They could each have their piece of the pie.

MR. RYMAN: I wanted to be able to show wherever, whoever had a good space and was willing to work at it.  But anyway, the Dwan folded right after that, and then I pretty much went with John Weber and his space because, as I said, it was getting complicated and it was a better situation.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What about the Guggenheim show [Robert Ryman, 1972]?  How did that come about?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, very surprisingly for me, Diane Waldman [Curator] asked me if I wanted to have a show of my work at the Guggenheim.  At first it was to be a show with Bob [Robert] Mangold and myself together.  But then the plans were changed by Diane.  She didn’t really say what reason she changed her mind, but I assume because it would be maybe a little confusing with the two of us in one show because of certain similarities of the work; and possibly also because there wasn’t enough space at the time for both of us.  So it was decided that there would be two separate shows.  That’s really the way it came about, and she just asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes, fine.  I didn’t know what would be in the show.  Actually, I planned to have all new work in the show but that didn’t come about because –

MR. CUMMINGS:  How was the work selected?  Did you do it with her?

MR. RYMAN:  We both did it.  I decided I didn’t want any work before 1965 in the show.  I mean, there was never any intention for it to be a retrospective in any way, because that would have taken up the whole museum, and then some, if we had really done that kind of thing.  But it isn’t time for that kind of thing, I don’t think, so I wanted it to be a very concise group.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Kind of recent paintings –

MR. RYMAN:  Recent work, a very good showing of examples of certain series and certain recent work.  That was really the main thing.  It was to be whatever we could get hold of actually.  It turned out to be from ’65 to the present and then, of course, not only what we could get hold of, but what would fit in the space, you know.  There was just so much space.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How did you like the installation and everything?  Did it work for you as an exhibition?

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, I was pleased with it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  The space worked all right with those bays? [They laugh].

MR. RYMAN:  Well, the Guggenheim – Well, I don’t have to explain that; it’s the strangest museum in the world, you know.  There isn’t anything like it.  You just have to do the best you can with the curved walls and those bays.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And that was it?

Well, what was the reaction that you got?  It’s been eight or nine months now.  It was January, wasn’t it or early in the year?  What kind of reaction have you gotten from people – artists, dealers, collectors?

MR. RYMAN:  Lots of people liked it, I think.  Some didn’t like it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But was it useful from your point of view as far as people becoming interested in your work is concerned?

MR. RYMAN:  Oh, sure, because a lot of people got to see the work.  Much of it, even though it was older work, had never really been seen here in New York.  A few of them had, but very few.  Some were from private collections in Europe, and I would say only maybe three or four [telephone rings] paintings of the whole group had been seen here in New York.

[Audio break]

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, do you think – just the one more thing on the Guggenheim – that it has affected your market in any way?

MR. RYMAN:  It could be, indirectly.

MR. CUMMINGS: It’s hard to tell.

MR. RYMAN: I don’t know exactly, but I would think so.  It is a prestige kind of thing to have a show at a major museum in New York, and many people saw it who had not seen the work before.  So I think it did have some kind of prestige value.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, what was your reaction to seeing it, because you haven’t seen these all together either?

MR. RYMAN:  That’s right.  It was interesting for me [laughs], and it was very good to see them together like that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  In what way?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, I could see, you know, the different years.  The paintings have gone from one year to another year.  Of course, many were left out and some really major ones were left out.  But I could tell – I got the feeling of what I’d been doing, you know, because you could see them all there.  But the main thing was putting the show together and then after it was up and I saw them all there and everything seemed right, then I forgot all about it.  In fact, I only went to the show one time while it was up.  I mean, I had seen it of course putting it up, [laughs] so I knew the show and I knew the paintings.  But I really only went to the museum once, because it was done; it was finished and there wasn’t any need to see it really because I had seen it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You know it’s interesting, do your paintings look different to you in different circumstances?  I mean the same painting in different galleries or different –

MR. RYMAN:  Well, sometimes if the lighting isn’t too good or if the space is cramped or the walls are maybe brick or something else, it might change things.  But they –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Stand up pretty well.

MR. RYMAN:  Sure, they are always there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  There’s one thing I noticed, at least among the titles of the paintings.  It seems as if they are done in series.  Do you work in series or are they just titles in series sometimes?  Like General or Veils or Standing or various things like that.

MR. RYMAN: Oh, yes –

MR. RYMAN:  Is that a theme or is it just a handy title?

MR. RYMAN:  No. Some are not titled, but I try to title them if I can because I think it’s better for information just for –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Discussion or records.

MR. RYMAN:  That’s right because you know what you’re talking about.

MR. CUMMINGS:  [Laughs].

MR. RYMAN:  You know if you say number one or two it’s kind of vague.  But I try to pick titles that don’t interfere with the work.  The General title I meant just as general.  I mean, general anything, not as anything specific.

MR. CUMMINGS:  I see.  But are the paintings conceived of in series?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, those were – the Generals.  I intended to do I think fourteen of them, and in that case yes, each was a half inch difference in size than the other.  I intended each one to be pretty much the same but different because of the size.  And because as the size changed, also the paint area changed.  And the application changed because the frame became larger each time.  That was definitely decided to be fourteen, or actually I think there were fifteen and one was damaged, so I think I ended up with fourteen.

But, yeah I usually work in groups.  Well, with the Surface Veil paintings, there were four of those big ones. There were some smaller ones that were not really studies but a similar procedure on a much smaller scale than the big ones.  I’d planned to do two actually in the beginning of the large paintings; and then after I finished the second one, there were some problems.  I could see that I was getting into something that I hadn’t really completed yet.  I was getting into different problems, and I really needed to do two more.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of problems?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, with the way I had been handling the paint.  The first two were oil on linen, and I was using a small brush and they were very large – 12 feet.  And after I finished the second one, I could see there was much more to do with this, that this wasn’t finished at all.  I mean the painting was finished, but I mean this –

MR. CUMMINGS:  The idea and everything.

MR. RYMAN:  The process.  There were many things I wanted to get into, and so the second two I used cotton.  I kept the same size brush, but I approached it in a different way although it was very similar and still keeping with the same paint.  So with the other two, I felt I had really got it down or got this out of my system, working on that scale with the paint.

MR. CUMMINGS:  One thing that interested me and thinking about what you said and looking at all the photographs here which are very convenient [laughs] – are your paintings thought out very much ahead as far as planning the sizes and the way the paint is going to be put on or not?

MR. RYMAN:  To a certain extent, yes, they are.  With the Surface Veil paintings, I wanted them to be twelve feet, and that was planned right from the beginning.  And I knew what size that was.  I decided on the brush and I decided on the paint.  And, as I said, I had done some smaller ones before in somewhat the same way, so I knew pretty much the way the paint was going to work.  But when it actually came to working on those paintings, then it – Well, it evolves itself –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Once you put the pieces together.

MR. RYMAN:   Yeah, the image, what the paint does when it’s on, that I don’t have that planned.  I know a little about what it’s going to be, but I don’t see it until close to the end of the painting.

MR. CUMMINGS:  I often wondered about that because one gets the feeling that you do set up sizes and brushes and kinds of paint –

MR. RYMAN: Yeah, yeah.

MR. CUMMINGS: – and whether it’s going to be a very controlled stroke or a freer one.

MR. RYMAN:  Yes, that’s to begin with, but then the painting –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Do the subsequent paintings work the same way, or is it in the first one where all the technical decisions take place and the other paintings sort of grow out of that?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, the first one you see sometimes fails.  I mean, I can plan the scale and the brush and the paint and all that; but if it does not work the way I think or if I’m not pleased with the result, then I have to make some adjustments because I know it isn’t going to be right.  So then I have to go back and maybe change the scale or change the brush or change the paint so that I get the feeling that I want at that time.  Then it works pretty smoothly after that up to a point until it’s finished.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So there’s still actually a lot of activity happening once you’ve started the picture.  There’s a certain amount of chance involved in it.

MR. RYMAN:  Well, it’s not chance.  I mean, I’m very aware of what the paint is going to do.  I know how the paint is going to react on the surface because I know it; I’ve tried it; I’ve done it.  It’s more the feeling that’s the chance of it.  That’s difficult to explain.  It has to be a very direct feeling and a very sure approach to it.  There can’t be any doodling.  I mean –

MR. CUMMINGS:  It has to happen.

MR. RYMAN: – it has got to come out right away; and if it doesn’t, you can always tell when it’s been fussed with.

MR. CUMMINGS:  But there’s not much overpainting is there?

MR. RYMAN: No, never.

MR. CUMMINGS: When a stroke goes down, that’s it.

MR. RYMAN:  That’s what I mean.  If I miss, then there isn’t any overpainting.  It just has to be right the first time.

It’s actually very much like playing jazz [they laugh] now that I think about it.  It’s that kind of thing.  It’s when you’re playing an instrument and you’re composing and as you play, there isn’t any second chance.  Once you play, that’s it for that time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You can’t go back and say, “Well, I want to change that.”

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, it’s very similar to that.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, because even in a jazz number, you’re following a certain kind of idea and a pattern.

MR. RYMAN:  There’s a certain, sure, structure set up before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  One of the other things that I find interesting is that your surface varies from what is almost very flat, shiny enamel to a rather heavily textured one to some paper ones where there’s hardly any – I mean, it’s almost not there; it’s on thin paper and the paint seems to be very thin.

MR. RYMAN:  Yes. Right.  Sometimes the paint will be very heavy; sometimes very thin.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Do those alternate?  When you work on a series of paintings, is it just one theory that you work on or do you alternate?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  It’s one at a time.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So that the thin paintings would be six or eight or ten, and then there might be a change to something else.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah –

MR. CUMMINGS:  A contrast [inaudible] –

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah, but it’s not exactly in that way though.  I mean, I usually work on one group of paintings at the same time with a certain type of paint that I’m working with, but sometimes there won’t be very many of the same.  They’re not always in a series.  Sometimes there will only be maybe two or three in the same manner, shall I say, and then something will evolve from those and then that will change.

MR. CUMMINGS:  So really there’s almost a direct line of evolution in a way.

MR. RYMAN:  Yeah.  Usually one comes out of what came before that; because always when working on paintings, you make discoveries while you are working and that leads on.  That demands that you do certain other paintings with what you found out, what you felt with the ones before.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You mentioned before that you had done some teaching at the School of Visual Arts [New York].  Is that your first teaching activity?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  I taught before, just briefly, at New York Institute of Technology – this was for a year, I believe it was, two days a week, before Visual Arts.  That was my first time teaching.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How do you like teaching?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, [laughs] I enjoy it sometimes.  I mean, it’s interesting to talk with students and to find out what they are thinking and what they are involved in and to be able to work out problems with them.

MR. CUMMINGS:  What kind of students do you have there?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, they are fourth year students.  Most of them are involved with painting, but some are involved in other things, you know, film and construction or sculpture, whatever.  They are very interesting [laughs] –

MR. CUMMINGS:  Keep you moving, right?

MR. RYMAN:  As I say, they’re involved with all kinds of ideas.  And some of them work very hard, and they are excited about it and trying, learning about materials and technical problems.  But it’s kind of demanding, very draining.  One day a week is all I can really take; although, as I say, I enjoy it sometimes.  Other times, it can be really very hectic because you become so involved in their problems and what they are doing, it’s hard to get back into your own work.  But that has become much easier to do though as I’ve taught more.

MR. CUMMINGS:  How long have you taught there?

MR. RYMAN:  I guess this is the third year.  The first year I taught a foundation course in painting, and that was in a way more challenging than the fourth year students because they were right out of high school and it was their first year.  You have to tell them everything about brushes, canvas, right from the beginning, you know, paints and composition and color.  And, of course, you don’t have to go into all that with the other students, with the fourth year.  Although, [laughs] you’d be surprised.  Sometimes you do. [They laugh.] Sometimes you find that they don’t know which brush is which or whatever.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Well, how do you like being at that school?  Because it’s full of all the zippy people, teaching the –

MR. RYMAN: [Laughs.]

MR. CUMMINGS:  – some of the people have told me that their students are about one jump ahead of them half the time.

MR. RYMAN:  No.  You know, they are young.  Sometimes they can come up with some interesting ideas, you know, but that’s not really what they can only later – and that’s experience and that just takes time.  They might do one or two pretty good paintings, pretty competent paintings.  But can they do a dozen?

MR. CUMMINGS:  Right, right.

MR. RYMAN:  That just takes time and experience.  And certainly, then they have to stick it out.  Actually what it amounts to is they really have to be dedicated.  That has to be their life and maybe not even five out of a hundred will do that.  They’ll probably end up doing something else.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Do you think there is any way to tell when there are students like that who really are going to go on and work and paint, or is it very difficult to judge?

MR. RYMAN:  Sometimes I have a feeling about some of them that they probably will, but you can never know really – Some you have a feeling about, that they will probably do something.  It’s usually the person who isn’t the best in the class that will end up going into it.

MR. CUMMINGS:  It’s tenacity sometimes.

MR. RYMAN:  There are a lot that are very, very intelligent, and they do a lot of reading and are up on the latest art [laughs]. There are some who are very skillful technically.  They really are – what’s the word?

MR. CUMMINGS:  Proficient.

MR. RYMAN:  They can handle materials well, put things together well.  But they’re usually the ones that are so – I can’t think of the word – not skillful but kind of slick, I guess, in the sense of being overly knowledgeable and skillful, you know –

MR. CUMMINGS:  They pick up a style.

MR. RYMAN:  – so that they usually don’t end up doing too much, I mean, later on.  But I can’t really put my finger on why I feel some will do well.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Okay.  One thing we haven’t talked about.  You were married to Lucy Lippard [critic, curator], right?

MR. RYMAN:  Yes, for six, let’s see, six years.

MR. CUMMINGS:  You met her at the Museum [of Modern Art] when you both worked there?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, that’s where we first met.  But where we really met each other was at the [New York] Public Library in the art section there.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Oh really?

MR. RYMAN:  Lucy was doing research there for a paper she was writing at the time.  She was getting her art history degree.  That’s where we really got together, at the library.  At the Museum, I’d see her around, you know, but I never really got to know her.

MR. CUMMINGS:  I’m curious about the business of being married to such an active critic [laughs].  Was it chaotic from your point of view?

MR. RYMAN:  Well, of course, when we were first married, she was not a critic.  That came later.  As I say, she was getting her degree in art history, and she wanted to write.  She was always a very good writer in the sense that she knew how to put words together.  She had the ability for writing, and she was very quick.  She had a very sharp sense of what was happening and how to put the words together, and she worked very hard, you know.  She was a compulsive worker form morning until night, and so she was really fantastic.  She was an excellent writer, and I helped out a little bit with the seeing part.  I would give my opinions on what I saw and what I felt about things, and she could always put it into words where I couldn’t – I mean in writing.  So I like to think I helped her a little bit [laughs].

MR. CUMMINGS:  Did you discuss your work with her very much?  You know, occasionally –

MR. RYMAN:  No.  We didn’t talk too much about my work.  It was around all the time.  I would talk about it on occasion and she always liked the work that I did.  Of course, being married, it wasn’t ethical for her to write about my work, you know.  Then, of course, at that time I had no dealer and I had never shown.  I never had a show of my own. [Inaudible].

Well, she’s very good, I think.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Was there a lot of career conflict at a later point between the demands of your activity and her work?

MR. RYMAN:  No.  Of course, it would have been worse if she had been a painter, too.  [They laugh.] That would have been very bad.  But her being a writer didn’t really conflict with my work, and later on she became interested not so much in criticism but in writing.  She wanted to do more serious writing.  She wanted to get into other fields of writing.  So there wasn’t really too much of a conflict.

MR. CUMMINGS:  Did she bring many people to see your work?

MR. RYMAN:  No, no.  Now there were a lot of people who would come to see her because of articles that she was involved in or books that she was writing.  And, of course, she knew a lot of other critics and scholars.  So many times I would meet them when they would come to see her, and sometimes they would be interested in my work.  But there wasn’t so much of that.  Mostly it was her work and it was my work.

MR. CUMMINGS:  And that went along easily.

MR. RYMAN:  Yes.



This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Robert Ryman, 1972 October 13-November 7, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


Robert Ryman with Phong Bui

After his last show, No Title Required, at Pace Gallery uptown, painter Robert Ryman welcomed Rail Publisher Phong Bui to his West Village studio to talk about his recent paintings and other related work.

Robert Ryman, No Title Required, (2006). Enamel on wood. 10 panels, overall dimensions: 55” x 688” (139.7 cm x 1,747.5 cm); individual panels range from 50” x 50” (127 cm x 127 cm) to 55” x 55” (139.7 cm x 139.7 cm). © Robert Ryman, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York. Photo by: Ellen Labenski / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

Phong Bui (Rail): When I walk into the larger room of the gallery, there are ten panels, eight on one wall and two on the next, adjacent to the corner. What interests me apart from their framing devices, which are made out of maple, cherry, and oak, is that their rotation appears quite uneven, their proportions are not identical. Perhaps the sixth and the seventh panel are the same?

Robert Ryman: None are the same. I composed the paintings mostly by the color, but also by the size of the panels. There are no identical panels, each panel is one half inch different from the next. I forget now what the smallest is. I think the largest is 55 inches and the smallest is however many half-inches below that. One possibility, of course, was to put them from the smallest to the largest, but I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to make visual movement. So I would put a large light color panel next to another light-colored one that’s a little smaller, but not the smallest necessarily. And then a medium color, like an oak, next to that, so it was a visual composition. That was the first time I could actually see the painting, which is why there couldn’t be a catalog; because it could not be photographed until I actually installed all the panels.

Rail: It was a site-specific improvisation. I felt there was also optical ambience to it.

Ryman: The panels at both ends were the light colors. I didn’t want one of the dark ones on the ends because then that would close in visually. So the lighter colors move outward,…also, I had the spaces in between each panel to work with, and then the height, as well.

Rail: And the intervals between both panels are identical?

Ryman: Yes. Except for the corner, that was different—because it had to look like it was the same visually.

Rail: I also noticed that the frames are flush with the picture surface, and the fact that you allowed the paint to overlap the inner edges of the frame. Would it be fair to assume that the frame functions as part of the painted field?

Ryman: The painted field ended because of the line. Actually there are three lines. There’s a line made by the outer wood joining the center panel. And that’s a hard straight line. I wanted to soften the line, so I went over it with the paint. And that gave a soft, curved line next to the hard line. And the third hard line is the edge of the panel itself. So I wanted to soften the hard line. It seems like the panels have frames—they act that way in a sense. But the painting is actually the whole ten panels together.

Rail: Were they painted with oil enamel in different layers with the brush?

Ryman: Yes, several layers, three layers with high-gloss enamel.

Rail: Is that the reason why you couldn’t have direct light on them?

Ryman: I wanted to show them, if possible, in the reflected light. Because that’s where the painting can be activated, in reflected light, particularly with high-gloss enamel. You have the surface that will bounce off the light. Some people might say it is ambient light, but that’s different in my thinking. If you have a soft light that’s thrown up to the ceiling, that would be ambient light. But that doesn’t work the same, strangely enough. If the light is shone on to the floor and it bounces up, it doesn’t work the same either. The light has to come opposite the painting. The source is reflected off of something into the space and onto what it is you want to present. There’s a museum in Switzerland in the town of Schaffhausen that has a number of my paintings, and there’s a wall 150 feet long, with a passageway in front, and opposite that are three rooms with skylights. Now the 150 foot wall doesn’t have any direct light on it. The light comes from the reflections of the three rooms opposite this wall. And the light is ideal. It is a matter of seeing more clearly. So I tried to equal that experience.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail: How about in the smaller room, with the three big paintings, painted on linen stapled to the frame. Were they mounted on the frame before or after they were painted?

Ryman: The canvas was stapled onto the wooden panels. Those were the first ones I did before I did the painting in the big room. And that is a different process. The canvases themselves were begun in Pennsylvania in 1999. And at that time I lost contact with them, I didn’t like what was happening with them, so I just rolled them up and put them away. And then I brought them to New York in 2005, and I thought I would look at them to see if there was anything there at all. So, I tacked them onto the wall to see them and I thought, “What am I going to do with these?” Is there anything to do with these? And I thought, well maybe I could put them on a panel. My first thought was to staple them at the top to the wooden panel and have them drape, like paper, down over the panel so that you could see the wood support underneath, and you could see their own movement. I had the panels made larger than the canvas, so the wood would be visible. Anyway, that didn’t work at all, that was a disaster. I couldn’t control the drape. The canvases had been sized, and it just wasn’t working. So the only other thing to do was to tack them flat and do away with looking at the wood behind. And then when I saw the wood edge I thought I could paint directly on other panels. So I then had the other panels made.

Rail: So the smaller panels came after the big ones?

Ryman: Yes.

Rail: And the formats of the three largest paintings aren’t identical either?

Ryman: That’s right. They are very similar in size, but they differ by an inch, or an inch and a half. And they’re not exactly square either. The way they were originally made was they were stretched and then cut off of a strainer. So they were just sheets of canvas.

Rail: The frame piece is square, but the canvas is not.

Ryman: Well, the panel itself was made for the size of the canvas. It’s close to being square, maybe off a half inch.

Rail: The last time we spoke, you said that you spent a great deal of your time buying different materials, brushes of various sizes, all the available brands of paint, canvas, linen, panel and so on, treated it almost like a scientific experiment?

Ryman: I guess you can say that painting is a kind of experiment. That’s what I do, that’s my approach to painting, to figure out how it works, the different possibilities that can happen with painting. It’s just my sensibility. I like to know how it works and I like to know how things go together. It’s a visual experience, and with my paintings I don’t really plan them, it has to come about visually. I have to see how it’s developing, what can come from it, and then I make the decision whether I like it or not.

Rail: As Yve Alain-Bois put it, quite eloquently, ‘Ask Robert Ryman why and he will always tell you how.’ [laughs]

Ryman: [laughs]

Robert Ryman, “Archive” (1980). Oil on steel 34.1×30.2 cm (13.5×11.875 inches). Private collection. Courtesy of the artist and PaceWildenstein.

Rail: Did the experience of working as a guard at the MoMA, which you did for seven years from 1953 to 1960 (like Brice Marden, Mel Bochner, Dan Flavin, etc.) inform your study of painting? I’ve been told that during your tenure there, you deliberately and carefully scheduled your shift to look at different paintings in your rotation. Could you talk about that?

Ryman: At that time, it was a perfect job, because, well, I had no money, and I had to live by my wits, kind of. And so that was a job where I could be close to painting, close to art, every day. I could see the workings of the museum. It was very valuable, in that sense, and of course the hours were good too. The museum, at that time, was open from eleven until six at night, so I had the mornings. And it paid enough just to pay the rent, and buy new materials. And it wasn’t a demanding job, where you were expected to grow with the business; it wasn’t that kind of a thing. It was just a simple job. And I learned so much from that. One day I just left, and I had no other job, but I thought, ‘well, I’ve been here long enough and I don’t need to be here anymore.’ [laughs]

Rail: What happened after that?

Ryman: I just quit one day and had no place to go. I was sitting in Bryant Park and wondering what I was going to do next. My money had run out, and I looked up and saw the public library, and so I thought, ‘Maybe they have something.’ [laughs] So I went in and I got a job in the art division of the public library, where I was for a year. And I got to look at all the books.

Rail: You once said, ‘I decided to actually paint white rather than use it as a neutral paint,’ which is to say that you paint white as a subject matter, like the way other people paint figure, landscape, still life or portraiture?

Ryman: I started out like everybody starts out: I had to learn about color, I had to learn about different paints, and I learned about composition, and how things worked. So I worked with color… it wasn’t a matter of just painting white. Yes, those aluminum paintings, which were done in ’64, of which I did four—actually, I did five, one is in Europe at the moment— it’s difficult to talk about those because no one has seen them, no one knows what I’m talking about… [laughs] But they were working with the light, and the way the light would work with the metal, and also the composition of color, and the soft edges and the harder edges working together. And after I did those, I thought I didn’t want to go in that direction because it was too complicated working with metal in that way. And so I wrapped them up and put them away and never saw them, totally forgot about them, until a few years ago, when they were shown in Dallas, at the Dallas Art Museum, for the first time.

Rail: They seem to be the most complicated of your work.

Ryman: Well, I was going to say, from the catalog, you couldn’t really tell what these are. When you actually see the paintings, it’s quite astonishing because, as you walk around them, they change with the light.

Rail: Because of their aluminum surfaces?

Ryman: It’s because of the way the light acts with the surface of the painting, because some of these have altered surfaces. I mean, I was actually working with the surface of the metal as well as with the paint. That’s why I decided not to do it anymore, because I was getting into a different process.

Rail: When and how did you know that, besides the commitment to the color white, the square was to become and continues to be, your self-imposed format?

Ryman: Well, I don’t know exactly. I’ve always been comfortable with that because it’s an equal-sided space.. It could be large, it could be small. It just has a good feeling. I had done some things that were rectangular earlier. I haven’t done anything with that recently, maybe I will. It’s something I just do automatically. I don’t think about it.

Rail: In other words, there’s no thinking in reference to Malevich, Mondrian or Albers?

Ryman: No. It’s just that it’s a comfortable, equal-sided space.

Rail: Some critics of your work insist on the anti-biographical or anti-metaphysical aspects, which have so often been associated with your work. Others think of you as a puritan painter, or a pragmatic painter who thinks concretely through his materials. Is that a fair observation?

Ryman: Well, of course. There’s no symbolism. There’s no narrative in this painting. They’re not pictures of things that we know, so that may be difficult for some people…. You never know what a person is seeing when they look at a painting. It’s not a matter of seeing something in it… even something about it…it’s a matter of having an experience, a visual experience that is pleasing. Actually, you’re seeing something that you’ve never seen before. If someone looks at a picture of something that you know, of a landscape, things with symbolic references, that have a lot of narrative, someone can relate to those. But that’s not really what painting is about, in my thinking. The what of the painting is incidental to the how. What you experience in painting is how it’s put together. How it’s done. It has nothing to do with purity or anything like that; it’s a basic approach to painting.

Rail: When did the addition of fastenings and framing devices come about?

Ryman: In 1975, I think it was, the first ones had the visual fastening. With my approach to painting (not representing a picture of a narrative situation or symbolism) I thought I could use visible fastening. My painting didn’t have to be invisibly fastened to the wall, since it wasn’t like a picture. My painting was different than that. It didn’t have to hang invisibly. It could be visibly attached to the wall, and therefore work with the space itself. And then the fasteners could be part of the composition.

Rail: Right. So it enhances the object-ness of the painting?

Ryman: You would see the composition and you could actually see the painting attached to the wall, which makes it literally part of the wall itself. Sometimes I still use visible fastenings. It depends on the nature of the work, the nature of a certain problem.

Rail: How do you mediate your painting gesture? Do you begin from the top and work to the bottom, left to right, or from the middle? I’m curious because, despite your obtaining all-over rhythm with repetitive strokes, there are irregularities that occur sometimes in the middle, around the edges, or maybe a single corner.

Ryman: Again, it all depends on the type of paint that I’m using and the surface I’m working with and the general approach that it involves. But it’s not a crazy thing. I have a certain control from the beginning because the painting really begins with the surface itself, and what kind of paint I’m going to use, and what kind of brush I’m going to use, and whether I’m going to have a lot of actual movement in the paint, whether the paint’s going to be thick or thin, how that’s going to work. And whether it’s going to be absorbing the light or reflecting it. I think about those things beforehand, so that has to be how I might begin.

Rail: Do you often make tests or studies for your paintings?

Ryman: Well, sometimes I’ll test paint to see how the paint is going to act. Sometimes I’ll test surfaces if I’m working on metal or any kind of different surface. I have to see how the paint is going to work on that. I’ll do tests in that sense, but I don’t do any studies. I don’t know myself what it’s going to look like until it gets to the point where I can see what’s happening. [laughs]

Rail: How did the fiberglass pieces with wax paper, which are either taped or nailed to the wall, begin, and what was the impulse behind them?

Ryman: Those paintings I did in, I think it’s 1969, 1968 maybe. The approach I was taking there. (I’d forgotten about that). It was a group of six paintings, mostly about 6 &frac12; feet, 7 feet at the largest, and they were stapled to the wall. And I used the wall, and since the wall itself was the support, I could continue on the wall itself around the edge of the canvas, and on one I used wax paper. The painting itself absorbed the light, and the wax paper had this soft reflection that sort of moved the light around the painting and I liked the composition, the reflection and the absorption. And just the staples on the wall, and the wax paper was so simple; it had a different feeling to it than plastic. Plastic would not be the same, even glacine paper was different. Wax paper had this softness to it that I liked very much…The wax paper was taped to the wall and I used the tape as part of the composition. So I had these yellow dots of tape that moved around the edge of the painting on the wall.

Rail: How about the group of paintings on steel?

Ryman: Those were all relatively small. Those were steel panels made in Switzerland, and I had the fasteners attached to the steel itself. It was just something that had an interesting feeling to it. This particular one you’re looking at, with a red surface, rust red…I don’t know what I have to say about it.

Rail: I’m interested in the way that the deep rusted color of the steel surface makes you aware of the painted surface and all the edges.

Ryman: Of course compositionally the panel was very hard, the edges were very hard, and then the paint was very soft, and it made this soft edge there. I do that kind of thing many times in painting. Working with hard and soft.

Rail: When and how did you begin to incorporate the signature as part of the painting?

Ryman: That was earlier, 1957 or 1958. It was just an element of painting where I didn’t use line so much in my painting, and I felt that my signature could be a line. I generally would turn my signature on its side. If it’s on the side—one side of the signature is soft and round, and the other is hard, because the lines go out. So I could use that in various ways as a compositional element, and I thought it was acceptable because painters usually sign their paintings, so I could sign the painting and use it as a compositional part at the same time. I also used the year sometimes as a compositional element. In fact I did that fairly recently, can’t remember whether it was 1990, or I don’t remember, but I had the year—oh no it was in the ‘80s, 1984.

Rail: How do you see the relationship between drawing and painting in your work?

Ryman: One is drawing and one is painting. I think of drawing as having to do with line and so if I’m drawing, that’s what I’ll use. I’ll use different things to make the line, and different surfaces to put the line on, but its about line, and how that works with the space.

Rail: So you keep the two activities separate?

Ryman: Yes. Mostly I don’t use line in my painting. I don’t use it as a line—if there’s a line in a painting, it’s two areas of paint that have come together to form a line. But I’m not consciously drawing a line.

Rail: I’d like to shift to a different subject: two remarks that you made in the past. One was at the time of your retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1972, to Paul Cummings, when he asked, “How do you feel seeing all the works together in a big space?” Your response was, “I only went to the show once while it was up, because it’s done and finished and there’s no need to see it again.” And later you commented about your show in Dia in 1989: “I don’t do things that I know I can do.” I feel there is a strong pragmatic sense in that you finish a certain thing and move on.

Ryman: Actually, I haven’t seen the Pace show again either. I mean, I saw it very well when I put it up, so I don’t have to go back to see it.

Rail: Why do you think that is?

Ryman: I don’t know. I have seen it. I don’t know what to say about it. I saw all those things. I don’t need to see them again necessarily. I don’t know. The paintings I have in this museum in Schaffausen, Switzerland I hadn’t seen in 12 years and I just went to see them again a couple of years ago, and I was surprised actually when I saw it. It had been so long I had forgotten some of the paintings that were there, and after 12 years, I thought, let’s make a different installation, because the paintings are a little too crowded. I don’t know when, but we will do a new installation there. I like to see my paintings again.

Rail: Is there work by other artists that you would like to see your paintings hanging next to?

Ryman: No. My painting is not the kind of painting that would hang next to someone else’s work necessarily. Because it doesn’t work that way. My painting needs space and a certain situation, it needs light.

Rail: Brice Marden told Jeffery Weiss and I that he considers you our Vermeer, the American Vermeer. And Kurt Varnedoe, at his fifth Mellon Lecture, described you as a Matisse-loving urbanite. I suppose that both comments suggest the tranquility, the poetic light, as well as a joyous quality that your painting emanates. Is that a fair observation?

Ryman: Matisse was always an influence on me because of the way he put things together, and again, how he did it. It was so direct, it seemed as if he knew exactly what to do. I’m sure he didn’t exactly. But it had that feeling, which was what I liked.

Rail: Is there a certain phase of his work that you respond to more than others?

Ryman: No, not necessarily. But I guess some of his smaller paintings of interiors, with the figure, were put together in such an unbelievable way; those were some of my favorites.

Rail: De Kooning said that the reason why he likes Matisse’s work is because he doesn’t make isms, he just makes the painting. So among the Abstract Expressionists, is there a particular one whose work you prefer over others?

Ryman: All of them. Franz Kline was a wonderful painter, and De Kooning, Rothko. All of them, just really wonderful painters. And Guston, as well.

Rail: Especially those from the early to mid 1950s.

Ryman: Those were wonderful. That reminds me of a show Guston had at the Met three years ago, a very interesting show, except it was terribly put together. The galleries were cramped and the paintings were too close. It was too bad, but the paintings were wonderful.

Rail: Is there a transcendental aspect in your work?

Ryman: I don’t even know what that means.

Rail: How about the notion of the sublime?

Ryman: Oh, no. It’s nothing like that. I’m not involved in that at all.

Rail: Were you brought up with a hint of spiritual leaning?

Ryman: Oh, no. I quickly got away from that.

Rail: What are you working on now?

Ryman: Well, I was thinking about working with some epoxy paint, on a smaller scale. But I probably won’t do much of that. I don’t like to work with epoxy because it’s so dangerous. But as soon as the weather gets warmer and I can open the windows in Pennsylvania, maybe I can do a little. You get such an incredible surface with that paint. Maybe I’ll do that and maybe not. Maybe it will develop into something else that I’m not aware of.

Rail: Why, all of these years, have you never thought of having a studio assistant?

Ryman: Well, [laughs], sometimes I could use an assistant, just to organize things, but not to help me with the paintings. But they wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t want to spend time to tell them. I do everything I can myself. I used to stretch my own canvas, go through boiling the glue and sizing, all of that. I made my own stretchers. But of course I don’t do that now, because I don’t have the strength. But I like to do as much as I can myself, because the painting really begins with the surface, and how it’s going to work. So someone else wouldn’t know what to do. It would be nice to have someone at times, for organization. I spend a lot of time with paperwork, letters are not answered, not because I don’t want to answer them, but I just don’t have the time, I can’t deal with them. But otherwise, no.

Rail: In conclusion, you would agree with what Matisse said, “He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue.”

Ryman: [laughter] That sounds right.

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