“The what of the painting is incidental to the how.”
For the American painter Robert Ryman his paintings are a place where things happen rather than a place that depict events be they real or abstract. With a musical background Ryman uses the improvisation process inspired by the Jazz idiom as the catalyst for his works.
As he explained to Art21 “I came from music. And I think that the type of music I was involved with—jazz, bebop—had an influence on my approach to painting. We played tunes. No one uses the term anymore. It’s all songs now, telling stories—very similar to representational painting, where you tell a story with paint and symbols. But bebop is swing, a more advanced development of swing. It’s like Bach. You have a chord structure, and you can develop that in many ways. You can play written compositions and improvise off of those. So, you learn your instrument, and then you play within a structure. It seemed logical to begin painting that way. I wasn’t interested in painting a narrative or telling a story with a painting. Right from the beginning, I felt that I could do that if I wanted to, but that it wouldn’t be of much interest to me. Music is an abstract medium, and I thought painting should also just be what it’s about and not about other things—not about stories or symbolism.”
As the Tate Gallery’s Simon Wilson told the Independent newspaper “Ryman's playing games with what a picture is . . . He's thinking about paint, questioning the nature of paint. It's a painting about painting, questioning the nature of reality.”
After a two-year stint in the United States army reserve corps the Nashville born saxophonist moved to New York to study Jazz and in his spare time visited the City’s Museums and art galleries. To earned his keep Ryman got a job as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art and later at the art department of the New York Public Library.
About which he told the Brooklyn Rail “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.”
Intrigued by his surroundings Ryman started trying his hand at painting and at the age of 25 created what he considers to be his first professional painting Untitled (Orange Painting) (see above). An experimental work that defined his approach to painting upon which he has built his career.
About which he has said “My approach tends to be from experiments. I need the challenge. If I know how to do something well, there’s no need to do it all the time because it becomes a little monotonous. So, I like to find a challenge. Of course, all these things are rooted in the basics of painting. It’s not that I do anything crazy, but I tend to work within a structure and see what other possibilities there can be.”
The Dia Art Foundation is currently presenting a Major Survey of Robert Ryman’s work at Dia:Chelsea until the 18th of June 2016.