Published  15/12/2015

Courtney J Martin: ‘Robert Ryman makes a lot of difficult things look incredibly easy’

Courtney J Martin: ‘Robert Ryman makes a lot of difficult things look incredibly easy’

The curator of Dia: Chelsea’s Robert Ryman exhibition, discusses the seminal American artist’s six-decade career, and explains the importance of bringing Ryman’s work to new audiences


Robert Rymanis now 85, and his last major institutional survey was in the early 1990s. This wide-ranging exhibition at Dia: Chelsea therefore offers a timely opportunity to reflect on the considerable practice of an artist who is arguably best known for his white-on-white paintings.

Beginning with Ryman’s earliest works from the late-50s and extending to the mid-80s, the show draws attention to his radical innovations with material, process and scale, and includes some of his rarely seen three-dimensional paintings.

Courtney J Martin, assistant professor of the history of art and architecture at Brown University, Rhode Island, talks about her longstanding relationship with Ryman’s work, and how the exhibition will encourage viewers to think about the artist’s output within a broader context.

Allie Biswas: This exhibition is the first museum show of Robert Ryman’s work for more than two decades. When was his work exhibited before this in a comparable setting?

Courtney J Martin: The last solo museum exhibition was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993, curated by then MoMA curator of painting and sculpture, Robert Storr. That show was co-organised with the Tate Gallery and travelled to Madrid, Minneapolis and San Francisco. It was a comprehensive undertaking.

AB: Is this show at Dia: Chelsea, then, a homecoming in some ways? Ryman is, after all, a New York artist.

CJM: Well, first, like a lot of New Yorkers, Ryman is not actually from New York. I think that’s important to note, because the city stays important to you if you've had to make it your own. I am not saying that people who are from New York don’t have that same relationship with the city, but moving to New York is a feat. Yet, for those of us who have made that move, it can also be one of the most worthwhile things that you do in your whole life. I think Ryman’s decision to move to New York and to remain there as an artist is an accomplishment of sorts.

AB: What was life like for Ryman when he first moved to New York?

CJM: He arrived in 1952 from Nashville, Tennessee, and by the late 50s he had renounced his first avocation, jazz, and taken up painting. Ryman was a serious musician – a tenor saxophonist. He was a member of the Army Reserve Band while he was enlisted during the Korean war. In New York, he frequented jazz clubs and studied with noted jazz pianist Lennie Tristano.

AB: So it was music that brought Ryman to New York, not painting?

CJM: Yes, he discovered painting once he was there. He submerged himself in the world of art and was invited into his first exhibition within a decade of arriving. That is a huge achievement for someone who, perhaps, was not thinking about having a career in art, or even being a painter.

AB: The first time he showed his work was in 1958, at the MoMA staff exhibition, and he was working at the museum at the time?

CJM: Exactly, he was a security guard there for seven years. Ryman’s first one-person exhibition in New York was at the Paul Bianchini Gallery in April 1967.

AB: Are there connections between painting and music for Ryman, or does he treat them as separate disciplines?

CJM: I don't know if they are separate to Ryman. It is a question that you would have to ask him. But I think that both of those practices revolve around some of the same things. In order to become a virtuoso performer, you spend a lot of time alone, and yet the proof of your success is the reception of others. The same is true of making art. To be a great painter, you spend a lot of time alone, practising, repainting and trying to develop skill. The proof of whether you have mastered the skill is the way in which others respond to the work. Art-making is often an intensely private and hermit-like vocation. But the moment that something gets realised for you, and you show it to other people, it is incredibly extroverted – everybody sees what you have done. Musicians and artists have that in common.

AB: We know that jazz, in particular, made a significant impact on artists working in the 1950s.

CJM: Yes, a lot of the abstract expressionists, and then, later, people who were just painting abstractly, felt closely aligned to jazz musicians. I think some of it has to do with discordance. In the case of jazz it is about moving a melody outside of standard classical form. For painting, discordance is about moving away from the figure. In both instances, one is breaking the current rule.

AB: Were the abstract expressionists a big influence on Ryman?

CJM: That's a big question in some ways because it's hard to say that anything that comes before you is or is not an influence, just because it happens before. Chronology is not necessarily destiny! In the 50s, MoMA acquired significant works by abstract painters, such as Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, but the museum’s major exhibitions were of European artists and the collection featured noted colourists, such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso.

AB: So he is mainly looking at three early modernists and two contemporary artists.

CJM: I do not think that he is mainly looking at them, but they are in abundance. Also, Picasso was still living in the 50s – he did not die until 1973. So does Picasso feel old to Ryman? Arguably, Picasso and Matisse might have felt like elder statesmen to him, but Cézanne would definitely have been at a historical remove. All these artists, with the exception of Rothko, might have been at a remove anyway because they were European. One might imagine that if you are trying to figure out what your painting practice could be like, Picasso is a likely choice. But it also seems like an obvious choice. Picasso lived the last 30 years of his life as an international cultural icon. So it’s interesting to think about what Ryman was specifically looking at because one could see and draw very different things from Picasso’s work from the various points in his life.

AB: Does the exhibition start with work from the 50s?

CJM: The earliest work in the exhibition is from 1958. There are three works from 1958 and one from 1959. One of the works, entitled To Gertrud Mellon (1958), was shown in the MoMA staff show the year it was completed. It is a work on paper, using casein, graphite and coloured pencil. It’s quite a small work and also quite colourful. There is actually an interesting history behind it. Mellon had been on the paintings committee at MoMA and saw the staff show, where she bought the painting. Many years later, she returned the painting to Ryman. In recognition of his gratitude to her – not only for her having bought it in the first place, but also for acting as a steward for the work for all those years – he retitled it.

AB: Is this smaller scale typical of Ryman’s earlier works?

CJM: Some were fairly small. This work is around 7in x 7in [18cm x 18cm]. But because the works from this time are so rich in colour, they really hold their own against larger achromatic paintings. 

AB: What do you think provoked Ryman’s interest to work in this achromatic style?

CJM: Well, it was never just white paint: at the very beginning, he was simply experimenting. In many ways, it’s not just the achromatic factor, there is also the question of surface depth. Sometimes he applied paint with a palette knife, resulting in dense, encrusted surfaces. In other works, the paint is sheer and thin, like a wash. Viewers get caught up in looking at the white and yet we're missing what’s really happening. We are missing the application and the method. For many of the works, colour has been applied underneath, and then been painted over with white. When you look at the work chronologically, each painting is a challenge or a question that Ryman answered or complicated with the next painting that he completed.

AB: Is the white paint what people connect to Ryman, perhaps too easily, as though it is a trademark of his?

CJM: Yes, as with most things, we need to look longer and harder. This is true of Ryman and very nearly every other art object. One of the great things about the 1993 exhibition was that it showed the full range of his practice. It gave everyone a real sense of his capabilities. There was also a Ryman show at Dia, in 1988. Both of those exhibitions showed Ryman to be doing very varied things. But for anyone who is under the age of 40, it is likely that they did not see either of those shows. Essentially, there is a generation who may not have a sense of his range. In some ways, not having seen a lot of work in a while means people are only referring to his achromatic paintings. This show at Dia offers the chance for younger people to come in and see what it looked like to paint using Plexiglas in the 70s, for example.

AB: How have Ryman’s concerns changed over the course of six decades?

CJM: I always look at his work and think that two things are happening: the first is that he was a real innovator. He was brave enough to work in a manner that other people could very easily dismiss. Being different takes courage. He was willing to take on the superficial reading of his work (“white paintings”) in order to get at the deeper issues of colour, hue, tone – all of these things. His material innovations often get overlooked as well – painting on to aluminium, enamelling, working with steel. He made works that came out of a painting practice, but are in some way three-dimensional. For me, just at the point where you look at the work and feel like you have a good handle on it, you find that the next few years of the practice look radically different, or take on another set of concerns.

AB: The exhibition will give people the opportunity to see the breadth of Ryman’s career, though you are not defining it as a retrospective.

CJM: No, this exhibition is not retrospective – there is still a lot more to be seen. But I do want people to be aware of how varied Ryman’s career is, and how dynamic the works are. I also want people to ask themselves what Ryman means to contemporary painting. He makes a lot of difficult things look incredibly easy – there is a kind of flawlessness at times. He innovated quite a bit, and yet at the end of the day, because they look like good paintings, we are not asking the bigger questions.

AB: Even though you are well known for writing about sculpture, the past few shows you have curated have focused on painters. Has there been any particular reason why you have chosen to work on painting within an exhibitions context?

CJM: No, there is not a split in my career. I like painting and I am particularly interested in enabling people to have meaningful relationships with the work of living painters.

AB: Could you tell me about your own history with Ryman and what sparked your initial curiosity about his work? It’s interesting to know that you are also originally from Nashville.

CJM: He was one of the first contemporary artists whom I learned about as a child. Because I grew up in Nashville, he was a known entity to my art teachers as a well-known artist, showing nationally and internationally. For them, who were also practising artists, the idea of a successful practising artist was not only something to share with students as a model, but also perhaps a peer-model for their own careers. I think discussing Ryman was a way to assert for them that the practice of art was not art history!

AB: Are the art historical categories Ryman has been placed within justified? Is it helpful to use terms such as abstract expressionist or minimalist to talk about his paintings?

CJM: I wouldn't use any of those terms. They’re ill fitting. He’s too young to be an abstract expressionist, and he does not sculpt, so that puts him out of a traditional understanding of minimalism. A lot of this misunderstanding occurs because we do not yet have a complete language of periodisation for what happens after abstract expressionism but before minimalism. As an art historian, I think that this lack matters. If abstract expressionism was defined by a reaction against Europe, an assertion of nationalist values, a way of decentring the way in which one worked by putting the painting on the floor, and minimalism is defined by the understanding of the three dimensional object, and fabrication and industrial methods, what happens when a painting comes after abstract expressionism but before minimalism? In some ways, it must have done something to guide those possibilities that were to come, but also, what did it take with it? Ryman is not the only artist who falls into this space, but he sets a kind of benchmark for independence. I think it would have been very easy to make large canvases and to use specific kinds of brushstrokes, and do the things that would have marked one as an abstract expressionist. To not have done that took courage. This is why I think I can talk about his paintings as being different – they are a shift from what people felt comfortable with in that moment. Some of the paintings that Ryman made in the 50s are a bridge to what happens next.

• The Robert Ryman exhibition is at Dia: Chelsea, New York until 18 June 2016.

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