Robert Ryman was born May 30, 1930, in Nashville. In 1948, he enrolled at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute but transferred the next year to George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, where he studied music. In 1950, Ryman enlisted in the United States army reserve corps and was assigned to an army reserve band during the Korean War. In 1952, he moved to New York and studied with jazz pianist Lenny Tristano. Taking on odd jobs to support himself, Ryman took a position as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in June 1953. During that year, the artist made his first paintings.
In 1955, Ryman began what he considers his earliest professional work, a largely monochrome painting titled Orange Painting. His work was first exhibited in a staff show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1958, and later that year he was included in a group show at the Brata Gallery, New York. In the late 1950s, Ryman became friends with artists Dan Flavin and Michael Venezia, both of whom were also working at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1961, the artist married the art historian Lucy Lippard; this marriage ended in divorce. He later married Merrill Wagner. In 1961, he also began to paint on a full-time basis. During the early 1960s, Ryman spent a great deal of time with other artists whose studios were on the Bowery, including Tom Doyle, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and Sylvia and Robert Mangold. At this time, Ryman began executing his first paintings on metal (vinyl polymer on aluminum), a support he would use many times again. In 1966, Ryman’s work was included in Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, along with 28 other artists, including Ellsworth Kelly, Jackson Pollock, and Frank Stella. The artist’s first solo exhibition took place at the Paul Bianchini Gallery, New York, in 1967. Two years later, Ryman was included in When Attitudes Become Form, a seminal exhibition of works by Minimalist and Conceptual artists organized by the Kunsthalle Bern. Throughout his career, Ryman has isolated the most basic components of painting and experimented with their variations.
In 1972, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum exhibited 38 of Ryman’s works from the years 1965 to 1972, in the artist’s first solo exhibition in a New York museum. That summer, Ryman was included in Documenta in Kassel. In 1973, the artist was awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the next year he had a retrospective exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Additional retrospective exhibitions were organized by the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1977 and by InK, Halle für Internationale neue Kunst, Zurich, in 1980, the latter of which traveled throughout Europe. A permanent exhibition of Ryman’s work was installed at the Hallen für neue Kunst in Schaffhausen in 1983. In 1991, his works from 1958 to 1981 were exhibited at Espace d’Art Contemporain, Paris. In 1993 and 1994, an exhibition of Ryman’s work traveled to the Tate Gallery, London; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. In 1994, Ryman was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York. He lives in New York.