Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1965 oil on canvas, 11-1/4″ x 11-1/4″ x 1-1/4″ (28.6 cm x 28.6 cm x 3.2 cm) © 2019 Robert Ryman /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
When asked about free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis said ‘…the man is all screwed up inside.’ This wasn’t his definitive appraisal of Coleman, but it does capture the sense of bewilderment his tunes were, and sometimes still are, met with.
Robert Ryman, coincidentally born the same year as Coleman, moved to New York in the early 1950s to be a jazz saxophonist. For a while he worked as a guard at MoMA, where he was exposed to Abstract Expressionism at its brash and innovative best. The cumulative effect of hanging around so much painting – delivered from the disorder of the studio and hung to museum standards – got the better of him and he bought some paints and set to work.
Ryman’s paintings regularly suffer a similar fate of miscomprehension to that of Ornette Coleman’s tunes. Lazily tagged as monochrome because of the predominance of white, they are, more often than not, busy surfaces of carefully placed impasto on dense weave, often raw, canvas – the metal brackets on which they are hung sometimes left starkly, intentionally visible. Ryman’s attention to detail should be no surprise given the time he spent observing the painted world before ever dipping a brush.