Robert Ryman: Creativity is a form of problem solving

In Bookforum, Arthur Danto reviews Suzanne P. Hudson�s Robert Ryman: Used Paint (October Books). “It is part of Robert Ryman�s legend that he is a self-taught artist. He moved to New York in 1952, at age twenty-two, to pursue a career in jazz. A year later, he took a job at the Museum of Modern Art as a security guard. Paintings had begun to interest him ‘not so much because of what was painted but how they were done. I thought maybe it would be an interesting thing for me to look into�how the paint worked and what I could do with it.’ So he bought some art supplies and began to experiment. At no point, then or later, did he try to depict anything�a face, a figure, a natural object like a tree or a flower, an artifact like a bottle or a guitar: ‘I thought I would try and see what would happen. I wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work. . . . I had nothing really in mind to paint. I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces.’ He evidently found the activity sufficiently absorbing that he put music aside. By the end of the �50s, Ryman was using white paint almost exclusively, as if color interested him far less than certain physical properties of paint. He had developed a signature style.
“It is striking to learn that in 1953, Ryman enrolled in an adult-education course, at MoMA�s People�s Art Center, on experimental painting. (One cannot but think of John Cage�s famous course at the New School in ‘Experimental Composition.’) Ryman claims to have no detailed recollection of what went on in this program, but the point remains that he spent seven years off and on in an atmosphere in which John Dewey�s ideas were central to the discourse. One can hardly imagine a more vivid example of ‘learning by doing’ than purchasing art supplies and sitting down to experiment with them. One of the school�s manuals says, ‘Don�t copy anyone . . . anything. . . . Don�t even copy nature….’

“I think that Hudson has to be credited with an art-historical discovery.” Danto writes. “Hudson’s argument is that while most of Ryman�s peers took sides with either Harold Rosenberg�s view of the artist as existential hero or Clement Greenberg�s Kantian perspective in which the artist reduces his or her medium to its essence, Ryman internalized the curriculum of the People�s Art Center, in which creativity was a form of problem solving. That makes it difficult to fit Ryman into any of the movements of his time, even Minimalism, where his work looked as if it must have belonged but didn�t.” Read more.

Ryman working on the wall. Image courtesy of Art:21.

UPDATE: Larry Becker, who represents Ryman in Philadelphia, writes that “Philadelphia Prototype 2002,” the piece Ryman is making in the picture above, has a rich installation history. Here’s the information Becker sent to Two Coats:
First installation 2002: “Philadelphia Prototype 2002,” 2002

Acrylic on vinyl and wall. Overall wall dimensions: two walls adjoined at corner, approx. 10’5×10’2 and 10’5×27’6″: [ten vinyl panels, ea. approx. 23 7/8″x23 7/8″], Larry Becker Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Second installation 2006: Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX.
Third installation 2006: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum, Philadelphia, PA. Acrylic on vinyl sheets and wall; ten panels, 23 7/8 x 23 7/8 inches each; installation dimensions variable. Alexander Harrison Fund, 2005.19


  1. Interesting….
    I've admired Ryman's work and philosophy for some time.
    Experience/the act of experimenting is the best teacher.

  2. for a more accurate caption of the image of Ryman:
    Robert Ryman at the Museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA installing
    his "Philadelphia Prototype, 2002"
    in June of 2006 and filmed by art21

    also see PAFA link:

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