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Robert Ryman was born on May 30, 1930, in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1949 he enrolled at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, where he studied music. In 1950 Ryman enlisted and was assigned to an Army Reserve band during the Korean War. In 1952 he moved to New York. He took a position as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953 and 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. 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 he began to paint on a full-time basis. During the early 1960s Ryman spent 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, a support he would employ frequently. In 1966 Ryman’s work was included in Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The artist’s first solo exhibition took place at the Paul Bianchini Gallery in 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 organized Ryman’s first solo exhibition in a New York museum. That summer he was included in Documenta in Kassel. In 1973 he was awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the next year he had a retrospective exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Additional retrospective exhibitions were organized in London in 1977 and in Zurich in 1980, the latter of which traveled throughout Europe. In 1993 and 1994 an exhibition of Ryman’s work traveled to the Tate Gallery in London, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In 1994 Ryman was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and assumed the role of the organization’s vice president in 2003. He died in New York on February 8, 2019.