Robert Ryman

The American painter Robert Ryman (1930–2019) hails from the all over painting tradition and has worked almost exclusively with white color materials such as oil, enamel, acrylic or lacquer on wax paper or canvas from the very beginning of his artistic career. He designates white as his medium rather than his colour. It is not about a symbolic meaning of white, but it makes a lot visible and reveals a variety of different nuances to us. Ryman allowed his colour fields to find their external limits without an internal focus. He applied white paint in oil or acrylic as a large even expanse to form the single planar surface of his composition. The fasteners, often made of metal, were an integral part of the picture, and this hung directly on the wall, making apparent its material status as an object in its own right. At the end a dialogue is initiated that takes place between the viewer, the space, the light and the image.

On the occasion of Robert Ryman’s New York exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1994, Heiner Müller, in a conversation with Frank Raddatz on post-unification Germany, had the following response to the painting’s opening up to become an object without boundaries: “These differently formatted, mainly large-scale fields of white (in Ryman’s work) mean the end of reproducibility in art. It would be pointless to make a coffee-table book about it. The disappearance of the painting as the last vestige of the image registers the death of pictorial substance. Now we see how closely art, theology and utopia are intertwined. It probably doesn’t matter whether you define the substance metaphysically or call it utopia. The projection, the notion, the idea of a reality that differs from the existing one is lost. There is a relatively small difference between placing this reference point in time or viewing it religiously. But the fact that something else exists is the prerequisite of art. If the other no longer exists, then the one is no longer interesting, no longer describable. Now this correlation is removed. Art lives from tension. You cannot tighten a rope if you only tie it at one end. Then the rest will simply dangle loosely into the abyss. The tightrope walker will be left without a job. That is what is happening.”1

Anke Hervol


1 Heiner Müller, in conversation with Frank Raddatz, “Für immer in Hollywood, oder: In Deutschland wird nicht mehr geblinzelt”, Lettre International 24, 1994, pp. 4ff.


In the exhibition:

Robert Ryman
Untitled, 1971
Acrylic on red vinyl board
53,3 × 53,3 cm
Private collection

Robert Ryman
Guild, 1982
Enamelac paint on fibreglass, aluminiuim and wood
98,2 × 91,8 × 3,8 cm
Tate Modern, London (Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996)