Robert Ryman, one of the most important American artists to emerge after World War II, a Minimalist who achieved a startling non-Minimalist variety in his paintings even though they were mostly white and usually square, died on Friday at his home in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He was 88.
His death was announced on Saturday by Hanna Gisel, a spokeswoman for the Pace Gallery in New York, which has long represented him. No cause was given.
Mr. Ryman was perhaps peculiarly American in being an autodidact who never took a single art course. His art education consisted of seven years as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
He accordingly brought an American pragmatism to the mystical tradition of modernist abstraction, which had originated with early-20th-century pioneers like Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, both of whom gave special place to white.
Mr. Ryman extended this tradition with an insistent literal-mindedness, a tinkerer’s joy in physical minutiae and an abiding faith in the plain-spoken poetics of his materials and tools. His pared-down canvases were in many ways the painting equivalent of Carl Andre’s flat-to-the-floor Minimalist sculptures using bricks and metal tiles.
Yet they were also more broadly evocative, in the manner of Walker Evans’s photographs of weather-bleached American architecture and shop signs. A shy, laconic man who largely avoided the social machinations of the art world, Mr. Ryman came of age artistically in New York in the late 1950s, when artists of several stripes — among them Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Chamberlain, Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin — were moving beyond the existential angst and painterly excess of the Abstract Expressionists.
Mr. Ryman’s way was to take an empirical, even mechanical, approach to painting. He focused on its most basic definition as a flat, four-cornered surface covered, using a brush, with paint, frequently signed and dated and hung on a wall. He went on to prove that these physical facts could sustain a lifetime of variations by using different paints and support surfaces, different brushes and brush strokes, and an idiosyncratic range of wall fasteners.
Mr. Ryman preferred the square, he said, because it avoided representational suggestions of doors, windows and landscapes. His works could be small squares of stretched canvas alive with fat, juicy, commalike strokes of oil paint. They could be pieces of cold-rolled steel, four feet square, brushed perfunctorily with a thin matte enamel. They might feature thick, methodical horizontal bands of shimmering white with slivers of brownish raw linen glinting between them, a little like plaster and lath.
Mr. Ryman’s stringent approach eliminated imagery, conventional color and, to some extent, emotive brushwork. It reflected his conviction that every visible detail of a painting contributed to the viewer’s experience of it, and that each work interacted with its setting, especially the wall (usually white) supporting it, and the ambient light. He liked to say that he continued painting’s long involvement with light, except that his light was real, not depicted.
Indeed, like Mondrian and Malevich before him, Mr. Ryman called himself a realist. More commonly he was known as a Minimalist. He was also grouped with the Post-Minimalist tendencies of Conceptual and Process art.
But his art transcended labels by being expansive, intuitive and richly reflective of the world, largely through its encyclopedic use of available materials. He painted with oil, acrylic, casein, gouache, gesso, rabbit-skin glue, enamel, baked enamel, enamelac, varathane, vinyl polymer, pastel, varnish, ballpoint pen and India ink. He painted on linen, cotton duck, wood, aluminum, copper, vinyl, Plexiglas, fiberglass, Gator board, steel, cold-rolled steel, Lumasite, wax paper, Bristol board, tracing paper, cardboard, newsprint, gauze, hollow-core panels and Chemex coffee-filter paper.
He attached these works to the wall with exposed nails, masking tape, screws, bolts, brackets, clips, plastic straps, pressure plates or small cubes of wood.
He often took his titles from the brand names of his materials or their place of purchase. “Winsor” came from Winsor-Newton Paints, “Acme” from a hardware store, “General” from a lumber yard.
Despite his just-the-facts approach, Mr. Ryman said that looking at a painting should be “a kind of revelation” and “a reverent experience” involving “enlightenment and delight and wonder.” And as his work developed, it encompassed a tremendous range of white tonalities and luminosities that many described as mysterious.
“It was never an intention of mine to make white paintings,” he told Art News magazine in 1986. “The white is just a means of exposing other elements. White enables other things to become visible.”
Robert Tracy Ryman was born on May 30, 1930, in Nashville. His father was an insurance salesman, his mother a schoolteacher and amateur pianist. He later said that he saw almost no paintings growing up. His first goal, which his parents reluctantly endorsed, was to be a jazz saxophonist. He studied music at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute and then the George Peabody College for Teachers for two years and then spent another two in the Army Reserve Corps, assigned to a band that toured bases in the South.
Discharged from active service in May 1952, he went directly to New York, found a tiny apartment on East 60th Street, near Bloomingdale’s, and, supporting himself with odd jobs, began to study with the jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. He also began to visit the city’s museums and found himself fascinated by painting.
Mr. Ryman got a temporary job as a vacation relief guard at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953 and ended up staying seven years. He was especially inspired there by the economy and sureness of Matisse’s paintings, but it was the works of the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, with their floating rectangles of color, that he found most startling.
“What was radical about Rothko, of course, was that were was no reference to any representational influence,” Mr. Ryman later said. He was struck by what he called “the nakedness of it.”
A few months after starting at the Modern, he went to an art-supply store near his apartment and bought some canvasboard and tubes of oil paint. “I thought I would try and see what would happen,” he said. “I wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work.”
In a sense he had found not only his calling but his whole approach to art. His first paintings were mostly green, but he eventually began to paint over his colors with white.
The job at the Modern also provided him with a circle of like-minded artist friends. His fellow guards included the artists Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin, and he also became close with Robert Mangold when they lived in the same loft building.
It was also at the Modern that he met a young art historian named Lucy R. Lippard, who, as a critic, would go on to become an articulate advocate for both Minimal and Conceptual Art. They married in 1960 but divorced six years later. In 1969 Mr. Ryman married the painter Merrill Wagner. They had two sons, Will and Cordy Ryman, both artists. He also had a son, Ethan Ryman, with Ms. Lippard; he is also an artist. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.
In keeping with his temperament, Mr. Ryman emerged quietly in the mid-1960s, when he had been making mature work for several years. In 1966, his work was included in “Systemic Painting,” an exhibition organized by Lawrence Alloway at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. His first solo show was in 1967 at the Paul Bianchini Gallery on upper Madison Avenue; it consisted of his 13 “Standard” paintings in enamel on cold-rolled steel. In 1968, he began exhibiting in Europe, where his work was the subject of frequent museum shows.
Mr. Ryman was the only painter included in two major overviews of Conceptual Art and Post-Minimalism in the spring of 1969: “When Attitudes Become Form” at the Kunsthalle Bern in Bern, Switzerland, and “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
He had his first American retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1972, five years after his first gallery show. The Dia Art Foundation mounted a retrospective at its Chelsea branch in Manhattan in 2015.
Mr. Ryman’s art did not have a conventional stylistic trajectory. Its premises remained fixed while its physical means changed. He occasionally executed paintings directly on walls and also built free-standing walls, painted white, that he considered paintings. In perhaps his most extreme series, he cantilevered his paintings at right angles to the wall, supporting the outer edges with spindly stainless-steel rods so that they resembled attenuated tables.
The continuing proliferation of his art seemed to substantiate his conviction, as he said in 1986, that where Abstract painting was concerned, “we’ve just scratched the surface.”