At Large  September 9, 2022  Lilly Wei

The House of Ryman: A Family of Artists

Take an Inside Look at this Creative Family
Roz Akin

Cordy Ryman, Baby Chimera, 2015-2022.

All creative families are creative in their own way (to paraphrase the over-paraphrased opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina).

Take the Rymans, for instance. There is Robert Ryman (1930 – 2019), the patriarch whose paintings are indisputable icons of the modernist canon. Then there are his wives and children.

Ethan Ryman (b. 1964) is the oldest of Robert’s three artist children. Though his mother was not an artist, Lucy Lippard (b. 1937) was still a scrappy and eloquent art critic, a feminist, a social activist, and an environmentalist. Ethan’s meticulously considered and crafted artworks might be characterized as somewhere between photography and sculpture, the abstract and the (f)actual. Though Lippard and Ryman divorced just six years after their 1961 marriage, their son is arguably the closest to his father’s methodologies if not his medium, and was certainly the last to become a visual artist.

Robert Ryman went on to marry fellow artist Merrill Wagner (b. 1935) in 1969 and they had two sons. Though Wagner is more quietly acknowledged than Ryman, her boundless practice includes sculpture, painting, drawing, installation, and more. With an emphasis on materiality, her sites are indoors and out, her styles alternating.

Installation View of Will Ryman: New York, New York, September 9 - October 22, 2022.
Elisabeth Bernstein

Installation View of Will Ryman: New York, New York, September 9 - October 22, 2022.

Merrill Wagner, Summer Studio, 1983 (after one year), 1984.
courtesy of the artist

Merrill Wagner, Summer Studio, 1983 (after one year), 1984.

Ethan Ryman, Still Life #7, 2021.
Dario Lasagni

Ethan Ryman, Still Life #7, 2021.

Will Ryman (b. 1969) is the elder son of Robert and Merrill. He started out as an actor and playwright though he too eventually assumed a visual art practice to become a sculptor. He is best known for his large-scale public artworks and theatrical installations that focus on the figurative and psychological, at times absurdist, narratives. Cordy Ryman (b. 1971) is the youngest, and the only one of the three who knew that he was going to be a visual artist early on. His work is abstract, the sophistication understated, and his output is prolific. With his mother’s DIY flair, his homely materials seem sourced from the overflow of construction projects, lumberyards, and Home Depot. 

Ethan Ryman said that, when he was young, he didn’t want to be a visual artist. Instead, he pursued music and acting, producing records for Wu-Tang Clan, among others, getting “my ears blown out.” But he was always surrounded by artists—Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Jan Dibbetts, William Anastasi, and countless others at his mother’s place on Prince Street in SoHo and at the Rymans’s 1847 Greek Revival brownstone on 16th Street in Manhattan, where everyone was often seated around the family dinner table. He would spend part of most weekends in the highly stimulating chaos that reigned there—birds, dogs, plants, toys, art, people, everywhere. “While nowhere near as overwhelming, I was also constantly exposed to artists, writers and other creative folks at my Mom’s place.”

Photo by Dario Lasagni

Ethan Ryman, Still Life #7, 2021, Dye sublimation print on aluminum, gesso on plywood, 30 3/4 x 28 x 8 1/4 in.


“While nowhere near as overwhelming, I was also constantly exposed to artists, writers and other creative folks at my Mom’s place.” Ethan Ryman

Lippard was “a powerhouse.” She took Ethan on her lecture tours, readings, conferences, galleries, studios, wherever she had to go. And while that almost always breeds rebellion, at some point, he began noticing all the art around them—both what it looked like and how it was made. He began to take photographs of buildings and realized that “abstract color fields were all around us.” He also began to notice his father and Wagner’s work more carefully—how sensitively it was executed and how reactive it was to its surroundings. 

“Once you’re interested, you notice. When I asked my dad questions, I would most likely get a one-word response. I had to go to his lectures for answers where he broke down modern art for me. After listening to him, it seemed to me we should all be painting, otherwise what were we doing with our lives?”  

Will Ryman, on the other hand, said that all his work has a narrative component. His background is in theatre and his interests have always been film and plays, his narratives about New York City and American culture and history. “It’s a city I love,” he said. “I try to observe culture in a bare-bones way and I’ve always been interested in telling stories—we’re the only species that tells stories to each other. It comes from an intuitive, cathartic place in me. I want to stay away from preconceived notions, although that’s not completely possible. I have no plan except to do something honest, with a little bit of a political bent and humor but I’m not an activist. I’m interested in exploring a culture and its flaws as an interaction between human beings.” 

His interests and his work are very different from his last name. There is no connection to minimalism. He didn’t go to art school, drawn instead to theatre workshops and theatre troupes. “I didn’t become involved with the visual arts until my mid-thirties. It’s easy to say what I make is a reaction, but I dismiss that. And I also wouldn’t say it’s rebellious after twenty years.” Of his family, he said, “we’re a normal family, a close family, with all the dynamics and complications that go along with that. And while everyone who came to 16th Street were artists, they were also just family friends. I have no other measure for how a family interacts. It was just the way it was.” 

Courtesy of The Bonnier Gallery |Zachary Balber

Cordy Ryman, Root Vine Pyramid, 2018.

Cordy Ryman was the only one of the three who went to art school, earning a BFA from the School of Visual Arts, but it was reportedly awkward for him, since all his teachers knew his parents. “When I started making abstract paintings, it was kind of push and pull but it became more interesting to me than my earlier figurative or narrative work. That’s when I started to know where I came from. I realized that I had a visual memory, and the language was there, a language I didn’t know I knew. We all had different ways of working; our processes are very different and it’s hard to compare us. Ethan and I use a similar inherited language but he thinks about what he does more. I work very fast, the ideas come from the process itself. I work in two or three modes simultaneously and bounce around.” At home, they were around Wagner’s work since her studio was there. “Will and I were always in her studio, helping her, going to her installation sites with her, adjusting her boulders or whatever the project was she was working on. That was special and made a deep impression, but I didn’t realize it then.” 

All five Rymans have in common an acute consciousness of space and of place as an integral component of their work. For the brothers, part of that consciousness might stem from their parents, but also from their attachment to their family home, which was a crucible of sorts for them, where everyone was an artist. To Cordy, the house was a “living, breathing thing, and the art in it felt alive, growing, and occupying any space that was available. It was the structure of our world. When I’m making work, it doesn’t need to be the most beautiful thing ever, but it needs to have its own life, its own space, like the art we grew up with.” 

And the next generation of Rymans, also all sons—what about them? Will said his son is still too young to know. Cordy thought the same about his two younger children; his oldest is in the art world, but not as an artist—so far. Ethan perhaps summed it up best: my two sons are artists; they just don’t know it yet.

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