Ryman had flown into London from New York last week for a retrospective exhibition of some 75 works. Opening at the Tate tomorrow, and organised in association with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the show will pay homage to one of the leading figures in American abstract art - an artist who is said to have bridged the gap between Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism through his primarily 'white paintings'.
For Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, Ryman is 'one of the most important abstract painters of his generation. By limiting himself to an area of the palette, as it were, but working on all kinds of materials and surfaces, he has stretched the boundaries of painting. In particular, he has drawn attention to the importance of light in painting.'
For Massimo Carboni, writing in Contemporary Artists, 'the great majority of Robert Ryman's pictures are rectangular in shape and painted in white. They refer to nothing beyond themselves: they are simply surfaces covered with paint. Thus what comes clearly to the fore is the language, or rather the various languages, of the material, released from any obligation to depict actual existing phenomena.' For Matthew Collings, in City Limits, the problem with Ryman's all-white paintings is that 'the people who tend to go on about them divide too much into saints or philistines. The paintings themselves are a bit like that - at once inward and meditative, and all too obvious.' And for John McEwen, reviewing the 1970s Whitechapel show in the Spectator, 'Ryman's art is about sensation, the physical sensation of painting and visual sensations thus revealed . . . Ryman is at his best when he is least constructional and most painterly.'
Almost every painting in the retrospective is white, or a shade of it. Some are so minimalist that there is barely a sign of their having been touched by human hand; others are heavy with tempestuous swirling patterns in thick impasto. Some have underlayers of one or several colours - blues and greens in one, deep reds in another - subtly peeking through curving, often biomorphic forms in heavy white paint. In a number of works, the bare canvas shows through - either at the edges, almost as a frame, or peeking through the painted areas, playing with finished and unfinished surfaces. Many of these works are seductively sensuous, calming on the eye and, indeed, beautiful.
But his most minimal canvases are not 'easy' works for the uninitiated. For the benefit of those who draw a blank at what are - on the surface - blank canvases, a direct if philistine question seemed the best approach: how would he explain to the man on the street the difference between a canvas painted with white household enamel and the wall decorated in household paint by gallery staff? 'What I'm doing is different,' he said. 'I'm not doing what a wall-painter does. They wouldn't paint a wall like this. It wouldn't have this depth or size.' He giggled. 'It may look easy, but any good painting looks easy, as if no struggle was involved . . . If you look at a Matisse, it looks like he just picked up a brush and did a few strokes, as if by magic. That's the mark of a good painting.'
Simon Wilson, the Tate Gallery's Head of Interpretation, agreed that 'it's wrong to say it's a blank canvas. It's a monochrome. There's a great deal of incident in it . . . Well, maybe it's wrong to say a great deal of incident. But it's not blank. It's got a canvas on which there is paint . . . It's a painting as much as a Rembrandt is . . . Anyone can paint a Rembrandt once Rembrandt's done it.' Really?
'Yes, well, I'm exaggerating slightly to make a point . . . Ryman's playing games with what a picture is . . . He's thinking about paint, questioning the nature of paint. It's a painting about painting, questioning the nature of reality. A great deal of modern art is about that.' They are, he explained, a logical extension of the other works.
Ryman, born in 1930 in Nashville, Tennessee, has lived and worked in New York since the 1950s. He didn't follow a conventional route to becoming an artist, never attending art school. After National Service, in the US Army Reserve Band, he went to the capital to study with a jazz pianist. He took odd jobs to support himself. Inspiration to become an artist came to him at the Museum of Modern Art in New York - where he worked as a guard for seven years. He spent most of the day taking in Cezannes and Matisses, as well as American abstract painters such as Rothko, Stella and Pollock. Then, one day, he decided to buy some paints and have a go himself - 'just seeing how the paint worked, and how the brushes worked'.
'The disadvantage of not going to art school', he said, 'was that it took longer to work things out. I've had to learn myself about the paint, through books and asking other artists. But then you really know it.'
He picked up one of several small pictures, waiting to be hung. 'This is the first painting I ever sold,' he said. 'I sold it for dollars 70, it says on the back.' He giggled. 'That was a lot for me.' He refused to discuss the prices his work fetches these days. 'It dilutes it.' In fact, his auction record is dollars 2.3m, paid in 1989 for a 1978 painting called Summit.
Changing the subject, he walked over to Orange Painting, from the 1950s, which he considers his first professional work. It is, unusually, not white but orange. He giggled. Asked why, he said, 'Well, it's so . . . er, orange.' As with several of his works, he could not recall the technique used. 'I don't remember the process. There are probably all kinds of things going on there. It didn't start off orange, I'm sure.' Indeed, specks of green paint show through the orange, and round the sides of the canvas. 'That's important,' he said, pointing them out.
Several times, he mentioned that seeing his work this way - propped up against the wall, awaiting hanging - didn't do it justice. 'On the wall, it completely changes. It comes alive.' Indeed, the hang is so important, he came to London early. 'As they're paintings, not pictures, they must work with the space, the walls and each other.' Not pictures? No, he insisted. 'Because they're not representational, they're not pictures. They're not abstract either, in that they're not abstracted from anything . . . There are no frames like on pictures . . . When you look into my paintings, you expect to see something. But there isn't a picture.'
He understands, though, why people have difficulty with such a concept. 'They're approaching the work in the wrong way, thinking: What is it? What does it represent? A symbol? People expect pictures to have some meaning. There isn't that problem with instrumental music. They don't think: Where is the meaning . . ? This should be easier than works with symbols . . . where you have to study it and figure it out. With this, it's more immediate.'
Time was up and Ryman was whisked away for a television interview. A guard had been watching us, looking at the paintings. Would he be inspired by Ryman's show to take up painting too? What did he think of the work? He smiled inscrutably.
Robert Ryman: Tate Gallery, Millbank London SW1 (071-821 1313) 17 Feb-25 Apr; pounds 3, concs pounds 1.50