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a new beginning

October 10, 2009

[Village Voice] Will Ryman—the 39-year-old sculptor whose installation “A New Beginning” is on view at Chelsea’s Marlborough Gallery through October 10—has been observing the city’s rapidly changing scenery since birth. A big, friendly, soft-spoken guy with spiky hair and a goatee, he hails from a prominent New York art family: His father is the minimalist artist Robert Ryman, best known for his all-white paintings, and his mother, Merrill Wagner, is a celebrated painter of abstractions on steel. As a child, he crawled on legendary sculptures by Tom Doyle, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt that lay around his parents’ Greenwich Village apartment. Explaining the gaps in his knowledge of art history, he says, “I grew up around people making art, not studying it.”

Ryman came to sculpture late, and through the back door. In lieu of college, he took playwriting classes at local theater companies, and began familiarizing himself with absurdist writers like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. The idea that life is absurd and inherently without meaning, unless one dedicates oneself to the common good, appealed to him. He spent the next 12 years writing short plays that explored this worldview.

His relationship with the theater was strained from the start, however. “My playwriting teachers had these strict rules for plays,” he says, as we step across the dirt-colored metal tiles anchoring each flower to the ground. “If there’s a gun onstage, they said, it has to go off—a phone, it has to ring. There’s gotta be a plot turn on page 27, and again on page 77, otherwise it’s not a script.” He felt less adept at structuring plotlines, he says, than “just spitting out situations.”

Actors posed a problem as well. He felt that the attempt to communicate inner life through shouting and dramatic gesturing sacrificed the reality of human behavior. The absurdity of theater, in other words, often overpowered the absurdity-of-life aesthetic he was going for. His 10-minute play The Encounter, which debuted at the Trilogy Theater in 1999, concerned two drunks in a field who see something in the sky but can’t tell what it is. “The actors were either screaming or forgetting their lines,” Ryman says, “and the fake boulder on stage looked like a big sponge.” He laughs. “Basically, I wanted to do away with the script, the actors, the director, knock down the fourth wall, and just create a world for people to exist in.”

Which is what he did in 2003. In his newly acquired studio, Ryman erected 10 different “sets,” and invited everyone he knew over to hang out. One set, titled The Pit, was an assortment of clay-colored papier-mâché figures standing at the bottom of a sealed white room, looking helplessly up. A well-known art dealer was in attendance, and she requested The Pit for her summer show. To Ryman’s astonishment, the piece was eventually chosen for P.S.1’s Greater New York Show in 2005. “I’d always wanted to sculpt how my characters felt, to allow the scenery to tell the story,” he says. “I realized I’d been a sculptor trying for years to write plays.” (read review)

Exhibition website

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