To Mary Ryan, the world is one big curiosity waiting to be discovered, and art is no different. She started out as a chemistry major in college with the goal of becoming a pediatrician. But during her second year, she took an introductory art history course, “And that changed my life,” Ryan says. “I was smitten and switched my field.”
For over three decades since she first opened her eponymous Manhattan gallery in 1981, Ryan, who concentrates on contemporary drawings and prints, has mounted hundreds of shows, worked on numerous museum exhibitions, and published several catalogs. Now she deals works by such modern titans as Sol LeWitt, Kiki Smith, Robert Rauschenberg, and Donald Judd—just part of an impressive line-up that only continues to develop. “I began with an interest in early-20th-century American and British art and continue those areas of expertise today, although I have expanded my interests through the years,” she says. Ryan’s latest evolution is a venture she started earlier this spring, a new gallery committed to pushing artistic innovation and a platform for a roster of international artists, many represented in New York for the first time. Called Ryan Lee, it was established with Jeffrey Lee—a former intern who quickly worked his way up to director at Mary Ryan Gallery.
Discovering Meret Oppenheim’s Object from 1936—a fur-lined tea cup, saucer, and spoon—proved a significant early encounter with modern art that opened Ryan’s eyes to the field. But something of her early interest in pediatrics wasn’t completely abandoned. “I believe that the best of children’s book illustration is a fine art,” she says, “and it deserves a place in major private and public collections.” For this year’s The Salon: Art + Design fair at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, Mary Ryan Gallery will offer what is sure to be an absorbing survey of original illustrations for the Babar books, a series of classic picture books about a king elephant. Illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff and Laurent de Brunhoff from 1935 through 2011, Ryan will exhibit sketches, ink drawings, and published watercolor illustrations of the Babar characters.
“We are thrilled,” says Ryan. “It is the first time since they were made in 1935 that they will be on view and for sale.” This kind of personal passion to support artists whose work speaks directly to her makes the Mary Ryan Gallery one to watch.