Work From 1964 - 2016
Curated by Piper Marshall
Mary Boone Gallery
March 5 – April 23, 2016
By ROBERT C. MORGAN, MAR. 2016
The lure of the current Robert Barry survey exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in West Chelsea begins with an early conceptual piece from the artist’s Psychic Series (1969). Using off-while vinyl letters on a white-painted wall near the entrance, the artist placed the following statement: “Everything in the unconscious perceived by the senses but not noted by the conscious mind during trips to Baltimore during the summer of 1967.”
As a statement unto itself, the words seem to resonate beyond everyday art world gibberish into something deeper – a phenomenological paradigm, perhaps, from another place and time. This, in fact, may well be the case.
Though unstated, the references in the above statement are to a series of workshops held in Baltimore that summer by the painter Ad Reinhardt, whose influence played an important, but modest role in Barry’s burgeoning career. This connection may be found in some of Barry’s paintings from the 1960s in the current show. Instead of focusing on color as his primary point of departure (as did Reinhardt), Barry chose to work with issues related to placement and scale as in a work titled Diptych (1967). Here two square monochrome paintings in light sienna, each measuring 17 x 17 inches, are spaced separately from one another on a wall in the rear gallery. Barry intended the two paintings should have an open space between them, yet at the same time function as a single painting using the wall as a supporting element.
As one of the founders of Conceptual Art, Robert Barry emerged into prominence when he was included in the seminal exhibition, curated by Seth Siegelaub, in an vacant office rental off Madison Avenue, titled January 5 – 31, 1969. Like other founding members of Conceptual Art, which included Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler, Robert Morris, Sol Lewitt, and Joseph Kosuth, his primary medium was language, specifically words with an absence syntax. These words would be shown directly on walls, in artist’s books, in slide and video projections, and in a variety of painting formats as shown in the Mary Boone exhibition, specifically in Gold Circle and in Horizontal 4 Part Light Blue-Gray Painting with Words (both 2016). In the past, Barry has put words on plate glass windows, tiles, mirrors, and has produced recordings in which the haunting sounds of words are heard at discrete intervals, thus transforming the visual space of a gallery into an hallucinogenic aural space.
Barry has always worked in a variety of mediums. Believing that language is not limited to a single medium, he communicates words as ideas through a plethora of diverse media. Clearly cognizant of the diverse ways in which language functions in our everyday environment, Barry has used this knowledge to his advantage. In a floor piece, titled Red Line (2008-16), he placed a sequence of words like blocks on the floor in both forward and backward positions so that they might be read coming from either direction. Cast in resin and painted red, the artist believes these words evoke feelings (perhaps more than thoughts) and offer a sense of heightened awareness in relation to a particular space at a particular time. The words may be contemplated as particles of memory. Some European scholars believe this approach to language in Barry’s work constitutes a profound achievement in how we think about art today.
In some case, Barry’s words are occasionally overwhelmed by the design of the gallery, including the twenty-two foot ceiling. Ironically, the scale of the space gave him many options as to how his works might be installed, which would affect the way they would be interpreted. Regardless of the materials used in the various installations, this freedom to explore the openness of the gallery space, for better of for worse, played an important role. Naturally, his point was to integrate the various works and to allow the reflective and concrete aspects of the words to somehow function together. In some way, this would relate to Duchamp’s notion that a work of art may occasionally depart from the initial idea. Even so, I detected a hovering sensation in this exhibition as I moved into and through the various works. This kind of sensation perhaps comes closer to what the artist had in mind despite the minor spatial disruptions here and there – that the potential of communication often hangs on the verge of making a connection rather than revealing itself as being directly present. WM
Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in America, Arts, Art News, Art Press(Paris), Sculpture Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.
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