Martin Barré, Greenwich, 1957, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 78 3/4".

TEMPORAL GAPS in cultural transmission can be quite puzzling. For various reasons—the market’s perennial thirst for new figures, the glut of academic research on American postwar art, the recognition of concordant aesthetic concerns by a younger generation of practitioners—interest in European art from the 1950s and ’60s has grown over the course of the past decade on this side of the Atlantic. Until very recently, however, only a few French artists active in those years had received much attention here. (Yves Klein has long been an exception, as has Daniel Buren, though his remarkable early, pre-Conceptual works were not exhibited in New York until 2007.) Perhaps this neglect was a hangover from the backlash against the old, prewar domination of the art world by the École de Paris: New York had “stole[n] the idea of modern art,” as Serge Guilbaut provocatively put it, so there was little urge to go look at what was left behind in the depleted land of the vanquished. The case of Simon Hantaï, who has long been considered a major artist in France but whose recognition in the US is only now emerging, or that of André Cadere, who died in 1978 but whose multicolored staffs have lately been seen leaning against the walls of several American museums, might be an indication that the tide has turned. The recent exhibition in New York (at Andrew Kreps Gallery) of a series of canvases painted by Martin Barré in 1991, a show favorably reviewed in the pages of this journal by Suzanne Hudson (who noted the devotion to his work by young artists such as Cheyney Thompson, Blake Rayne, Wade Guyton, and R. H. Quaytman), is perhaps an even more propitious sign of this evolution, for his art is supremely difficult to export.

For one thing, Barré is an artist who constantly disobeyed—at least from 1960 until his death in 1993—one of the cardinal rules for those in quest of art-world recognition: He assiduously avoided a signature style. Although he worked in series (the titles of his paintings typically consist of the work’s date followed by its dimensions), unlike other “serial painters” he made sure that each new series (one per year on average) was formally different, sometimes radically different, from the preceding one. At each of his exhibitions, Barré aficionados had to brace for the kind of shock that Brice Marden’s (or Philip Guston’s) admirers experienced when the painter famously made a (onetime) sudden stylistic swerve. This is not to say that there is anything illogical in the jump from one series to the next—on the contrary, Barré’s rigor has always been exemplary—but the logic is never immediately apparent (or, to say it another way, the series are extremely variable at the formal level but remarkably consistent structurally—though it takes some attention and care to perceive that continuity). As a result, Barré has always been what we would call a painter’s painter, held by many younger artists as a model of probity and his work cherished by art lovers who have no patience for the flashy and the fashionable. But though his reluctance to do anything that might enhance his career was at times confounding (one had to cajole him into even agreeing to meet a curator or a collector, especially if he was deep into work), word of mouth kept buzzing. He had died by the time Yasmina Reza made a triumph in 1994 with her populist play Art, in which she attempted to lambaste the “snobbism in contemporary art,” as she put it, by positing an artist whose masterpiece was a white monochrome, but Barré would not have been surprised to read that the playwright pointed to him as her model for this fictitious painter. He would have been somewhat chagrined by the misconception, though, for unlike Robert Ryman, an artist he greatly admired, he had never painted anything of the sort: As the critic Pierre Restany wrote in 1961, in a favorable review of Barré’s one-man show at Galerie Arnaud in Paris the previous year, “I will rule out the objection that there is nothing left to see: for me there is still too much.”

It is not by chance that I mention Barré’s sea-change exhibition of 1960. Almost two decades ago I wrote a monograph on his work (Martin Barré, 1993), in which I argued that the aesthetic breakthrough and semiotic shift represented by that show might be said to be the artist’s road to Damascus. But this is not the place to rehearse the fine points of that argument. Instead, I wish to look closely at two of Barré’s paintings, which I recently stumbled upon in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and which, I immediately recognized, offer a perfect point of entry for a discussion of the artist’s achievement in that annus mirabilis (and beyond).

The first canvas, titled Greenwich, dates from 1957, and, but for its size (much larger than usual for that period) and orientation (Barré’s canvases were rarely horizontal), it is quite typical of the work of Barré’s early career. At the time, he was considered one of the most promising of the young artists then labeled the Jeune École de Paris. (In my book, I reduced the so-called school to its initials, JEP, to Barré’s amusement.) In Greenwich, a vast irregular shape made up mostly of thick, rectangular planes of brown, black, white, and orange color applied in gridlike formation with a palette knife is anchored to three of the canvas’s borders (and looks something like an aerial view of a landmass all but surrounded by water); it is centered in a vast field of a slightly bluish-white hue evenly painted with a brush. The limit between the central configuration and the rest of the canvas is uncertain: Sometimes the bluish-white field eats at the brown-black-orange shape, while elsewhere the reverse is true; the ground of white gesso is visible here and there within the abstract form and at its immediate periphery. As Annette Michelson would write in 1958 of some of Barré’s works done in the same vein, this canvas “demonstrate[s] the possibilities of dynamic relationships between active and residual space.” But even though a tension is played out between figure and ground (for example in the upper right, where the growth of tiny color planes that make up the large central shape seems in the process of enclosing a larger area of the surrounding bluish field, and thus transforming this kind of lagoon into a figure), things are kept in check: The traditional mode of composition as a hierarchical structure—the convention that defined the post-Cubist tradition dominating painting in France at the time, particularly that of the JEP—is momentarily challenged, but in the end it is reinstated. In short, the canvas is a quintessential specimen of what Frank Stella would in 1966 debunk as “relational painting” (“You do something in one corner and you balance it with something in the other corner”), a paragon of good taste, with a particular attention both to individual strokes as building blocks of the whole, and to the chromatic effects of wet-on-wet paint layering (white or black on brown, brown on black, etc.). It is not difficult to trace the genealogy that links such a work back to Braque and, beyond him, to Cézanne.

Martin Barré, 60–T–44 (details), 1960, oil on canvas, 76 1/2 x 38 1/8".

In the second canvas, 60–T–44, dating from 1960, all this elaborate painterly cuisine so vaunted by the critical establishment that championed the JEP has disappeared. Any spatial ambiguity is gone. The white ground is plain, untextured, the paint almost mechanically applied. On this whitewashed surface, Barré has drawn colored lines using the tube of paint as his stylus: Two oblique lines (made of juxtaposed blue, white, and reddish-brown tracks) descend toward the center left of the canvas, from which hangs a thick rainbow of paratactic lines in clashing vibrant chromas—as if the canvas from one of Morris Louis’s Unfurleds had been gathered like striped drapery, regaining in the process enough matter to weigh down a clothesline. Here there’s no subtle mediation via the brush: The gesture is direct, prosaic. No play of underlayers, either, and very little color mixing. The only variation is in the speed of inscription: Sometimes the squeezed tube moved very fast over the white ground, and in these passages its track is thin; sometimes it went slowly, and the impasto built up. Line becomes a mere index of process. No transcendence, no illusion, what you see is what you see: With this work, and others of the same series—which he nicknamed his “Tubes”—Barré left post-Cubism and entered the ’60s.

At the time there were few artists among his Parisian group (the JEP) to make such a leap—in fact, Barré instantly lost his support system, the critics who had defended him now accusing him of treason. One could ascribe many causes to this radical turn in his art, but the most important catalyst is probably the great interest Barré took in Yves Klein, though Klein was deemed a thorough charlatan by Barré’s circle—and note that it is Restany, Klein’s champion, who came to Barré’s defense. The position may seem utterly banal now, but rare then was the artist who could at the same time maintain that painting was still a viable medium and admire Klein’s work, which had seemed in those days yet another celebration of the death of painting. One had to be able to look beyond Klein’s histrionics and consider Yves-le-Monochrome’s anticompositional stance as being more than a mere conceptual gesture. For his early admirers both in France (Restany, the Nouveaux Réalistes group) and in the US (Donald Judd, among others), Klein represented a fundamental rupture with the (necessarily illusionistic) tradition of painting. “Sure, sure,” we can hear Barré saying, “but yet he still paints.” How to highlight the fragility of painting as medium while keeping it alive would remain Barré’s challenge in all the years to come.

Yve-Alain Bois is professor of art history in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and a contributing editor of Artforum.