New York

Robert Barry

Leo Castelli Gallery

Dear Robert Barry,

I really liked your show. You seem to be loosening up a lot. Your work’s never bored me in the way so much “its significance-will-become-clear” Conceptual art does, but your important and early moves were on the fringes of “respectable” Conceptualism, like writing single-sentence catalysts to the imagination, say the Psychic Series of 1969, or doing meta-art things like dosing galleries as an artwork. Now, after a lot of unadorned statements, you’re using evocative visual images again. It’s the first time I’ve seen color slides, for example, and I find it very refreshing. If you’re going to nudge people in a mystical way to an awareness of the world, as you once suggested your art was about, why not nudge them in as sensorily rich a way as possible? 

The distinction between the verbal and visual idea has become such a bore, and I’m guilty myself of continuing the daft distinction by even using it. If you’ve seen the Jean Le Gac show it will finally, and beautifully, expel the two worlds of verbal and visual theory. Le Gac moved me with an inseparable mix of both. Listening to your “cut-the-crap” talk and refusal to be categorized at Conceptual art discussions I’ve always thought you were a bit of a similar closet romantic with your insistence on feeling and the irrational. And in your show a very restrained kind of post Minimal romanticism, I feel, is beginning to surface again—like that implicit in your Inert Gas series of 1 969. Perhaps this is just my reading, but I see each part here as having progressively more sensory interest. Although you made me go to the gallery three times I found the third installment of your slides, The Seasons: Winter 1974, not only the most interesting but also revealing a dissatisfaction with a Minimal notion of “less is more.” Whereas in Lookout, the first piece, you only project starkly white words sequentially on the darkened wall of the empty gallery, in Appearances you give more sensory information by alternating words with a slide of a huge glowing blue disk; in The Seasons you alternate words with sumptuous, moody, color slides of snowcovered gardens and roads. I see the three pieces as symptomatic of an accelerating pluralism of possibilities: from the art austerity of Lookout, through the art symbolism of Appearances, to the cultural romanticism of The Seasons. How do you feel about this reading? 

Why I like The Seasons best—although God knows I’m a sucker for art references, Pavlovian bells ring everytime I see a grid—is cultural references, at the moment, seem more openended. You see, although I enjoyed sitting in the eerie visual world of Lookout where verbs like “believe,” “reveal,” “endure” shown huge and ghostly on the wall were imperatives to my imagination, I kept thinking of concrete poetry. I had the same problem with the ten lists of words in the back gallery. What were they about? Prints more respectable than slides? Appearances affected me much more. The beautiful blue disk alternating with the words extended the words meanings in a mystical way. But it was The Seasons with its mix of word and real world I found most evocative. It just seemed truer to your Heideggerlike notion of letting things be. Although, of course, they weren’t let be. Words between images change your feeling to both. Words like “around” followed by a picture of an anonymous house with a boy of an anonymous house with a boy in the garden “center” followed by a picture of three trees (Do you look at the center?), “imagine” followed by a house covered in snow, or “private” followed by snow-covered roads were typically evocative because the meanings of words filled the environments shown. 

I’ve returned to a position I used to hold about diversity of subject matter in art to an even more catholic one. I feel the more art forages in the culture and the more categories it raids the better. This refocuses on what’s done with subject matter. The landscape as subject is, of course, as viable as hermeneutics. Greenberg’s idea of “art as art” is as dead in Conceptual art as it is in painting. Greenbergian Conceptualists of the analytic kind where artists only “talk to each other” about the problems of art should take your example in The Seasons. They should go out more. I enjoyed your show for its simplicity and poetry. It’s a kick in the teeth to those artists with one foot in philosophy and one foot in the mouth, whose vicious criticism of you now looks laughable instead of just irrelevant. 

James Collins