New York

Robert Barry

Leo Castelli Gallery

What happens when a de-materialist decides to go materialist? In the case of Robert Barry, fireworks! He executed a large (125 by 1963/4 inches) untitled painting in flat red latex directly on the side wall of the gallery’s inner office, a semi-public space. While relating in type to traditional mural painting and in size to really big paintings done by the really big boys in the ’50s and ’60s in sensibility, this work is clearly at home with the conceptual/dematerialized fare for which Barry is justly celebrated. In fact, Barry succeeds both in conceptualizing and dematerializing the form of mural painting here. He does this, first of all, by printing some words in a ghostlike and, compared to the large surface, relatively tiny script.

Now, knowing who Barry is, we are willing to read the words. But since he is being true to the old modernist notion of “let’s make it demanding,” the alternating directions in which the capped letters are written make us extremely aware of the physicality involved in this kind of reading/looking. Located in a narrow band and away from the edge in a rectangular format echoing the shape of the painting/wall, the words are written in alternating 90 degree angles, the turns adding up to a full 360 degree revolution. Here’s what’s there starting in the upper left corner: MORE REAL (right side up, letters going from left to right), horizontally right across there’s DON’T BE SO SURE (upside down, letters going right to left), vertically down to MAYBE (letters in descending order, bottoms facing inward), and below it to UNFORTUNATELY (letters in ascending orders, bottoms facing outward), then horizontally left across to ESSENTIAL (upside down, letters going from right to left), to NOT YET (right side up, letters going from left to right), then vertically up to EVER SINCE (letters in ascending order, bottoms facing inward) and, finally, to NEEDS (letters in descending order, bottoms facing outward). While these short words with simple and concrete meanings add up to an ambiguous whole, their presence alone is enough to start thoughts flowing toward the relationship of wall painting to book page.

Barry, after all, has worked with projecting book pages on walls—Belmont, 1967, is an example—and, also, at the same time was interested in the issue of integrating painting in a given spatial context. In the ’70s, his words on pages took on a diagrammatical look with abrupt changes in directions of printing and layout. The painting also brings to mind a projected page of a book, the light image made material but not permanent. In fact, the words and red painted surface will last only as long as the exhibition does, after which it will be overpainted with several layers of white paint; it will, in essence, be conceptualized and dematerialized in this process. And, conceptually speaking, both this review and your reading of it relate in special ways to Barry’s work. After all, the experience of a conceptual/dematerialized work is all in knowing about it.

Ronny H. Cohen