New York

Robert Barnes

Artists' Choice Museum

Robert Barnes is an accomplished painter, and this show, a “mid-career survey” including works dating from the mid ’50s to 1984, made it easy to trace his development simply by following the chronology of the gallery walls Barnes’ development has not been in response to the fashions of painting; his works have remained, at all times, outside mainstream art. His earliest work is as finely made as his latest, but for me, this show was bouncing from one formally interesting early canvas to another, then walking into another room, a room of more recently made paintings, and boom. Just what this boom means is complicated. Is it me or is it Barnes? It looks to me as if, somewhere twenty years into his career as a painter, he found his vocation. Around 1978, his paintings suddenly come alive; they solicit your attention rather than waiting on it. By 1982, Barnes’ paintings seem consistently beatific.

This is not to say that the old Barnes paintings aren’t extraordinary; they are. But they are dreams drawn in the colors of whiskey and Thanksgiving dinner, and they seem static and posed; the subject is usually sitting. Nowadays, Barnes’ characters are generally leaping through a madcap quilt of color, or trying the tablecloth trick with a lot of expensive china at risk and winding up pulling perspective up along with the linen. The way I figure it, Robert Barnes woke up one morning a colossal painter who, suddenly, saw spectacular things. He saw action, a visual riot going on. Since then, he has painted riots of color and design, objects and dreams. He has painted visions of wild goings on in elegant rooms, connecting the real world and the hallucination through dense patterning. For Barnes, design is a point of departure into a world where the laws of physics are compromised by a symbolic gravity and a biological charge. In his most recent paintings, his characters have passed from the drawing room into the fabric of the room itself, tumbling through a universe entered via the design on a tablecloth or a drapery.

Glenn O’Brien