New York

Robert Barry

Holly Solomon Gallery

Robert Barry’s first projection piece in over ten years consists of grainy, circular, black and white photographs of friends, family, and associates interspersed with colored words and circular shapes. While the fragmented and rambling narratives of his word works, reminiscent of concrete poetry, have become increasingly psychologically suggestive over the years, Not Intended, 1991, takes the plunge into unabashed autobiography. Until now the voice has never been clearly identified; we remember Barry’s insistence that “language can be used to indicate the situation where art exists” and have attributed to his floating signifiers and broken syntaxes the status of langue, as opposed to parole. The point here isn’t to what the words refer (or who speaks them), but rather the form the speech takes and the fact that it exists in the first place. If language’s function here is merely to signify the condition of “art,” the content of that language must be seen as superfluous; if its low-key reverberations evoke the human condition, it must be understood at the level of psychic or emotional energy—another type of invisible “material,” as in his previous experiments with microwaves, radiation, electromagnetic energy, and mental telepathy. Questions of whose romantic longing, whose doubt, whose alternating moods of engagement and detachment, and whose life remain unanswered. Fading in and out of darkness to the accompaniment of mechanical noise, Not Intended would seem to cast another light on these nagging little queries, for Barry’s memory theater ends silently and significantly with the pronoun “me.”

The duration of Not Intended is extended, yet the variables and structure of its slow-paced sequences are quickly grasped. To take in its full 35 minutes is not only to be impressed with Barry’s obvious self-indulgence, it is also to experience initial bouts with boredom that incubate random reflection. One recalls that even as a founding member of the Conceptual movement, Barry softly argued for subjective experience and hinted at the possibility of art as a totalizing vision. In a 1969 WBAI interview, for example, he deplored emphasis on objectivity and attempts to depersonalize or dehumanize art: “I try to put myself into [art] or I try to realize the fact that art is something that is made by human beings . . . that is really what it is about.” Intuition, the unknown, absence and presence, invisibility, nothingness—all catchwords descriptive of Barry’s practice—could be accounted for both conceptually and materially. Subjectivity, in those days, was taken as code for the phenomenological experience of space and time, not as absolute qualities but ones contingent on individual perception. Humanization, however, had to be very narrowly interpreted, for the psychology of self was antithetical to the reductivism of “pure” Conceptual art. Not surprisingly, the expression of personal feelings in Barry’s work has been largely ignored.

“Hopeful,” “Desires,” “Believe,” “Inevitable,” “Declare,” “So Close,” “Remember”—the textual elements of Not Intended are multivalent. They name the human condition, the ineffable experience of being “me” in a world of other “me’s” and designate this perpetual and shared event as an eroticized one. Both circumspect and nonlimiting, Barry’s title gives license to expansive readings. Because the visual referents for the words are faces that are not only meaningful to Barry’s life but, some of them, in fact, familiar to us as the practitioners, critics, dealers, and supporters of Conceptual art, his lover’s discourse paints another “not intended” portrait of that moment and what it tried to do and show and be. As though we had peered into a family photo album annotated with brief and telling captions, a life unfolds in fond remembrance, rich with its share of conflict and territorial dispute, idealism, and integrity. Poignant, sentimental, searching, satisfied, ambiguous, detached—Not Intended appears at a pivotal moment, one in which subjectivity is being reinterpreted with respect to humanistic themes (e.g. sexuality, personal identity, the life of the emotions, death). Where better to look than to Barry for a model of self-expression that is neither messy nor in violation of the dictates of cerebral art?

Jan Avgikos