New York

Robert Barry

Yvon Lambert New York

A dash in the title of Robert Barry’s recent exhibition at Yvon Lambert, “RB 62–08,” might more accurately have been an ampersand. With one exception, the show’s paintings, texts, and photographs date from either the 1960s or the past two years (or both: The diptych 62–08 takes its name from the vintages of its component canvases, and a suite of vinyl phrases applied to the wall was conceived in 1969 and only given form now). Although this still institutionally unsung artist is long overdue for a full-dress retrospective, the lack of material from the intervening decades—wire and thread sculptures that traversed buildings and gallery spaces; projects involving ultrasonic waves, electromagnetic fields, radioactive substances; forays into film, video, and installation—felt in this instance less like a lacuna than a testament to his rigor, so resonant is the early work with the more contemporary. Over the years, Barry’s themes have remained remarkably consistent.

They are, after all, themes for the ages: hard-line, first-generation Conceptual art questions about visual versus linguistic modes of communication, the extent to which an abjuration of perceptual data can be pushed, and the resituating of the viewer as active participant rather than passive observer, often at a cost of authorial evacuation. Barry began, and has continued, in the seemingly anathematized medium of painting. Untitled, 1962, offers a glimpse of his pre-Conceptualist days, its checkerboard grid pointing to itself as at once edge, surface, and support—a consideration of the self-reflexivity of the object that the artist developed, soon enough, into one regarding its dematerialization. The only perceptible form Inert Gas Series: Neon, 1969, takes is documentation, two black-and-white photographs and a paragraph of text recording the release of a set quantity of the invisible noble gas into the Mojave Desert.

Even less tangible is Barry’s work with what he called “mental energy,” represented here by five wall decals rendering statements including A SECRET DESIRE TRANSMITTED TELEPATHICALLY, A VOLITIONAL STATE OF MIND TRANSMITTED TELEPATHICALLY, AND A PARTICULAR FEELING TRANSMITTED TELEPATHICALLY. A wry literalizing of the terms of both “medium” and “conceptual” in their dependence on the viewer for completion, the works put forth the idea of artwork as thought. Utterly immaterial, the mental states described (a particular emotion, a great concern) are ones prior to, or incommensurate with, language and image, a disproportionality that was thrown into relief throughout the show by the presentation of words in big, candy-hued, sans serif fonts.

Like others (Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth) whose texts have increased in visual sophistication over the past several decades, Barry was initially indifferent to the appearance of his words; the linguistic proposition was meant as a substitute for the object of spatiotemporal experience. Since the 1990s, the texts have become more assertive. Red Cross, 2008, the centerpiece of the exhibition, features twelve floor-bound, cast-acrylic, cherry-colored words radiating from a central quadrant into a cross form. This is language as something to be confronted by and navigated around, if not bumped into, but, as always, legibility toggles with obfuscation: The terms are oriented in different directions, and the concreteness of nouns is traded for the vagaries of verbs and adjectives (remind, absent, include). “I use words because they speak out to the viewer,” Barry said in 1969, yet from the beginning this straight-talk intention has been accompanied by a demonstration of communicative pitfalls and failures—a back-and-forth that continues to animate his work, forty years on.

Lisa Turvey