New York

Martin Barré, 91— 120 x 160—D, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 47 1/4 x 63". From the series “91,” 1991.

Martin Barré, 91— 120 x 160—D, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 47 1/4 x 63". From the series “91,” 1991.

Martin Barré

Martin Barré, 91— 120 x 160—D, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 47 1/4 x 63". From the series “91,” 1991.

Given that he has achieved a near cultish following, and that his influence resonates so decisively across contemporary abstract painting (from the work of Cheyney Thompson and Blake Rayne to that of Wade Guyton and Rebecca Quaytman, among others), it comes as a surprise to learn that Martin Barré had only one US solo exhibition in his lifetime. In fact, it was not until roughly a decade after his death, in 1993, that his work began regularly appearing in group shows in the States, a shift accompanied, more broadly, by a groundswell of interest in his singular experiment with anticompositional strategies and the nature of mark-making, the latter distinguished by his systematic deployment of the paint tube and the spray gun, and his eventual return to the customary implement of the brush. Since his practice is obliquely positioned relative to that of his peers—whether the lyrical gesturalism of Hans Hartung, the performative monochromy of Yves Klein, or the ludic astringency of BMPT (Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni)—Barré’s role in a history of postwar art is at once foundational and perversely, perhaps purposefully, slight.

Enter Andrew Kreps: Following the installation of a kind of Barré mini-retrospective in 2008—a crucial first platform—the gallery has here presented the artist’s submission for the first Bienniale de Lyon in 1991. Composed of ten acrylic paintings subdivided into three formats, albeit conceived (like many of his works executed from the 1970s on) as a single series, “91” is titled after the year in which it was completed. Its restaging in the present context abides by its initial protocols, wherein the friezelike panels hang close to the ceiling. The specificity of the installation accords with the systematic rigor of the tableaux themselves. Painted in a uniform palette, the works feature rows of irregularly placed trapezoids, with the color of each shape corresponding to its orientation: Those facing right are a coral-inflected red; those facing left a turquoise blue. Barré seems to counter the inherent arbitrariness of such codes and decisions while simultaneously relishing them. Color thus generates and affirms its object in one fell swoop.

The constancy of Barré’s structures admits a logic of repetition, an obligatory precondition for the articulation of the interactions that he fashions between and among the structures and their components. These interactions involve color (sometimes the two or three trapezoids in a given painting are red; in others they are all blue; while still other works feature both hues) and they also involve space. Stationed at the top or bottom edges, the forms protrude into the monochromatic voids, never managing to stretch far enough across to touch the shapes on the opposite side. On a horizontal axis, the trapezoids sometimes just barely abut, though they most often remain tantalizingly close (which likewise means they remain forever apart).

Outlined in a dove gray, which Barré apparently applied freehand, the trapezoids necessarily engender questions of their relation to the support. Outlines might flatten the pictorial surface or they might articulate it; here, they at once suggest and disable primacy by introducing a third term to the constitutive binary of figure and ground. Consequently, Barré can exploit this figure/ground relationship without the attendant conjuring of illusionistic play, and without recourse to depth—either the pictorial effect or the metaphysics routinely assumed to subtend it. Barré spoke of trying “to get rid of the ‘above-below’ thing,” which is to say associative painting, and here he succeeded. If the punishingly Sisyphean labor of stymieing referentiality and representation-derived content is a given, Barré works even harder, giving the work’s precise attempt at becoming itself and nothing else extraordinarily rapt attention. “91” looks inevitable, even as one knows it is anything but. “In front of a picture by Martin Barré,” wrote the critic Hervé Gauville, “one has the impression to recognize it, while being forced to admit that it is the first time one sees it.” Too bad it took us so long to have the chance.

Suzanne Hudson