Greta Meert

Robert Barry

11 Sep - 14 Nov 2015

Installation view
Works 1962 Until Present
11 September – 14 November 2015

In art, 'contemporary' is usually equated with 'conceptual', and the conceptual is often perceived as 'that which concerns a concept' – while art is essentially visual. Where the conceptual and the visual are coupled to each other, the latter quickly degenerates into an illustration of the former. However, if we return to the early days of conceptual art, we might discover that it can also be the other way round: something visual – forms and/or colours for example, but also written words – can trigger mental images that can hardly be grasped in concepts.

Of the conceptual movement's founding protagonists, Robert Barry is perhaps the artist whose art most clearly shows the reversal of the current relationship between concept and image. His works not only consist of what is actually visible. What the viewer makes of it, the ideas the visible evokes in him or her, are sometimes even more important. Conceptions, 'views', are personal and different for everyone, and the visual in Barry's work is so reduced that much space is left for the viewer to complete the work. This inverse relationship between concept and image runs like a thread through his entire oeuvre, which is more than half a century old now. The fact that it all started in the heyday of the New York School, that is to say of abstract art, is typical, because abstract art depicts nothing, as a result of which the traditional relationship between concept and imagination, or illustration, collapses.

Robert Barry's career is inextricably linked to Hunter College in New York. In the late 1950s he studied under Robert Motherwell, an abstract expressionist, whose work one would not easily associate with Barry's, and in the early 1960s under Tony Smith, who is mainly known as a sculptor. Pretty soon he taught there himself – until the end of the 1970s. This tie with an educational institution was in no way an impediment to his career as an internationally acclaimed artist. On the contrary, it was an important breeding ground for his work and made him financially independent. Barry did not need to be a strategist to break through at the highest international level – something which is almost unthinkable today. He just was, as he puts it, in the right place at the right time by chance. All this makes his work a perfect example of a fundamental concept of aesthetics that today has somewhat fallen out of sight, namely the concept of 'interesseloses Wohlgefallen' (Kant) or 'disinterested pleasure' (Shaftesbury, giving a literal translation of the latter), meaning that you do something just for the pleasure of doing it and not to become famous, earn a lot of money or get some other benefit from it. This useless pleasure is the driving force of fundamental research in science and the foundation under the existence of art.

In February of this year, Hunter College had a Robert Barry show in its new branch in Tribeca, Downtown Manhattan, with works Barry made out of his connectedness to this school, including early work that was never shown before. Now, some of these works will be shown for the first time in Europe, together with in an overview of his entire oeuvre. By complementing Robert Barry's existing image this way, the exhibition offers new insights into the meaning of his work.

The exhibition is curated by Franz-W. Kaiser, chief curator of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, who previously organised Robert Barry shows at Centre National d'Art Contemporain de Grenoble and Gemeentemuseum. As part of this project, he had conversations with Robert Barry about the early days of conceptual art and about his work. These conversations will also be made accessible.

Tags: Robert Barry, Robert Motherwell, Tony Smith