The following telephone interview with Robert Barry occurred on March 21st, 2009
RB: What did you find interesting about my show at Lambert?
CS: I haven’t been in New York that long, this is now my 7th year, but I was in Ohio for a long, long time studying the history of contemporary art with Stephen Melville, so I was familiar with your work from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and in my course have often used your Inert Gas Series as a comparison to John Baldessari. For me this is a way to talk about different relationships to the literal, Baldessari’s being more rhetorical than what I see in your work. But also to have some fun with the sense of humor that was flying around. That was the context I knotted you into. So it was a real surprise to see your show, to say “Wow, this is Robert Barry,” and to see all of that color, I was really affected by the color and the space.
I do write, and when I saw your show I was just sort of scouring the galleries in Chelsea and it was all a big whirl and sometimes it takes a while for things to settle. But when I knew that Jenny Holzer was coming I started thinking of your show again and got really interested in what you were doing in comparison to her work, and now that I’ve seen Jenny Holzer I’m even more interested in that.
RB: I haven’t seen her show.
CS: One of the things that she’s doing, and what surprised me about your show, is that, well, there’s almost an aggressive campaign on the part of Holzer and the curators and the museum to hook her work into a history of painting, which is very interesting to me. So one of the things I also noticed in your show was the diptych, there’s a way in which you also are thinking about what it means to hold an allegiance to painting.
RB: The diptych - of course you’re talking about 62-08, fortysix years represented in the space between the two panels. I’ve done a number of those diptychs in recent years... putting an old work next to a recent, as one piece. Only an older artist , like me, can make such a work! But you aren’t familiar with all the work from those years in between the late 60's and what I’m doing now.... paintings, installations, videos, the photographic work, all of that. Most historians focus on the early work, the so-called "conceptual" work. But as an artist I must continue working, and trying to keep it interesting, at least for me. For many years, from 1968 to 1980 I didn’t do any painting. I stopped again for a few years in the late 90's. Now, in the last year or so, I’ve picked it up again. So if I feel that I need to paint to get my ideas across then I’ll use paint. Right now, in the last year or two, I’ve started to do paintings again. But, as you can see in the show I'm also working in other ways.
CS: Is this a more emphatic return to painting that is very recent for you?
RB: I go back to it when I need it. It all depends on where my art making takes me. It really comes out of the ideas that I want to convey and where I want my work to go. What’s interesting to me is that if I need paint, I use paint. If I need photography, or vinyl letters on a wall... I have to confront the situation, the space, the place that's given to me, and see what works. I'm doing a lot of video these days. I didn’t show one in the exhibit. Maybe I should have. I've always been interested in using time in my work. That's obvious in the diptych and the "Inert Gas" piece. The videos give me another way of incorporating time. So, I call myself an artist, and use whatever I need that works for me to do the art.
CS: In the Holzer show they are avoiding certain questions by talking about the influence of both Goya and Matisse on Holzer’s painting and her work as a whole. The earlier question or comparison between painter’s works that is relevant here is that offered by Benjamin Buchloh’s 1989 essay “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions.” He was taking a position and saying that at some point you have to make a choice between Duchamp and Mondrian. Do you make that choice?
RB: No, I don't think in those terms, I'm really an intuitive thinker. What works, what seems to me to be an interesting direction based on my history, my feelings, on what I know, is how I work. We are all influenced by countless things. Some artistic, and some are not. I can't isolate one over another. I don't like to think that one thing influenced me more than anything else. Except, as I've always said that my past work is my biggest influence on me.
CS: It’s clear that you’re not a willy-nilly grab-bag sort of person.
RB: If you follow the history of my work you may see in it a kind of logical progression. People tell me that one thing seems to follow out of another. It appears logical, but it’s really intuitive. It’s not something that’s just planned out ahead. For instance, I might be looking at an old piece and some idea will come to me that I might not have even thought about originally. And that’ll set me off in new a direction.
CS: Holzer is interested in making work that is “where people look.” She’s very interested in LED’s in particular, the text pieces that stream as though they were in nasdaq or Times Square.
RB: Well, people are always looking at what catches their eye. Isn't that what advertising is about? To catch people's attention. I guess that's what LED's are designed to do. If you put an art object out into a public space, whether it's a sculpture or anything else, I suppose some people will look at it and recognise it as a piece of art, and think about it. Others will just not be interested. Sometimes it's nice to put something outside. I've done it. However, when people go to a museum or a gallery, that's what they do, they look - they become engaged with the art. That's why they go there. So, even more quiet, subtle work can be seen and appreciated.
CS: Her installation peices are pretty difficult to escape, they’re very insistent, they don’t have the more quiet sense of text that your words have.
RB: I don’t usually use text. Occasionally I do, but in a very different way. I think the thing that distinguishes me from other so-called language artists is that I use words. Isolated words. Words as objects. I don't use language the way that a writer would, to convey a message, or tell a story. I try not to moralize. I use the word as an object in itself. Whatever its history, it's meaning, it's associations. It's look... In the context that it’s in, a gallery, an outside space. I would even hesitate to call myself an artist who uses language. I use words. Words as objects, and of course these words are loaded and meant to grab the viewer in a way that they can interact with them - if they choose to do so. Words come from us. They don't exist in the world outside of us. They speak to us. I like working in an art context, where people come to experience art in a serious way. And, by the way, when you say “just looking”, I’m not really interested in just looking. I’m interested in looking, thinking, feeling, being engaged. Participating... Looking is what we do in our practical, everyday lives. Hopefully, one comes with expectation, and with some history, some knowledge, and will have a deeper experience that may begin with looking.
CS: I’m looking right now at a painting by Mel Bochner that was in a recent Whitney Biennial called Nothing from 2003 and on a black ground there’s a list of words, a thesuarus, “nothing, negation, non-existence, not-being, none,” etc. And that etc. is important, the painting ends with a comma as though the list is going to go on. But his sense of a word list is really quite different than your own, and so the other thing that I have in my hand here is your Word List of 2008: diffident, beyond, imply, wonder, almost, ineffable. And what’s striking me is that your words in this list do seem to have a very strong kind of pressure on a limit of knowledge.
RB: What do you mean by a limit of knowledge?
CS: “Almost” and “ineffable” are at the edge but there is a there that is palpable. “Another” you could say is a way of crossing that distance.
RB: Art is a form of knowledge. There’s this odd dichotomy, that a work of art should be both complete in itself, but should also have implications or associations beyond itself. Some artists rely solely on ambiguity. Mostly figurative artists. This kind of work I don’t find very interesting. Of course the viewer, whoever’s looking at it, is going to have their own interpretation. They’re going to take away from it whatever they want. You can’t get into their head and tell them what to think. My words are complete unto themselves, and there’s the implication that they go beyond themselves. The way I present them, they have many meanings, or no specific meaning. The person looking at the work is going to be looking at it in his or her own way and I always must take that into consideration when I make art. Once it leaves your studio, once it leaves the gallery, who knows what people are going to do with it? But ultimately, that’s where the meaning is going to be found.
CS: I do see these as related to the nouveau roman and concrete poetry.
RB: I think that’s a mistake. I’m not a poet, I’m an artist. There’s nothing new about using words and art. When I was a school kid we took a trip to the National Gallery in Washington and saw the Van Eyck picture of the Angel and the Madonna. I asked “Why are the words coming out of the mouth of the Madonna upside down?” The teacher didn’t even realize that they were upside down. Actually it's common in Flemish paintings. Of course, if God is in heaven looking down, it’s not upside down to Him! So the idea of language or words as objects being used in the visual arts is not a new idea, the two are entwined, they always have been.
CS: So the word lists and the crosses are very different with regard to orientation in relation to the reader and one of the things that strikes me is that it’s a cliche about abstract painting that you can turn it upside down or sideways and whenever such a cliche is actually materialized it doesn’t become trite as an actual experience, there’s something going on that’s much richer than any cliche. I’m looking at Word List (Painting) and Red Cross (Painting) from 2008, and wondering if Red Cross has four different hooks. Does it matter to you how they are hung?
RB: It does, they are signed in the back in a certain way. I did a series in the ‘70s called "omnidirectional drawings" where it didn’t matter how the object was hung. I liked the fact that a decision had to be made on the part of the person who owned it. That they had a responsibility to participate in it's presentation. It's an extension of that idea that I was talking about, about how meaning can change when a work goes out into the world. So I wanted to give some responsibility to the viewer in a very specific way, how is it going to be presented. Presentation is very important to me. Where and when a painting is hung and how, in what situation, really has a lot to do with its ultimate meaning. In some sense it could be as important as what’s actually in the painting, the content of the work itself. So the idea of giving some responsibilty to the owner, the viewer, was something that made sense in terms of how meaning is made. It wasn’t a cliche, it was really a part of the work itself, built into it so to speak. It's about how artworks really exist in the world.
CS: From there I think it’s nice to think of the installation at Yvon Lambert, and what interested me is that there were these very discrete works, Red Cross, Word List (Painting), and word lists as texts on the wall.
RB: My next show in May in Paris is called “Word Lists.” It’s a general idea I’ve been working on for the last year or so. Instead of arranging the words in a sort of random way, to cover a wall, as I've been doing for the last few years, I've decided to present them in a more direct, organized way. Arranging them in a line, cross or a circle is a returning to the past, but in a different way.
CS: What I enjoyed about the exhibit at Yvon Lambert, and what is relevant to the conversation we’re having about orientation and painting, is that while these felt like discrete presentations of words in terms of medium and space, it was also really interesting to see this installation as a whole and to think of a word list as something that is very plastic, it can be a thousand words long or three words long, and so where a work began and ended in the space of an installation that is involving such word lists became kind of interesting to me.
RB: Yes. The lists do imply extending beyond the confines of the immediate space. You may not know about the typewriter drawings from the ‘70's that would have a list of adjectives and adverbs that could go on for 5 or 6 pages. They would describe something that was indescribable, or at least not visible.
CS: Do you find that over the years you've acquired a very specific vocabulary?
RB: Yes, and I add to it all the time. I draw from a list of about two to three hundred words. I’m always adding to it and taking some away.
CS: And is there anything that you can describe as a quality of those two or three hundred words?
RB: A state of mind, or suggest an some activity, a quality...not specific objects like a table, a chair, a tv set or computer.
CS: I’m interested in these states of mind that are transmitted telepathically, and I’m thinking also of what I mentioned earlier in the Word List that has “ineffable” at the bottom and “another” at the top. What I do see in the language that you’ve chosen and some of the things that you do with it is - I looked up the word telepathy and it means ‘”to be affected by distance.” It’s intriguing to find these sentences which have a completely different force.
RB: The history of the piece... the dates are 1969-2009. Those specific ones were originally for an exhibition in 1969 but were never shown. To keep with the idea of this show, the time theme that the show was about, I wanted a work that spanned the time Lambert and I have been working together. 40 years. I first started working with him in Paris in 1969. And this show and the one in Paris is really a 40th anniversary show. I originally ment them to be shown in Sao Paolo in Brazil, but there was a political problem in Brazil at that time, and the American artists in the show decided to protest by not exhibiting our work. So the works were never shown. Originally, they probably would have been presented only in the catalogue. This time, I showed them in a different version in vinyl color letters. It’s an old work in an new format, spanning those forty years. Hence the dates.
CS: There’s another sentence from 1970, “Something only you can realize.”
RB: I thought that might be interesting to see it on the window before you go in. It does put some responsibility on the viewer. Also, I think of it as a welcome in.
CS: Looking at your own reflection?
RB: You have a responsibility when you go in there and deal with this work.
CS: Now with your word lists and crosses and circles, are you thinking less about sentences, do the words as words, as objects, have a different sense for you than they did earlier?
RB: I don't want to think in terms of sentences. The window piece is from 1970. I don't think it's different, but I'm always looking for new words.
Copyright Catherine Spaeth, 2009
Image Credits: Inert gas Series: Neon, 1969. Two photographs, text. 2 photos, each 8X10", 1 text, 11x8 1/2", 20 1/2x40" frame, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Installation View, Exhibition: RB 62-08, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; 62-08, 1962-2008, diptych: left panel oil on canvas, right panel, acrylic on canvas, left: 56x47.75", right: 36x36", © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Jenny Holzer, Green Purple Cross, 2008, and Blue Cross, 2008. Three double-sided electronic LED signs (two with blue and green diodes on front and blue and red diodes on back and one with blue and red diodes on front and blue and green diodes on back); and seven double-sided electronic LED signs with blue diodes on front and blue and red diodes on back. 59 x 122 5/8 x 100 11/16 in. (149.9 x 311.4 x 255.8 cm); and 85 13/16 x 109 x 100 11/16 in. (217.9 x 276.9 x 255.8 cm). Installation view: Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, 2008. Texts: Erlauf, 1995, Arno, 1996, Blue, 1998 (Green Purple Cross); and Arno, 1996 (Blue Cross). © 2009 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Lili Holzer-Glier. Collection of the artist; courtesy Yvon Lambert, Paris (Green Purple Cross); and David Roberts Art Foundation, London (Blue Cross); Mel Bochner, Nothing, 2003, oil on canvas, 45x60", Collection of Jill and Peter Kraus, image courtesy of http://www.carnegiemellontoday.com /article.asp?Aid=112; Word List, 2008, acrylic paint on wall, dimensions variable, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Jan Van Eyck, The Annunciation. Before 1435. Oil on wood transferred to canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA.; Red Cross (Painting), 2008, acrylic on canvas, 70x70", © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Installation view, exhibition: RB 62-08, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; A Secret Desire Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009; A Volitional State of Mind Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009; A Particular Feeling Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009; A Particualr Emotion Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009; A Great Concern Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009, vinyl letters on wall, dimensions variable, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Something Only You Can Realize, 1970, vinyl letters, dimensions variable, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; Red Cross, 2008 9detail0 cast acrylic, dimensions variable, 12 words, each letter 1 inch high, each letter approximately 12 inches wide, © Robert Barry, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York.