Robert Barry’s Words Stop Viewers Short at Galerie Greta Meert
Anyone who has recently walked by Brussels Galerie Greta Meert has likely seen (or read) the work of Robert Barry plastering the gallery’s glass storefront and lining its walls and floors. The words “UNLIKE,” “ENCOUNTER,” “REVEAL,” “ELEGANT,” and “EMPTY,” among others, shout at passersby in large blue capital letters, bouncing haphazardly across the front windows and door. The show, titled “Robert Barry – Works 1962 until present,” expands on a recent exhibition of the pioneering conceptual artist’s work hosted this past February by Hunter College in New York, where Barry studied in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Curated by Franz W. Kaiser, chief curator at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, the show offers a look at several pieces that have never been exhibited in Europe, as well as an encompassing view of his larger body of work.
Barry began his artistic career as an abstract painter under the influence of two Hunter professors in particular, Robert Motherwell and Tony Smith. By the late 1960s, Barry turned toward conceptual art, trading his brushes and canvases for text—which he places on walls, floors, and other surfaces—inspired by, he has said, “the individual power of the word to convey emotions or feelings.”
Around this same time, in the ‘60s, he also started working with invisible, ephemeral elements like inert gases, electromagnetic energy, and ultrasonic radiation, as well as with notions like telepathy. One photograph in the show, Radiation Installation Central Park (1969) depicts a wide expanse of the park, including a ball field and a small group at play. While you would not know it from just looking, the piece documents the site where Barry buried a vial of a radioactive isotope, barium 133, which emitted small amounts of radiation and decayed over the next 10 years.
Barry’s intentionally un-categorizable projects are driven both by his desire to push beyond the perceived boundaries of space, materials, and art itself, and by his interest in creating meaningful experiences for those who encounter his work. Recalling those artists that inspired him to pursue art, he has said, “One of the motivations for making art, at least for me, is to try and equal in some way the feeling of the intensity you get from artists whose work you like a lot. Who made you want to be an artist.”
By breaking down language into words, its component parts, and presenting them singly, in lists, or as incomplete phrases, he demonstrates how contingent their meanings may be. In one list included in the exhibition, “IMPLY,” “INTIMATE,” and “DIFFERENT,” are among a list of words arranged in a row on the floor, each one a different color, every other word inverted, depending on where one stands. They literally stop viewers short (in order to avoid walking on them) and then, in true Barry fashion, activate the mind to fill in the gaps—a conceptual game offered by the artist for anyone who wishes to engage in his perceptual play.
“Robert Barry – Works 1962 until present” is on view at Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels, Sept. 11 – Nov. 14, 2015.