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A first-generation Conceptualist, Robert Barry abandoned his painting practice in the 1960s and began experimenting with radio waves, noble gases, and nylon string—teetering on the edge of a radically imperceptible art. Since the ’70s, his work has explored, among other subjects, the visual, verbal, and conceptual qualities of language, and he’s also found ways to merge the immaterial and the physical. This exhibition of new wall texts, sculptures, and paintings—supported by several seminal pieces and by re-creations of older works never before exhibited—continues these investigations.
Presenting language in highly corporeal form, Barry cast one-inch-tall sans-serif letters in acrylic to form Red Cross, 2008. He spells out a dozen words with the fire-engine-red letters and sets them flat on the main gallery floor in the shape of a plus sign (four pairs bordering a central square quartet). Some groupings seem intentional: ABSENT and ENCOUNTER make sense together, but CHANGING and INTIMATE are less clear. The logic of any combination, however, seems less important than Barry’s vocabulary choices. Playing [fast and] loose with Saussurean linguistics, the artist selects signifiers without concrete signifieds, which explains why he prefers verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to nouns. RECOGNIZE, BEYOND, IMPLY, ALMOST, WONDER—these are five of eight terms in Word List, 2008, painted in a column directly on the wall in pale primary and secondary colors, which “describe” those things that are essentially indescribable: mental processes, states, and concepts outside language that can often be experienced visually but rarely verbally.
The new works are buttressed by several older pieces, from a 1962 untitled checkerboard canvas to Inert Gas Series: Neon, 1969. Most engaging are five short phrases from 1969 (and codated to 2009) blown up in colorful vinyl letters on the wall, reminiscent of Lawrence Weiner’s mural-scale texts. Originally appearing only in catalogues and as performances, A Secret Desire Transmitted Telepathically and four other similarly phrased statements share Weiner’s interest in relinquishing control of art to viewers, but Barry surpasses his colleague by not specifying the form, content, or subject matter of the work, instead encouraging pure, ineffable thought found only in the mind of the viewer.