Zabar Artist Lecture: Robert Barry & Non-Material Art

On a wednesday night Hunter College students and staff packed into a crowded lecture hall on the second floor of 205 Hudson to listen to the words of Robert Barry, which are physically plastered to the ground level gallery walls below.  Barry is famed for his work using invisible media, performance, and word based “suggestive artworks;” a term coined by Barry himself at wednesday’s lecture.  The exhibition in the 205 Hudson gallery downstairs and in the room adjacent to the lecture hall is a retrospective of fifty impressive years spent making immaterial artworks.   

The exhibition consists of work from the 1960‘s onward and includes a variety of media, from video to painting, drawing, exhibition catalogues, and even to a student run performance which continues throughout the duration of gallery hours.  The physical manifestations of Barry’s work are minimal and word based.  Performers in the gallery are instructed to project words out into space as if these words are objects.  Time floats around each word, cushioning it like the ephemera of air, gas, and light which construct and simultaneously disassociate object/things from space.  Barry has proven himself, time and again, to have a profound interest in the intangible; should he phrase his flippant explanations differently, his work could signify religion, the sacred, and the ineffable.  Yet Barry strives not to place this emphasis on his work.  He is profoundly grounded in nature and the physical. In keeping with many other conceptual artists, Robert Barry rejected outright the label of “conceptual art” (a term supported by critics and the internet at large: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Barry_%28artist%29) when a student put the term forward during the lecture.    

Robert Barry adopted the persona of an artist who easily navigates the art world organism.  He presented his ideas vaguely making statements such as “(I hope) that people might get lost in my work,” and indeed Barry stated that he “kind of liked” when people did not understand his creations. These vague allusions to meaning and viewer impact created intrigue among his audience and made him appear detached and sometimes disinterested in his own work.  This act (if it was one) does no justice to the essence of the ineffable power that his work evokes. 

For the past month, I myself have performed Barry’s timed wordlist once a week.  The experience is gripping in its ability to transport the actor out of themselves through careful, meditative focus on one specific word/object/thing which is then projected outward into the space of the gallery every thirty seconds.    Barry’s categorical explanation of each piece in the retrospective of his career did no justice to the experience of his work; it successfully portrayed him as a likable but detached artist. In my experience, and I suspect many others, the work of Robert Barry speaks for itself.  It is provocative, it has gravity, it creates thought.

The words of Robert Barry are best when left on the wall.