Extreme Abstraction: A Brief Introduction to Martin Barré’s Cosmogony

Installation view, ‘Enigmas: Martin Barre, David Ostrowski, Julian Schnabel, Reena Spaulings’ (2015) (photo by Lance Brewer, courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York). Left: Martin Barre, “65-S-9” (1965), acrylic on canvas, 31-1/2 x 29 inches (© Martin Barre); right: Martin Barre, “65-S-11” (1965), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 28-3/8 inches (© Martin Barre).

Some abstract painters are harder to fathom than others. In fact a few of them seem quite hopelessly indecipherable. A case in point is French painter Martin Barré (1924–1996), who has been receiving increasing and well-deserved attention in New York these past 10 years. Last March and April, Enigmas, a group show at the Andrea Rosen Gallery paired him with Berlin based painter David Ostrowski, largely based on their shared use of spray paint. Ironically, Ostrowski’s pared down, Arte Povera style elegance is just the kind of smart and sensitive brio that Barré has spent his life laboring very hard to avoid.

The Barré paintings at Andrea Rosen belonged to a group of works developed between the years 1963 and 1967, whose most prominent features are black lines spray-painted across the white canvas background. These early spray and Zebra paintings, which were first exhibited in New York in 2008 at the Andrew Kreps Gallery, clearly anticipate his later development as an artist, but they are hardly the easiest entryway into his work. But was there ever an easy way into Barré’s work?

In 1976, an art history professor in Lille, France, showed his university class a slide of a recent painting by Martin Barré, who was then having a gallery show in Paris. The work was so non-referential and hermetically folded into itself that it was impossible to project any of the usual modernist readings upon it. After a few minutes of stunned silence, he proposed his own reading, which went right over his student’s heads. Unbeknownst to them, the professor, Marc- André Stalter, was a close friend of Martin Barré’s, and much later, he curated the first major retrospective of Barré’s work to travel in France in 1989–90, to Nantes, Tourcoing, and Nice.

I mention this episode only to emphasize that Martin Barré has proven to be a long-lasting enigma (the title of the group show at Andrea Rosen was quite appropriate in that regard) even for many of his compatriots. His allegiance to the stretched canvas was so unlike anything else shown in France at that time — an era dominated, in terms of avant-garde painting, by the Supports/Surfaces dogma of the loose canvas (la toile libre, literally the “free” canvas, freed from the stretcher) — that he exerted a powerful fascination on younger painters even though they could barely figure out his work.

Now, with a wink and a nod to the historically dated French art-critical approach of the ’70s, it might be interesting to seek pathway into his work by examining the range of “psychoanalytic” interpretations prompted by the painter’s last name.

This concept reflects the line of thinking followed by Marcelin Pleynet in his catalogue introduction, “La méthode de Robert Motherwell (Robert Motherwell’s method),” to Motherwell’s first museum retrospective in Paris in 1977, in which he pondered the role of the painter’s surname in the psychoanalytical foundations of his creative idiom.

Based on the recurring W-shape in a few pivotal early paintings (from “Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive,”1943, to “Viva,” 1946), which could also be seen as an upside-down M, the surname’s initial. With his limited English Pleynet tentatively proposed to break the painter’s name in two parts; Mother and Well (“mère-bien” in French) and developed a provocative reading of the work from there. In an interesting exchange, Motherwell responded to Pleynet’s hypothesis by pointing out the other English meaning of the word well (as in water supply, “puit” in French) and acknowledged that his remark might only reinforce Pleynet’s own psychoanalytic reading of his work. (Coincidentally, the same Andrea Rosen Gallery that held the Enigmas show with Barré also assembled in May and June a remarkable exhibition of Motherwell’s Open series).

Martin Barre, “67-Z-21” (1967), glycerophtalic and acrylic paint on canvas, 20-3/4 x 19-1/4 inches (© Martin Barre ADAGP 2015, courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels)

In Barré’s case, to my knowledge no French writer to date has ventured to explore the too obvious connotations of his surname, perhaps because such a flat-footed observation would make any French-speaker cringe. Barré is the masculine past participle of the French verb “barrer” (to cross out, to deny access), as in, for example, “route barrée” (road closed), a road sign that usually goes together with another sign, “Déviation” (detour). It is this particular metaphor, of a closing of a way of thinking and of the intellectual detour that inevitably accompanies it, that will help us ease into Barré’s hermetic body of work.

Let’s start with the Zebra series from early 1967. With their evenly spaced diagonal lines of spray paint covering the whole surface, these paintings are the equivalent of the route barrée sign; the paint prevents the eye from diving to a depth that doesn’t exist beyond the pictorial surface, thereby barring access to illusionistic space. The later crosshatch paintings from 1972 to 1977 will further reinforce that reading.

Martin Barre, “62-5” (1962), oil on canvas, 4 parts, clockwise from top left, 23-5/8 x 31-7/8, 21-1/4 x 31-7/8, 23-5/8 x 36-1/4, 21-1/4 x 31-7/8 inches (courtesy the Estate of Martin Barre and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York)

Directly following the Zebra paintings, the Arrow series of late 1967 oddly seems to confirm this interpretation. They are the detour signs, now rerouting the viewer’s gaze to the surface of the tableau, where it would circulate within the picture plane, reiterating the directional paths found in earlier paintings from 1962–63, such as in “62-5” (1962), where a single line meanders capriciously among multiple panels of different sizes.

Barré stopped painting for about three years (1968–71), right after the Arrow series, but he continued exhibiting. A short conceptual intermezzo ensued in which he turned his attention to mapping time and space. With the calendar photos shown at the Daniel Templon Galerie in Paris in 1970, he developed his own version of mapping akin to what On Kawara or Hanne Darboven were concurrently doing, approaching time as a very tangible, measurable but also infinite quantity. A subsequent exhibition is described by Ann Hindry in her essay “Space and Time of Painting, 1960-77,” included in the Nantes, Tourcoing and Nice retrospective catalogue, in this way: “In Monschau (Germany), [Barré] showed a metal rod, coming out of the ground and tilted in such a way as to be parallel to Berlin’s vertical axis, 550 km away.”

Martin Barre, “67-F-5- 113×105” (1967), acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 44-1/2 x 41-3/8 inches (courtesy the Estate of Martin Barre and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York)

These two often overlooked conceptual forays by Barré — the calendar show and the Monschau project — are critically important to establishing the planetary scale of Barré’s approach to perceptual categories: mapping time as a model for mapping space, and mapping the space of the picture plane as fragment of a continuum. In that sense, Barré’s conception of space is very close to Yves Klein’s own version of the blue monochrome as fragment of the infinite. In fact, it could arguably be understood as an attempt to map Yves Klein’s undefined and borderless cosmos and to ground it in the categories of the tableau.

First with the Zebra series, then with the Arrow paintings, and finally with that short conceptual intermezzo, which allowed him to define his concerns as one of mapping, Barré laid out the three critical steps necessary for his breakthrough 1972 series, the beginning of the rest of his oeuvre.

As Stalter points out, Barré’s work can be divided in two parts: from 1954 to 1968 and then 1972 to 1994. The first half is dedicated to extricating himself from the esthetics of the School of Paris and establishing the step-by-step foundations of the second half, the work for which he is now best known. The second period itself can be divided again into two parts: the crosshatched paintings from 1972 to 1977 and the color paintings from 1977 to 1994. From 1972 to 1977, each series follows very similar guidelines: a system of tilted grids with hatched areas simultaneously reinforcing and obfuscating each painting’s individual relationship to the others in the series. From 1977 to 1994, the formats change and the hatchings disappear, replaced with bars and planes of pastel colors that continue to thwart obvious relationships of parts to the whole.

Martin Barre, “75-76-D-157×145” (1975–76), acrylic on canvas, 61-7/8 x 57 inches (courtesy the Estate of Martin Barre and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York)

Painter-critic Joe Fyfe has done the more than anyone to establish Martin Barré’s critical foothold in the American scene. He has sometimes suggested that the position of Barré’s hermetic paintings in his Parisian milieu might be best understood by comparing it to that of Robert Ryman’s in New York, but I would propose a comparison to Frank Stella’s. Very few painters have focused so intently on the specificities and limits of painting’s new literal space as Stella and Barré have (though Al Held might be another example).

Indeed, Stella and Barré both reject illusionism and its implications of space deeper than the surface of the painting. Both also reject the seduction of the expressionist touch, advocating instead a neutral, workmanlike brush mark, at least through the ’70s for Stella. Finally, both organize the progression of their work in a series of series. For them, space is both painting’s primary subject and their primary subject, but they approach it from diametrically opposite angles, diverging on how to define the limits of “literal” space. Where Stella begins with the assumption that a painting is first and foremost an object, Barré assumes that a painting is first and foremost a conceptual and historical construct, a tableau, as Fyfe has so pertinently pointed out.

From there, Stella’s “painting as object” can develop only into literal, “theatrical” space, as Michael Fried labeled it, or the space of the spectacle, as Guy Debord would have called it. To make that point clear, Stella’s only option is to occupy more and more of that space, to project his paintings more and more off the wall, perpendicularly, turning them into wall sculptures and increasingly invasive props in the ever more spectacular presentation of their own space. That is why the notion of scale is so central to Stella’s work, and why it is so irrelevant to Barré’s. Let’s note in passing that the publication of Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” in Art in America in the summer of 1967, and Debord’s Society of the spectacle, in Paris by Buchet-Castel in November 1967, occurred within a few months of each other, quite a telling coincidence, if one were to consider the simultaneous development of critical thought on both sides of the Atlantic.

Barré’s space, in contrast to Stella’s, develops on a plane parallel to the wall, where the thickness of a painting as an object does not come into play. The paintings are always presented on their traditional vertical/horizontal axis, never tilted at an angle or into a diamond shape, which would emphasize their objecthood. In Barré’s stubborn insistence on a quasi-traditional presentation, one can only infer that a very salient point is being made about the nature of painting. Barré is offering a clear resistance to objectification, a rejection of the support and a focus on the surface. This is where Barré’s approach departed emphatically from the Supports/Surfaces school of thought as well as American Minimalism, and why his lone wolf position was and still is so difficult to understand. Shying away from excessive physicality, his space dwells and expands in the mental categories offered by the concept of the tableau as articulated by Roland Barthes in his essay, “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein” (1973):

The tableau (pictorial, theatrical, literary) is a pure cut-out segment with clearly defined edges, irreversible and incorruptible; everything that surrounds it is banished into nothingness, remains unnamed, while everything that it admits within its field is promoted into essence, into light, into view.

Let’s now examine their use of the grid. Stella’s black stripe paintings confined the painted space to the limits of the stretcher. The shaped stretcher simultaneously generated the painted space and established its limits. Taking this literalist credo to an extreme, the American grid and gesture painters from the ‘70s would also reduce the role of the grid to that of affirming and reinforcing the literal surface of the canvas, developing a prison-like space that a “free” gesture would counteract, simultaneously underscoring and subverting the role of the grid.

Martin Barre, “76-77-D-170×160” (1976–77), acrylic on canvas, 67 x 63 inches (© Martin Barre ADAGP 2015, courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels)

This is where the main difference lies between Barré’ and his American counterparts. Between 1972 and 1979, the all-important pencil grid in Barré’s work is almost always laid out at a diagonal, while the paintings themselves are never tilted, emphasizing the fact that his grid, in contrast to Stella’s, is never limited by the format of the stretcher. Barré’s grid is in fact a master grid that defines the space of a series of paintings, not just of one. Mostly invisible, the grid is only hinted at in each painting, acting like an invisible net holding all the paintings of a specific series together. No painting is closed onto itself; it is always a fragment of a larger whole, inferred only through an arduous deciphering of each painting’s composition with a given series. Even so, as Yve-Alain Bois remarked, Barré will at the same time make every effort to ensure that each individual painting also thwarts the viewer’s expectations about its most obvious connection to the whole. (For those wishing to pursue the system principles deployed in each series, the best explication of it might still be a diagram first published in 1977 by Jean Clay in Macula # 2 and later reproduced in 2001 by Stephen Melville in the catalogue of the landmark exhibition As Painting: Division and Displacement, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 2001, page 195.)

Stella’s own spatial credo is brilliantly laid out in his Norton lectures published in 1986 under the title Working Space. But, by summoning the illusionism of Caravaggio and Rubens to the rescue, Stella not only shows how blind his formalist allegiance was to what makes painting tick, its metaphysics, but also how it reduced space to a device disconnected from its context. His brilliant one-two punch is to call on Baroque painting and its illusionistic space to simultaneously extend the logic of literal space and circumvent its limits. But this strategic about-face only underlined the failings of his previous reductivist approach to painting as an object and to space as its main mechanism. By the way, French objections to Minimalism in the ’70s were not about its literalism, serialism or physical/theatrical presence. They were about its reductivism, the same reductivism that Stella was now trying to shed by calling on representational painting, which he had been placating for so long, to get him out of an embarrassing dead end. But as Barré’s work shows, painting is neither just an object nor is its space just one element whose primary purpose is to validate a kind of modernist fundamentalism. Both painting and its space are complex historical and cultural constructs, in continual need of being acknowledged as such, contextualized, deconstructed and re-articulated.

Stella’s analysis of what space needs to be in painting is flawed in the sense that, as the evolution of his career demonstrates, it does not leave any other option open for painting going forward, other than embracing the three dimensionality of sculptural space, and ultimately merge with sculpture. Paradoxically, it seems that Martin’s work could have provided some of the answers to Frank’s dilemma and to some of the questions he was asking himself in Working Space while looking at Kandinsky’s late work.

What Stella seems to be telling young painters is that the future of painting can only lie in three-dimensional space, or in some kind of interaction with it, by way of acknowledging and accentuating its status as an object. What Barré tells them instead is that the future of painting should be excavated from painting’s own categories, primarily from its surface rather than from its support, and that there is certainly enough complexity to be found there to sustain another round of generational investigation.

Another American painter who comes to mind, especially with regards to crosshatching, is Jasper Johns; as John Yau remarked in his book, A Thing among Things (2008), Johns found in the crosshatch “a form that […] is as meaningless as one can get,” a definition that would certainly agree with Barré’s own choice. But beyond the crosshatch, both Barré and Johns seem to share a common need for a literal, down-to-earth, presentation of their subject — only to later insist on carefully concealing their thought process, toying with and foiling the most legitimate viewer’s expectations. In final analysis, a shared compulsion to cover their tracks, a cultivated ambiguity, soon replaces the initial and illusory claim of straightforwardness in both their works.

Barré is certainly the least literary of any painter one could imagine, the dryness of his titles attests to his commitment to firmly remain within the realm of self-referentiality, but there is no denying a kind of Borgesian dimension to his entire painting enterprise, if one thinks of Jose Luis Borges’ late short story titled “The Book of Sand” (1975), about an infinite book, a bible, where the reader cannot find the same page twice. If Klein’s approach to space in painting is mystical and Barré’s is Borgesian, then — ironically for such an outspoken advocate of literal space — Stella’s is that of an illusionist working hard to convince his audience of the primacy of his viewpoint and of his spatial tricks.

Martin Barre, “82-84-104×101” (1982–84), acrylic on canvas, 41 inches x 39 3/4 inches (© Martin Barre ADAGP 2015, courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels)

Any study of Barré’s work can barely scratch the multilayered surface of a subject which opens itself up only through a slow process of “surfacing” — to use Stephen Melville’s term for Barré’s favorite metaphor of “affleurement” to best describe how subtly his work reveals itself to the viewer. The palimpsest quality of Barré’s surface, his layering of thin, semi-transparent veils of white paint, certainly give new meaning to the term “repentir” (pentimento), most often associated with a thick buildup of paint. Instead, Barré manages to keep his surface lean and mean but still pregnant with its own history. One might be tempted to take a look at some of Brice Marden’s scraped calligraphic surfaces next to Barré’s in that same light.

This double process of “affleurement” (a-flower-ment/surfacing) and “effeuillement” (removing one leaf after another) and their delicate botanical connotations provide the perfect approach to an opus whose meaning can only be patiently leafed through one strata at a time. Similar to a guide on how to eat the French pastry called a mille-feuille (literaly: a thousand layers) — a more appetizing image than an onion — this text’s ambition has been to help lift a corner of the veil on Barré’s work and expose the layers beneath, all patiently waiting to be peeled away one at a time.

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