For a long time, the only place I knew where I could see paintings by Martin Barré (1924 – 1993) was in the Centre Pompidou. I first saw one in a hall that opened onto various galleries. Later, a group of his linear abstractions, installed at the Centre in 2007, more than held their own in a room with works by Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman. In fact, Barré’s line possessed a severely pared down toughness that separated it from the work of his American counterparts, both of whom employed a gentle touch. At the same time, all three artists were committed to a direct engagement with the surface, guided by the hand making the mark. For these three artists, being modern did not mean the rejection or effacement of drawing or mark-making. What they did was make them new.
There were two solo exhibitions of works by Barré in New York in the past decade, at Andrew Kreps in 2008 and 2011. The first included early spray-painted works and diagonally-striped Zebra paintings dating between 1963 and ’67, while the second featured canvases from 1989-90, after Barré brought color back into his work. These shows offered clues to Barré’s preoccupations, but as Gwenaël Kerlidou wrote in his essay, “Extreme Abstraction: A Brief Introduction to Martin Barré’s Cosmogony” (Hyperallergic Weekend, October 25, 2015):
Martin Barré has proven to be a long-lasting enigma […] 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.
Barré’s “allegiance to the stretched canvas” sets him apart from his French contemporaries as well as from those in America who thought of painting as an object, a hybrid of sculpture and painting. Another way he stood apart – particularly from American minimalists — was his commitment to line rather than an all-over, hands-free monochromatic surface. Interestingly enough, he was one of the few artists in France who took Yves Klein seriously. This detail, among others, can be found in the monograph Martin Barré (2008), which includes an essay by Yves-Alain Bois, and three interviews with the artist, two with Catherine Millet (dated 1974 and 1985) and one with Jean Clay (1977).
These points were all I knew about the artist before I went to see Martin Barré at Matthew Marks Gallery (February 17 – April 7, 2018). The exhibition consists of four kinds of paintings, three of which include marks made by a paint tube repurposed by Barré into a painting tool, which he used along with spray paint, a brush, and a pencil. The fourth group, full of lighter colors and geometric forms, were done in the last years of his life and mark a radical shift in direction. The fact that there is a gap of 15 years between the first three groups, concluding with his hatch paintings (1974-75) and the colorful, geometric canvases (1989-1992) is unfortunate, because we are left without a sense of how the artist leapt from ‘70s group to the final series. What was he doing during that 15-year gap?
Even the catalog accompanying the exhibition, which includes an essay by Alex Bacon, along with reproductions of a few works done between the ones featured in the exhibition, does little to illuminate the shift – basically one opaque sentence towards the end of the essay. Bacon doesn’t address the fact that Barré stopped painting for about three years (1968-71), nor does he recognize Kerlidou’s view, picked up from Barré’s friend and champion, Marc-André Stalter, that the artist’s output be divided into work done before and after this hiatus.
One way to understand Barré’s enigmatic presence can be gleaned from this response he made to a question from Catherine Millet in an interview that originally appeared in Art Press (June-August 1974) and is reprinted in Martin Barré:
In around 1957-1958 I moved gradually away from painting flat swatches of color: the touch became freer…This was due more to the influence of Franz Hals than to that of the gestural painting of those days, because at the time I was looking a lot more at Franz Hals than at “action painting.” From its origins through to the twentieth century, we now see all art more and more on the same level, which is to say it all seems contemporary to us. The days when artists said that the past was musty and museums were like cemeteries seem, happily, to be behind us.
Barré’s observation goes completely against the American view that painting is something that could be used up, as if it came in a pail rather than a well. This is how Frank Stella put it in an interview in 1966:
If something’s used up, something’s done, something’s over with, what’s the point of getting involved with it?
If you have any allegiance, however tenuous, to Stella’s viewpoint, which many critics support in one way or another, you are likely to misunderstand Barré’s work. What is crucial to the viewer’s experience is that he wanted to reinvent the line while remaining directly engaged in the act of painting.
This has nothing to do with being indexical, or with any of the other paradigms critics have applied to Barré’s practice: he was a painter determined to discover what he could do in paint that had not been done before. His understanding of the part-to-whole relationship was completely at odds with the American insistence that there were only two viable compositional options for abstract art, the all-over or the relational. He believed that something new could be created — however small that that new thing might be. He also believed that he didn’t have to eat from the hands of institutional critics.
This is what is great about Barré’s work — however narrow its achievement might be: He makes a line that does not do anything we have come to expect of it. It is not sensual or evocative. It seems neither arbitrary nor rigorous. It can meander but not in any predictable way. It never fills the surface, never becomes insistent. In his use of spray paint and repeated lines and arrows, he seems to be have been inspired by graffiti made at construction sites and, as Kerlidou suggests, road signs (barriers and detours).
And yet, despite their evocation of anonymity, Barré’s lines are always unmistakable. In fact, if anything, Barré’s lines — whether squeezed from a tube or sprayed — are gritty, urban, and unapologetic for their appearance; they become the unwanted guest at a table where the works of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, along with those of many inconsequential others, gather.
The other thing that Barré rejects is the whole Western notion that a painting can be either a world (or object) unto itself, or that it can be a window looking towards paradise. In “61-T-2” (1961), relatively straight lines intersect with zigzagging ones along the top of the painting, seeming to start beyond canvas’s edges. We are seeing part of something that cannot be deciphered: it is neither purely optical nor insistently visceral. To further complicate our response, Barré has employed an unappealing palette of reddish-brown and mixed gray and left much of the painting empty or unmarked. The lines running along the top of this vertical painting are like the title of a disquisition that cannot be written.
Two years later, in “63-F-5” (1963), flocks of arrows extending inward from the canvas’s vertical edges point right, left, and down. I think it is telling that none of the arrows point upward. In all four groups of paintings in the exhibition, Barré is directing our attention beyond the canvas’s physical edges. I would say this is also true of the Zebra paintings, such as “67-Z-21” (1967), in which some of the diagonally arranged sprayed lines, with their feathery edges, extend beyond the painting’s borders. It also seems as if the off-white ground has been applied with horizontal brushstrokes over a previous layer of vertical black marks. The layering is Barré’s way of marking time, which is another way he stands in opposition to the American idea of presence, timelessness, and taking in a work all at once.
Barré’s interest in layering, line, drawing, and painting comes to another sort of fruition in the hatch paintings of the 1970s. In each of the series I have discussed so far, we see Barré rejecting the seductions commonly associated with the material sensations of paint — opticality, weight, fleshiness, color — without settling into a style. Throughout his career, Barré seems dedicated to derailing our expectations; he refuses to the binary choices of symmetry or asymmetry, all-over or relational. He always reminds us of the layers that remain hidden and that what we see is a fragment of something we cannot picture in its entirety. I doubt his intention in these matters is purely formal.
Remarkably enough, Barré’s resistance to being absorbed by others persists. For while mechanical, programmatic artists such as Wade Guyton and R. H. Quaytman have proposed a connection between their work and Barré’s, it is likely he would have rejected their taste for elegance as well as their dependence on over-determined explanations of what they are up to. Barré was never interested in fitting in. He knew that fitting in was a kind of death.
In the layered surfaces of the hatch paintings, where the parallel bands of color, arranged diagonally within distinctly sectioned-off areas, peek through a layer of off-white, one sees the painter disappearing into the paint. This is not the same as becoming identified with a particular means of production, style, or subject. Barré just kept moving, kept finding ways to perturb expectation as well as underscore our inability to see the whole picture. He accepted his incompleteness rather than seek solace in a system — whether aesthetic or otherwise — that offers refuge from time’s appetite. Very few artists possess that kind of inner strength.
Martin Barré continues at at Matthew Marks Gallery (522 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 7.