Leap Year: Yve-Alain Bois on Martin Barre's Greenwich, 1957, AND 60-T-44,1960
Bois, Yve-Alain, Artforum International
TEMPORAL GAPS in cultural transmission can be quite puzzling. For various reasons--the market's perennial thirst for new figures, the glut of academic research on American postwar art, the recognition of concordant aesthetic concerns by a younger generation of practitioners--interest in European art from the 1950s and '60s has grown over the course of the past decade on this side of the Atlantic. Until very recently, however, only a few French artists active in those years had received much attention here. (Yves Klein has long been an exception, as has Daniel Buren, though his remarkable early, pre-Conceptual works were not exhibited in New York until 2007.) Perhaps this neglect was a hangover from the backlash against the old, prewar domination of the art world by the Ecole de Paris: New York had "stole[n] the idea of modern art," as Serge Guilbaut provocatively put it, so there was little urge to go look at what was left behind in the depleted land of the vanquished. The case of Simon HantaV, who has long been considered a major artist in France but whose recognition in the US is only now emerging, or that of Andre Cadere, who died in 1978 but whose multicolored staffs have lately been seen leaning against the walls of several American museums, might be an indication that the tide has turned. The recent exhibition in New York (at Andrew Kreps Gallery) of a series of canvases painted by Martin Barre in 1991, a show favorably reviewed in the pages of this journal by Suzanne Hudson (who noted the devotion to his work by young artists such as Cheyney Thompson, Blake Rayne, Wade Guyton, and R. H. Quaytman), is perhaps an even more propitious sign of this evolution, for his art is supremely difficult to export.
For one thing, Barre is an artist who constantly disobeyed--at least from 1960 until his death in 1993--one of the cardinal rules for those in quest of art-world recognition: He assiduously avoided a signature style. Although he worked in series (the titles of his paintings typically consist of the work's date followed by its dimensions), unlike other "serial painters" he made sure that each new series (one per year on average) was formally different, sometimes radically different, from the preceding one. At each of his exhibitions, Barre aficionados had to brace for the kind of shock that Brice Marden's (or Philip Custom's) admirers experienced when the painter famously made a (onetime) sudden stylistic swerve. This is not to say that there is anything illogical in the jump from one series to the next--on the contrary, Barrel rigor has always been exemplary--but the logic is never immediately apparent (or, to say it another way, the series are extremely variable at the formal level but remarkably consistent structurally--though it takes some attention and care to perceive that continuity). As a result, Barre has always been what we would call a painter's painter, held by many younger artists as a model of probity and his work cherished by art lovers who have no patience for the flashy and the fashionable. But though his reluctance to do anything that might enhance his career was at times confounding (one had to cajole him into even agreeing to meet a curator or a collector, especially if he was deep into work), word of mouth kept buzzing. He had died by the time Yasmina Reza made a triumph in 1994 with her populist play Art, in which she attempted to lambaste the "snobbism in contemporary art," as she put it, by positing an artist whose masterpiece was a white monochrome, but Barre would not have been surprised to read that the playwright pointed to him as her model for this fictitious painter. He would have been somewhat chagrined by the misconception, though, for unlike Robert Ryman, an artist he greatly admired, he had never painted anything of the sort: As the critic Pierre Restany wrote in 1961, in a favorable review of Barre's one-man show at Galerie Arnaud in Paris the previous year, "I will rule out the objection that there is nothing left to see: for me there is still too much. …