Robert Barry (New York, 1936) is one of the leading exponents of an international artistic development that, since the mid-sixties, has seen language as a resource for broadening the scope of expression. Barry began his career as an artist, devoting himself mainly to sculpture and experiments of a minimalist kind, but by the late sixties his practice took a markedly conceptual direction, though the artist has always shown reluctance to accept this definition of his work.
The abandonment of the language of sculpture traditionally understood coincided with increasingly intense research into the fields of installation and performance art conceived as the media best suited to exploring space and the void both formally and conceptually, which thus become cornerstones of Barry’s work.
In 1968 Barry created the work 90mc Carrier Wave (FM), presented the following year in a group exhibition organized by Seth Siegelaub in New York with the participation of artists like Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Laurence Wiener, all engaged in what the art historian Lucy Lippard a few years later called “the dematerialization of the art object.” Barry’s work intervened in space using the transmission of sound waves as a sculptural material and not a means of communication.
From this time on, Barry worked on the idea of the absence of the art object in order to amplify relations with space through the presentation of intangible works: in 1969 he produced Telepathic Piece – which consists of a telepathic transmission of the work in question – and the Inert Gas series, consisting of actions during which inert gas is released in open spaces such as desert areas. In this way, space, matter and thought become dimensions for a new definition of artistic action.
During the seventies and, more radically, the eighties, the use of words, both in written and recorded form, acquired a central role in the artist’s practice, becoming a primary and exclusive medium. Individual words are arranged in space in installations that create a tension between their evocative power and their relation to the architecture, even in cases where they take on an independent three-dimensional and sculptural character.
Untitled Ceiling Installation for the Madre Museum (2013), the work in the collection of the Museo Madre, is a unique project that the artist developed specifically for the premises in Naples. Here the words, applied to the ceiling of the room using a reflective adhesive material that echoes the light and colors in the room, touch and overlap each other. Their evocative power is thus amplified in a stimulation of perception as well as thought, in keeping with a dynamic that is both spatial and mental. If most of them refer to the dimension of indeterminacy – Unknown, Doubt, Somehow, Another and Possible – others evoke a receptiveness to the imagination (Imagine), closeness and companionship (Together) and even depth of feeling (Passion). This constellation of words and meanings which become images relates individuality to collectivity, the inner dimension to the exhibition space, thought to a physical and perceptual comprehension of things.