One of the principal figures in American conceptual art, Robert Barry has continued to explore the nature of language as a mode of visual communication over the last half-century. Throughout his career, Barry’s work has taken many forms, from typed word lists and playfully circuitous gallery invitations, to large paintings of words on windows and walls. He has even ventured into the invisible with pieces like Prospect 69 (1969), which consists of the ideas that people will have from reading an interview in an exhibition catalog. With an enthusiastic inquisitiveness his work examines, among many things, the relationships between language as a physical object, the context in which it is perceived, and the abstract thoughts it can engender.
In Untitled (ELIMINATE, FORGOTTEN) from 1978, Barry’s pursuit of art’s linguistic capabilities becomes evident. At first glance the drawing appears completely unmarked, which is fitting considering the undertones of annulment in its title. Closer inspection of the pale white surface, however, reveals eight tiny words or word groupings faintly stenciled in light gray ink around the edges of the coarse deckled paper. Words or phrases like DESPITE, NOT AGAIN, and FORGOTTEN resonate in the mind as they are read and begin almost immediately to establish a rather somber mood. But the meaning of the words, along with the mood they establish, is only partly determined by Barry. Freed from any larger linguistic context, the words can assume any number of meanings depending on the interpretation of each individual viewer.
Which isn’t to say that Barry’s construction and placement of the words themselves holds no bearing on the way in which the viewer perceives the work. Because of the minuscule size of the words, it is necessary for the viewer to approach the work from a relatively close distance in order to properly read them. This mandatory proximity forces the viewer to perceive groups of words simultaneously; when reading one word, the faint lettering of another word is always present in the periphery.
The significance of each word is then also influenced by the viewer’s decision whether or not to read the words within the larger context of the entire work. Taken alone, GLORIOUS can evoke immensely positive emotions, but when read along with the NOT QUITE that follows it, the sequence recalls something different entirely. The predilection toward understanding words within sentences becomes quickly apparent when one encounters the fragmented yet potentially contextual syntax in which the words exist.
As a telling example of Barry’s oeuvre, Untitled (ELIMINATE, FORGOTTEN) compels the viewer to examine the ways in which they perceive and interpret art works in a particular setting, not only as singular pieces but as works situated in a larger artistic context. Barry has always considered the viewer part of the work and provides each viewer the opportunity to approach the art individually. These encounters are ultimately as crucial to the establishment of the work’s meaning over time as is the artist himself. Robert Barry speaks through Untitled (ELIMINATE, FORGOTTEN), but the voice we hear is our own.