Portraits of Artists 45

Conversation with Robert Barry

Vitus Weh: Mr. Barry, You have an exhibition at the "Kunstraum Wien" together with Heinz Gappmayr. The invitation addresses you as a "Padre of Conceptual Art".

Robert Barry: As what?

VW: A Padre of Conceptual Art. It's a kind of "Father of Conceptual Art".

RB: It's in German, the invitation . If I had known that, I would have told them not to use that term.

VW: Why?

RB: Because I'm not! First of all, I don't even like the term "Conceptual art" and I don't know what it means. I mean, does it have something to do with sex, or something? I mean, who's the Mother of Conceptual Art?

VW: Yeah. They've shown, for example Carolee Schneemann, as the "Mother of Conceptual Art". One, you know – there are a lot of fathers.

RB: Right, many fathers and one mother. It's just a silly term, and it has nothing to do with that. I think that there were a few artists in the late sixties who were thinking in certain ways, which might be similar, although they were a very, very different kind of artists. And I don't think there's one person who can claim to be the "Father of Conceptual Art" or the beginner, the person who really started it.

VW: No, but there was a kind of pressure group called the "Seth Siegelaub Group" – you and Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler. So this is a very important year, 1969 .

RB: And before, '68 also. But there were others who were aware of these artists. Siegelaub in New York certainly. But there's Konrad Fischer, for instance; he did a show with Carl André I think in '67 or '68, and Sol LeWitt. So he became very aware of some of the New York artists. But there were people working in Europe, such as Daniel Buren and Jan Dibbets and others, who were certainly working in a very similar fashion. We didn't know about each other, but I guess that we were, came out of the same tradition and way of thinking. That was in the air at the time. People like On Kawara, for instance, who was not represented by Seth Siegelaub, but who was certainly a very important person in New York at that time. Seth was important, I don't mean to say that he wasn't important .

VW: We'll come back to him later.

RB: He brought together a certain group of artists, but let's not make out that these were the only artists that were important at the time. It's just that those were the ones Siegelaub knew and met and the ones that he chose to represent. But he quickly realized that there were other artists that were interesting, and in fact he organized some group exhibitions that included those artists.

VW: So, from today's point of view, I want to distinguish in your works between different investigations. One is the kind of investigation you made into terms of space. You often talk about a lack of space, you are interested in the lack of space. And the other is an investigation into the operating system of art. So there are two different tracks you get into, and I want to ask you first, what was your interest in space at that time?

RB: At that time? I was interested in space because we live in space, we move around in space. Space is very personal.

VW: You try to ignore it. The real space, the exhibition space .

RB: No, I didn't try to ignore it in the beginning. I would never say that I ignored it, you can't ignore space. Rather, I – in the most conceptual works – tried to create a very mental space. I focused on the fact that space is a very personal thing, and really can't be pinpointed or even measured when it comes to art or when it comes to one's subjective relation to space. That it's a very complicated issue that has to do with a complete understanding and a complete emotional reaction to the world or to a work of art, or to the place that you're in. You try to make the art experience something that a viewer would want to participate in. Once you participate or you choose to participate in the work that the artist has created, then you're into a very personal kind of aesthetic situation. And if you want to call it space, you can call it space, but it's something that's very fluid and that you influence and that is influencing you. And that is essentially what life is about. It seemed to me that space and time were the elements that we operate in, that we cannot escape from, that are very multi-dimensional and that this was what art had to be about, if it was going to involve other people.

VW: Perhaps you can describe the "Inert Gas" piece you made.

RB: The "Inert Gas" pieces were an attempt to use material – inert gas – which is an undetectable material, you can't smell it or see it, and use this material to create a kind of large environmental sculpture, if you will. It was one of the last works that I did in '69, where I actually used physical material. And so it was a kind of transitional work, in that I was still using material, even though one's understanding of the work and appreciation really had to be totally mental. One would have to use one's imagination. I used inert gas – neon, helium, xenon, krypton – because they were, first of all, called the "noble gases". I always thought they were sort of romantic. They were completely unknown about 100 years ago, we didn't know they existed, and yet we breathe them in and exhale them, we live around them and move in these inert gases. They have very beautiful names, like "new", "hidden" – their names in Greek are quite nice. So, I just kind of liked that as a material. And we take it from the atmosphere – we can't manufacture them – they're in the atmosphere, so they must be removed from the atmosphere. They're used in industry, they're used for certain kinds of lighting. If an electrical charge is put into neon, for instance, it creates a certain kind of light, which is what they're used for primarily, but there are other uses for them. So it was a very interesting material for me to work with and I felt that this was something that I could deal with and fit into what I was trying to do at the time.

VW: The other work was "Radio Waves" .

RB: Yes, but let me finish this. Before we jump around, I want to finish my thought. You asked me to describe them, so I will. The important part of making the piece was that I simply returned the gas which had been taken out of the atmosphere, stored in a container in a measurable volume, and then would be used commercially. But what I did was I returned it to the atmosphere by either smashing the container or turning the valve and allowing the gas to go back into the atmosphere, thus creating a kind of cycle. And this idea of cycle, of constantly going around, recycling all the time, was another idea that I was very interested in and which kind of reflected my ideas of the way art works in space with the viewer. That there is a kind of cyclical reaction when a viewer reacts to a work of art. And so, all of this kind of tied in, and this is why I used this idea, why I used the inert gas. There wasn't really anything to see. The nature of the show also was that there was no gallery. The information existed solely on a poster we printed and mailed out. And the works were all done in March of '69 and then were exhibited in April of '69, but there really was no exhibition. We made some photographic documentation of the work as the containers of the gas were either broken or opened or something like that. So, it's a whole sort of complicated system at work with the "Inert Gas" pieces.

VW: And the "Carrier Wave" was quite similar?

RB: The "Carrier Wave" was also a material, in a sense even more elusive than the inert gas pieces. A carrier wave we create ourselves. I had a friend who was an amateur radio operator, and my father, who was an electrical engineer, also was interested in radio and television. When I was very young he made a little radio station, which my brother would play records over and so forth and make little announcements, which could only be heard in the immediate neighbourhood. So the idea of using a radio carrier wave was kind of interesting to me. I noticed that my friend would listen in to Moscow Radio and when Moscow Radio came on, the transmitters were so powerful that when they first turned them on – when the transmitters were warming up, for about an hour or so – they would just blot out everything else on that frequency, so all the other stations just went completely silent. So for about an hour, there was this complete silence on that frequency. And I thought that was a kind of interesting idea – that it was no space, no nothing, it was just absolutely silent. And so my father made these little carrier wave transmitters where, in the immediate area, say of the gallery, all radio waves would just simply be completely silent. If you walked in with a portable radio, the station would just go silent, because my little carrier wave was blotting it out. Then the second group of transmitters put a little signal on, kind of a whistle, so that when you entered the gallery, if you had a little radio, you could hear this little whistle which would come on your radio, which would also blot out the other radio stations, but it would blot them out with this particular signal. And the farther away from the gallery you got the weaker it was.

VW: Is that a kind of sculpture work?

RB: Yeah, in a way. Sculpture is the only word I could think of for it, because they were, the boundaries were, theoretically, infinite. But because our technology isn't infinite, there were limits as to where we could actually perceive this piece to be. And so technically, there were bounds; conceptually, it was infinite.

VW: Some years ago you talked about the "Invitation" piece you made. You sent, or you asked galleries to invite to an exhibition at another gallery. And the next month the gallery invited to another show at a third one. So, from our point of view today, that's quite similar to the investigations of "Kontext-Kunst", this kind of neo-conceptualism which is interested in investigations of the operating system of the art world. In this way you described your early work. It's quite similar, you work with this "Invitation" piece like a sculpture, not like an investigation.

RB: It was using the gallery system. I did a series of works that called to attention the nature of the gallery system and how it operated. That is to say, I became a curator and for an exhibition I showed the work of a person who would normally be thought of as a critic and a curator. I showed the work of Lucy Lippard, which called into question the nature of art and galleries and things like that. So I did a number of these things which, I suppose, grew out of the "Closed Gallery" piece, where I closed three galleries over a period of time as a part of the exhibition – as the exhibition, a part of it, but they each were the exhibition. The "Invitation" piece – it was one season, I think the '72 – '73 season. And the piece simply consisted of this transmission of the idea from one gallery to another. And actually, if you plot it out on a map, it does create a sort of journey – the kind of journeys that the artists were making in those days from New York to Amsterdam to Cologne to Torino, to Brussels and so forth. And these were the cities that were mainly exhibiting conceptual art at that time. And it took place over one season, I think from September to June. If you follow it, you can see that they create a kind of circle. I forget now where it started. Say, it started at the Gallery Leo Castelli, and then it kind of ended up at the Gallery Leo Castelli at the end of the year as this idea.

VW: Can you tell us something about these investigations in the gallery system? You behave like a curator, you choose other artists and you show them as your art work?

RB: I didn't choose other artists. I did do a show with Ian Wilson, where I was an artist who curated a one-man show of another artist.

VW: James Umland?

RB: James Umland was an artist friend, and I was asked to submit a piece to an exhibition and for my piece, I recommended another artist. She didn't contact the other artist, she simply used my letter recommending him in the catalogue. Yeah, I did a number of things like that. I can't remember all of them now, but it was sort of playing around with the power structure – the influence, those people that have influence, those people that don't – kind of putting myself in the role of the power broker. I was basically using the art system to make my art, as I was using the gallery. To close the gallery was using the gallery itself as the medium to make a work of art. That's basically what that was about. And I was just using the other system, the internal structure, the support systems, whatever that was the medium that I was using to make works of art.

VW: That's also a kind of space. You used the catalogue, too.

RB: The catalogue space was a very important space at that time. I used it in a number of pieces. The catalogue itself was used as an aesthetic space to be considered a work of art.

VW: And why? Because it's so compact? Or you can send it by mail to other people?

RB: No, it has a lot of possibilities. And it's something that people were familiar with in the art world. They didn't normally think of the catalogue as – they thought of it as just a kind of carrier of general information or critical information, but they didn't really think of it as a work of art in itself, as one might think of a print or something like that. But all the information for the piece was in the catalogue. And the catalogue itself, my page in the catalogue by the very nature of it being a page or the very nature of the space between the pages – that space itself could be utilized. That space could be aesthetic space and could be utilized in an artistic way.

VW: This special idea – to use the catalogue as an exhibition space – was initiated by Seth Siegelaub?

RB: Yes. The first catalogue exhibition, I think, was Douglas Huebler, I'm not really sure. But I used it in a very different way. There were works of art which were simply documented in the catalogue. What I did was to not document anything else – it was the catalogue, it was the space in the catalogue, it was the handling of the catalogue that was the aesthetic experience, not something outside the catalogue.

VW: For the exhibition "Prospect" in 1969, your piece was just an interview in the catalogue?

RB: Yes.

VW: So, to quote you: "The piece consists of the ideas that people will have from reading this interview." Can you tell us something about this piece?

RB: I guess if there were any works that were conceptual, I think it was in this time, the second half of '69, that I made works which were almost completely conceptual in that they existed only in the mental space, in that there was no real definable physical space or space that was occupied by any physical object. Space was defined by the actual information in the piece itself. So I guess there would be my most "conceptual" works. Just in those few months toward the end of '69 when I did these works – it was that one and some others which were texts and things like that – and maybe the beginning of 1970. But there the piece was once again using the nature of the artist interview, as this interview was, but the interview itself became not just the transmitter of the aesthetic ideas – it was the interview itself that keyed the artistic thinking on the part of the public. And its meaning comes from the simple fact that it is an interview, that people will look at it, and that it's carried by the people who read the interview. In a sense this was just a reflection of the idea that any meaning in art comes from those people that look at the art. It's based on the fact that it's seen by other people, and it's the other people that sort of carry the meaning. The artist puts this work out into the culture, into the society. And then it's picked up by others that carry it along and keep it going and keep the meaning generating and changing and keep it active in the culture – or not keep it active and it sort of dies away, becomes uninteresting. Well, it was this idea that I wanted to emphasize in the "Interview" piece.

VW: Now I`ll jump to your work today. We saw that there was really less continuity in your work in the sixties and early seventies. You used a lot of forms, formats and at the same time made a lot of pieces – working with the interview, working with invitations, working with waves and so on. Since the eighties you normally used these wall paintings with words on them. You choose a really conventional form, repeating it.

RB: That's not true. I made sound pieces and projections. At the end of the eighties I went back to painting, actually on canvas, plus drawings. I do books, multiples, there are a lot of different kinds of things that I work in. It's just the way I'm most comfortable working. I don't just do one kind of thing.

VW: But they get more physical. You now use materials, not just the meanings the people have in mind. So why did you go back to material, to a conventional form like painting, like wall drawings, and so on?

RB: Well, Id say in '69 when I started doing projections, I was less interested in physical, non-physical. I really wasn't interested in continuing to make things that were not physical. I was interested in creating objects that involved other people, and I was really interested, as you said, in different explorations of space and time and the way people interact and function in these mediums. I think of space as a medium to work with and time also and change. So I began to use projections, because the information changes, the words change. They kind of grew out of the books that I made – where you turn the pages and it's a kind of time experience. And instead of just making a work where one person experiences it, I wanted to see what it was like to make a work where a number of people can experience this change from one word, one idea to another idea. So the work became more complicated, more complex in terms of multiple ideas, putting one idea after another and so forth. And I always thought of a book experience as a spatial experience and a time experience as one turns the pages. If you look at my books, they're kind of designed in that way. But they are physical, they're meant to be physical, they're not just conceptual. And so I couldn't deny that. If I was going to make books, I was going to make something that was physical. But the projections where the slide changes also create a changing situation, not for just one person but for a group of people. And it also makes a public situation which I like. In my work, I like the idea of almost rejecting something that I've been working on for a long time, and then trying to do something which is completely different. If I'm doing something which is quite private, then I like the idea of trying to work out something where, say, the same idea can be presented in a public situation. And from the projections then I started making sound pieces. In a room where there's a projection it's usually dark, and you focus on one image in front of you, and that's a certain kind of situation. But with a sound piece, where you hear the words spoken every 30 seconds or so, you're in a lit room and you're surrounded by the environment. You can hear things going on outside the gallery, or people are talking to each other. It's a more social situation – you're not focused on one thing. So it's kind of the opposite of the projections. This is the way I was working.

VW: Perhaps I have to ask the other way round. Today, you come into the "Kunstraum", you see a red space. And for me, there seems to be a kind of symbolic and a kind of metaphorical aspect in your work that didn't exist in your early works. Because, for me, I can imagine some stories, I can imagine some scenes. I remember Plato and the cave and so on, with all these terms on the walls.

RB: And also, I didn't realize it, but the colours of the Austrian flag are red and white. I didn't know that. I was telling one story about a wall piece I did in Omaha, Nebraska. In Nebraska there is a famous football team in the University of Nebraska. And I did a piece in the museum, and I painted words on a red wall also. And the art critic commented about the fact that I chose red, because it's symbolic of the colours of the football team from Nebraska, from the University of Nebraska. I don't think in those terms, really. I do guess that colour is certainly loaded. There's a lot of meaning in colour. But it's not specific. In the same way that an isolated word is loaded – it has a history, but it's not specific. When you take the word out of a text, if there's not text surrounding the word, or it's not part of the flow of a text, then it's presented, I guess you could say, in its purest form. It's not defined specifically – it becomes an object. I think of those words as designed objects, like individual drawings. I use a certain kind of style. I like a very geometric form. I always like to use circles for the O's and so forth. I think they work better in architectural situations. I try to make them work with the physical space, make them go around corners and things like that. I think that the situation with the colours and the space and the architecture and the words and their – whatever their meanings are or non-meanings – is very open. It's a very dynamic situation. And whatever anyone brings to this situation, of course, is their own personal history. And, hopefully, they will be caught up in it and react to it in their own way.

VW: Yesterday I saw your and Mr. Heinz Gappmayr's exhibition. And the cut up words at the end of the walls really remind me of Picasso and Braque, early Cubistic paintings where such fragments like "jou" or "urnal", just parts of the word "journal", appear. Do you recognize art history?

RB: Sure. I love art history. I like the idea of the image suggesting something going beyond the frame very much.

VW: Kind of impressionistic?

RB: Yeah, certainly Impressionism did that, Edgar Degas especially, but also Caravaggio. There's that suggestion that something is happening outside, that there are forces outside that are affecting what's going on inside or that this is just a part of something larger. Or that the architecture, the actually found structure, determines the form of the piece that I'm working on. We didn't change the walls. We didn't have new walls built. We worked with what was available. And this I do virtually all the time. I almost never have walls built. I try to work with the architecture, with the situation as I find it, and operate within that situation.

VW: I think the difference between your work and Heinz Gappmayr's work is that you never have enough wall. But Heinz Gappmayr's pieces always are very small, they just need the space they are on. But your wall drawings always want more space around.

RB: Yes. They suggest a kind of invisible space. They suggest the space that goes out beyond what you can see physically. That's what I want to do. The first wall pieces were very carefully designed to fit within the framework of the wall or a system, a geometric system which I had set up, such as a circle or a cross where the words would be lined up in a very prescribed format. And then when I`d had enough of that, I just wanted to break loose and push out beyond the architecture to something else. Also I like the idea of slicing so much off the word that all you get is maybe one or two letters or a part of a letter, so you really don't know what the word is. It could be any one of several words. You don't really know. You have to fill that in yourself. I like the idea of filling in the missing information. And that's why I like to cut off words. Also it emphasizes the space. It focuses on the real architectural situation which usually is just kind of in the background. It's not something that we use, it's just the wall that we hang our paintings on, or it just gives a kind of location, and it becomes this kind of neutral area or neutral box in which we focus the art. But once again, I don't consider it a neutral box. I consider it very vital. I try to make it something very vital and something that isn't neutral and never was neutral. Galleries, white walls, are not neutral. They determine, in many cases, what the art is going to look like and what the art is. So instead of just accepting this neutrality, I try to work with it. But also, I like the idea that these works will only last for a certain amount of time. Say the show runs six weeks or four weeks, whatever, then that kind of forces you into dealing with it now. Like a performance work or like a theatre work. Like a jazz musician who's only playing now. You won't be able to come back to it a year later. You have to focus your energy on it now because it's going to be gone. You know it's something quite fragile. It may look strong and bright, the colours are very strong, but you know that in a short time it's going to be gone forever. It's going to be buried under layers of white paint, and things will be put on top of it. In a sense it kind of makes the gallery a sort of a graveyard for art also because the art, the wall piece, just becomes kind of buried, so it's never seen again.

(Vienna, October 1995)