Four men in dark clothes stand in front of a white wall, posing with the cool detachment of the Velvet Underground. On the right is Lawrence Weiner, eyelids half-closed; in the middle, Joseph Kosuth, with sunglasses and head tilted; then Douglas Huebler, with a pithy Mafioso smile. Only Robert Barry, to the left, does not look casual. His eyes, behind horn-rimmed glasses, seem to be saying 'come on, release the shutter, I've got a lot to do'.
Our need for myths desperately clings to this publicity shot for a 1969 group exhibition at Seth Siegelaub's gallery, reinforcing the impression that Conceptual art was (at least in regard to market value) a suicide mission launched by a bunch of male avant-garde rebels. Watch out, here comes the New York anti-sensuality squad. Or so the fable goes. The reality was different, since in fact Conceptualism was a global phenomenon, a wide, fraying field. Even the four artists in the photo didn't have much more in common than a deep reluctance to continue making paintings and sculptures. Kosuth was into definition and tautology, Barry into the ephemeral and invisible.
The style of the group portrait is a far cry from Barry's actual work, and that may be one of the reasons why this retrospective of his work from 1963 to 1975 is the first for 25 years. In the catalogue Robert C. Morgan asserts that there is a 'national failure' to integrate Conceptual art 'into the mainstream of our visual history'. Embarrassingly enough for American museums, he is proven right. In May 2004 the exhibition moves to the Kunsthaus Aarau, Switzerland, but apparently it will not travel to the USA.
In 1963, just after graduation, Barry painted a grid on paper by leaving blank white rectangles where the orange/red tempera didn't colour the ground - as if the abstractions of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt had been boiled down to the scale of an arithmetic book. But Barry seems stern only to those who don't like to read. At the end of the decade he made us disciples of a strange sect when he distributed eight short sentences over four otherwise empty pages: ' ... it has order ... it is always changing ... it is affected by other things ... it affects other things ... it is not confined ... it is not in any specific place ... it can be presented, but go unnoticed ... to know of it is to be part of it ...' (It Has Order, 1969-70). Who or what is the 'it' he is talking about? The weather? The Holy Ghost? Sure, he is talking about art, but he could just as easily be talking about inert gases, too.
Some small photographs and a concise text describe a literally intangible work: on 3 March 1969 Barry released a litre of krypton into the atmosphere, amid the palm trees of Beverly Hills. He proceeded to do the same over the following days, with xenon in the mountains, argon on the beach and helium in the desert (Inert Gas Series, 1969). But art could get even more ephemeral: Telepathic Piece, from the same year, made Conceptual art look like a séance. Barry's contribution to a group exhibition in Canada consisted of a written statement that he would telepathically transmit the piece, as it was not 'applicable to language or image'. If you ask Barry today (as I did) whether Conceptual art - which at first seems like the work of forensic scientists inspecting art and its conditions - has a deeply felt Romantic undercurrent, he concurs without a moment's hesitation. Imaginative exuberance is sparked precisely by the radically reduced, fragmentary trace.
Yet the alleged hyper-rationalist is not a closet mystic either. His play on art's conditions has been shrewd and clear. In 1969 Barry announced the gallery closed for the duration of his exhibition. Three galleries in Amsterdam, Turin and Los Angeles took part: anyone who didn't believe what was stated on the invitation cards found the entrance locked. Looking at the poker-faced statements, you are left wondering whether there is significance in the slight variations. In one case it is stated that the gallery is closed 'for' the exhibition, as if providing a service; in another, that it is closed 'during' the exhibition, as if there might be a show going on somewhere else, in the ether, or behind the locked doors.
Invitation Piece (1972-3) was like a ring-a-ring-o'-roses that finally evaporated art into the means of its mediation, as though anticipating the 'forward' function of email: the invitation sent out by Paul Maenz Gallery, Cologne, invited you to an exhibition by Robert Barry at Art & Public in Amsterdam, who in turn referred you to London, from where you were invited to New York and so on, until finally Turin sent you back to Cologne. Nothing happened or was shown apart from this set of invitations. In Nuremberg the eight cards were hung in a circle: the circulation of art turns into an ide motion that turns your head. Then you look towards the ceiling, and it's as if hanging above you is a booby trap for all-too complacent platitudes about context and space: an almost indiscernible nylon filament spans the length of the ceiling and then runs down the wall towards the floor for exactly a quarter of the length of the ceiling (4 to 1, Nylon Monofilament Piece, 1968).
Barry assumes we are thinking beings who do not simply abandon ourselves to art's authority like well-behaved pupils. He recently remarked that he doesn't like art that comes with footnotes - a thinly veiled swipe at Kosuth, who once stood in the middle of that famous publicity shot.