September 10 - October 16, 2016
Kerry Schuss presents Robert Barber's large-scale, dynamic, colorful abstract paintings from 1963-64. Measuring up to six feet square these works focus on color and the materiality of the medium and its application, rendered in thick layers and swathes of oil paint using wide brushes, with impastoed surfaces that also include drips, drops, and splatters complimenting the overall composition. With quick emphatic gestures, blocks of strokes in sharply contrasting hues form into loose, optically percussive grids. The legacy of Abstract Expressionism is evident in their gestural immediacy, and the paintings, which were produced in the same era, also have strong formal affinities to those of Hans Hoffmann, Willem De Kooning, Philip Guston, and Joan Mitchell. Now seen fifty years after their making, they remain as fresh and vigorous as ever, and have undoubtedly withstood the test of time.
The recent very popular and highly regarded Philip Guston exhibition "Painter 1957-1967" at Hauser & Wirth in New York opened people's eyes and brought a newfound appreciation of this period, and educated an audience of contemporary viewers to this era and type of painting that is resolutely abstract, intuitive but also extremely well thought-out. Robert Barber's work, like Guston's, are tough paintings, cutting in depth and audacity, with a classical nature. Paintings that will continue the action of painting long after they are "finished." It is no coincidence that as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Barber studied with Guston when he was there as a visiting professor in 1950. Guston's gruff encouragement and example were integral to Barber's subsequent forays into large, vivid abstractions, twelve years later after his move to Tucson, Arizona.
These works are of a time when abstract painting could still be regarded as a radical gesture, particularly in relative isolation of Tucson. Barber went against the grain, following his own path, in a small southwestern city in the Sonoran desert where newfangled and genuinely shocking art ideas and trends were barely known, and if they were, didn't meet with enthusiasm or even understanding. Barber's determination and pursuit of his vision is especially remarkable considering this unreceptive atmosphere. In that time, and over the next five decades to the present, he is a rare example of an artist producing superlative artwork without hardly any recognition, while living in Tucson and teaching sixth grade, far from any major art center or community.
Proving art history is still being written as the cognoscenti discover older unseen bodies of work by unknown and under-appreciated artists who worked from their own authentic impulses, these exciting acts of unearthing make art viewing an active participatory activity. Fostering up-to-date growth and knowledge, while also resonating with a heightened interest in the surviving tropes of Modernism. And although produced over half century ago, this work strongly reverberates with the attention and admiration for today's abstract painting by artists like Gunther Forg, Mary Heilmann, and Stanley Whitney.
Robert Barber was born in Minneapolis in 1922, and received an undergraduate degree from the Minneapolis School of Art and an MFA from the University of Minnesota. After getting his degrees, he taught at Illinois University of Wesleyan for three years before moving to Tucson, Arizona in 1956. He has been producing art since his teens, yielding a vast array of extraordinary work spanning nearly three-quarters of a century, and continues to paint and draw on a daily basis at the age of 94.
Outside of a few local Tucson exhibitions, Barber was virtually unknown until a 2015 full-scale retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, co-curated by Anne-Marie Russell and Jocko Weyland. Anything but an outsider artist, his training has given him a deep, wide-ranging intellectual sophistication regarding art theory, history and practice. From casual sketches on paper to fully realized paintings a profoundly cosmopolitan sense of form and design is a constant throughout his work.
Kerry Schuss introduced the work of Robert Barber to in international audience at Independent New York 2016 earlier this year and also mounted an expanded gallery presentation Barber's paintings from the early 1970's last spring. This unusual scheduling of 3 showings of an artist's work in one year is a testament of the quality of the artwork, along with reflection of the fast paced interests in the contemporary art world.