Throughout most of his long and distinguished career, Bill Barrett has been considered primarily a sculptor. The title of his 2003 monograph by Philip F. Palmedo, in fact, is Bill Barrett: Evolution of a Sculptor. Yet, a practice common to artists working today is to move back and forth among various mediums, and Barrett’s approach is no exception. The son of a painter who studied under the pioneering cubist Fernand Léger, Barrett watched his father paint in the studio as a child, and he himself explored the medium in his student years. Additionally, many of Barrett’s favorite twentieth century artists, including Arshile Gorky and Willem DeKooning, were painters. So the fact that Barrett would himself shift his main focus from the three-dimensional medium of sculpture to the two-dimensional format of painting is not all that surprising. xxxxxx
Nonetheless, such a move was actually spawned by a life-changing crisis. In the early 1990s, Barrett was diagnosed with cancer of the thymus and of one of his kidneys. After two successful surgeries that left him cancer-free, the artist felt that he had been given a reprieve from what he thought was to be his demise. As part of the process of reinvigorating himself, he turned to painting, which proved to be uplifting and healing. Over the past two decades, while never abandoning sculpture entirely, Barrett has developed a considerable body of paintings that beautifully characterize his outlook on life, which is optimistic, joyful, and celebratory.
Right: Concerto Series #18, 2015, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in.
His Concerto Series, which consists of more than 25 paintings to date, is both exuberant and playful, and much like a composer or a conductor, Barrett is the master orchestrator of the compositions. Yet unlike most music, Barrett’s paintings have no score. Rather than work from a predetermined plan, he prefers instead to use an improvisational approach that he has also applied over the years to making sculpture. For Barrett, artmaking is a matter of being inspired, engaging fully in the process, and knowing how to recognize when a work has reached its expressive potential.
The generic term for Barrett’s process, ‘automatism’, was very much in circulation during the period when Barrett was emerging as a young artist. A term that has been used to refer to both writing and visual art, it was commonly used in the 19th century, when automatic writing and drawing were what was done is séances led by mediums. By the 1920s, artists and writers interested in psychology believed that automatic words and images emerged from tapping the unconscious, both the personal and the collective and, in founding Surrealism, André Breton defined ‘Surrealism’ as “pure psychic automatism.” Essentially, practicing automatism is to work with little preconception of what one will create, with heavy reliance upon intuitive impulse. For many automatists, the process can be very lyrical and rhythmic, like a dance of sorts. Indeed, this may be what the late curator and critic William Rubin had in mind when he described Jackson Pollock’s creative process as automatism of the body.[i]
Left: Manhattan Overview, 2015, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in.
Whether embarking on a sculpture or a painting, Barrett likes to begin with what he calls “doodling,” the same term used by Robert Motherwell for the automatic drawings that led to his renowned Spanish Elegies series, which he considered to come from “doodling on the scale of the Sistine ceiling.”[ii] Motherwell, many of his peers, and multitudes of artists working since the 1950s have placed high value on the authenticity of their spontaneous notations. As starting points for something more ambitious, these “thought forms” (to borrow a phrase popularized by Wassily Kandinsky) can come in mighty handy, as they are the seeds of potential from which the artist can develop something of greater magnitude or substance.
Barrett’s earliest use of a doodling approach to making sculpture dates to the early 1970s, when he was living on the Bowery in New York City and hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, a popular club frequented by artists, musicians, writers, and art world celebrities. On one occasion, while having a drink at the bar, Barrett spontaneously started twisting and bending a swizzle stick, only to discover triangular shapes that he realized would be ideal configurations for larger sculptures. As a result of this experience, he began manipulating sticks coated with wax as a means of producing shapes to be translated into sculptures. By the 1980s, Barrett developed a process, which he continues to use today, that allows him to be free and spontaneous in developing a sculpture.
Right: Élan, 2004, fabricated bronze, 60 x 66 x 38 in. + base
To begin, the artist draws freely into the surface of an almost-hard layer of molten wax that he has poured into a baking pan. Using a thin wooden skewer, he quickly sketches out a composition that resembles a simple jigsaw puzzle. He then extracts the puzzle pieces and shapes them by twisting and bending, as he had done earlier with the swizzle sticks. Next, the individual pieces are joined together to become maquettes cast in bronze. Larger versions of the models are then fabricated using sizable sheets of bronze, and welded together to create rhythmic sculptures characterized by undulating calligraphic movements.
To make a painting, Barrett employs a similar process, and begins with spontaneous scribbles. He next steps back to observe his automatic composition, in order to identify shapes and forms that interest him. Returning to spontaneous mode, Barrett then starts painting additively, usually with grays applied first. What follows is a process of layering various colors, pulling disparate parts together with black, and locking everything into place with white. In creating many of the larger paintings, he is now using digital technology, a practice that has become prevalent among contemporary painters. Barrett’s approach is to photograph a work-in-progress, upload the image to a computer, print it enlarged on canvas, and continue painting over the enlargement. For Barrett, the painting process is itself a kind of performance, with the final act being the filling in of the backgrounds. Working on several paintings simultaneously, the process can take from two to three months.
Left: Niche Pair Sculptures, 2013, cast bronze model, 17 x 13 x 11 in.
Evidence of Barrett’s rhythmic approach to artmaking is ever present in the vibrancy of the swirling undulations of the elements in his sculptures and paintings. It is what Bernard H. Friedman, in titling his biography of Jackson Pollock, referred to as “energy made visible.”[iii] In Barrett’s sculpture Élan (2004), this energy moves gracefully through sinuous ribbons of bronze that suggest the various body positions of a ballet dancer. Introduced to classical music at an early age, Barrett would often accompany his mother (who played piano and harp) to concerts. As an adult, he fell in love with classical ballet, and attended performances often while living in New York City. Barrett’s musical interests, however, extend beyond the classical, as more modern forms of music and dance have also influenced many of his sculptures. Over the years, he has titled some of these after popular dances such as the Jitterbug, the Tango, and the Slide Step. And, although commissioned and named for a niche in a collector’s home, Niche Pair Sculptures (2013) is composed of two animated biomorphs that could easily be imagined as moving and grooving to that good time rock-and-roll.
Right: Sculptor/painter, Bill Barrett in front of Lexeme VIII at Purdue University, Westville, IN
A more frenetic kind of energy is present in Pinnacle VI (2007) see intro image, one of several sculptures that Barrett created in memory of the victims of 9/11. With his New York studio situated only ten blocks from ground zero, Barrett witnessed the tragedy firsthand, and was deeply affected by it. In his Pinnacle sculptures, turbulent undulations that dominate the upper sections of the works refer to the violent destruction of the towers. They could be interpreted as combusting flames, crumbling architecture, or victims leaping from the buildings. While potent with symbolism, the Pinnacle series also reveals Barrett’s mastery of unifying dualities by bringing opposing forces into balance. In Pinnacle VI, for example, there is a perfect reconciliation between organic and geometric form, as well as between motion and stasis.
Left: Concerto Series #3, 2015, oil on canvas, 96 x 72 in.
In developing monochromatic sculptures like those of Barrett, the intuitive process of achieving harmonious states of balance is largely a matter of thinking in-the-round, of responding intuitively to twists and turns within physical space. In painting with many colors, however, this process involves a different set of challenges. Working with an abstract vocabulary on a two-dimensional surface, how does one achieve something that appears convincingly three-dimensional without imitating nature? Whatever it is, it must create its own space and appear to have its own inherent logic. And with many colors coming into play, the balancing act shifts from being a matter of simple duality, to encompassing an entire community of forces and counter-forces.
Right: Santa Fe Suite, 2015, oil on canvas, 60 x 96 in.
In his painted works, Barrett employs a pictorial style that he began using in the early 1990s which, as he has acknowledged, owes a debt to the early abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky, as well as to the biomorphic imagery of Surrealist painters such as Joan Miró, Roberto Matta Echaurren, and especially Arshile Gorky. Additionally, a number of Barrett’s painted images have been based loosely on his sculptures, with early examples resembling abstract still lives characterized by a clear separation of figure and ground. By the late 1990s, however, Barrett’s painted compositions became more animated, with large gestural forms dominating and flattening the pictorial space to some extent, therein revealing a closer kinship with the late paintings of Willem DeKooning. Yet unlike DeKooning’s painted gestures, Barrett’s markings are whimsical and cartoonlike, an effect that is achieved by outlining them in black. Historically, this device has been used in paintings by such diverse artists as William Cply, Roy Lichtenstein, and Philip Guston.
Left: Concerto Series #10, 2015, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in.
In the Concerto Series (2015), Barrett presents a range of individual compositions, each a unique latticework of undulating ribbons that fill open amorphous spaces. Rather than appear gravitationally anchored, these joyful forms seem to float within sections of a boundless universe. For the viewer, there are many pathways to travel as our eyes move across the painted ribbons, and there is never a single resting point. Every part of a painting, in other words, is alive and breathing in a state of continual movement and flux. To achieve this animated presence, which Barrett has termed a “life-spark,”[iv] the artist must successfully bring all the elements into a kind of aesthetic harmony such that no single entity can be too dominant. In Concerto Series #1, one of the first completed paintings of the series, this kind of equilibrium may be observed in the roughly even distribution of the colors red, blue, ochre, and purple, which play off one another rhythmically and, as a group, serve as an equally weighted counterpoint to the similarly equitable positioning of gray, black, and white. Adding to the energetic interaction of these features is the contrast between the solid opacity of the swirling clusters and the softer and more transparent quality of the field.
Right: Concerto Series #11, 2015, oil on canvas, 96 x 72 in.
As the Concerto Series progressed, Barrett’s language of joyful energy became increasingly elastic and complex. As he dove further into the choreography of his process, Barrett introduced a number of surprising moves that add to the uniqueness of each individual painting. In Concerto Series #3, for example, abstraction evolved into representation in the lower left and upper right corners, where we find open views of cloud-filled skies that lend a playful incongruity to the work. In Concerto Series #10, the central and frontmost element of the composition is the self-referential swizzle stick, shown bent to form a triangle like the one that marked a turning point in the evolution of the artist’s process. In Concerto Series #11, there is an emphasis on upward movement, with the central coils of the composition acting like the torque of a cyclone that lifts a black geometric structure to the top of the painting, bringing to mind Dorothy’s house on its way to Oz. In Concerto Series #17, a human torso and head, abstracted in red, is adoringly crowned and embraced by white squiggles. And in Concerto Series #25, a golden light fills the background, conveying a warm and radiant sensation.
Left: Concerto Series #17, 2015, oil on canvas, 72 x 72 in.
As vehicles for emotional expression, the paintings in the Concerto Series perpetuate the joie de vivre philosophy that was advocated by Henri Matisse, and do so using a maximalist vocabulary that lends itself well to a number of different subjects. Manhattan Overview and Santa Fe Suite, for example, may be considered abstract landscapes that celebrate Barrett’s personal tale of two cities, as he currently maintains residencies in both New York City and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Manhattan Overview, the structure of Barrett’s clustered mass is tight and contained, with swirls and bands intertwined and congested in reference to the buildings and people on the island of Manhattan. By contrast, Santa Fe Suite is expansive and airy, with earthy colors at the bottom, blue sky and white clouds at top, and a bustling polychromatic abstraction in the middle.
Right: Tintin’s Adventures, 2015, oil o canvas, 96 x 60 in.
In another recent painting, Tintin’s Adventures (2015), Barrett pays homage to a favorite comic book character, as well as to the clean, linear graphic style of the comic book genre. One of the most beloved fictional characters of twentieth century popular culture, Tintin was created in 1929 by the Belgian cartoonist Helgé (born Georges Remi). An investigative news reporter turned detective, Tintin traveled the globe with his faithful dog Snowy to champion social causes and support the world’s underdogs. Like the invincible Don Quixote, a fictional persona honored by Barrett in several of his sculptures, Tintin has come to personify the determination of the human spirit to overcome obstacles and chase after dreams and aspirations. Such élan, such enthusiasm for life and belief in possibility, is the essentially humanistic outlook that Barrett so joyfully celebrates in his paintings.
© By David S. Rubin, Contributing Writer
Bill Barrett lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico and New York City. He will be exhibiting his recent paintings and sculptures at the Reading Public Museum (Reading, Pennsylvania) from September 19 – December 6, 2015. He will be exhibiting drawings and sculptural maquettes at LewAllen Gallery, Santa Fe, from October – December, 2015. For more information about Bill Barrett, visit www.billbarrettsculpture. com
David S. Rubin is an independent curator, writer, and artist. He has been active in contemporary art for 35 years and has held curatorial posts at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans; MOCA Cleveland; Phoenix Art Museum; and the San Antonio Museum of Art. He can be found on linked-in at https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=22853511&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile_pic
[i] William S. Rubin, “Notes on Masson and Pollock,” Arts, XXXIV/2, November, 1959, p. 43.
[ii] Robert Motherwell, conversation with the author, Greenwich, Ct., January 6, 1977.
[iii] Bernard H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972).
[iv] Bill Barrett, quoted in Polyphonic Abstraction: Paintings and Maquettes by Bill Barrett (Ames, Iowa: Christian Petersen Art Museum, Iowa State University, 2010).