“I don’t paint Venuses or apples, or my last dream, or a dream I might have. I paint paintings. Propositions in paint, questions expressed in, or addressed to the medium of painting.” (French artist Martin Barré in 1976, interviewed by critic Anne Tronche). In stressing his resolutely rational artistic approach, its immanent quality, and its engagement with questions of aesthetics, Martin Barré restates what it most apparent in his work: painting and nothing but painting, conceived as a (cerebral) space apart, a conceptual and visual playground, a place to think, and a place where thoughts can assume material form.
Martin Barré was born in Nantes in 1924. He studied architecture and painting at the city’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts and settled in Paris at the beginning of the 1950s. He made his début on the Paris art scene with solo and group exhibitions in 1954 and 1955. Abandoning the vocabulary of his student years, he applied himself to the development of a distinctive, abstract oeuvre—an undertaking he pursued with exceptional rigor and originality over the following four decades, until his death in 1993.
His work as a whole displays remarkable coherence but is nonetheless generally divided into five periods. From 1954 to 1962, an initial phase gives form to an unprecedented synthesis of the artistic lessons of the first half of the 20th century and post-war abstraction. From 1963 to 1967, Barré developed a pioneering corpus in the history of contemporary painting, using aerosol sprays to create performative works that capture gesture and time on canvas. His so-called “conceptual episode,” from 1969 to 1971, was a period of experimentation with the conceptual possibilities of photography and the exhibition-as-artwork—new avenues for his exploration of the medium of painting and the conditions that shape its making and display. Barré’s return to painting in 1972 heralded two decades of creativity, exploring the structure of paintings, and overpainting or obliteration from 1972 to 1977, followed by the investigation of color and combinatory processes from 1979 to 1992.
Working sequentially, in series, Martin Barré mobilizes the full range of pictorial parameters to liberate the dynamic, spatial, and cerebral potential of painting as a medium. By conceiving each picture of and in itself, and in relation to the other pictures in the series of which it is a part, Barré conducts his work with precision, applying an almost linguistic approach to painting. The formation of the picture is supremely important: it is here that his selective interplay evolves, between colors and areas left in reserve, between the foreground and background, the picture space and the space out-of-frame, effects of transparency and the border.
MAMCO’s exhibition is Switzerland’s first large-scale presentation of work by this pivotal figure in mid-to-late 20s century art. Featuring representative works from each period, the show retraces Martin Barré’s engagement with the medium of painting: the enterprise that lead him to experiment ceaselessly with the sensory, cerebral, chromatic, and physical properties and possibilities of pictorial form.
Exhibition organized by Clément Dirié
With the support of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art