For a few years around 1970, Robert Barry was the most far-out artist in the game. He was popping off one canny idea after another, finding new ways to make art without objects, redrawing the accepted boundaries. In 1968 he used electromagnetic waves to create a sculpture that was invisible (save for the electromagnetic transmitter in the gallery) and infinitely large, since those waves were flying out into outer space. The next year he released containers of noble gases into the atmosphere, transmitted an artwork via telepathy (so he said), and shuttered galleries for the duration of his shows. And in 1970 he produced Marcuse Piece, one of the most beautiful artworks I know, which is simply a wall text that reads, “A place to which we can come and for a while ‘be free to think about what we are going to do.’” It demarcates a space, rendering it almost sacred.
A tightly organized survey of the artist, “Robert Barry: All the things I know . . . 1962 to the present,” on view at Hunter College’s 205 Hudson Street Gallery in Tribeca through April 4, does a superb job of telling his strange, thrilling story. Entering from Canal Street, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve happened into the wrong place. The gallery looks almost empty. Stroll around, though, and you will begin encountering artworks, like this text, written in faint graphite on the walls of one gallery in capital letters: “All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking—1:36 p.m. June 15, 1969.” That is one hell of an artwork: just about everything and, well, nothing really. As in a lot of great conceptual art, there is a stoner quality in Barry’s work that can be read both as profound and very funny. Here’s another great one from 1969, typed in the show on a sheet of paper: “Something I was once conscious of, but have now forgotten.”
All of the classics are here—the transmitter, those wall pieces, a live performance (single words spoken into a microphone every 30 seconds reverberate in the gallery), and exhibition mailings and other ephemera, which fill vitrines and promise to delight aficionados of the period. There are also some more recent pieces—installations Barry has made by affixing vinyl words to walls and glass (“MEANING,” “BEYOND,” and “REASON” appear among others in one on view at the Montclair Art Museum through December 27), and others painted on canvas. They feel ponderous, or maybe just navel-gazing. After reaching a remarkable zero point, it feels like Barry stalled.
Thankfully, there are also intriguing early works—spare abstract paintings that Barry made in the early to mid ‘60s, one a checkerboard of red and black squares, the other four separate beige squares arrayed so as to form the four corners of a square on a wall. In a new interview in the catalogue, the artist, thinking back to this period, explains to Max Weintraub (who curated the show with Sarah Watson and Annie Wischmeyer), “It just dawned on me that the space around the painting was interesting.” Following that line of thought to extreme conclusions, he made some of the postwar period’s most audacious art.
At the other end of New York, and the art spectrum, is “The Gee’s Bend Tradition” at the Lehman College Art Gallery in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, a delectable show of 14 recent hand-woven quilts from that eponymous Alabama community. For more than 100 years, initially to provide warmth in unheated houses, African American knitters there have used cast-off materials to make quilts in which longstanding patterns are intercut with witty bits of improvisation and invention. Mary Lee Bendolph goes Gatorade green and black in 2003’s gridded, eye-popping Q-Bar. Leola Pettway shows immaculate control in two intricate pieces with exploding stars that teem with energy. And Loretta Bennett contributes two stunners that recall, variously, an exuberant Hans Hoffman and a relaxed Antoni Tàpies—her Flow Plans (2012) steals the show, abnormal, unruly scraps in a panoply of colors miraculously cohering.
Curated by Susan Hoeltzel, the show also includes aquatint prints of quilts by Gee’s Bend artists and recent color photos from the area, which is now officially named Boykin, Alabama, by Linda Day Clark, as well as black-and-white shots from the 1930s done by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration. Together, they show a redoubtable, unbroken legacy that is now, reportedly, on the wane. The quilts, at least, will endure.
As if that wasn’t enough, Lehman also has, tucked away in an upstairs office space, a life-size (and life-cast) sculpture from 1987 by Rigoberto Torres, the longtime collaborator of John Ahearn, titled Orlando the Donut Man. Orlando is striding forth winningly, nimbly balancing on each hand a tray with nearly 50 donuts. Wry and loving, it alone is worth a visit to the gallery.
On an entirely unrelated note, there is a glorious development to report in the bar desert that is far West Chelsea: Danny Meyer’s latest project, Porchlight, his first bar, has opened and it is excellent. On a recent weekday evening, the Southern–themed spot at East 27th Street and 11th Avenue was humming, nearly every seat in the space taken by corporate types in their 30s. (Are these the people filling the fast-rising condos in the neighborhood?) The room is spacious and comfortable (and rich with exposed brick and wood paneling), the vibe lighting is just dim enough, and the cocktails ($14) are superb. The vibe is J. Crew sexy. The very refreshing New York Sour is a frothy egg-white blanket wrapped around a smooth rye, spiked with fulsome dashes of lemon and red wine. The Gun Metal Blue is an electric version of that color, a strong but elegant blend of mezcal, Curaçao, peach brandy, lime, and cinnamon. Succinct wine and beer lists hold their own, but it is the food (all small plates) that secures Porchlight’s glory, specifically a dish called Tom’s Balls (a rather off-color name for Meyer). They are crispy fried rice balls packed with dirty rice and salty chicken liver, and they are pretty much the only things I want to eat for the next few months.
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.