Martin Barré (1924-1993) was a leading figure of post-war abstraction in France. Though he primarily considered himself a painter, Barré had a rich and varied career that also included photo conceptualism. His work explored the conventions of composition, often rebelling against classic pictorial order to present an early form of Minimalism.
Barré began to exhibit regularly in the 1950s and enjoyed a career that spanned the second half of the 20th century. Museums and galleries across Europe regularly exhibited his work although he was most prominent in Paris where he showed at Galerie La Roue and Galerie Daniel Templon. Until recently his work was relatively unknown outside of Europe and displayed infrequently in relation to its importance.
Art historians have discussed Martin Barré’s career by analysing his trajectory of production techniques: the use of the palette knife (until 1960), the direct application through a paint tube (1960-1963), the use of spray paints (1963-1967), the camera photography and conceptual art (~1967-1972) and a return to painting that lasted the rest of his career. Despite the convergence and divergence of various techniques, Barré’s life and work retained a coherency with each step setting the stage for the next. His career marked a significant achievement in the use of form, line and two-dimensional surface that continues to be explored by abstract painters today.
Noted critic Joe Fyfe has stated that Barré “clearly left something for contemporary painters to build on….[He] conducts an ongoing excavation of surface that allows it to retain a steadfastly nonassociative identity”. There are stylistic congruities between his use of thin matte black line sprayed on canvas to that of Agnes Martin or that of his countryman Pierre Soulage. However, Barré’s use of the line on canvas is singular: an extreme pictorial reduction pared down and faithful to two dimensional construction rather than seeking to define any illusory depth. An emptying of space that stood in stark comparison to the allover approach employed by American abstractionists at the time. For the artist, the spray can was brush, paint and container all in one. The spray can allowed for fleeting and unconfined motions and also signalled a transposition from the graffiti he saw on the Parisian metro, signs of the Algerian war, into the gallery space.
Ultimately, Martin Barré’s painting was both expansive and extendible as it increased the possibilities for what could be achieved in the medium. As Yve-Alain Bois argues, Barré effectively used sequences and symbols to analyse “the uncontrollable arbitrariness of pictorial codes”. The result is a unique body of abstract work which helps to solidify his pioneering reputation.