Transcending the period when modernist ideals gave way to a new set of aesthetic cues in contemporary art, Martin Barré’s (1924-1993) creative exploration of line, color, form and the two-dimensional surface is widely recognized as a milestone within the realm of art history. Presenting the viewer with a visual argument against the polite-passive intellectualism of traditional pictorial order, Barré’s oeuvre is mendaciously simple and minimalist. Communicating boundless variations of shapes and pigments within the self-imposed confines of the rectangular stretcher, his work investigates the delicate equilibrium that exists between notions of inner and outer space, figure and ground, completeness and provisionality.

Martin Barré, 63-H, Spray Paint on Canvas, 80 x 67 cm, 1963 Oozing art historical references, Barré’s abstract paintings speak of the 1960s minimalist ideology, of Kazimir Malevich championing the obliterative qualities of matter, of Lucio Fontana’s re-evaluation of space, of Agnes Martin’s engagement with non-representational systems, and of Robert Ryman’s geometric abstraction. Yet, Barré’s distinctive use of the line lends his practice a unique position within the context of abstract art. Relying on acts of negation, sparse and reduced forms hover over the surface of the raw canvas. In 63-H (1963) (right) – an archetype of his spray paint series – a simple matte black stroke is sprayed onto the center of the piece. Interrupted by the work’s blank boundaries, the graffiti-inspired streak breaks out into the gallery space, creating a palpable tension between what is depicted and what the beholder’s imagination perceives outside the realm of the artwork. Whilst embracing the characteristics of the two-dimensional surface, Barré’s pictorial reduction does not search to debase the viewer’s ocular authority, nor does it seek to convey any illusory depth; it rather incites a complete re-invention of the space it occupies.

Later in his career, Barré’s oeuvre continued to defy conventional modes of abstraction, as it evolved in a serial manner. Painting brightly hued shapes onto a stark white background, each new series based itself on a pre-conceived set of rules and guidelines. Contrarily to Barré’s fleeting and unconfined spray paint gestures, these manifestations were brought into being through the use of stencils. Here, autonomy was favored over artistic intuition. Juxtaposing pastel geometric forms against the modernist grid, both 87 – 89 – 81 x 144 – B (1987-89) and 91 – 120 x 160 – A (1991) seem to diverge from the artist’s previous works. Yet, Barré’s art retains an undeniable aesthetic cohesiveness.

Martin Barré, 87 – 89 – 81 x 144 – B, Oil on Canvas,144 x 81 cm, 1987-89

Emptying the canvas space, the painter favors a provisional aesthetic, as his minimalist approach deviates from the fastidious allover method used by many of his contemporaries. In Barré’s own words, ‘What bumped up against the taste or style of the period was not so much this lack of thickness as the impression of emptiness, of nonwork.’ [1] Seemingly menaced by inconsequence or collapse, his abstractions look remarkably simple, self-cancelling and offhand. Yet, while Barré’s art seems to masquerade as a preliminary study or an under-painting, their plain compositions animate their surfaces to create a finished piece that is anything but tentative.

In a 1974 interview, Barré stated: ‘What I was doing could well appear as antipainting, whereas what I wanted to show, through the traces or points of impact in a clear surface, was what a painting could be if disencumbered of object, color, and form.’ [2] Never ceasing to engage with minimalist ideologies, his reinvention of the canvas’s surface has secured his place as a leading figure within the canon of art.


[1] Catherine Millet, “Interview with Martin Barré,” in Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon and Stephen Melville, As Painting: Division and Displacement, Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, 2001, p. 190.

[2] Ibid., p. 193. 10 Hal Foster, in Artforum, April 1979, p. 71.

Further Reading

Provisional Painting, in Art in America, by Raphael Rubinstein.

Ariane Belisle is a London-based curator and art writer. She holds an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art and has written for This Is Tomorrow: Contemporary Art Magazine, Sotheby’s London, the Courtauld Gallery, Courtauld Reviews and the Victoria and Albert Museum.