Ripple Effect: Irene Barberis at Sol LeWitt’s Studio

It was just beginning to cool down after the heat of summer when I visited Irene Barberis at Sol LeWitt’s Connecticut studio. Entering the quiet building across mossy flagstones, I found myself looking out across a grid of floor-to-ceiling windows. Leafy trees filtered natural light across LeWitt’s desk, shelves, brushes, and rolls of paper, and across Barberis’s colourful paintings in progress, laid out on the large table and pinned to the nearby wall.

Barberis and LeWitt first met in 1974. They became friends, and he remained a supporter and mentor to her until his death in 2007. Although there are many synergies between their works, and Barberis was employed to work on a wall drawing of LeWitt’s in 1977, she was not LeWitt’s protégé as such. Rather, he encouraged her to follow her own instincts: “Sol’s greatest mentoring statement,” she tells me, “was to stick with your gut.” And this she did, whether she was rendering new visions of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation in bioluminescent tapestry, drawing in rhythmic and repetitive gestures to create vibrant geometric abstractions, or engaging in scholarly practices.

Over the past few years, with the blessing of LeWitt’s family, she has spent considerable time in his studio, both documenting it and keeping it alive with the creation of new works. Unsurprisingly, she tells me, “Everything that I do here has a relationship to him.” That is, everything takes on the patterns and cadences of the space, which somehow still holds the shape of the artist who built it. She has worked amidst his supplies, brushes, tape cassettes of classical music, and the collection of other artists’ work that populate the studio and house, and has even been invited to use some of his unused rolls of paper. “The brushes and the paper,” she notes, “have memory in them.”

Her time in the studio yielded a large and ongoing body of work taking many different forms. The Residue series, 2019–22, for example, comprises, amongst other works, twenty-five small latex impressions of surfaces in the studio. She told me that, when going through the things in the space, she noticed the presence of “seventeen years of dust that had accumulated in particular areas, on the shelves amongst the solvents, for example. So, I made twenty-five small latex impressions. Parts of the residue – the dust – would lift off the surface. It was an inventory of time.” Capturing the time that has elapsed between the artist’s death and the present moment, these imprints of the negative spaces between objects are homages, not only to LeWitt himself, but also to Eva Hesse, another artist who was herself nurtured by LeWitt. As Michael Marder wrote in an essay in The Atlantic, “dust is a ledger of past existence.” The Residue pieces were made with a sense that the studio had remained very still since LeWitt’s death.

If dust settles in stillness, movement dislodges and rearranges it without it ever really going away. Acknowledging its material and metaphoric relationship to past presences as a fugitive kind of persistence, Marder goes on to remind us that dust “will eternally return, not as dramatically as ghosts or spectres but quietly and cumulatively, like the falling snow.” Inevitably, Barberis’s own presence within the space – alongside that of family members and other artists – would be one of the things that dislodged and rearranged that dust. Just as the arrangements of objects – clusters that Barberis understands as compositions of a kind – would begin to be dissembled, the imprimatur of LeWitt’s presence and practice would, with time and use, begin to fade.

Against this, she has also undertaken a more visually comprehensive record of the space. Comprising some fifteen hundred individual photographs of the studio, her artist’s book Exploring the Chester Studio: A Visual Documentation, 2022, is a lovingly precise inventory and is itself a re-performance of and riff on LeWitt’s own photogrids and artist’s books. Inch by inch, it takes note of everything in the studio, from the large sweep of windows looking out to a forested landscape to the tiniest, quotidian, and yet somehow still profound, details: the way that three rolls of tape hang on the edge of the bookshelf, one above another; the hunched angle of the architect’s lamp on the desk; clusters of paint-stained jars and lids, and the way that empty plastic cups capture the light in the space. It’s perhaps the oldest instinct that we have, when it comes to photography: to record, and in so doing, pause time.

The Residue series and this book are marked by a quiet and elegiac reverence, a desire to pause a slowly fading presence. This stands in contrast to her exuberantly coloured drawings and paintings created in the same space. These works are less explicitly archival but no less informed by the energy and rich surfaces of the studio. When I visited, there was a large, luminous painting laid out on the table in the studio. It was made while listening to some of the thirteen cassette recordings that were in LeWitt’s studio when he died, which still sit on his desk. Among them is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion II, 1727, tape 3182, and some trace of its rhythmic, linear, and ordered progression has been transcribed in fluorescent brush strokes worked from one end of the table to the other. Barberis spent sixteen years studying classical ballet, and this mode of painting and drawing could be understood as a related register of somatic embodiment. This aspect of her practice has resonance with LeWitt’s own wall drawings, which have been likened to scores and compositions. She calls the process by which she has made these drawings “psychochoreography,” which she relates to something that Lucy Lippard wrote of LeWitt’s work: “The idea can be considered synonymous with intuition.”

Although they are not exactly an inventory of the studio space in the manner of the latex and photographic impressions, these drawings take their shape within and from the studio. In particular, they assume the length of LeWitt’s table, upon which they were made. This table is itself an archive; bearing a neat inventory of marks, it is evidence of LeWitt’s precise working methods.

Another major piece of work responds to, indeed takes its form from, a different kind of surface in the space – a bulletin board layered with photos, postcards, children’s drawings, and more. Upon her arrival in the studio, Barberis tacked a sheet of thick, fluoro-pink plastic over the board, and has slowly traced an outline of everything pinned up there. A testament to a rich artistic community and a generosity of spirit that set LeWitt apart, the bulletin board is now the basis of a drawing that will eventually become part of a cycle of tapestries. An impression with the hand, this will in turn be converted into an abstracted representation running through the threads of a woven cloth. This is fitting, since curator of the LeWitt Collection and Archive – and LeWitt’s former studio assistant – Janet Passehl described this board as “a kind of insulation, a thick blanket that kept Sol warm while he did his work”.

Barberis’s approach to this image archive has a kinship with the process of frottage. To transfer a surface through touch is an act of homage. From the use of latex to take an impression of dust, to the tracing of the bulletin board, and the use of LeWitt’s own paper, Barberis’s works could almost be understood as posthumous collaborations with those who are no longer with us.

In some ways, her work reminds me of the drawings that a team of archaeologists made of Francis Bacon’s studio before it was moved, piece by piece, to its home at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. But where Bacon’s studio became a museum piece, hermetically sealed behind glass (much like Brancusi’s walled-off Paris studio), this is more like a film still that lingers on the arrangements and coagulations of the studio even as the space continues to flow and change. Barberis is, after all, a living artist working in LeWitt’s studio. That LeWitt’s space continues to host an artist and be the site of new work is testament to his well-known generosity of spirit. It would not be right for LeWitt’s studio to become untouchable and unusable, a display rather than a place to make.

In that open-ended, hospitable mode, the works discussed here are a sample from a project that is multivalent and ongoing: Barberis is in the midst of planning a large-scale, multi-venue exhibition tracing LeWitt’s influence on the art of the twenty-first century. Titled Concentric Influences of Sol LeWitt, the exhibition will take place in ten countries and include the work of one hundred different artists. Each iteration will include an original LeWitt wall drawing, paired with the work of artists who have been influenced by him, showing the ripple effect of his conceptual practice and his generous, generative spirit.

This profile was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62

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