The Barber of Tucson

Robert Barber MOCA retrospective shows how the painter pushed boundaries and convention

The first things visitors are drawn to at Robert Barber's giant retrospective at MOCA-Tucson are the big, bright abstract paintings on the walls and the intricate color sculptures occupying the floor.

Less noticeable are the tiny sketches in watercolor, gouache and pencil, stashed away by the dozens in glass cases. These color miniatures may be humble, but they're exquisite, combining delicate pencil lines with loose, deft dashes of watercolor or gouache.

One sterling series pictures ordinary household objects: kitchen chairs, a mop, cans and a box of salt on a shelf, a box of Tide on the floor.

For another sketch series, in another case, Barber was lured outside. These painted landscapes conjure up the layered mountains and sky that he can see in his adopted hometown of Tucson.

These treasure troves of drawings provide one more proof, as if any were needed, of just how methodical and driven an artist Barber is. At 92, he's been making art for more than 60 years, and the 200 brightly colored modernist sculptures and paintings that fill MOCA's vast spaces are just a small fraction of the works he's produced.

The small drawings teach us about his working method: he made sketch after sketch after sketch to work out his ideas and perfect them before starting in on the larger canvases. (The same is true for the small 3-D maquettes that serve as trial runs for the larger sculptures.)

The charming little chairs and other lowly domestic objects of the sketches, created back in the late '50s, led the way to a full-scale set of untitled experimental paintings, part of what co-curator Anne-Marie Russell calls his "rigorous and ongoing investigation of room interiors." In the paintings, the chair legs and mops and cans undergo a metamorphosis, becoming simplified bands of color or cylinders or pyramids that shoot across the canvas in a kaleidoscope of geometries. The household has splintered into abstraction.

Likewise, the small landscape studies simplify Barber' s real-world sources for the abstracted "Mountain Forms" paintings, dating from the late 1980s to the 1990s. Barber, who moved to Tucson with his late wife Fern in the mid-1950s, used the studies to begin reducing mountains and clouds to angled layers of color, each one stacked atop another.

In the sketches, these forms are still recognizable as the peaks, canyons and skies we all see every day. But by the time they've migrated from the small squares of paper to the larger canvases, they've moved onto a lyrical abstraction. The large color block works are painted flatly, with no trace of the brush. And they're in bright pop colors—pink, turquoise, yellow–ratcheted up in intensity from the tones of the desert sky, rocks and mountains. It's the Southwest pushed to abstracted extremes.

Barber's personal story is the stuff of fairy tales. He's a World War II vet who got intensive art training at the University of Minnesota and at the Minneapolis School of Art. After his student years, though, he spent most of this working days as a teacher in TUSD. For years, he painted determinedly, even relentlessly, in his free time, filling his studio to the brim with both sculptures and paintings. Yet he remained unknown in the art world.

In 2013, he got some paintings into the Tucson Museum of Art Biennial, and attracted the excited attention of Jocko Weyland and Russell of MOCA. The pair visited his home studio and discovered that Barber's body of work mirrored the trajectory of modern art over the last half century, moving from abstract expressionism to pop to abstracted sculpture to figurative painting to color block.

The exhibition begins with 1950s paintings inspired by Gorky and Matisse, according to Russell, but the work rapidly becomes pure Barber. He made marvelous earth-toned collages in the late 1950s and rigorously geometric "Freeway Paintings" triggered by a California road trip in the 1970s. A roomful of pure black-and-white paintings and sculptures from all periods is an eye-popper.

Barber loves jumping over conventional boundaries and using unconventional materials. Some of his most interesting sculptures are crafted of ordinary corrugated cardboard that's he's cut, painted and folded into his beloved geometries. And for his most recent paintings, he scavenges six-pack beer boxes from the trash, and incorporates them into beautifully worked paintings.

These new paintings honor the humble, just as those household sketches did, and their freshness and spontaneity harken back to Barber's earliest years as an artist, when his loose and free color sketches made mops and chairs into things of beauty.