Robert Barber was born in Minneapolis in 1922, and received an undergraduate degree from the Minneapolis School of Art, and an MFA from the University of Minnesota. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Barber studied with Philip Guston when he was there as a visiting professor in 1950. After graduating, he taught at Illinois University of Wesleyan for three years before moving to Tucson, Arizona in 1956. He has been producing art since then, yielding a vast array of extraordinary work spanning nearly three-quarters of a century, and continues to draw on a daily basis at the age of 100.
Guston's example inspired Barber's subsequent forays into large, vivid abstractions in the early 1960s. Measuring up to six feet square these works focus on color and the materiality of the medium and its application. Barber's quick emphatic gestures, blocks of strokes in sharply contrasting hues form into loose, optically percussive grids. He rendered them in thick layers and swathes of oil paint using wide brushes to form impastoed surfaces that include drips, drops, and splatters complimenting the overall composition. The legacy of Abstract Expressionism is evident in their gestural immediacy. Along with Guston, the paintings have strong formal affinities to those of Hans Hoffmann, Willem De Kooning, Joan Mitchell.
These works are of a time when abstract painting could still be regarded as a radical gesture, particularly in the relative isolation of Tucson. Barber followed his own path in a small southwestern city in the Sonoran desert where new art ideas and trends were barely known, much less appreciated. In that time, and over the next five decades he has been a rare example of an artist producing advanced artwork far from any major art center or community. Outside of a few local Tucson exhibitions, Barber was virtually unknown until a 2015 full-scale retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, co-curated by Anne-Marie Russell and Jocko Weyland.
Kerry Schuss Gallery introduced the work of Robert Barber to an international audience at Independent Fair 2016 in New York and mounted an expanded gallery presentation of works from the early 1970's. In 2017 Del Deo & Barzune, New York mounted the two-person exhibition with Ray Parker / Robert Barber 1959 -1963. Barber's and Parker's paths crossed at the University of Minnesota where Parker was an instructor. Most recently, in 2018, Barber's work was included in the American Academy of Arts and Letters annual Invitational exhibition. Paintings by Robert Barber are in the collection of the University of Minnesota.
Robert Barber at his opening at Kerry Schuss Gallery, New York, 2016