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Review: John Barbour at Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art

December 25, 2008 | 12:00 pm

Barbour A group of 13 paintings unseen in 40 years by the late, little-known Pasadena artist John Barbour opens a small but intriguing historical window.

Hard-edge painting -- a term coined in 1959 by the influential Los Angeles critic Jules Langsner to describe geometric abstractions by John McLaughlin, Karl Benjamin and others -- was the first indigenous Modernist art exported from Southern California in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Still far from fully examined, the period style was widely practiced.

At Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, Barbour’s paintings show an early debt to McLaughlin, especially in a 1964 “Composition” composed of flatly painted vertical bars colored in grays, cream and blue-green. Slightly off the grid at the top and bottom of the 2-foot-square panel, the impersonally painted color bars create a sense of potentially revelatory space awaiting discovery behind them.

The work also suggests an apparent relationship to the less adventurous but nonetheless stylish abstractions of Lorser Feitelson. Eleven paintings date from about 1966, two years after Barbour, then 75, was included in a large show of Hard-edge related work in Newport Beach at the forerunner to what is now the Orange County Museum of Art.

They use acrylic color and crisp geometry to make spatial ambiguity. A line appears to fold around itself, a shape reads as positive form or negative space, depending on the color-shapes adjacent, and a shift in tone from lighter to darker sends an otherwise two-dimensional shape or line twisting into a third dimension.

A profound painter such as McLaughlin used similar strategies to establish spatial voids paradoxically bursting with visual amplitude. (His was a Modernist version of a traditional Japanese aesthetic.)
More playful and design-oriented, Barbour is not, on the evidence of this modest show, in the same league. But it’s nice to make his art’s acquaintance and to begin filling in some gaps in the historical record.

In the gallery’s back room, some useful context for Barbour’s work is provided in paintings by McLaughlin, June Harwood and Clark Murray.

— Christopher Knight

Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, 8568 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-1100, through Jan. 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Above: An untitled John Barbour work (circa 1966). Credit: Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art