From 1993 to 2007, as an assistant to artist David Barr, I spent much time working on the upkeep and continual renovation of the house that he built for himself from 1978 to 1981on four acres in what was then a large, unpopulated, heavily wooded area of Novi, Michigan. It is a Modernist structure that he co-designed with the Chicago architect Laurence Booth (who had previously designed the original Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art as a Post-Modern makeover of what had been the offices of 'Playboy' magazine; the museum moved in 1996). The residence was a rethinking of the American farmhouse, with a nod to the proportional system of 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. It was a house intended for use by an artist, perfectly divided into ½ studio and ½ living space, with high, angled ceilings and large windows for the perfect distribution of light. David was raised in a suburb of Detroit, less than one mile from where I had been raised, in a modest working-class home like that of my childhood home. His house was even situated one block west of Mack Avenue, as mine was. He would describe these working-class bungalows as “honest homes,” designed exactly as they needed to be, unlike the excessive vulgarity displayed in the gated communities that began to define the newer Michigan suburbs. When I first met David in 1992, I was an 18-year old art student who knew nothing of Modernism. But I did have a love for film, and he invited me to his house to discuss helping edit and direct a documentary he was assembling on a sculptural project he had installed in the Russian Far East. When I arrived at the house, thus began my education in Modernist design. The residence was filled with furniture David himself had designed and constructed, as well as pieces by Ray and Charles Eames, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. There were large Amish Quilt abstractions brimming with color, a few small gouache paintings by French Neoplastic painter Jean Gorin, and David’s own Structurist reliefs. His bookcases were brimming with volumes on Russian Constructivism, and we would regularly discuss the virtues of the Constructivist movement in its attempt to revivify social consciousness through art-making. He often spoke of the importance of having a philosophy married to one’s practice, and the necessity of art to transcend divisive, didactic conversations with a poetic hand. Buckminster Fuller was an important figure to David in this respect: a designer who attempted to unify through design. David was teaching me, through conversation and practice, that Modernist design was not simply a theoretical conceit or a fashion, but a philosophy of living; for David, a way of achieving a balance between daily activity and artistic action through considerate design.
Over the next 14 years, I grew to know this house occupied by him and his wife Elizabeth, very well. David was always tinkering with improving the interior and the exterior of the space, changing out wall colors, door handles, shelving strategies, exterior stairways and decks. The exterior façade went from wood planking to stucco (a nod to Le Corbusier) and the exterior stairways went from not having railings (much cleaner) to having railings (the necessity of safety over appearance). There was a constant struggle in dealing with the flow of water—primarily keeping it out of the house due to the problems posed by the flat roof on one portion. He and I applied fresh coats of tar to it. We installed a granite fountain in front of the house, and through much trial and error learned the difficulties in controlling water flow and maintaining a basin that would not break apart during a winter freeze. In addition to regularly painting his steel sculptures with a toxic mixture of pigment and epoxy, I repainted both the inside and outside of the house at least once every two to three years, balancing myself and a bucket of paint on several tall ladders. The exterior decks and stairs, once made of wood, suspended by a cable system, were eventually replaced by steel. But a problem remained: water would not drain, paint peeled, and every summer I had to scrape the paint from the steel, prime it and repaint it.
I spent many nights alone in that house, whenever David and Beth would leave the country for a sojourn. It was a place of wonderful solitude where I could gather my thoughts unlike any other space I’ve been in since. Reading and drawing in that space was as focused an experience as I could have. Despite what some may see as a severe space, it was intimate, and thoughtful. When left alone in the house after dark, I enjoyed its interior character the most, as the warm light from its lamps cast angled shadows across its walls and ceilings, bringing forth phantom sculptural projections. Whenever music was played, it filled the upstairs living room in such a way that whatever you were hearing seemed to enlarge. David and I listened to vinyl recordings of Glenn Gould playing Bach many times at lunch or after dinner. The sound and the design of that living space were in perfect harmony.
As David and I toiled on the house, attempting to keep nature and the onset of structural aging at bay, we had many conversations about the attempt of Modernism to stave off entropy and maintain a newness that carried with it the illusion of control. He told me many times that after traveling in Italy, he was re-thinking Modern design; that perhaps we (in America) had it wrong and that structures are meant to show their age, to be worn in. That part of its design should be the embrace of aging. David would tell me that he could see the poetry in aging Italian architecture. He thought that perhaps it was a fool’s mission to keep re-painting, re-covering, pretending that the structure can be maintained as if it were new. Of course, it had to do with the choice of contemporary, factory-made materials that could not age as well as stone and brick. It was around this time that he relented to allow a vine to grow to the point of overtaking the north wall of the house, that which served as a wall to his studio, looking out at a series of sculptures decidedly less Structurist than most of his output—homages to ancient fertility figures that his studio desk window faced. The edges of the house, at least his perception of the edges of the house, began to soften.
I spent much time working on the grounds of the house with David. Gardening, digging holes and laying cement foundations for sculptures, trimming trees, moving large piles of dirt and helping to shape the land. Over the years, we slowly built a stone wall around much of the property by going to a nearby quarry and filling up the back of his many trucks with boulders, placing one atop the other. There was a constant war waged with a particularly large groundhog tunneling under the land out to a large pond, causing the earth to regularly collapse under the wheels of the riding John Deere lawnmower we used. As the years advanced, the conversation turned from one of controlling the landscape into one about allowing it to grow a little wild. The question of the relationship between design and nature was a crucial one for David. He loved the unsentimental, unsparing acceptance of the more violent aspects of nature that the German filmmaker Werner Herzog posited (one of the first books David ever gave me was 'Of Walking In Ice', Herzog’s diary of his walk from Munich to Paris, from November 23 to December 14, 1974). There was a part of him that felt a balance needed to be struck in honestly assessing one’s natural surroundings, preserving part of that, but not at the expense of one’s needs and survival. He believed design could solve this.
In the studio component of the house, arranged into stations for drawing, woodworking, and painting, I would observe and participate in the construction of his reliefs, and the occasional layout of large-scale installations (such as planning the placement of the paving stones for 'Transcending', the Hart Plaza Labor Monument he collaborated with Sergio DeGiusti on). I fondly recall David’s process of assembling his reliefs: preparing a precise graphite drawing that resembled an architectural blueprint, cutting and organizing the Masonite forms based upon the drawing, applying thin layers of gesso onto the Masonite by way of airbrush, creating endless swatches of color variations after carefully documenting each mixing ratio and then applying the final colors with multiple, delicate passes of the airbrush. The completed pieces were assembled using the smallest metal pins, hidden from view to not distract from the primary structural investigations into color and form that each relief yielded. This was a continuing lesson for me in the perfection of craft as it related to artistic intent. Once a relief was finished, we carried it upstairs to the living room and placed it on a wall, to be lit and studied regularly for the ways in which color interacted within its own form and with the house. David would often paint the underside of a relief with a color so that when it was displayed, floating a bit off the wall, it would cast a thin haze of that color onto the wall. It was a subtle formal gesture, but carried with it emotional shading. Below the layers of gesso and paint of these minimal works, David would write secret messages in graphite or ink; emotional confessions that would be completely covered during completion. When I asked him why he did this, he answered that it was a way for him to ground each piece in a personal narrative embedded with emotional undercurrents.
This was David: a big, highly emotional, verbose man who told stories and cried very easily, but who also believed in the minimal artistic gesture, refinement of form, and austerity of expression. He loved listening to Glenn Gould perform the keyboard works of Bach, because this was an expression of mathematical construction—the poetry of structure—but performed with emotion as one can hear in Gould’s occasional humming in the recordings. Sometimes it was difficult for me to square the man who often appeared unkempt and overweight, with a love for greasy diner food, with the same hand and mind that crafted precisely folded and unfolded, pure geometric expressions of color.
David Barr died in September of 2015. A memorial service was held at the grounds of his house, the ownership of which was immediately transferred to the City of Novi, for its future transformation into a public park and culture center. Subsequently, entry to the house was off limits. It was a strange feeling to have developed such a deep connection to a house and every little detail of its functioning, and to now wander around its parameter, attempting to peer into its windows as if it were some remote peepshow contrivance in a museum.
In February of 2018, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the house to see what state it was in. The front drive and a side path that I had accessed so many times with the John Deere lawnmower and trailer in tow, was cordoned off with metal gates. A monolithic black dumpster was parked in the driveway. The grounds were covered in thick snow. I parked on the road, and made a trek to the house. Curiously, I was now a trespasser on the very site that had occupied so much of my life. As I approached the house, it appeared somewhat as a ghost of its former self. Paint peeling and chipping away, the glorious yellow that I had applied to its stucco exterior was faded and stained with a thin green film. All the water runoff problems that we had attempted to control throughout the years, had now been allowed to continue and to make their mark on the façade. Rot was setting in on the window frames, the glass was dirty and fogged, the creeping vine on the north wall had continued growing and was now turning the corner to the east wall of the house. Peering through his studio window, the interior was a mess; a haphazard, dust-covered pile of tools and furniture and even a few unfinished relief projects that must have been among his last. The furniture on the rear balcony, host to so many meals and friendly chats over wine with visiting artists, writers and musicians, was now covered in a grey-black film mingled with rust, and had clearly been out of use for the past couple of years.
All of this deeply unnerved me on some level. My immediate impulse was to see the house returned to its glory. I wanted to take up a scraper, go to work on all that loose paint, fetch the ladder and apply a new skin. The surrounding landscape had also changed dramatically. Gone were the heavy woods, replaced by expansive suburban development. Large, gated communities encroaching on the stone walls of David’s enclave. But upon reflection, I feel less dismayed.
The house was David, and David was the house. The struggles of maintaining a relationship between art and life, design and nature, theory and practice, were carried out on a micro and macro level, emotionally, intellectually and physically. It was a constant pendulum that swung between resolution and irresolution, decay and renewal, construction and deconstruction. When we were daily attempting to stave off the onslaught of natural decay and disorder, we would speak of the concept of the Absurd. David would always reference his love of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus. Camus was for him, of all the Existentialist writers, the most hopeful, the most optimistic, in his description of the Absurd condition as the desire to continually press on despite the odds. David once gifted me a book on the theatre of Beckett, with this inscription, quoted from Beckett’s novel 'The Unnameable': “Dear Ryan …it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Best wishes, David.”
I carry a deep scar on my right index finger that I received using the table saw in David’s studio one late night when he and his wife were away in Italy. I was cutting wood to assemble a frame when my finger came straight down onto the unguarded blade. My blood sprayed directly up onto the high ceiling of his studio creating a little speckled pattern. When I last checked, it was still there, since we never had a chance to repaint the studio ceiling. But someday it, and the rest of the house will be repainted. It will receive a new skin and someone else will need to confront the structural aging and design flaws. The house will go on.