The Man Behind the Sculpture

Bill Barrett, who has lived in Tribeca since 1977, didn’t set out to make art about 9/11. “I was devastated by it, but I wanted to keep working and creating,” he said recently in his Worth Street studio. Only after he began incorporating a pair of pillars into his work did the symbolism occur to him. “I don’t like to deal with death,” he said, laughing.

The sculpture ("911") that will be in Finn Square.

Over roughly eight years, Barrett has created more than 50 works in his Lexeme series (lexeme means “a lexical unit in a language, as a word or base”). “You don’t conceive it ahead of time,” he said, explaining his process. “You just let it evolve. You have to make a number of pieces in order to understand it.” Initially, the pillars were conjoined, like an opened book standing upright, with organic shapes around them; then the pillars separated and moved apart. The latest works are paintings, which have what he describes as “DNA-style ribbons” (you can see them in the painting behind him). Of course, he’d rather you come to those conclusions—or your own conclusions—yourself: “That’s the story of abstract art in the 20th century. It demands viewer to interpret it.”

A wax model in Barrett's studio.

At first, Barrett refused to say that the Lexeme series related to 9/11, thinking it was too depressing. But at a group show in Zell, Germany, he came clean. “People kept asking, ‘What’s the real subject matter?'” Eventually, he gave into their persistence. “I said, ‘The real reason is 9/11—my studio is 10 blocks away.’ They loved it, so I figured it was OK to talk about it.”

On May 4, Barrett’s 11-foot-tall bronze sculpture “911” will take up residence in Finn Square, the triangle between W. Broadway, Varick, and Franklin. (Barrett has had three sculptures there in the past 15 years.) Conceived in 2002 or 2003 and designed in 2005, “911” will be in Finn Square for six months, though Barrett hopes its stay will be extended another six months.

He agreed to share sketches and photos of other pieces from the series, which you can see below. For the sculptures, he starts by working in wax, and when one is ready it gets handed over to the foundry in Santa Fe (where he and his wife, Deborah, live part of the year). The models are knee-high, then they’re enlarged into sculptures. As Barrett shows in the photo at top, they’re hollow—but don’t try moving “911” when it’s in Finn Square: It weighs around 1,200 pounds.


1 Comment

  1. Bill:

    Beautiful meaningful work, as usual. Ed and I must see this when we next go to New York. I am printing it out for Ed to see.