Robert Barrell was one of the major players in formulating the ideas of the group later known as the Indian Space Painters.  While working for the WPA’s Hayden Planetarium project in 1940, he became closely linked with Peter Busa and especially Steve Wheeler.  Barrell and Wheeler often frequented the American Museum of National History where they toured the Northwest Coast section of the American Indian Hall.  Interested equally in art and culture, Barrell began forming his own collection of Native American works and read the writings of anthropologists Franz Boaz and John Swanton.  Barrell also amassed all the issues of the Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology published by Smithsonian.


Barrell studied at the Arts Students League with Hans Hofmann from 1934 to 1938.  Like many artists during the Depression he worked for the WPA beginning in the 1940s.  Under the influence of Klee and Miro, Barrell’s work became increasingly flat and concerned with an all-over design, which is also a particular characteristic of Northwest Coast, Peruvian, and Oceanic art.  In these native art forms, abstraction and metamorphic imagery were thought to communicate universal truths about the human spirit and unconscious mind.  Yet, in 1948, Barrell drifted away from Indian Space, claiming that his work had become too abstract.



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