During the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the late 40's and 50's, Barnet developed what he called a "clear-edge" abstract geometric style that formed the foundation for his later figure and portrait painting. He especially found inspiration in the Gallatin Collection where Cubist works by Picasso and Gris reinforced Barnet's "love of purity and geometry in painting, the beauty of a flat surface, a cohesive quality of structure and clear forms." Also important to Barnet was his learned appreciation of Byzantine, African, Asian, Oceanic, and Native American art.
Until recently, Barnet's Abstract works of the late '40s through the mid-'60s have often been discussed as evidence of his independence from Abstract Expressionism and hence the art world. This interpretation did not acknowledge the complexities of the era and Barnet's important connections with others sharing his concerns, especially his fellow Indian Space Painters and members of the American Abstract Artists.
Now that revisionist scholars such as Susan C. Larsen, Ann Gibson, Sandra Kraskin, and W. Jackson Rushing have challenged the dominant paradigm of Abstract Expressionism to expose the diversity of this era, it becomes possible to re-examine Barnet's contributions in this new context.
Barnet's Abstract explorations reveal his affinities with the work of his Indian Space colleagues Peter Busa and Steve Wheeler and recent research by Stavitsky and Johnson illuminates Barnet's pivotal role in aspects of the Indian Space Movement.
Also important is Barnet's involvement with the American Abstract Artists, founded in 1936, which he joined in 1954 when he was "...looking for structure in a period that was destroying structure." His relationship with this group, especially leading critic-painter George L. K. Morriss, has never been fully examined. Additionally, the exhibition considers for the first time Barnet's relationship to post-painterly abstraction and Color Field painting, especially Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Leon Polk Smith and others who have been identified as pioneers of hard-edge painting during the 1950s and '60s.Although Barnet has pursued abstraction for many years, his fascination with human beings, especially his family, never waned. In the early 1960s he launched a series of family portraits that achieved a balance between the formal demands of abstraction and the humanist aspects of representation to present modern yet timeless versions of traditional mother and child themes. From the late 1960s onwards, Barnet created a series of allegorical paintings of the seasons and other subjects. A desire to explore his New England heritage led to an ongoing series begun in Maine during the 1970s of women and sea. Although these meditative, linear paintings recall the work of Piero della Francesca and Ingres, they also have strong connections to Barnet's earlier work in terms of their humanist vision and unified, classical compositions, balancing geometric and biomorphic forms in compressed spaces. Thus an underlying modernist architectural structure characterizes all of Barnet's work -- figurative or abstract.
President Obama bestows National Medal of Arts to Will Barnet at a White House ceremony.
Will Barnet (born 1911) is an American painter, printmaker, teacher and critic.
Born in Beverly, Massachusetts, he studied first at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston then at the Art Students League of New York where he later taught. He also taught at Cooper Union in New York and the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts. Barnet is a member of the National Academy of Design and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Barnet’s earliest works were figurative like those of other artists of that period. He painted and made lithographs of the people in his world. He explored abstractionism long before it became fashionable in the 1950s. However one can define, for example, a young child sitting in a tree in one abstract image. With the exception of a few prints “reality” really never completely left his imagery. He later returned to realism but with his particular style of a kind of oriental flat realism. His subjects have always been his wife, their children, and grandchildren, their pets and people in his daily life. Barnet has always enjoyed the company and friendship of America’s greatest artists and has been influenced by their innovative ventures. Today his images, "the Barnet images", have become iconic much like those of Grant Wood and other important American artists.
WILL BARNET: FIVE DECADES IN PRINTMAKING
An interview with Jane Haslem in the Fall of 1977
At 66, Will Barnet exudes the energy and enthusiasm of youth, He is sensitive intense, always observing, listening and learning He is strong willed, a loner when it comes to his art, and a perfectionist who controls his own destiny. His work, family, and home are all important to him - they are one. From this oneness he has found great strength and success. He has succeeded as an important American artist across five decades, a feat reserved for only a few. His works are in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Chicago Art Institute and the Corcoran to name a few.
In a recent interview he talked about himself and his career:
JH At what age did you become interested in visual art?
WB There was a beautiful library in my home town of Beverly, MA. When I was eight years old I used to go and take out fairy tales. One day I wandered into the art section and took down a book with a drawing by Watteau on the cover. The picture was so beautiful I was inspired. I looked at more art books, I discovered Rembrandt and Daumier. By the time I was ten or eleven years old I was reading art history books.
JH How did your parents feel about this?
WB My parents felt harassed by life. Times were hard then. They had no involvement. My mother was sympathetic and my father didn't understand. There were no artists in my family. I do have to say, however, that on my mother's side for many generations the people were builders. They built the buildings in Boston.
JH Who most influenced you in your beginning years?
WB I have to go back to the library. I spent more time in the library than I did at home. Mrs. Stanton, the librarian, gave me the private key to the inner sanctum upstairs where the art books were stored. There was a wonderful collection. The books had been given to the library from the great estates on the North Shore.
JH Did you ever consider any other profession?
JH You studied at the Boston Museum School. Which came first, painting or printmaking?
WB Oh, first I painted and did many drawings. That is what I was taught at the museum. Later I took up printmaking in New York at the Art Students League. I had to teach myself to print. There were printers there like Charles Locke who helped me but mostly I had to learn on my own.
JH Why did you begin to print?
WB Remember what the great Dutch philosopher, Spinoza, said, he said that every artist needed a trade to pursue his artistic efforts. This then would be my trade. Besides, I liked the idea that a graphic could reach more than one person.
JH You began to teach at the Art Students League in 1936 and you still teach there today. Why do you continue to teach?
WB I enjoy communicating with people. I am interested in dialogue.
JH Can you talk a little about your WPA experience, how you got involved?
WB Gustave Von Groschwitz really got me involved. At that time I was a master printer at the League and he needed technical advice on lithography skills. I would guide him in the quality of printing. One thing led to another. I did some WPA prints myself and I printed editions for other artists such as Raphael Soyer, Adolph Dehn, Clemente Orozco and other Mexican artists.
JH You have a very strong feeling about lithography. Is this not true?
WB I like all forms of printmaking but lithography provides a very direct way to self expression. I like to attack the stone. Etching is a little further removed by the process. I am interested in the action. I would also say that I am 100% influenced by Daumier. Think of those lithographs!
JH Your earlier works are in vey small editions. Today you pull editions of 250-300. Can you comment on this?
WB It's a new ball game today. There has been a renaissance in printmaking. We have a broad public interest now. In the early days all prints were black and white. The public was limited. In the 20s and 30s mainly the refined old aristocratic families bought. These people could afford art and used it as a decoration. Gradually these people died out. The second World War generated a new class. These people were modest in means but this class produced children who buy prints. This new generation is fantastic! Today there is a sophisticated public with a mind of it's own, not influenced by the museums or critics. They ask no questions, they just buy. I feel the public has it own vision.
JH Do you print your own work today?
WB No longer, I supervise all the work being done to a very high degree. I work with highly skilled printers. I did do all my own work up to the mid-60s and some even into the late 60s. Now I need help. Printing is vey time consuming.
JH Do you have a set schedule each day for working or do you work as the ideas come?
WB Oh, I always work a few hours each day. Some days, the whole day, depending on my schedule with teaching and all. My work develops slowly, like rich wine ages. The more time I spend on an idea the better it gets. The ideas begin in a modest sketch book, they grow over a period of months - steady growth I would say. I do spend most of my time painting. My paintings are interwoven with my prints. I resolve the ideas in the paintings, which is more direct, then I make prints. I only do two prints a year. It is a spectacular year when I do three prints.
JH Your earliest works dealt with human form and then you moved into total abstraction. More recently the image is back but with stylized flat planes. How would you say this has evolved?
WB I would say that my work has a romantic classical feeling of the 19th century with contemporary subject matter. There is something special in the idea of creating a picture image. Really pictures are abstract geometric forms. I moved into abstraction because I feel pictures need some kind of order. To find this, one must get involved in abstraction. Nature offers abstract possibilities but no solution, no organization. Nature provides the images but they must be put together in a powerful organized way. My pictures are no different today. They are just figurative images abstractly conceived. The bend of an arm contains structure that relates to another structure, I have stayed with the human form. Since early childhood I found it most interesting, Even my abstract works are human forms.
JH You were working in abstraction long before it came into vogue after the second `World War. What were your feelings about this turn of events?
WB I felt alienated. My feeling about abstractionwas that art took time. It was not immediate expression but long investigation and sublimation. Ideas take time to become crystalized. I didn't feel this was what the abstract expressionists were doing.
JH Who would you say has most influenced your style?
WB The Byzantine artists. Also the Italian or Medieval influence is very strong.
JH Can you talk a bit about when your work was first discovered?
WB In the early 30s. I remember well. My work was included in a group show at the Downtown Gallery. Ben Shahn's Sacco and Vanzetti series was in one room and my work in a group show in another. This was my first exposure in the big time. Brockhurst and others used to take my work around and I would exhibit with them. Later I showed with Harlow and Keppel.
JH Today do you feel your work has been accepted to your satisfaction?
WB No artist feels that.
JH Where do you place yourself with other contemporary American artists?
WB Right in the mainstream of American painting from the historical point of view…I think my work is related to American painters of the past like Winslow Homer, Albert Ryder or even earlier colonial artists such as John Greenewood, I feel that my abstract work also relates to the contemporary American historical stream but that it is different, It is different because it is not just geometric shapes. The subject is quite important.
JH Would you consider yourself a longer as far as being placed in a specific category?
WB Yes, I am definitely a loner. I don't like to be a loner. But if you look at history most great American artists are loners. America has a great tradition - that is what it is all about. Art history is full of loners, Cezanne wasn't destroying old masters but creating another link. I am another developing link in the history of American painting.
JH What would you consider to be your most important contribution to American art?
WB I think that I have continued the tradition of American painting in a period which contained an anti-painting movement.
Propelled by a scholarship to the Art Students League, Will Barnet, an aspiring artist with a portfolio heavy on seascapes and family cat portraiture, left Boston for New York City in 1931 with $10 in his pocket. It was summer, it was hot, and besides the Depression-era garbage rotting in the streets, the air was ripe with raucous political protest. He rented a room for a $1 a night, gorged on cheap baked beans at the Automat and started sketching the forlorn and angry faces he saw on every corner. He was 19 and "radicalized" by possibility.
Mr. Barnet lost the use of his left leg two years ago after a fall and cannot stand, but he paints in his home studio every day for three to four hours.
"I felt like Gary Cooper," he recalled, "like a cowboy in a Western movie." He roamed the city the way his idol, Honoré Daumier, had wandered through Paris; it was his muse. His style: stark, brooding social realism.
Eight decades later, hard of hearing but still tart of tongue, Mr. Barnet continues to paint every day — abstract forms, oddly hued and, as ever, deeply felt. His evolution as a modern American painter is on display this month in "Will Barnet and the Art Students League," an exhibition that honors his centennial year and his influence on generations of artists, and includes works by renowned league students and colleagues like Louise Bourgeois and James Rosenquist.
"I've seen it all but I want to see more," said Mr. Barnet, who lost the use of his left leg two years ago after a fall. "I have no opinion on what it means to be 99 except that it's different from being 19. I used to work 8, 9, 10 hours a day," he said. Now he paints three or four hours despite his inability to stand. "I didn't compromise, ever," he added. "The old masters are still alive after 400 years, and that's what I want to be."
Mr. Barnet, whose art career began with his painting self-portraits in his parents' basement in Beverly, Mass., "according to the way Rembrandt worked, with the light coming over my left shoulder," is a symbol of 20th-century American inimitability. He's the guy who abstained when the establishment went gaga over abstract expressionism ("Most of those paintings felt like accidents"). But his major works from the 1950s to '70s — abstract and figurative, Byzantine and Indian Space — now sell for up to $400,000. He has had 80 one-man shows, the most recent this spring at the Alexandre Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney all have his work — usually in storage. ("They don't show artists of my nature; the Whitney hasn't shown my work in 30 years," he said.)
"He took a very independent route, often in contrast to what was the popular or easy direction, but it was the art world that was contrary, not Will," said Robert Kane, an expressionist colorist painter and former student of Mr. Barnet's whose work is included in the retrospective. "There's a quote of Picasso's that is, to me, the secret of Will: 'Some people make a red dot and it's the sun; other people make the sun and it's just a red dot.' "
A fan of Picasso, Ingres and Cézanne, Mr. Barnet wanted to be a modern American painter in a 20th-century American city: the league was a Mecca for modernists. Neither his parents' indifference (his father was a machinist in a shoe factory) nor the suicide of Jules Pascin, who was to be his first teacher at the league in 1931, deterred him. "I had to be an artist and not sacrifice myself for anything but art," he recalled.
Mr. Barnet knew no one in New York, but he arrived with a letter of introduction from a friend at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston who had an Armenian uncle in the city, the surrealist artist Arshile Gorky. Mr. Barnet hiked downtown to his studio unannounced. Standing on the sidewalk, he heard shouting. He knocked anyway. Turned out Mr. Gorky was infuriated because overnight, mice had destroyed a collage that included cheese among its media.
After calming down, Mr. Gorky took Mr. Barnet for an instructive stroll, at one point stopping outside a shoe shop with a fancifully painted business sign. "Young man," he said, " there's the future of art in America." Mr. Barnet kept his mouth shut, but he has never been a fan of what would become known as Pop Art. The closest he came to being a commercial artist were the poster editions of his 1970s prints ("Woman Reading" is the best known); some editions sold for $300,000, but there were no sequels or variants.
Over the years, Mr. Barnet's work morphed from social realism to a nuanced abstraction that used flat planes of color to convey emotion and depth; in his prime, he segued from pure abstraction to pure figuration and back. As a teacher, he elevated printmaking to an art form and emphasized to painters the difference between fine art and the transfer of object to canvas.
"I never wanted to repeat myself," he says. "And that drove some art dealers crazy. I love moving on and finding fresh ways to use color and form. That's been my excitement."
He was appointed league printer in 1935 for $15 a week, and taught art there from 1942 to 1979 (Mark Rothko was his printmaking student in 1951). No canvas left his studio unless he had spent at least three years getting it absolutely, obsessively right.
"I had seen some of his paintings on the wall outside the classroom and thought, 'Here's someone who sees something no one else sees,' " said the urban muralist Knox Martin, whose work is also included in the exhibition, at the league's gallery on West 57th Street. "He was the first human being I ever met who could communicate what art was."
Mr. Barnet said he once painted Gypsy Rose Lee's portrait for rent money, though he has forgotten what she paid: $20, or maybe $50. His 1934 lithograph "Cafeteria Scene" was purchased by the league for its permanent collection. Philip Alexandre, who owns the gallery that represents him, said that over the past decade Mr. Barnet and his work have begun to experience a pleasant art establishment phenomenon — "a reassessment of value," noting: "Younger artists are discovering him, and that's key."
Mr. Barnet and his wife of 58 years, Elena, moved in 1982 from the Upper West Side to a duplex at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park that includes his first genuine studio.
It has a full wall of two-story windows facing north. The other walls display paintings, some 15 feet high, like the austere winter portrait of his and Elena's daughter, Ona, and grandson, Will, on ice skates in Maine, circa 1980. The original pencil sketch for "Woman Reading" — a 1970 oil painting and later a popular poster — depicting Elena and their cat, Madame Butterfly, hangs in the living room. The reason for the bald spots on the walls: he lent several paintings to the league and to a show being presented at Montclair State University, where his son Peter teaches painting. Another son, Richard, is a sculptor who teaches at the league and a third son, Todd, is a lawyer; all three were born during his 10-year marriage to Mary Sinclair, a painter.
Mr. Barnet mixes colors himself, and keeps a sheet of waxed paper over them to assure freshness. He sits beside his canvas in the wheeled office chair he relies on to get around the studio. A gigantic 150-year-old wooden easel looms behind him, unused; the wall, more accessible, now doubles as his easel. Hundreds of paintbrushes are guarded by a stuffed raven he refers to as "the early bird." He cannot climb stairs anymore, so he sleeps on a daybed in the studio; when he leaves the apartment to go out to dinner or to a gallery, he begrudgingly uses the wheelchair parked in the hall.
Mortality is on his mind.
"Let me tell you a story," he said, digging into a saucer of frozen Georgia pecans (his other favorite snack is 72 percent dark chocolate, which he discovered 50 years ago, way ahead of the curve). "My grandfather was 96 years old, and one foggy night in Beverly, Mass., he went walking and was hit and injured by a drunken driver.
"He was lying in bed dying of a fractured skull, and my father took me at the age of 6 to say goodbye to him. And I'll never forget what he said: 'Do you think it's easy to die at the age of 96?' "
The recent abstract paintings of Will Barnet (who turned 99 this year) were the focus of this exhibition, and it was a gem. A departure from the artist's signature style in which figuration predominates, the 16 midsize oils on canvas from 2003 to 2010 mark a return to his early investigations into abstraction. Barnet seeks to render the invisible visible but wants his imagery to remain rooted in the physical world. When he started his abstractions in the mid-'40s, Native American art showed him the way, particularly Hopi ceramics from Four Mile Ruin, a prehistoric site in northeastern Arizona. He was inspired by the use of simple flat shapes to depict birds, fish and animals, which in turn symbolize forces of nature, such as rain and lightning. In the canvases at Alexandre, Barnet's own stripped-down object-symbols resonated with a power and precision that could withstand comparison to the Hopi's distillations of their world.
Characterized by subtle color harmonies and flat, finely honed biomorphic and geometric forms, Barnet's compositions have an air of quiet poise that belies their inner dynamism. In Call It Winter (2003, 34 by 26 inches), a creamy white background underpainted with a salmon hue glows with the promise of spring, lending warmth to a mostly cool palette of olive green, black and pastel blue scumbled over grays. A dark brown ovoid angles toward a cactuslike shape with swelling protuberances, furthering the vernal association.
The bipartite Overview (2005, 40 by 28 inches) calls to mind a children's playground. The upper two-thirds of the picture suggest an aerial view; a straight-on perspective governs the bottom third. Though close in value, different ground colors separate the sections: a soft green brushed over sanguine above, a raw sienna below. Across the latter, interconnected shapes in grayish-blue, pale yellow and red ocher convey the image of a figure on a slide. In the upper section, flattened organic forms enclosed within larger shapes suggest figures balancing on a seesaw or walking up a hill. Even more pared down is Inauguration (2009, 323⁄8 inches square), in which two black silhouettes stretch across the surface like painted images inside a Hopi bowl. Is the spectral lower figure about to surmount a barrier before it, or is it flying away? Is the bloodred disk limned in black flapping its uneven appendages triumphantly or struggling to resist gravity? Perhaps the picture represents a spirit rising above death's reach, a mixed message both ominous and hopeful.