Will Barnet at 100

Will Barnet at 100 by Bruce Weber
For some eight decades, Will Barnet has made outstanding contributions to American art as a painter, printmaker, and teacher. In the course of a long, virtually unparalleled career, he has always taken a vigorously individual route, advancing to the pulse of his own aesthetic and philosophical concerns.1 He has traveled that road so rarely traveled, moving fluidly between abstraction and representation. Barnet has followed the passions of his own beliefs, even when this has not only meant going against the grain of prevailing movements in American art, but even contrary to the directions by which he established his own reputation.

Fig. 1: Will Barnet (b. 1911) Idle Hands, 1935 Oil on canvas, 25 x 21 inches Collection of Audrey and Woody Klein, CT © Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York
Fig. 1: Will Barnet (b. 1911)
Idle Hands, 1935
Oil on canvas, 25 x 21 inches
Collection of Audrey and Woody Klein, CT
© Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York

Barnet was born in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1911, a community settled in the seventeenth century as a whaling village. Later in life, the artist would recall "the feeling of lingering history was everywhere."2 Will was just six years old when he announced to his family his intention of becoming an artist. While Will's teachers encouraged his artistic ambitions, it was Margaret Stanton, head librarian of the Beverly Public library, who had the greatest impact on his early development. Recognizing his enthusiasm and its significance, she presented him with the key to the room in which the library's impressive collection of art books was stored; Barnet's awakening began.

In 1928, Barnet dropped out of high school to attend the Boston Museum School. Barnet spent his spare time circulating through the city's avant-garde galleries and associating with painters. Among the works he admired were those of the Ash Can School, particularly the art of George Bellows (1882–1925). In pursuit of his emerging interests in urban subjects, Barnet would go down to Haymarket Square and Scully Square to sketch scenes of city life, developing a theme that would recur in his art: an interest in depicting mankind.

In the fall of 1930, Barnet submitted a portfolio of his sketches to the admissions committee of the Art Students League in Manhattan and was awarded a full scholarship. He moved to New York in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Taking classes in lithography with the aim of selling his prints to survive financially—and in the hopes of garnering a soon-to-be vacant position as printer at the League—Barnet roamed the streets in search of subjects. He portrayed the tailors, laborers, tradesmen, and young people he met, as well as scenes in Central Park, Times Square, and Greenwich Village. Many of the prints he produced poignantly evoke the grim social and economic realities of the day.

Fig. 2: Will Barnet (b. 1911) Soft Boiled Eggs, 1946 Oil on canvas, 36 x 42 inches Private collection © Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York
Fig. 2: Will Barnet (b. 1911)
Soft Boiled Eggs, 1946
Oil on canvas, 36 x 42 inches
Private collection
© Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York

Barnet never gave up painting during this era, and his works reflect the primary influence of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) in their active brushwork, loosely drawn contours, heavy application of impasto, and firm and vital sense of structure. Barnet's Idle Hands (Fig. 1), was based on a personal encounter with a homeless man on the Bowery, and closely resembles van Gogh's painting Old Man with His Head in His Hands (1890). The work powerfully expresses the artist's feeling for the masses of unemployed people who were compelled to idle away their time on the city streets during this dark period in American history.

In 1935, the same year he painted Idle Hands, Barnet married Mary Sinclair, who was also a student at the League. Between 1939 and 1944, his wife gave birth to three sons, Peter, Richard, and Todd. The birth of his children moved Barnet in a new artistic direction, away from social commentary. His was a journey inward, into the intimate world of his own family, and by the late 1930s, he found himself disputing with the "social group of artists…I felt that the emphasis was too much on story-telling and not enough on painting your experience in relationship to the world."3 "Painting my family gave me the freedom to be an artist. They're so much a part of me. I could take tremendous liberties with them that I couldn't take with those I'm not familiar with."4

Fig. 3: Will Barnet (b. 1911) Summer Family, 1948 Oil on canvas, 34 x 44 inches Collection of the artist © Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York
Fig. 3: Will Barnet (b. 1911)
Summer Family, 1948
Oil on canvas, 34 x 44 inches
Collection of the artist
© Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York

In Soft Boiled Eggs (Fig. 2), which depicts his wife surrounded by her three children, the canvas represents a major break from the past, not only in the handling of space, form, and color, but by moving in a more abstract and symbolic direction. Indebted to the influence of the Synthetic Cubism of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), and in this case Picasso's Three Musicians (1921), the work compresses space in a Cubist fashion to closely relate the figures to the table and their surroundings, with all four figures occupying the frontal plane of the composition. "I wanted to flatten out my surfaces. I felt that I didn't want realistic space and shadows any more. I wanted to eliminate everything that was in the academic tradition."5

Over the course of the 1940s, Barnet began to incorporate imagery and concepts he discovered in exploring the indigenous cultures of North and South America. This led to his pioneering role in the development, in the 1940s and 1950s, in the style known today as Indian Space. Summer Family (Fig. 3), from 1948, depicts Barnet's wife and the three boys standing at the outer edge of a meadow. He portrays each figure with great individuality: his wife is attired in the striped dress at far left; Richard is beside her, squeezed between two forms suggestive of trees; Todd holds a cat farther to the right; and Peter stands at the far edge, identified by the insignia P that appears on his chest. Evoking the forms and structure of Northwest Coast Indian art with their simplified mask-like faces and biomorphic shapes, the figures emphasize abstract linear design and totemic verticality.6 The palette of these works shifts dramatically from dark black to bright red and yellow, and figures and surrounding elements are aligned on the same plane as Barnet eliminates the distinction between foreground and background.

Fig. 4: Will Barnet (b. 1911) Whiplash, 1959 Oil on canvas, 62-1/2 x 41-1/2 inches Courtesy, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; John Lambert fund Art © Will Barnet/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York
Fig. 4: Will Barnet (b. 1911)
Whiplash, 1959
Oil on canvas, 62-1/2 x 41-1/2 inches
Courtesy, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts;
John Lambert fund
Art © Will Barnet/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York

Divorced from his first wife in 1952, he married Elena Ciurlys, a modern dancer from Lithuania, in March 1953, after a whirlwind three-week courtship. Previous to coming to the United States, Elena had studied in Vienna, Austria, with the important German dancer, choreographer and teacher Mary Wigman. Elena first introduced Barnet to Europe. They went to Venice, Italy, on their honeymoon—the first of many trips that they would make together. At this time, Barnet's art moved toward total abstraction in the Hard-Edge, or as he prefers to call it, the "clear edge," mode. His innovative exploration of pictorial space and reimagining of the human figure in abstract terms in the early 1950s accompanied his anticipation of Hard-Edge Abstraction. Emotionally grounded following his remarriage, he was well prepared for what would be a decade of struggle to gain recognition when he felt himself to be an outsider in an American art world increasingly dominated by Abstract Expressionism.

Fig. 5: Will Barnet (b. 1911) The Blue Robe, 1962 Oil on canvas, 50 x 54 inches Private collection © Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York
Fig. 5: Will Barnet (b. 1911)
The Blue Robe, 1962
Oil on canvas, 50 x 54 inches
Private collection
© Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York

During the mid-1950s, Barnet was unreservedly outspoken in his attack on Abstract Expressionism and in particular on what he perceived as the continuation of illusionism in the work of this school. In 1955, Barnet became an ardent member of the American Abstract Artists [AAA] organization, which had been founded nineteen years earlier to promote the exposure and understanding of abstract and non-objective art in the United States. He felt a general kinship with the artists in this group, who generally took a structured and orderly approach to abstraction (Fig. 4), and was moved to join them because he was "looking for structure in a period that was destroying structure."7 In "Painting Without Illusion," an essay he published in 1950, he set out his view of structure as a system of mass and color reactions, and noted "All nature is space, both what we see as solids and what we see as air. Without this most basic concept of space, all painting falls into a world of illusion and chaos."8

Fig. 6: Will Barnet (b. 1911) Woman and the Sea, 1972 Oil on canvas, 51 x 41 inches Private collection © Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York
Fig. 6: Will Barnet (b. 1911)
Woman and the Sea, 1972
Oil on canvas, 51 x 41 inches
Private collection
© Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York

In the early 1960s, Barnet developed the figurative style for which he is now best known, applying abstract concepts that he had developed in the 1950s to achieve a new and major approach to the representation of the human figure. His tightly and seamlessly created figurative compositions embrace a simultaneously modern and classical vision of the figure: architecture of shape, form, line, and tone set in measured and poetic balance against the surrounding pictorial elements. Flatness is emphasized and everything is stripped of its essential form.

This move was precipitated by a growing wish to return to the theme of family and once again to make the human form the focus of his art. He was also strongly influenced by the change in his own family life with Elena, the growth of their daughter, Ona, and his own blossoming parenthood. In The Blue Robe (Fig. 5), he aimed at giving the figures separate identities while also seeking to integrate his abstract concepts into figurative forms. The voids are as essential to the composition as the positive elements, and each figure is treated as a sculptural entity. The placement of the figure of Ona beside the table brings to mind Barnet's experiments with the placement of his sons underneath a table in his works of earlier decades (fig. 2). Here the child reaches up tenderly and affectionately to her mother. Barnet's color is warm and bold. In the years ahead, the artist would frequently place a cat side by side with a serene and contemplative woman. He was fascinated by the analogy of their forms: the soft and graceful undulations of the bodies of both a woman and a cat.9

Fig. 7: Will Barnet (b. 1911) Three Chairs, 1991–1992 43 x 53-1/2 inches Private collection, NY © Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York
I
Fig. 7: Will Barnet (b. 1911)
Three Chairs, 1991–1992
43 x 53-1/2 inches
Private collection, NY
© Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York

n the late 1960s and early 1970s, Barnet and his family spent summers in the town of Chamberlain, Maine, in a house they rented on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic. Elena introduced her husband to the state, and their residence in Maine led to an extended return to the coastal New England environment of Barnet's youth, with the experience heralding a new and important direction in his work. Woman and the Sea (Fig. 6) was the first in a series of paintings of women keeping silent vigil by the water's edge. It is a pivotal painting in the evolution of Barnet's work in the 1970s. It was painted in response to his seeing, on a chilly summer evening at dusk, Elena wrapped in a shawl, standing on the porch, silhouetted against the sea in the glow of the day's fading light. For Barnet, the woman was a universal symbol of strength, hope, and endurance in the face of life's mysteries. The artist employed what he referred to as "horizontal-vertical contractions and stretching…to create a spiritual vitality."10 He represented the sea as a flat plane, but used aerial perspective to create a feeling of infinite space. Colors are built up in a new way, and Barnet sought "to come to grips with the radiant light found in the atmosphere, without being realistic or literary."11

From 1984 to 2000, Barnet's art centered in major part on the family life of his daughter, Ona, son-in-law Neil, and their children, Will and Ellie, in Maine. The birth of his grandchildren inspired him to explore the subject of family in new and fresh ways and to contemporize the tradition of genre painting as he had figure painting and portraiture in the early 1960s. The pictures of this period celebrate the simple daily pleasures of life and include scenes of outdoor activities, popular pastimes, and family gatherings. He felt that everyday events were "a tremendous thing. I want the everydayness to be exciting. It becomes a symbol, an abstraction."12 In Three Chairs (Fig. 7), Barnet explores the theme of three generations, including his wife, daughter, and grandchildren. The artist's face appears on the needlepoint design that his wife holds up in the center of the composition. He included this image because he wanted to "picture the entire family together."13 While his family members are recognizable, they are also "abstractions—symbolic images of people and family...."14

Fig. 8: Will Barnet (b. 1911) Creature, 2007–08 Oil on canvas, 40 x 29 inches Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Klitzberg, Boca Raton, FL © Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York
Fig. 8: Will Barnet (b. 1911)
Creature, 2007–08
Oil on canvas, 40 x 29 inches
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Klitzberg, Boca Raton, FL
© Will Barnet, Courtesy, Alexandre Gallery, New York

In 2003 Barnet returned to abstract painting, having harbored a desire to develop ideas that he had never fully resolved in his shift from abstraction to figuration in the 1960s. In his recent abstractions, Barnet has developed fresh and exciting ways of exploring form, space, and color. He now takes a freer approach to his arrangements, and, as a result, his compositions have a looser, more playful quality, often filled with anthropomorphic references (Fig. 8).

At 100, Will Barnet continues to demonstrate a remarkable capacity for reinvention. Few artists in the history of American art have worked so consistently, progressively, and adventurously over such a span of time. "I never wanted to repeat myself," Barnet has commented. "I love moving on and finding fresh ways to use color and form. That's been my excitement."15

Will Barnet at 100 is one of the exhibitions celebrating the re-opening of the National Academy Museum in New York after a two-year renovation that has resulted in new gallery space, a redesigned lobby area, and new information center. Barnet has been an Academician since 1982. Will Barnet at 100 is accompanied by a full-color catalogue by Bruce Weber. For information about the exhibit, renovations, or other programs, visit www.nationalacademy.org or call (212) 369-4880.


Bruce Weber is the senior curator, 19th and early 20th century art, National Academy Museum, New York, NY.


1. The most comprehensive studies of Barnet's art are Robert Doty, Will Barnet (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984), and Gail Stavitsky, "Will Barnet: A Timeless World," essay in Will Barnet: A Timeless World. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 6–59.

2. Barnet is quoted in Peter Barnet, Will Barnet: Artist and Teacher. A Study of Will Barnet as Painter and Teacher (New York University, Ed.D., 1975), 8.

3. Will Barnet, "The Synthesis of Idea and Technique in Art Today," The Four O'Clock Forum, (December 5, 1954), 7. I would like to thank Barbara Hollister for providing a typescript of the tape recording of this gathering.

4. Barnet is quoted in Terry Trucco, "Will Barnet: A Part of and Apart from His Times," Art News 81 (December 1982): 98.
5. Kitty Gelhorn, Interviews with Will Barnet, October 1975 to June 1976, Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, 271–272.

6. W. Jackson Rushing, Native American Art and the New York Avant-Garde (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995): 149.

7. Barnet is quoted in Stavitsky, 26.

8. Will Barnet, "Painting Without Illusion," The League, vol. 22, no. 1 (Spring, 1950): 8.

9. Richard Boyle; "The World of Will Barnet," Famous Artists Magazine, vol. 19, no. 3 (1971): 16.

10. Will Barnet, "A Personal Reflection on the Spiritual Aspects in American Art," essay in The Influence of Spiritual Inspiration on American Art (Vatican: Libreria Editrice, 1977), 128.

11. Barnet is quoted in Peter Barnet, p. 109.

12. Barnet is quoted in Caril Dreyfuss McHugh, "Will Barnet," Arts Magazine 59 (December 1984): 15.

13. Author Interview with Will Barnet, March 2, 2011, 3–50.

14. Barnet is quoted in Johanna Garfield, "Will Barnet and the Family," American Art 9 (Spring, 1995): 112.

15. Barnet is quoted in Robin Finn, "Painting at 99, With No Compromises," The New York Times (October 27, 2010): A24.

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