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Today's Masters: Form and Feeling

By: John Dorfman

“I did that one in ’28,” says Will Barnet, pointing to a drawing of an elegant young man in a double-breasted suit, one hand draped languidly across his lap. He was a poet named Sully De Vito who lived in Barnet’s hometown of Beverly, Mass. “I don’t know what happened to him,” muses Barnet. Nineteen twenty-eight was a long time ago; few people alive today were doing much of anything then, let alone creating serious artwork. Barnet was, and he is still producing. This month he turns 98. A painter, printmaker and teacher for more than 80 years, he is a living link to art history, yet he looks forward, not backward.

Barnet’s work is very diverse. In the course of his career he has spanned styles ranging from social realism during the Depression to full abstraction in the 1940s and ’50s to a return to figuration—with elements of abstraction—in the ’60s and ’70s. Through it all runs a thread that Barnet describes as “structure,” by which he means a strong underpinning of spatial composition that acts as a frame to support equally strong feeling. “Feeling with structure” is his mantra. In addition to his pilgrimage through a variety of aesthetics, Barnet has also gone through a series of dominant thematic subject matters—Native American motifs, his wife and children, cats, ravens, the New England coast—each of which he has explored to its limits before moving on. “Every time I get an idea, I hang onto it for about a decade and develop it, doing nothing else,” he says. “I’ve been in the field almost 80 years; you don’t want to repeat yourself.”

Right now, there seems to be a Barnet moment going on. Two books have just been published: a catalogue raisonné of his prints dating from 1931 to 2005 (John Szoke Editions, 2008) and Will Barnet: A Sketchbook, 1932–1934 (George Braziller, 2009). He’s having solo shows at the Naples Museum of Art in Florida, through June 28, and at The Old Print Shop in New York, May 1–29. The sketchbook was recently discovered after lying in a file drawer in Barnet’s studio for decades. The artist himself had forgotten it existed, so the freshness of the drawings, executed en plein air in Central Park, was as much a revelation to him as it will be to those who know Barnet’s more finished works. Here are spontaneous, emotionally intense pen-and-ink snapshots of ordinary people taking refuge in the park from the city’s stresses—sailors with their dates, young parents with babies, lovers embracing in the grass—and finding some relief from the worrisome times in each other’s company.

Barnet had only recently arrived in the city when he began the sketchbook. “It was the deep Depression, and I caught these people who were its victims,” he recalls, sitting in his apartment above the National Arts Club, across the street from New York’s Gramercy Park, the lights turned low to preserve his eyesight. The apartment, which he shares with his wife and muse, Elena (the model for most of the gently beautiful women in his pictures), is joined to a double-height studio fitted with skylights. He’s had trouble walking ever since a bad fall three years ago that tore muscles in his legs, but his eyes are bright and need no glasses, and his hands, though gnarled, are still adept with a brush or pen.

“I was living like they were living,” Barnet continues. “I used to sleep in the park on top of big rocks across from the St. Moritz Hotel. I wanted to catch the moment. My sketch pad and pen were a means of expressing my feelings about the city.” His big idol at the time, he recalls, was Honoré Daumier, whom he admired not only for his close, sympathetic observation of the common man but for his ability to imbue his journalistic works with the monumentality and energy of a Michelangelo.

The influence of Daumier dates back to Barnet’s first visits to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, made while he was still living with his family in Beverly. His parents were working-class immigrants from Russia who neither encouraged nor discouraged his interest in art. The small seaside town north of Boston had a profound effect on Barnet; with its old New England architecture, rugged coast and general feeling of timelessness and isolation, it imprinted itself in the budding artist’s imagination and gave him a sense of connection to the distant past.

After high school he moved to Boston and enrolled at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts. There he studied with Philip Hale, an Impressionist painter and Vermeer scholar who taught him life drawing and encouraged him to copy the works of the Old Masters, especially Rembrandt, Velásquez, Ingres, Courbet, Millet and Daumier. Though he was a conservative academic, Hale gave Barnet valuable grounding for which he is still grateful. His own teaching, at the Art Students League and Cooper Union in New York and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, though very different in style, also relied on integrating the past. As he puts it, “I was the guy they went to when they wanted to understand history.”

In search of wider horizons and a freer approach to art, Barnet left Boston for New York in 1931. Admitted to the Art Students League on the recommendation of Reginald Marsh, he studied briefly with Stuart Davis and for a longer period with the lithographer Charles Wheeler Locke. Again, it was the example of Daumier that drew him to lithography and printmaking in general. Prints, a democratic, affordable art form, were a way to reach a wider public, says Barnet, and besides, “it was a challenge, to make my graphic work as good as my paintings.” He stuck with printmaking, experimenting with a variety of techniques, from etching to serigraph. To date he has completed some 240 editioned works.

By1936 Barnet was earning his living as the official printer for the Art Students League, and also as a technical advisor on printmaking to the Graphic Arts Division of the WPA. He started teaching printmaking at the League and then at the New School for Social Research. Over a period of some 50 years of teaching art, Barnet’s students have included such disparate artists as Mark Rothko, Donald Judd, James Rosenquist, Eva Hesse, Cy Twombly and Tom Wesselmann.

Even during his more political phase in the ’30s, Barnet was as interested in form and spatial structure as in content. He preferred the social realism of José Clemente Orozco (see page 74), with its bold, massive forms, to the American Scene style of Thomas Hart Benton. Orozco, whom he has called “the Mexican Giotto,” was a big influence. During the early ’40s, Barnet began to move definitively toward abstraction. Seeking to create a uniquely American counterpart to Cubism, he and fellow New York artists Peter Busa, Howard Daum and Steve Wheeler created a style that they called Indian Space Painting. Inspired by the geometric motifs of Pueblo pottery, they painted shapes rather than lines, in such a way that the shapes interacted with each other but never overlapped.

The desired effect was dynamic; the tensions between forms played out against a backdrop of space that doesn’t feel empty but vibrates with energy. Many of Barnet’s Indian Space works are completely abstract; others, like Strange Birds (1947), are partly figurative, making use of Native American themes and styles in an independent way. “My class was full of people who wanted to understand Indian Space—first you have to understand space before you can understand Indian Space,” Barnet quips. Despite its Southwestern roots, Barnet insists that Indian Space was a basically urban movement. “You can’t do Indian Space Painting in Maine. You do it when you’re in the city and thinking abstractly.”

Barnet worked in various abstract modes through the 1950s and early ’60s, and then came a change. He returned to representation and the figure, including portraiture, but with a difference. He had abandoned illusionism, and now placed his figures in a kind of simplified flat space, creating sharp-edged, colorful compositions in which perspective and verisimilitude mix with geometric abstraction. His famous paintings and prints from the late 1960s and ’70s, such as Dialogue in Green and Woman Reading, which take women and cats in a domestic setting for their subject, are typical of this approach. As he so often does, Barnet explains by way of an analogy with the Old Masters: “The way Piero della Francesca organized space, the figures became monumental forms,” he says, “spatially re-created so that it’s a world that is no longer our world, but a world within the context of the flatness of the plane. Vermeer, too, worked with a very flat space. Look at one of his rooms, the floors. There’s really no perspective.” This respect for the picture plane’s integrity—which is virtually a first postulate of modernism—was something that Barnet had to gain gradually. He had to unlearn illusionism, he says. “It took me years to eliminate it. I even had to eliminate what I had learned from my master Daumier.”

The return to figuration, a vein he is still mining, was due at least partly to Barnet’s immersion in his family life. For all his emphasis on form and structure, he is quite emotional and personal in his work, and believes that art needs warmth to thrive. He worries that too much of contemporary art is devoid of strong feeling. “Today, it’s a cold period,” he says. Nonetheless, he buttons up against the chill and keeps on working, painting and giving lectures. To describe him as a senior figure in American art seems like an understatement. Barnet has become an Old Master himself.

Author: admin | Publish Date: May 2009

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