Will Barnet’s paintings and prints, whether figurative or abstract, conjure strong emotions from an equally strong underpinning of spatial structure.
After a wild party held in his honor by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire in 1908, the “naive” painter Henri Rousseau took Picasso aside and drunkenly confided to him, “You and I are the two greatest painters of our time, you in the Egyptian style, I in the Modern.” The remark may or may not have been a putdown, but either way, it hints at some important truths about modernism. By “Egyptian,” Rousseau likely meant Picasso’s technique of eliminating the distinction between front and side views, as well as the inspiration he drew from archaic art, especially African. But Rousseau’s own work has a “primitive” quality, and the simplified flatness of his outsider-art style is arguably even more “Egyptian” than Picasso’s sophisticated Cubism. Perhaps it’s best to say that while Rousseau may have been over-generous in ranking himself alongside Picasso, both were modernists, and as modernists both were indebted to the art of the distant past—in many ways more so than to the art of the recent past.
The same is true of the American modernist painter and printmaker Will Barnet (1911–2012), whose many, diverse styles include some that recall folk art and ancient Egypt. Indeed, Barnet referred to the group portraits he made of his family during the 1980s and ’90s as a “hieroglyphic art,” in which the figures, while representing his actual family members, are also “abstractions—symbolic images of people and family.” Some of these works are almost literally Egyptian in their use of side views and enigmatic gestures. Then again, some of Barnet’s frontal portraits of himself and his family, surrounded by domestic furniture and objects, have an almost Rousseauian quality.
Barnet’s affinity for these modes of depiction is understandable through a reading of his 1950 article “Painting Without Illusion,” which was published in The League Quarterly, the journal of the Art Students League in New York, where Barnet was a longtime teacher and master printmaker. “First of all,” he writes, “we must define and clarify position in space. It is not meant as optical space or as space existing in nature. It is rather a reinterpretation of nature’s laws in painting terms. … Realization can come only through relationships, since all forms are interdependent. Without this most basic concept of space, all painting falls into a world of illusion and chaos.” In the article, Barnet cited, as “a perfect example of art without illusion,” an anonymous Italian Primitive Madonna in the Metropolitan Museum, pointing out its similarities to modern art in its deployment of masses and color. “The form itself is expressed in a manner related to cubism, because the objects are kept as flat planes within compressed space,” Barnet explains, not only analyzing the Madonna but giving the key to understanding his own work.
Underlying all Barnet’s phases of art production over an 80-year career—social realism, hard-edged abstraction, folk-art-influenced work, and the simplified, flattened representational style he is best known for—is a deep concern for structure, order, and the human form as a unifying principle. Perhaps the most apt description is Barnet’s own: “figurative images abstractly conceived.” His works are instantly recognizable by what one might call static dynamism, achieved by placing interlocking forms in a space that is defiantly flat yet clearly differentiated, so that the dominant elements appear to be in front relative to the background. His works also tend to share a certain contemplative, inward-looking quality, a mood that Barnet sometimes called “spiritual” without reference to any particular religion. The spirituality in his art, while of course personal, is also a legacy of his New England background, fed by Transcendentalism and by the bleak, almost otherworldly landscape of the Massachusetts coast.
Barnet was born in Beverly, Mass., in 1911, the son of parents who had emigrated to the U.S. from Russia. Growing up in the small seaside town north of Boston, he had little encouragement to become an artist but from the age of six knew he would become one. His earliest exposure to art came from reading illustrated books on the Old Masters in the Beverly public library and, when he was a little older, from visits to the Peabody Essex Museum in nearby Salem. The museum—then called the Essex Institute—was filled with early American portraits as well as artworks and objects from Native American cultures and East Asia, many of which had been brought to Salem by sea captains in the golden age of the China trade. Barnet recalled that “many of the visual ideas that later have intrigued me come from cultures that I saw as a boy in the museum.”
The art-intoxicated teenager didn’t even wait for high school graduation to get started with his practical training; he dropped out during senior year to enroll in the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With a little financial help from his father, he was able to study there for three years, while still living at home. His main teacher there was Philip Leslie Hale (1865–1931), an Academic artist who painted some striking Symbolist works during the 1890s but was known more as a teacher than a painter. Hale took Barnet under his wing, and this personal connection was essential to Barnet’s growth into an artist, despite the fact that he found the school’s program to be stiflingly retrograde. On his own, he discovered Cézanne and the Ashcan School, as well as Arshile Gorky, then a budding artist. His greatest influence at the time, though, was Honoré Daumier, whom Barnet admired for his lively powers of observation and social satire but above all for the graphic power of his technique, the way he handled space and line. When Barnet moved to New York in 1931 in search of wider horizons, he imagined that he would be a modern Daumier, incisively chronicling the everyday life of the city around him. His sketchbooks of the period demonstrate his talent in this vein.
Arriving at the Art Students League, Barnet began to study with Stuart Davis, but he didn’t click with Davis’ taciturn, hands-off style. He next enrolled in the printmaking class of Charles Wheeler Locke, and his direction was set. Printmaking, in particular lithography, would be his primary medium during the 1930s, and he achieved such skill at it that in addition to creating his own works, he made prints from designs by more senior artists including Louis Lozowick, Raphael Soyer, and José Clemente Orozco, who was then living in New York. Barnet held Orozco in very high regard, calling him “the Mexican Giotto.” He shared Orozco’s interest in using powerful, streamlined graphics to depict current social problems; his 1934 lithograph Conflict shows a fight between strikers and strikebreakers in which the faces are not visible and all is motion and stark lines of architecture. In 1935, Barnet, barely out of his apprentice period, was named the League’s printer, a position that led to his appointment as an instructor in graphic arts in 1941. His teaching career, at the League and other institutions, would be an eminent one, with a roster of students that includes artists as diverse Eva Hesse, Twombly, James Rosenquist, and Tom Wesselmann.
In 1942, Barnet set printmaking aside to dedicate himself to painting, which he would pursue exclusively through the end of the decade. As the Depression came to an end, Barnet also gave up his ambition to be a 20th-century Daumier, shifting his focus away from the social scene and toward the subject matter closest at hand and dearest to him—his family. He had married his first wife, Mary Sinclair, in 1935, and now they had three young sons. Barnet portrayed their world, circumscribed by the cramped quarters of a succession of New York apartments, in a group of paintings that penetrate into the mind of the child as well as the form, borrowing some of the visual language of children’s art and American folk art. Many of the paintings use a low vantage point, close to the floor or even like that of a toddler crawling under a table, and the brightness of the colors makes one think of the way things must appear to eyes that are seeing the world for the first time.
The late 1940s saw a major transition in Barnet’s art practice. The seeds of abstraction had been sown long before, but now he abandoned figuration entirely. Barnet teamed up with fellow New York painters Steve Wheeler and Peter Busa to co-create Indian Space Painting, a hard-edged abstract style the drew on Native American (especially Pueblo) decorative styles and symbolic schemes, recasting them in a dynamic, modernist mode of abstractionist creativity. Barnet’s Indian Space works, both paintings and prints, integrate forms inspired by Indian symbols and motifs into a Cubist space. The human body, at several removes from literal representation, is also subtly present in many of these works. The artist acknowledged his indebtedness to “marvelous images of birds, fish, and other animals that became symbolic images of things like storms, rain, lightning,” saying, “Primitive man was not as primitive as we might think. They were masters of space.”
While Barnet, Wheeler, Busa, and a few others were strongly influenced by traditional Native American art, they were not like the Transcendental Painting Group and other artists who moved to the Southwest and immersed themselves in the landscape; their movement was fundamentally urban. “You can’t do Indian Space Painting in Maine,” Barnet once said. “You do it when you’re in the city and thinking abstractly.” And while Jackson Pollock, among other Abstract Expressionists, was also inspired by Indian art, during his abstract phase Barnet was strongly opposed to Ab-Ex, which he accused of being surreptitiously illusionistic, dealing in atmospheric effects and cleverly concealed linear perspective. In the mid-1950s he and Busa started the Four O’Clock Forum, an artists’ discussion group that was meant to be an alternative to The Club on Eighth Street. He involved himself in polemics against the Abstract Expressionists, including a memorable public argument with Willem de Kooning. In 1955 Barnet joined the American Abstract Artists, a group founded in the ’30s and dedicated to hard-edged geometric abstraction, which he found to be more congenial.
In the early 1960s, Barnet returned to figuration with a new style, highly precise and linear in a way that suggests Early Renaissance frescoes and Japanese prints. Both in paintings and in color serigraph prints, he used mainly flat areas of color and, in keeping with his principles, suggested three-dimensionality without using actual perspective. During the ’60s, Barnet accepted many portrait commissions, but he also devoted renewed attention to his family. He had remarried in 1953, to a Lithuanian-born dancer named Elena Ciurlys, and together they had a daughter, Ona. Elena and Ona appear in many Barnet compositions, sometimes gracefully intertwined, usually in the company of the family’s cats. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Barnets spent summers on the coast of Maine, which rekindled the artist’s love for New England, and he created a series of paintings of women standing on porches or balconies by the seaside, seemingly waiting for sailor husbands or lovers to return. With their contemplative loneliness and their glowing yet subdued light, these works merit a place in the lineage of the American Luminist movement.
In the 1990s, Barnet united his family and New England themes in a series titled My Father’s House, also known as The Beverly Series. He got the idea for it when visiting his sister Eva in the house they grew up in. Living there by herself and sick with fever, she imagined that their father was still alive and in the house. In Barnet’s eerie compositions, ghostly figures from the past mingle with the living as one space mingles with another.
In the fall of 2011, the National Academy Museum in New York mounted a retrospective exhibition, “Will Barnet at 100,” and the artist continued to work past the century mark, right up until his death in 2012 at the age of 101. In the last decade of his life, he returned to abstraction, still hard-edged but with a somewhat looser approach. In part, he was motivated by a desire to find a way of painting that was easier on his hands, but for Barnet, moving from figuration to abstraction was in reality no decisive or even dramatic move. For him, essentially it was all one—because all art is abstraction, but never illusion.
By John Dorfman