Portland Museum of Art

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Will Barnet: A Timeless World


Will Barnet is an artist of unusual skill, refinement, and sense of beauty. Over the years he has worked in several modes, but his creations are unified by a sensibility founded on the search for order and harmony. Long ago, Will Barnet reached a firm. decision as to what painting was to be for him, and he has held to this purpose in disregard of prevailing fashions or dogmas.

(Harold Rosenberg, letter to Peter Barnet, December 15, 1973)


Born in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1911, Will Barnet studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1927 to 1931. He then completed his formal education at the Art Students League in 1935 when he was appointed professional printer of the institution. Concentrating on lithography, Barnet became a greatly respected teacher at the League in 1941, and disseminated his appreciation of art history, modernism, and Native American art to many inspired pupils into the 1980s. Barnet's sphere of influence was also extended while teaching at many other institutions, including Cooper Union, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Cornell University, Yale University, the University of Minnesota, and George Washington University. (left: Creation, 1954-55, oil on canvas, 44 1/8 x 36 3/4 inches, Gift of Mr. Will Barnet, The Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, Indiana)

Since his first one-man exhibition at New York's Eighth Street Playhouse in 1935, and the Hudson Walker Gallery in 1938, Will Barnet achieved recognition as an independent, highly dedicated painter-printmaker who pursued his own vision, rooted in personal experience and classical aesthetic concepts, ignoring the vagaries of the art world. This emphasis upon Barnet's personal direction is often referred to as the abstract body of work that postdated the artist's figurative Social Realist prints and paintings of the 1930s, inspired by Barnet's appreciation of Giotto, Vermeer, Daumier, and Orozco.

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.

On view December 21, 2000 through February 18, 2001 at the Portland Museum of Art, Will Barnet: A Timeless World is a comprehensive retrospective exhibition which features outstanding works from all phases of the renowned painter-printmaker Will Barnet's prolific career. Will Barnet: A Timeless World includes more than 50 of the beloved American artist's paintings, prints, and works on paper from the 1920s through the 1990s. A Timeless World provides a unique opportunity to examine Barnet's career, and his finest works, as a comprehensive continuum, indicative of his ongoing search for classic structure. The exhibition includes the striking expressionist woodcut Early Morning, 1939, one of Barnet's best known works from the 1930s, featuring his awakening wife, The two versions of Barnet's Cubist masterpiece Old Man, Afternoon, 1947, will be exhibited together for the first time, as well as Creation, 1954-55, and Janus and the White Vertebra, 1955, representative of the period when Barnet was a leading member of the Indian Space Painters and American Abstract Artists. (left: Cave, 1953, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, SUNY, Gift of Henry Pearson)

Representing the vital aesthetic connection between his abstract and realist work, Mother and Child, 1961, and Woman Reading, 1965, will also be on display.

A scholarly catalogue, the first substantial publication to survey Barnet's entire career within an extensive critical and art historical context accompany the exhibition. Catalogue essays cover Barnet's career from several perspectives. Gall Stavitsky provides an overview of Barnet's career, drawing upon new and unpublished material, including interviews with the artist, the artist's archives and notes on his work, and a doctoral dissertation by Peter Barnet, the artist's son. Stavitsky also examines Barnet's work within the context of a substantial, largely overlooked body of criticism by such leading critics as Harold Rosenberg, Dorothy Seckler, and Gordon Brown, and illuminates Barnet's contributions as a leading American printmaker. An essay by Twig Johnson, MAM's Curator of Native American Art, discuss the relationship of Barnet's work to Native American Art. Jessica Nicoll, Portland Museum of Art's Chief Curator, examines the profound impact of Maine and New England upon Barnet and his work. The catalogue will be for sale in the Museum Shop. (left: Ruth Bowman, 1967, oil on canvas, 45 x 33 3/4 inches, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art , Gift of Ruth and R. Wallace Bowman, 1998)

The tour for Will Barnet: A Timeless World is as follows: The Montclair Art Museum , May I4-August 20, 2000; Boca Raton Museum of Art, September 20-November 5, 2000; Portland Museum of Art, December 21, 2000-February 18, 2001; and Arkansas Art Center , March 22-June 3, 2001.

Generous support for Will Barnet: A Timeless World and the accompanying catalogue has been provided by the Abby and Mitch Leigh Foundation, Frank and Katherine Martucci, and Phillipe Alexandre, a director of Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

See our prior article on Will Barnet: A Timeless World (9/21/00)

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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