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Will Barnet: Works of Seven Decades

April 25 - June 28, 2009

This year, on May 25, 2009, Will Barnet will celebrate his 98th birthday. An active participant in nearly the entire history of 20th-century American art, he has for more than seven decades produced some of its most recognizable images. Best known for his familial figurative paintings, Barnet has also made significant contributions as an innovative printmaker and abstractionist. Will Barnet: Works of Seven Decades, organized by the Naples Museum of Art, features nearly 40 paintings created by the artist between 1943 and 2009.


(above: Will Barnet, Mother and Child,1993-2006, Oil on canvas, 26 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Mr. & Mrs. J. William Meek III. ©2006 Will Barnet)



(above: Will Barnet, The Great Grandmother,1984, Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 28 1/2 inches. Courtesy of a Private Collection, Fort Myers, FL. ©1984 Will Barnet)


(above: Will Barnet, Youth,1970, Oil on canvas, 63 1/4 x48 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Collection of Mrs. Mary Winton Green ©1970 Will Barnet)


Pamphlet text from the exhibition

This year on May 25, Will Barnet will celebrate his 98th birthday. An active participant in nearly the entire history of 20th-century American art, he has for more than seven decades produced some of its most recognizable images. Best known for his familial figurative paintings, Barnet has in addition made significant contributions as an innovative printmaker and abstractionist. He is also a revered teacher and generous mentor who has influenced multiple generations of American artists. Not one to rest on past successes, Barnet continues to paint and exhibit, and to graciously share with those of us who seek him out his vast store of knowledge and sound guidance. Recently, he spent nearly two hours giving an illuminating filmed discussion about works from the Naples Museum of Art's extensive collection of American modernists.

This current Will Barnet exhibition features nearly 40 paintings created by the artist between 1943 and 2009. We are very grateful to Will and his wife Elena for their gracious cooperation that made this exhibition possible. We are also indebted to the many collectors who have generously shared their Barnet works with us. All of the collectors have gladly lent their paintings, expressing not only their great admiration for Will Barnet's work, but for the man himself.

Will Barnet was born in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1911. The youngest and only American-born child of immigrant parents, he recalls that his father placed great importance on "immediately being American." As a consequence, the young Barnet steeped himself in American history and culture, denying his Eastern European heritage to the extent of refusing to learn his parents' native language. Barnet said: "My brothers and sisters were all much older than I, more like aunts and uncles than siblings. I was a lonely child on many levels, feeling socially and psychologically isolated. I felt that great loneliness of not being part of something. And so, I was searching for my roots, my family."

An avid reader, but too poor to buy books, the 8-year-old Barnet became a frequent visitor to the Beverly Public Library. There he began a more extensive search for his "family." After repeated and prolonged trips to the library, Barnet wandered into the art section where he was initially introduced to the great art of the past. Barnet remembered: "The first art book I saw was about Watteau. My love of the Old Masters began in that library. It was then that I began to draw constantly, and my father set up in the basement a small place for me to work. From then on, I knew that I wanted to be a painter -- an American painter."

Barnet's single-minded pursuit of an art career led the 12-year-old boy to set his sights on finding his "artistic roots." He said: "I turned to art history to find what I called 'my other relatives.' I found two that I liked very much -- Daumier and Rembrandt. Rembrandt's paintings and drawings of men and women were psychologically moving. Here was an artist from the 1600s speaking to me in the 1900s. His work was immortal. And I decided that I wanted to do something as an artist that would speak to future generations; to produce paintings that would last."

The young Barnet's studies of European artists led him to examine the social and cultural aspects characteristic of other countries. His involvement with a world outside his own was important because Barnet still felt like an outsider. He remarked: "By the time I was 12, I was six foot tall, larger than any of the other boys. I was part of a European family, and I preferred to draw and read. It was a combination that made it difficult for me to join in." In fact, his inability to "feel a part of something" led to his nickname, "Silent Will." This sense of "having to go it alone" remained a defining part of Barnet's character and his career.

Barnet continued his search beyond the Beverly Library, taking a train into Boston where he frequented the Museum of Fine Arts, galleries and bookstores. As he focused more intensely on his art, other academic subjects took on less importance. Barnet eventually decided to quit regular high school and enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "I wanted from the very beginning to be an artist. I had read that during the Renaissance you had to start early to be a true artist. So I quit public school. I wanted to start immediately on my 'apprenticeship,' and then my career."

The School of the Museum was modeled after European art schools where the exact reproduction of subject matter by students was the primary goal of the instructors. Barnet remembers that all the classes had stringent codes and demanding regulations, allowing for no freedom of expression. While he acknowledges that the unyielding training he received at the School of the Museum was significant to his growth as an artist, after several years Barnet decided to leave. In 1930, he won a scholarship to New York City's Art Student League. He said: "I had to leave Beverly. The scholarship helped, but I would have gone to New York anyway. Sure, it was big move for a 19-year-old, but my work had to grow and I felt that wouldn't happen in Boston." Barnet enrolled in the League's lithography workshop and quickly mastered that and other printmaking techniques. He became the official printer at the League, and in 1936 was appointed instructor of graphic arts and composition. It was also during this period that Barnet began to receive attention as a gifted painter. Eventually, he would serve for 35 years as one of the League's painting instructors. His association with the League was also important because it was here that he finally felt "a part of something." He remarked: "I didn't like the idea of being 'Silent Will.' My early years of isolation set a pattern. Coming to New York helped to break that pattern. Here I was in New York, the biggest city in the world, and I felt less lonely than I ever had."

Barnet's sense of isolation was further diminished by his marriage, and the birth of his first son in the late 1930s. Previously his work had realistically documented the people, places and social conditions that existed at the time. Barnet's biographer, Richard Doty, called them a "response to poverty and destitution." After his marriage, Barnet's work began to reflect images of family life, a subject that would characterize all subsequent work. Barnet has said: "Family relationships are fundamental to existence. That is the reason my family appears in my work throughout my career. I obviously love abstract art and modern styles, but there must be something else, something spiritual. We need art that deals with the human soul, that gives it nourishment. I got into art because it nourished me, and in turn would nourish others."

By 1946, traditional forms, as well as space and color, had virtually disappeared from Barnet's paintings. He abandoned a previous concentration on the subject, turning his attention to portraying the two-dimensional qualities of painting. In works such as Family and Pink Table, Barnet told Doty, he tried to "... eliminate realistic space and substitute a painting space based purely on the rectangle -- the vertical and horizontal expansion of forms." This led to Barnet's "Indian Space" period where he abolished the difference between objects and background and "compartmentalized" forms in a non-illusory space. Subsequently Barnet created some of his best abstract paintings, work that eventually led to his "hard edge" style of the 1960s.

Barnet said of his 1960s change from abstract to figurative painting: "It took me more than a year to produce a figurative piece that worked. But without the abstract period, I could never have created what was to come." Barnet likes the term "clear edge" rather than "hard edge." He was one of the first artists of his generation to work in that style. His serenely elegant images of his wife Elena and their daughter, Ona, as well as his figures with animals, influenced many artists. This "Barnet style" is characterized by clear edge forms set in shallow space that emphasizes the two-dimensional quality of painting. "The canvas is flat: use that. I think that in really great paintings the two-dimensional force is always stronger that the three-dimensional force," he said. In addition to stressing the two-dimensionality of painting, Barnet produces compositions of such harmony and balance that they seem almost effortless. This is, of course, misleading. For each completed work, he has done countless drawings (Barnet is a consummate draftsman) and painted sketches. His beautiful, high ceilinged New York studio-apartment is filled with stacks of preparatory works that will eventually become finished paintings or prints. Nothing is left to chance. Barnet has said: "In my works everything must be in the right place, and if anything is changed, then the entire composition changes." It is this unerring sense of order and balance, subtle use of colors, linear precision and two-dimensional economy that distinguishes Barnet's art of the last five decades.

There have been several important themes that have occupied Barnet since the 1960s and they have all revolved around his lifelong commitment to images of family life. In the 1970s and '80s, the subject of "women and the sea" dominated his work. A 1971 summer stay in Maine where he saw his wife Elena silhouetted against the gray sea was the impetus for this series. He says: "The woman and the sea pieces are inspired by Maine, very romantic, very transcendental. They are about endurance and strength. The spirit of being alone, without being lonely. That means she is self-contained, able to survive in whatever location or situation she finds herself." These allegorical paintings of women are iconic images, emphasizing the continuity between past and present. In these paintings, Barnet has created timeless metaphors in the tradition of cave painters, Egyptian sculptures, American folk artists, and the Post-Impressionists. His female forms radiate a sense of monumentality, strength, and sensuality rarely found in 20th-century American art.

In the last two decades, Barnet's work has included a series of paintings inspired by a return to his family home in Beverly, works based on Emily Dickinson poems, and a recent return to abstraction. However, his work has typically been dominated by depictions of family life. "All artists must have something to say. My dedication has always been to humanity. To express in my art the fragility of life. To record the events that take place in your life, and the lives of those around you. In this way there is a furtherance of that person into future generations. Most people do this through their children and grand-children, but an artist does it through his work." As in all great art, Barnet's images of himself and his family are not personal narratives. They are universal metaphors illustrating the qualities that define "family" -- love, commitment, and devotion; paintings concerned with the passage of time, a historical record of ordinary scenes and events that speak volumes about the strength and endurance of human relationships.


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