American painter and printmaker Will Barnet (1911-2012) has lived through every major artistic school in modern American art. He can remember watching John Singer Sergent paint murals on the ceiling of the Boston Public Library in the 1920s, and being the printmaker in New York for Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. He remembers the explosion of Abstract Expressionism that would come to define the so-called New York School of artists.
As a printmaker and art teacher at the Art Students League for 45 years, Barnet, who will turn 100 in May, taught the likes of Eva Hesse, Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko. But just as he did when he came to New York as a 19-year-old nobody, Will Barnet paints in his studio at the National Arts Club in Manhattan every day. His son, artist Peter Barnet, 72, of Maplewood, continues his father's tradition of teaching by heading the painting department at Montclair State University.
Will Barnet has had one of the longest and most distinguished careers in the history of American art. His exceptional body of paintings and drawings and his original style, are recognized around the world. His work has entered virtually every major museum in the United States including: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Abroad he is represented in the collections of The British Museum, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and The Vatican Museum. There have been innumerable critical studies of his works in books, catalogues, and magazine articles.
Barnet has been the recipient of numerous awards including the first Artist's Lifetime Achievement Award Medal given on the occasion of the National Academy of Design’s 175th anniversary, the College Art Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art’s Lippincott Prize, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Childe Hassam Prize. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Design, The Century Association, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Barnet has defined an artistic career that, in the words of Robert Doty, “has always gone beyond the limitations of modern art because his work affirms a faith in life”, Barnet was awarded the 2011 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. In 2012, France conferred the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters on Will Barnet.
Will Barnet, Painter, Dies at 101 - New York Times, Nov. 13, 2012
Will Barnet, a printmaker and painter known for elegantly stylized portraits and classically composed visions of beautiful women and children, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 101.
His death was announced by Philippe Alexandre, whose gallery represented him. He had lived in the National Arts Club building on Gramercy Park since 1982.
In the prints and paintings that he produced from the mid-1960s on, Mr. Barnet ranged between a simplified form of realism and a poetic, visionary symbolism. A skilled draftsman, he created exactingly linear, subtly colored portraits of family members and friends. In the enigmatic pictures he began making in the 1970s, he conjured images of women in dark woods or on the porches of seaside houses who appear to be waiting for loved ones like 19th-century sailors’ wives.
A native of Beverly, Mass., Mr. Barnet attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and, on a scholarship, went to New York to study at the Art Students League, arriving in 1931, he once said, with $10 and a portfolio of seascapes and portraits of the family cat. He worked briefly under Stuart Davis and became acquainted with the Surrealist artist Arshile Gorky.
Mr. Barnet started out as a Social Realist printmaker responding to the struggles of ordinary people during the Depression. He was “radicalized” at 19, he said, roaming the city and sketching the faces of the downtrodden while renting a room for $1 a night.
Four years after joining the Art Students League he was appointed its official printer. He went on to work in graphic arts for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. He also made prints for the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco and the painter and political cartoonist William Gropper.
Mr. Barnet had his first solo exhibition at the Eighth Street Playhouse in Manhattan in 1935 and, three years later, his first gallery show at the Hudson Walker Gallery, also in Manhattan. That same year he married Mary Sinclair, a painter and fellow student, with whom he had three sons. In 1939 his work was included in “American Art Today” at the New York World’s Fair.
Eventually his interest in Modernist formal innovations led to colorful, Picassoesque paintings depicting domestic family scenes, often featuring young children, and by the end of the 1940s his paintings had become entirely abstract. He soon fell in with a group known as the Indian Space Painters, who created geometrically complex abstract paintings using forms derived from both Native American art and modern European painting.
But Mr. Barnet returned to traditionalist representational painting in the early 1960s. Under the influences of early Renaissance painting, Japanese printmaking and, perhaps obliquely, Pop Art, he made flattened, precisely contoured portraits of the architect Frederick Kiesler, the art critic Katherine Kuh and the art collector Roy Neuberger.
By then he was divorced and had married Elena Ciurlys in 1953. They had a daughter, Ona, and both she and her mother were subjects of his portraits as well. His later images of mysterious waiting women showed the influences of Pre-Raphaelite narratives, Magritte’s Surrealism and Edward Hopper’s taciturn romanticism.
In 2003 Mr. Barnet again changed course, returning to abstraction and resuming the engagement with bold shapes, vivid color and dynamic compositions that characterized his painting in the 1950s. He continued to work into his 90s, and in 2010 he was honored with an exhibition, “Will Barnet and the Art Students League”, at the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery in Manhattan. He began teaching graphic arts and composition for the league in 1936, became an instructor of painting and continued to teach at the school until 1980.
“I didn’t compromise, ever”, he said in an interview with The New York Times on the occasion of the exhibition. “The old masters are still alive after 400 years, and that’s what I want to be”.
Mr. Barnet was born on May 25, 1911. His father, Noah, who had immigrated from Russia, was a machinist in a shoe factory. His mother, Sarahdina, came from Eastern Europe. Mr. Barnet became interested in art as a child and by age 12 had his own studio in his parents’ basement.
He is survived by his wife, as well as his sons from his first marriage - Peter, a painter; Richard, a sculptor; and Todd, a lawyer - and the daughter from his second marriage, Ona, who owns and operates an inn in Maine; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In addition to the Art Students League, Mr. Barnet taught at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art from 1945 to 1978 and, in shorter stints, at Yale, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and other schools. He was awarded a National Medal of Arts from 2011, which was presented by President Obama in a White House ceremony this year.
It was in 2011 when the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey exhibited a selection of his canvases in honor of his centennial year. His work was also shown in many solo and group shows around the United States, including six appearances in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s annual exhibitions. He was the subject of several museum retrospectives. “Will Barnet at 100”, presented at the National Academy Museum in 2011, was the last. It was also his first solo retrospective in New York.
Mr. Barnet’s first encounters with art were the carvings of skeletal heads and other images on colonial tombstones in a local cemetery in Beverly.
“These were mementos of what had taken place”, he recalled. “At the age of 10 or 12, I discovered that being an artist would give me an ability to create something which would live on after death”.
Correction: November 16, 2012- An obituary on Wednesday about the artist Will Barnet, using information from his studio, referred incompletely to his survivors. They include nine grandchildren, not seven, and also three great-grandchildren.
Correction: November 19, 2012- An obituary on Wednesday about the artist Will Barnet referred incompletely to his survivors, and a correction in this space on Friday misidentified the source of the information about the survivors. They include nine grandchildren, not just seven, and also three great-grandchildren. The incomplete information came from an employee of Mr. Barnet’s studio, not from his gallery. | By Ken JOHNSON © The New York Times
Con i pennelli ha scritto parte della storia dell'arte del secolo scorso. È passato molto tempo da quando quel ragazzo è arrivato da Boston a New York con dieci dollari in tasca e un portafoglio pieno di paesaggi e ritratti del gatto di famiglia. Will Barnet ha aperto quel portafoglio nel 1931, sperando di capitalizzare su una borsa di studio presso l'Art Students League. Voleva diventare un pittore moderno americano in una città americana del ventesimo secolo. A suo arrivo in città iniziò a dipingere i volti tristi e arrabbiati, risultanti degli anni della Depressione, che poteva vedere in ogni angolo. I suoi primi anni sono stati caratterizzati da un crudo realismo sociale.
Ma il lavoro di Barnet è passato attraverso tante fasi diverse come il nostro tempo. La sua carriera è iniziata con gli autoritratti dipinti nella cantina dei suoi genitori "alla maniera di Rembrandt, con la luce sopra la spalla sinistra". Nel corso degli anni, il suo lavoro è stato trasformato dal realismo sociale all'astrazione. Dal 1945 e per quindici anni ha prodotto una straordinaria opera sulla base di motivi biomorfe e geometriche. Ha fatto anche parte del gruppo American Abstract Artists, dedicato all'astrazione geometrica. Nel suo momento migliore, ha camminato dalla pura astrazione alla pura figurazione ed ha ritornato da capo. Negli anni Sessanta, la figurazione è ritornata sul suo lavoro ed è rimasta, con eccezioni, fino ad oggi.
Figurazione e astrazione sono parte dello stesso pezzo nei suoi quadri: "Mother and Child" (1961), un ritratto stilizzato di sua moglie e la figlia, integra gli angoli, curve e spigoli della sua precedente pittura astratta, ma con caratteristiche personalizzate di ritratto. In "Donna che legge" (1970), una delle sue opere più riprodotte, si vede una ragazza sdraiata sul letto a leggere un libro blu con il suo gatto bianco. Barnet utilizza ampie zone di colore piatto, semplificando le forme ed i dettagli in un lavoro a metà tra le forme figurative e quelle astratte.
Ma se c'è qualcosa per cui Barnet è ampiamente riconosciuto (oppure riconoscibile) è per le sue incisioni. Fu professore di incisione della Lega fra il 1942 ed il 1979, dove Mark Rothko è stato suo allievo, ed è riuscito a sollevare l’incisione verso una forma d’arte di primo ordine.
Le sue litografie, o le loro riproduzioni, hanno riempito i muri di migliaia di case negli ultimi decenni. Forse, inconsapevolmente, abbiamo visto il suo lavoro in numerose occasioni. Il Metropolitan, il Guggenheim, il Whitney, tutti hanno il suo lavoro, di solito però in magazzeno: "Gli artisti della mia natura non vengono mostrati lì, il Whitney non ha mostrato il mio lavoro per trent’ anni", ha detto l'artista in un'intervista con il New York Times.
Mi vengono in mente tutti quei magazzini, tutti quei pezzi d’arte perduti fra centinaia di numeri di catalogo, perfettamente conservati e protetti, ma che forse i nostri occhi non potranno mai vedere. A Roma, la "quarta generazione" di Barnet appare quasi deserta, girando un angolo, mentre al di là di un paio di stanze la folla si ammassa attorno ai dipinti di Raffaello e Michelangelo. Forse è meglio così. Forse i personaggi dei suoi quadri si sentono grati di essere in grado di respirare da soli, intimi, con la sola compagnia della sua aura di nostalgia: "Tutti gli artisti devono avere qualcosa da dire. Il mio impegno è sempre stato alla umanità. Ho sempre voluto esprimere con la mia arte la fragilità della vita, registrare gli eventi che si svolgono nella propria vita, e la vita di coloro che la circondano. In questo modo si ottiene una proiezione della persona alle generazioni future. Di solito le persone lo fanno attraverso loro figli e nipoti, ma un artista lo fa attraverso la sua opera".