An Act of Memory

by Katherine French



 

Will Barnet's father built four houses in Beverly, but it is the one on Pierce Street which the artist considered home. Gone is the landscaped garden with a fish pond, as well as the family's entourage of pets; but, otherwise, time has done little to change the outward appearance of this three-storied building. Painted green with gold trim, the structure is large and imposing, its porch a reminder of New England summers before the advent of air conditioning. Here Barnet created a studio for himself, using his art to record the experience of an ideal boyhood. From a nearby beach he was able to ride a bike up the coastal road to Gloucester, as well as row out onto Beverly harbor to view the last of the great clipper ships. Having drawn from the age of six, an adolescent Barnet enriched his early efforts by viewing lithographic reproductions in the Beverly Public Library. As he grew older, he ventured into Salem to visit what is now the Peabody Essex Museum, attracted not only to the stern eighteenth-century portraits, but also their collection of Native American artifacts. By the time he left to study at the Museum School in Boston, Barnet had amassed a wealth of visual imagery which he renewed upon each visit home. Even as he worked through a period of symbolic abstraction in the 1940s and 1950s, the Beverly house and its inhabitants continued to be an inspiration for Barnet's art.

Experts in cognitive development have argued that our first memories determine how we view the world and how we are able to express that vision. Writers examine the same stories through continual retelling. Artists find satisfaction in a rediscovered color or shape. Barnet's figurative work may contain the formal elements found in early American portraiture, but one senses that their stark and lonely feeling comes not only from his understanding of colonial painting, but also from his own experience growing up. By the time Barnet was in elementary school, his brother had left home and his sisters were making hats in a millinery shop. Barnet's father was frequently absent, working at United Shoe or completing construction on the house. Barnet often found himself alone with a mother who he found to be withdrawn and melancholy, an observation confirmed by his drawings. Sitting perched on the edge of her bed or a chair, she is tense and waiting. There is anxiety expressed in her hunched shoulders and hand lifted to cup her chin. She exhibits the same sense of isolation and solitude which Barnet found in his extensive reading of transcendentalist literature. While one can detect a more lively spirit in the image of Barnet's father taking delight when threatened by the upraised claw or sharp beak of his pet parrot, most images show the old man at rest, exhausted by his long day. Whether seated at the kitchen table or falling asleep with a cap still on his head, portraits of Barnet's father present him as diligent and hard working, characteristics which have long defined New England.

Will Barnet embraced these ideals, seeking the lessons of history just at a time when the region north of Boston was beginning to envision its past. When Barnet's family came to Beverly, many cities and towns along the eastern seaboard were experiencing a time of profound change. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New England was rapidly industrialized, attracting waves of new immigrants. Communities were transformed by this infusion of diversity; their culture became more varied and complex. Yet these changes also prompted the need to secure and preserve the past, as well as embrace the concept of a Yankee tradition which emphasized self-reliance and hard work.[1] This idealized heritage not only served to reassure those threatened by change, but also provided new immigrants with the tools they needed to adapt.

For Barnet's father, this meant a life of hard work; yet his youngest son was no stranger to industry. The young artist helped lay the foundation for their house and went on to apply the same determined effort toward developing his intellect. He read voraciously, naming Hawthorne and Melville as early favorites. Barnet found visual confirmation of the region's history on the colonial grave markers in the Beverly cemetery or walking by the well-appointed Federalist mansions. He visited museums to view the portraits of wealthy merchants. Yet he was also aware of the social disparity between the descendants of these prosperous colonials and his own working-class family. Encouraged by his Uncle Harry, a liberal socialist who worked in Boston, Barnet expanded his readings to include such humanist philosophers as Spinoza. He was sustained by the work of Daumier and Rembrandt, as well as bookstore reproductions of works by Cézanne. By the time Barnet left Boston for New York in 1931, he was well prepared for the challenge of contemporary art.

During his first six years in the city, Barnet drew from models he found on the street, conscious of Daumier and his own socially aware contemporaries. This intellectual young man was also receptive to ideas presented in exhibitions of work by the avant-garde. He studied with Stuart Davis at the Art Students League before beginning his career as a teacher in the school. As technical printer for the League, Barnet completed editions for Louise Bourgeois, William Gropper, Jose Clemente Orozco, and many others. He served as technical advisor to the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration and was involved with the New School for Social Research.[2] Quite simply, Barnet was well placed at the center of an art world intent upon developing a modern vocabulary. From Cubism to Surrealism, he was attuned to the various movements. There were few New York artists with whom Barnet was not acquainted.

For many, the decades of the 1930s and 1940s were a time to establish new careers. Hundreds of artists converged on New York, coming from all parts of the United States and Europe to explore new visual concepts and their own capacity for self-invention. When describing Arshile Gorky's desire to escape the past in order to create art, Barnet might have been speaking for himself. [3] But, unlike Gorky, Barnet maintained close ties with his family. And, although he became more and more intrigued by symbolic abstraction, he found ways to incorporate this new interest with his long time fascination in Native American Art.

Even as a teenager, Barnet had examined artifacts at the Essex Institute, spurred on by literature which idealized the New England landscape and indigenous people. As a mature artist, he found this interest reinforced by Picasso, who not only collected tribal art, but also made it the subject of painting. Barnet organized trips for students to view the Native American collection at the Museum of Natural History and formed a group called the Indian Space Artists. Attracted to geometric design, these painters sought to go beyond Cubism in order to create a particularly American and intentionally spiritual art form, based upon the balance of negative and positive space.[4]

Most of Barnet's work from this time is purely abstract, yet portraits of family exist. Drawings of his father and parrot demonstrate the spatial interaction which engaged the Indian Space Artists. By using a bird as subject matter, Barnet was able to reference an iconography found in tribal culture. The bars of the animal's cage force the composition to work on a flat plane, but still retain its structure and weight. This interpretation of Modernism presaged a turning point in Barnet's career. As the art historian Twig Johnson observed, "By assimilating native art ideas into his own work, Barnet was able to explore everyday life and relationships in a new positive manner." [5]

 

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