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Will Barnet: A Centennial Celebration

February 4 - July 17, 2011


It is especially appropriate and a great honor for the Montclair Art Museum to feature 10 new works by Will Barnet upon the occasion of his 100th birthday. Born on May 25, 1911, Will has made uniquely significant contributions to American art as a painter, printmaker, and teacher. Barnet's work reflects his ongoing contributions to vital currents of American art, from the social realism of the 1930s to abstraction in the 40s and 50s, followed by a renewed concern for figuration from the mid-1960s onwards. In recent years, he has revived his explorations of abstract form. Although the range of Barnet's accomplishments is vast, his entire body of work is unified by an abiding devotion to the language of painting within the classical principles of order, stability, harmony, and grace.

In 2000, the Montclair Art Museum was the first to organize and present a full-scale art historical appraisal and traveling retrospective of Barnet's work: Will Barnet: A Timeless World. This exhibition was followed in 2007 by Will Barnet: Recent Work, featuring 11 abstract paintings that exemplified the artist's ongoing capacity for reinvention and new perspectives, as filtered through memories of earlier works and experiences. The key themes of these works were the celebration of childhood exuberance and the changing seasons, as well as the artist's love of nature and animals -- ideas that continue to inform Barnet's recent paintings, along with new concepts.

As a teacher at the Arts Students League in the late 1940s, Barnet exerted a profound influence upon and communion with a group of artists now known as the Indian Space Painters. Barnet's highly original current work continues to build upon the foundation of his Indian Space work of this era, which is based upon the Native American­inspired integration of organic and geometric pictographic forms within a flat, seamless space.

Furthermore, Barnet views his new work as even more closely related to the great classical traditions of the old masters in terms of his search for structure and the development of his pictorial ideas through drawings -- in order "to produce paintings that will last." Referring to the new work as possessing its "own energy and formality," Barnet feels that his use of color is especially different, in terms of its freshness, "a certain luminosity and vitality." He has also referred to his use of "more open space, with the tension between forms that are further apart."

Temple (2010) is particularly noteworthy for its textural subtlety of wintry colors, conveying "a spiritual mood, a moment of meditation." Built up of many layers, this painting has "a weight to it," enhanced by "the strength of the vertical forms rising like columns." A horizontal, almost figurative form near the bottom of the canvas appears to be lying down and can be related to the supine form in the center of The Altar (2010).

Barnet's creative process is generally one of solidification, simplification, and unification, as he works on paintings for many months. The Reach -- "a real Indian Space painting" -- exemplifies this tendency, having evolved from a "too sweet" palette and looser forms into a tight, interlocking structure with "a certain tension, the way shapes work within each other."

The titles of Barnet's paintings, assigned after their completion, provide vital clues as to their creation. The recently completed Dialogue is "a conversation between forms." The unexpected range of bold, yet nuanced colors contained within carefully structured forms also enhances the concept of an aesthetic dialogue. Up and Down "started as a unique figurative work with dancing forms -- an image that preoccupied me." Barnet gradually simplified the forms, distilling them to their essence and using increasingly refined colors.

In these works Barnet has achieved variety and unity, working with a range of paint applications from gently textured and abraded surfaces, to solid, carefully ordered patches of vibrant color. New levels of complexity and tension have their counterpoint in a sense of openness in some compositions. Earthy colors meet their matches in such unexpected choices as the animated purple circle in The Eye. Barnet has observed, "as you get older, you have the right to a certain amount of freedom of spirit. You have the luxury to do as you please." Barnet's art continues to proclaim the life-affirming endurance of the human spirit and a metaphysical feeling of being connected with the world in an orderly, meaningful fashion.

Gail Stavitsky
Chief Curator
All quotations are from interviews with the artist in November 2010.
For more information on the artist, see Gail Stavitsky, A Timeless World (Montclair: The Montclair Art Museum, 2000).


(above: Will Barnet (b. 1911), Dialogue, 2010, Oil on canvas, 42 x 30 inches. All works on loan courtesy of the artist and Alexandre Gallery, New York. © Peter Jacobs Fine Arts Imaging)


(above: Will Barnet (b. 1911), The Eye, 2010, Oil on canvas, 42 x 30 inches. All works on loan courtesy of the artist and Alexandre Gallery, New York. © Peter Jacobs Fine Arts Imaging)

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