Art of the Week

Will Barnet (1911-)
Widow’s Walk, 1974
Lithograph on Arches paper, 66 x 50 cm.
Gift of Kenneth L. Halsband ‘88

Born in 1911 in Beverly, Massachusetts, as a child Barnet enjoyed climbing the hills to watch the ships in the harbor, playing baseball, and reading at the local public library. He was excited to discover the art section. As he remembers, “I used to bury myself in those rooms day after day. It was practically my whole life. That’s where my first yearning for art began.”  At the age of 12, he established a studio in his parent’s basement where he drew and painted. He made frequent trips to Boston and Salem to explore the collections of the Peabody and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Continually dissatisfied with high school, in his last year he decided to leave. In 1927, Barnet enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where he learned drawing, painting, anatomy, and art history in the European tradition.

After several years, Barnet decided to continue his study at the Art Students League in New York, where he developed an interest in lithography, etching, and woodcutting. Between 1932 and 1942, Barnet became an avid printmaker, using the medium to capture the economic and social despair of the Depression years.  He would subsequently teach at the New School for Social Research, at New Jersey State Teachers College, and from 1945-1978 at Cooper Union in New York.

Following the birth of his first son in 1938, Barnet made his wife and children his sole artistic subjects. He painted scenes of domesticity such as Soft Boiled Eggs (1946) and Summer Family (1948) using bright, emotive colors and cubist-inspired from. These abstractions attest to his careful study of the great modern artists such as Matisse, Picasso and, Léger. Focusing on images of family Barnet was “trying to purge himself of the subject, searching for the essence in the act of painting.”

Throughout the fifties and into the early sixties, Barnet painted abstractly, moving from the figure to cityscape and landscape painting.  Although he lived in Manhattan, he traveled frequently during this period in America and Europe. He spent summers in Provincetown Massachusetts, in Duluth Minnesota, where he taught a 1959 summer session at the University of Minnesota, and in Spokane, Washington, where he taught during the summer of 1963. While these trips fueled his interest in representing the American landscape through form and color, in the early sixties the figure reappeared as the primary subject in Barnet’s art.  By the seventies he joined his interest in figurative and landscape painting in works that combined the female form with the organic images of forest, sky, and sea.

Will Barnet’s prints depict the human figure and animals, both in casual scenes of daily life and in transcendent dreamlike worlds. His sustained exploration of the relationship between abstract forms and perception echo the works of famed artist Alex Katz and the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.
“My interest has been in developing further the plastic convictions that have been evolving in my abstract paintings; so that a portrait, while remaining a portrait, becomes in this sense an abstraction: the idea of a person in its most intense and essential aspect.”
-Will Barnet, 1962

Doty, Robert M. Will Barnet. Harry N. Abrams, 1984
“Will Barnet: a part of and apart from his times.” By: TRUCCO, Terry. ARTnews, December 1982, Vol. 81, p94-98


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