Will Barnet’s Exquisite Simplicity

Will Barnet turned 100 on May 25 of this year. So since October, the Arkansas Arts Center (AAC) has been presenting a centennial exhibition of his work: a special collection of more than 75 drawings.

The collection is special because the artist presented the drawings as a gift to the center to honor his long-time friend, former AAC director Townsend Wolfe. Also, the drawings trace Barnet’s decades of developing an exquisite simplicity of design. Many of the works are studies for drawings and paintings he would later complete. That, too, is a special gift to students of art who want to see how masters of their craft meld inspiration with calculated method.

“The old masters are still alive after 400 years, and that’s what I want to be,” Barnet told The New York Times in 2010 [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/27/nyregion/27artist.html?ref=willbarnet], explaining why he was still painting at age 99. Most consider him already arrived at the hallowed masters table, having ranged widely through the decades with painting, watercolors, drawings and prints. The AAC collection provides valuable insight to his journey.

Of particular significance is Barnet’s transition from pre- to post-World War II. The collection shows drawings, before the global conflict, of humans in an almost ink and wood-block style–clear, straightforward, recording basic activity such as pressing clothes.

Then, by the mid-1940s, a psychic change seems to occur, with Barnet transcending into abstract painting. Perhaps it’s a result of observing works of European artists who had fled conflicts in their homelands and found refuge in the United States. Perhaps it was an absurdist response to a world having witnessed the horror of nuclear weapons and the potential of mass annihilation. But whatever caused the change to expressionism, it was dramatic and powerful.

Then, by the ’70s and ’80s he begins to flourish with striking portraits and taut life scenes of haunting beauty. One of the most moving is 1981’s “The Mirror,” revealing a young maiden with a veil of long, dark hair delicately cloaking her frame. But as she combs her hair, rather than studying her reflection in the mirror before her, she gazes down toward her lap, as if in meditation or even shyness. Another work shows a woman partially hidden in a window, her tense, raised arms inviting wonder of what she’s viewing with such stark concern.

Near the end of the exhibit, visitors come across a video of Barnet displaying and discussing his work, as well as his views on art.

All in all, it’s a satisfying trip, educating the viewer to Barnet’s artistic approach, while also whetting the appetite for more of the American master’s creations. The exhibition runs through January 15.

Born in 1911 in Beverly, MA, Barnet studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Art Students League of New York. He later taught at the league, as well as at New York’s Cooper Union, Yale University, and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Virtually every public collection in the U.S. includes his artwork. [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/arts/design/will-barnet-at-100-at-the-national-academy-museum.html?pagewanted=all]

(Catherine Armbrust and Eric Sweet also contributed to this column.)


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