Known for his inspired early abstraction and later figurative work, Barnet continued painting until the end of his life. Last year I saw his retrospective at the National Academy, and at “Signs & Symbols,” a terrific show organized from the Whitney’s permanent collection that was up through October 28, I saw Male and Female, one of his sublime abstract paintings from the 1950s. Here’s an excerpt from the Whitney’s “Watch and Listen” audio tour.
Will Barnet is interested in the tension between certain colors and forms, and the sense of resolution in the painting as a whole.
Barnet has said that his artistic heroes are the Old Masters—Giotto, Daumier, and Ingres. Despite the relative abstraction of Male and Female, Barnet’s commitment to classicism shines through in the painting’s balance and composure. The vertical forms in Male and Female also bear a certain resemblance to Northwest Coast totem poles. Barnet, like many artists of his generation, was very impressed by Northwest Coast Native American art. He was part of the group known as the Indian Space Painters—so-called because of the patterned, all-over composition that they based on Native American textiles and pottery.
Image above: Will Barnet, Male and Female, 1954, oil on canvas. Image © Will Barnet/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Alexandre Gallery
In this video, taped when Barnet was 99, watch him at work in the studio. His son, Peter, who taught painting at Montclair State University, talks about what it was like growing up with Barnet.
Also watch: President Obama bestowing the 2011 National Medal of Arts on Will Barnet, at The White House, February 13th, 2012. Barnet receives his medal at 8:11.
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