Will Barnet’s daughter, Ona, was one of my best friends, whom I met at a summer job in Maine, the summer before college. Neither one of us was very good at our respective jobs that summer and so we naturally bonded in a “mysery loves company” kind of way. I’d never met the daughter of an artist before and I remember that when I first visited Ona’s house on New York’s upper west side, I was blown away by the amount of art on her walls, and the fact that she and her mother, Elena, both exotic looking beauties, were the subject of so many paintings. It wasn’t just art that populated their walls; the Barnet’s house and lives were foreign and fascinating to me and I loved being a part of it.
That was typical of this fascinating man, who on the one hand held his own with all the N.Y. glitterati, but never lost the wide eyed fascination with the world and innocence of a young boy from Beverly Massachusetts. He was tall, opinionated and delightful and he clearly enjoyed the attention and admiration of his audience, whether students at the Art Students League or other prominent artists or just his daughter’s best friend.
Ona and I sealed our friendship over the years, first in neighboring colleges in Pennsylvania, where we each took courses on each other’s campuses so we could at least see each other once a week, and then at a resort in Maine, where we were both a little better suited for our respective summer jobs of waitress and chambermaid. When I discovered art history in college, I was thrilled to tell Will Barnet that he had opened my eyes to art. And I couldn’t wait to get to the 20th century, so that I could better understand the influence of the worlds that shaped him and his art. I hadn’t heard of them at the time, but I wasn’t surprised to later learn that Will Barnet had taught, among others, Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Alex Katz and Donald Judd. When friends and classmates touted the great influence of Marcel Duchamp or the abstract expressionists of the 20th century, I quietly defended the timeless beauty of Will Barnet, the stoic classicist in a midst of avant-guard mania.
I loved understanding where Will Barnet came from in his art, from his print block days of social commentary to his stripped down stylized color-blocked images, mostly of Ona and her mother. The influence of print making was clear, but his style changed and evolved over time. And I remember that when I studied the Japanese influence on the Impressionists, I could better understand where Will Barnet got some of his stylistic pull.
All of us who have a developed a deep love of art can probably pinpoint at least one person in our lives who opened our eyes to the complex beauty of art. I know that for Meg it was her mother, a beautiful artist in her own right, who dragged a young miss Meggie, sometimes kicking and screaming, to all the great art museums around Europe (and for which she is now eternally grateful!). For me, it was a few people, including my Art Historian aunt, Elizabeth Holt, and the wonderful professor in college who was kind enough to give me my first A on a paper (and for which I thanked him by majoring in his subject). But probably most of all, it was my friendship with a real artist, Will Barnet, who helped me develop a more discerning, compassionate and critical eye that eventually led to my work with, and representation of, other artists.
With gratitude, I extend my sympathy to dear Ona, Elena and their family. Will Barnet was a great man and a masterful and influential artist. May his work live on forever!
PS Will Barnet is represented exclusively by the Alexandre Gallery in New York, and most of these images are courtesy of the gallery’s website.