29. Sadly, the art world lost one of the greats yesterday, when Will Barnet died in New York at the age of 101.
think Will Barnet may have been the first one to open my eyes to art,
and so I share a huge feeling of gratitude toward this man, along with a
sense of loss.
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.
like this one, "The Blue Robe" (courtesy Alexandre Gallery) of Ona and
her mother, filled the walls at the Barnet's house.
Barnet loved a good audience and Ona and I were easily captivated,
giggling as he entertained us with stories that often mixed brilliance
with charming absent mindedness. I remember one time, when we spent a
wonderful week in Paris staying in a friend’s gorgeous apartment on the
Place du Palais Bourbon (there were original Picasso plates hanging on
the walls, oh my, and a fabulous bakery around the corner), Will Barnet
got up early one morning and later complained about a stomach ache. We
were a little concerned and I thought I was going to be called into
translation mode with a local hospital until he admitted to us,
sheepishly, that he had eaten eight croissants for breakfast that
morning, and wondered if maybe they were a little too rich.
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
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
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
Will Barnet is represented exclusively by the Alexandre Gallery in New
York, and most of these images are courtesy of the gallery’s website.
One of the many paintings of Ona by Will Barnet
Will Barnet receiving the 2011 National Arts and Humanities Medal from President Obama.
One of his most recognizable and famous paintings, from 1970 "Woman Reading"
An abstract from 2009, "Flight" at the Alexandre Gallery