Thursday, November 15, 2012

Will Barnet (1911-2012)

Sadly, the art world lost one of the greats yesterday, when Will Barnet died in New York at the age of 101.
Will Barnet
I 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.
Paintings like this one, "The Blue Robe" (courtesy Alexandre Gallery) of Ona and her mother, filled the walls at the Barnet's house.
Will 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.

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!
Blue Bicycle
Ta ta,

AH

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.
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
One of my favorites of Ona reading, with Minou

2 comments:

  1. Such a poignant insight into your life and your connection with the Barnet family. Truly a gift that you all shared time and space with one another, respectfully, and the love of art. Quite sorry for your loss, and for his family's; the world is less sweet without this genteel soul.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is so touching. I'm sorry for your lost, but the friendship and relationship you had with the family is one to be admired. I can feel your connection to all of them. All the paintings left behind will forever be a reminder of the artist that lived and loved. I like that he painted his family over and over again. It's wonderful!

    ReplyDelete