“My figurative work is basically abstract in thinking.” Will Barnet
Will Barnet, one of my heroes and all-time favorite artists, passed away last November at the age of 101.
A painter and teacher, he had a passion for composition, art history, and the anatomy of the picture surface. Believing that contemporary art should be linked with great paintings from various periods of art, he urged his students to see the abstract ideas that run throughout art history.
I had my first encounter with Will Barnet’s stunning figure paintings many years ago. Before I had a computer and access to the Internet, I discovered his painting, Mother and Child, on the cover of a trade paperback. There was no indication of who the artist was, but the painting blew me away and became one of my favorites even though I didn’t know who painted it.
In the late 1990’s, I made a decision to move away from descriptive realism and into the territory of more creative and expressive painting. Looking to redefine my artistic direction, I delved into Modernism and the art periods that came after -searching for inspiration, fresh ideas, and a new visual language. I came upon Mother and Child again, along with Will Barnet’s other paintings and writings, and discovered that he was a living, breathing American artist who was still working daily.
Digging into his writings, I was amazed to find that it wasn’t the Modern School of Paris that influenced his abstract figure paintings like Mother and Child, it was pre-Rennaissance, Byzantine art. He said that paintings like Berlinghiero’s Madonna and Child, painted in 1228, taught him about the flat picture surface and what kind of language to use to put together a painting. He talked about the painting’s simplicity, pointing out that it is really a flat painting with no real modeling, no real attempt to create any illusion, and how the flat surface has its own space; it doesn’t come forward or fall back – the space is compressed.
I had never been particularly attracted to pre-Renaissance or Renaissance art before, but reading Will Barnet’s words changed my thinking and my vision, helping me to understand how important it is to connect our work to art history and how much we can learn from our artistic ancestors. And his concepts of space, his idea of reinterpreting nature in painting terms, his idea that flat forms and their interactions can function as substitutes or equivalents for ideas and emotions, his idea of abstract thinking as a new visual language – were ideas that opened my eyes and helped me learn how to see subject matter and the flat picture surface in new and exciting ways.
Will Barnet held that great art was simple, dignified, and profound. His art is all of that and more. And from everything I’ve read about him, I think I can safely say that the same thing can be said for the man himself. Although I never met him, I feel I know him through his beautiful paintings and because he so generously shared his thoughts, feelings, and ideas with the world.