Will Barnet, A Man of Ideas

“My figurative work is basically abstract in thinking.”    Will Barnet

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. 

Will Barnet, Mother and Child

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. 

Berlinghiero, Madonna and Child

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. 

Happy Painting!

9 thoughts on “Will Barnet, A Man of Ideas

  1. Shirley Levine

    I saw his exhibit at the National Academy of Art here in NYC several years ago and will never forget the impression it made on me. Seeing so many paintings all together was fantastic and I loved the flat, grpahic nature of so many. It was figurative painting carried to another level.

    Now I’m tempted to go back and search my blog to see if I ever posted my sketchbook page – my copy of the master.

  2. Donna Post author

    Hi Shirley – thanks so much for commenting. Lucky you to have seen that exhibit! I’d love to see your sketchbook copy of the master – I’m wondering what painting it is!

    I have a catalog from his 2010 exhibit at the Art Students League that in addition to his bio, also contains some of his teaching ideas and philosophies – priceless!

  3. Diane Pinney

    Donna, I can see why you are/were attracted to Will Barnet’s work! There was a session at the Watercolor Society of Oregon Spring convention this past weekend by Richard Helmick, professor emeritus of the Univ. of Missouri titled ‘Antecedents’ where he talked about who we are ‘beholden to’ in our art style or approach. I am curious: who, in the long list of artists across the years, would you say you are in constant conversation with? Your style is so unique and self developed that there may not be any one artist in particular. I sat next to another Zagotta enthusiast and, as a result of our conversation, she bought your DVD at the Creative Catalyst booth.

  4. Donna Post author

    Hi Diane,
    First of all – thanks so much for commenting! That lecture sounds great – wish I could have heard it. I love art history and learning about our artistic ansestors.

    To answer your question: Over the years I’ve been in conversation with many different artists, and each of them has influenced my work and my thinking in some way. Early on, when I was in love with value painting , light, and transparent watercolor it was Andrew Wyeth. When I wanted to learn more about using color and expression in my work, it was Bonnard, Mattisse, and WoIf Kahn. When I moved to the figure and was looking for ways to use the figure for personal expression rather than portraiture, it was Richard Diebenkorn, David Parks, Elmer Bishoff, and the rest of the Bay Area Figurative Painters. At that time I also studied Modernism and adopted many of the early Modernist’s ideas, mainly their idea of honoring the flatness of the picture surface. Will Barnet carried on the Modernists’ ideas and ideals. He wrote about them, taught them to his students, and expressed them in his work. He is definitely someone I’ve had conversations with, even though I’ve never met him. I see my current work as an amalgamation of all of these different ideas, ideals, and my search for creative and expressive ways to put together my paintings if description is taken out of the equation.

  5. Peggy Stermer-Cox

    Hi Donna, I enjoyed your discussion about Will Barnett. I remember seeing his work in various magazines when I was growing up. I always liked his big, simple shapes suggesting form. I think it’s interesting that he relates his work to Byzantine art. I used to like looking at my Dad’s book on Russian icons. Funny how its all related. Fun post!

  6. Diane Pinney

    Donna, thank you for your response! Some of these artists I know and others I do not. I so admire the way you dig into art history to discover techniques, styles and creative expression. I shipped back three paintings about 2/3 along from our four weeks in Maui and can’t wait to get back at them. Now that they are here, I see so many things I need to change to make them better. I am at fault for not making more value sketches. Will I never learn?

  7. Donna Post author

    Hi Peggy – You have a wonderful way of personalizing your shapes – do you think you were influenced by the Russian icons?

  8. Peggy Stermer-Cox

    Hi Donna, Yes I was. I remember looking at Russian icons and Byzantine style artwork in books. I was much more attracted to these works than the more realistic Renaissance art. I liked the big, bold shapes and the stylized handling of figures and faces. Thank you! Who were your early influences?

  9. Donna Post author

    Hi Peggy – You are so lucky to have been surrounded by that kind of art early on. As a child, my only influence was “coloring between the lines” – you know what I mean – the more accurate the drawing or painting is, the better it is – syndrome. It led to what I call my bad case of “terminal literalitis” that I am always having to overcome – still to this day.

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