Will Barnet, artist of many styles, dies at 101


Will Barnet, an artist whose career spanned eight decades and many genres, has died. He was 101. (Photo by Marc Royce /Alexandre Gallery)
November 15, 2012

Will Barnet, an artist who during an acclaimed eight-decade
career depicted the Great Depression’s victims in gritty prints,
sojourned in abstraction and finally returned to a haunted and stylized realism for which he is best known, died Nov. 13 in New York City. He was 101.

Mr. Barnet died of cardiac arrest at an apartment building for artists in Gramercy Park where he had lived for 28 years. He had continued to draw even after turning 100, and four days before his death he visited galleries in Chelsea to see how they were faring after Hurricane Sandy.

In February, President Obama awarded Mr. Barnet the National Medal of Arts. The artist’s daughter, Ona Barnet, confirmed the death.

Mr. Barnet is best known for perspective-flattened scenes of domestic life, which he produced in oils and serigraphs starting in the 1960s. Many of the works include images of his wife, Elena, and their daughter, as well as dogs, cats and birds.

In style, they were a synthesis of what had come before in an already long career.

“He started out as a representational artist and moved into abstraction,” said Joann Moser, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. “Then in the mid-1960s, he adopted a type of abstracted realism in which he achieved a precise balance between abstraction and representation.”

The draftsmanship in the images is impeccable, but there is little shading or perspective. Many have a dream-like quality. With areas of unmodulated color and dark lines, they recall Japanese prints. In their austere simplicity, they echo Shaker furniture.

Some of the images evoke 19th-century scenes — women in long dresses, perhaps seafarers’ or soldiers’ wives watching for someone to return. Some include black birds in bare-branched trees. His piece “The Stairway” (1970), rendered in both paint and print, shows a raven-haired girl — his daughter — in profile descending a staircase.

Mr. Barnet met — and influenced — many artists who went on to become better known. Jackson Pollock was a classmate at the Art Students League in New York. Mr. Barnet socialized with Morris Louis. He taught etching to Mark Rothko.

While Mr. Barnet’s reputation fell short of famous friends and students, his work was respected and admired by critics and the art market.

In 1964, Time magazine noted that Mr. Barnet’s “best work on canvas combines subtle coloring, exquisite composition and severe economy of line. There is no contemporary remotely like him.” An article 15 years later in the same publication noted that as a printmaker, “his reputation as a formal virtuoso and innovator is now secure.”

Mr. Barnet was born William Bertram Goldberg on May 25, 1911, in Beverly, Mass. His father, a former member of the czar’s light cavalry who emigrated from Russia after the Russo-Japanese War, worked as a machinist in a factory. His mother, of Czech and Russian extraction, was reclusive and rarely left the house.

In an oral history recorded in 1964, Mr. Barnet said that he had many fights in grade school with children “who were strongly anti-Semitic.” In his 20s, he adopted an anglicized version of his father’s Russian name, variously described as Barentz or Beren.

In an interview last summer, Mr. Barnet said he was given great independence and largely raised himself as the youngest of four siblings. He showed an early talent for drawing.

“By the time I was 12, I had a little studio on my father’s basement,” he recalled. “It had the light coming from the left over my shoulder, like Rembrandt. I used to read books at the library about the famous artists, and Rembrandt was the first one I found.”

As an adolescent, he would take the train to Boston and visit art galleries and the Museum of Fine Arts. (At the latter, he caught a glimpse of John Singer Sargent in 1924, a year before the artist’s death.) He dropped out of high school to attend the museum’s school. While still a teenager, he won a scholarship to attend the Art Students League, an independent school in New York.

His father didn’t object. “He was typical of the parents of that period,” Mr. Barnet said in the oral history. “They were all so ground under by life and hard work that when the children said something to them, I don’t know if they had the energy to reply.”

At the league, Mr. Barnet became a skilled printmaker and earned money printing the work of fellow students. When the federal government hired artists as part of the Works Progress Administration, Mr. Barnet was a supervisor of prints.

Mr. Barnet admired Honore Daumier’s depiction of the French poor. Like many league students of that era, he recorded the Depression’s toll on the poor and unemployed. But he didn’t become a radical or view politics as the reason for art.

In the 1940s, Mr. Barnet’s paintings, many of them images of his young children, showed a cubist influence and often featured garish colors. In 1950, he embarked on a period of pure abstraction, informed by nature and the iconography of North and South American Indians. His best-known pictures, however, are the ethereal domestic scenes that followed.

His first marriage, to artist Mary Sinclair, ended in divorce. In 1953, he married Elena Ciurlys, a dancer.

Besides his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Peter Barnet of Maplewood, N.J., who is an artist and teacher; Richard Barnet of Manhattan, a sculptor and teacher; and Todd Barnet of Manhattan, a law professor. A daughter from his second marriage, Ona Barnet, owns an inn in Phippsburg, Maine, where Mr. Barnet and his wife sojourned in the summer.

Mr. Barnet taught at many art schools and universities over his career, and he was on the Art Students League faculty for 43 years. He was known for his devotion to teaching.

Moser, the Smithsonian curator, recalled visiting him in New York one winter when the painter was in his 90s. As she prepared to leave his apartment, he did too.

“It was a cold winter night, cold and slippery, and I asked why was he going out,” she said. “He said, ‘Well, I have to — it’s an exhibition of one of my former students.’ ”

Most Read Local