Will Barnet’s Love
Will Barnet (1911 - 2012), Paul Feeley (1910 - 1966), and Myron Stout (1908 -
1987) were all born around the same time as Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956) and
technically belong to the same generation. Although not often linked together,
Barnet, Feeley, and Stout eschewed the painterly bravura and display of raw
emotion associated with the gestural branch of Abstract Expressionism, while
simultaneously rejecting the strict geometries favored by artists such as Ad
Reinhardt (1913 – 1967) and Agnes Martin (1912 – 2004). Rather, in their
relentless pursuit of pure, often rounded form, they focused on shapes, lines, and
edges – formal issues not divorced from feeling in service of the imagination.
Theirs was an art of distillation. It may have been cool, but it was not cold. And
of these three singular figures, Barnet’s work was clearly the warmest of all.
Barnet’s synthesis of humanist warmth and precise form attains its clearest
expression in the figural paintings he did from the mid-1960s until just before
the end of his life, when he returned to abstraction. His oscillations between
abstraction and figuration resist the idea of progress that bedeviled the art
world for many years, and to some extent still does, in ways that seem
increasingly important. Rather than subscribe to the commonly held model of
historical progression — away from traditional representation and, eventually,
the material object itself — Barnet moved smoothly between abstraction and
figuration, and, at times, explored both possibilities concurrently. Without
ever announcing it, he was passionately committed to the idea of artistic
freedom. Because of this, Barnet never conformed to the accepted wisdom,
which is one of his key strengths.
It is not an exaggeration to state that Barnet’s paintings of his second wife, Elena
– Double Portrait of Elena (1980s), Elena (1981), and Now and Then (1989) –
constitute one of the high points of American art in the 1980s, a decade when
slathered paint and showmanship had become the rage. Barnet’s portraits instead
embody a quiet rebuke to excess and hyperbole. Working with flat shapes and a
palette of muted colors, he was able to convey a most unlikely subject: the
pleasure two people take in one another’s company. Elena is looking at Barnet,
who is looking at her while painting her portrait. You don’t have to hear what
they are saying to know they are in communication: it’s evident in the pose and
animated expression, most particularly the eyes.
Together with the earlier Portrait of Elena (1955) and such later works as Three
Generations (1990) and The Cigar (1989-1990), which includes a self-portrait,
these paintings of Barnet’s wife, culminating in Anticipation II (2005), done
while the artist was in his mid-90s, embrace the passing of time with an intensity
of love and tenderness rarely seen in contemporary art. In Anticipation II, which
shows Elena mostly cropped by a blue front door that is either being closed or
opened, the ambiguity of the situation reaches a poignant pitch. Is she closing the
door as he leaves or is she opening it as he arrives? Is he greeting her or bidding
farewell, perhaps forever? The partially opened door, contrary to the rules of
perspective, remains a flat rectangle synonymous with the picture plane, adding a
note of claustrophobia as it presses Elena into a narrow, shallow space. Her
wrist, meanwhile, resting elegantly on the doorknob, conveys a pause in time that
is painfully sweet. Her single visible eye underscores the moment.
An ordinary, oft repeated moment of domestic life here becomes far more than
the sum of its visual parts – something only the very best artists can achieve.
Surely the muted bluish-grays of the doorjamb and walls — the colors of a marble
tomb — are meant to infuse the scene with intimations of mortality. And yet the
calmness with which Barnet ponders each detail, as he merges Elena’s
complexion with the pallor of her dress, is nothing less than a visionary
acceptance of one’s transience and finality. Who is saying goodbye? Who is going
gently into the night? What strikes me each I time I look at Anticipation II is the
complete absence of morbidity and melancholy. It’s what I find so moving about
In Double Portrait of Elena, Barnet depicts his wife both frontally and in profile,
courtesy of the full-length mirror beside her. Seated in a black armchair, she is
wearing a creamy-white dress with a white shawl casually draped over her bare
shoulders. Both views evoke Renaissance portraits, yet Elena, who is elegant,
stately, and utterly calm, is every bit a modern woman, assured and selfcontained.
Everything about the painting is measured and particular, down to the
curve of the shawl wrapped around her right shoulder, and the way her hands
touch each other.
The palette Barnet uses in Double Portrait of Elena can be divided into light
(tints of pale yellow and sandy white) and dark (browns, blacks, and charcoal
grays). The one exception – the zinger really – is the blue of Elena’s eyes, and
the effect is mesmerizing. In Elena of 1981, she is sitting in nearly the exact same
pose as in Double Portrait of Elena. The palette has been reduced to grays and
blacks and warm whites. While the charcoal gray shawl and the spaghetti straps
of her black dress add a formal air to the painting, Elena’s pose – the slight tilt of
her head and the angle of the bare right shoulder, which pushes closer to the
picture plane than the shawl-covered left shoulder – offsets the implied
properness. The nuances elevate the painting into a domain all its own, one that
invites closer scrutiny and further interpretation.
With Three Generations, it takes a moment to sort out the scene – a pause that
pulls us further into the painting. A woman, seen in a left-facing profile, is seated
in the painting’s lower right-hand corner. She is reading a red book. Standing
directly behind her is a young woman, also in profile and facing left. She is
holding a sleeping baby against her shoulder. Each woman inhabits her own
interior world, which is accentuated by the sleeping baby.
A large portrait of a mother and daughter hangs on the wall to the left of this
grouping. The figures in the painting-within-the-painting are seated on a couch
looking toward the viewer. The mother, on the far left, drapes her arm along the
top of the couch, forming a roof over the daughter seated beneath. The arm is too
long, which adds to the drama of the scene. The image is a cropped view of an
earlier depiction of the two women we see in profile on the canvas's far right.
Barnet imbues Three Generations with an air of domestic tranquility. The two
people looking back at us inhabit a painting the artist did many years ago. He is
simultaneously looking at the past, present, and unknowable future, if we take
the sleeping baby as a visual clue. Barnet seems unperturbed that time’s winged
chariot is hurrying near.
The contemplation of time passing is central to Now and Then (1989), which
contains three views of Elena. The seemingly monumental version of Portrait of
Elena (1955) is mounted on the wall behind her, as she holds a portrait (or is it a
photograph?) of a young woman touching her hair, her head tilted slightly. The
rectangular frame in her hands and the large, squarish portrait behind her echo
the square cut of her neckline. The bluish-gray neckline, which resembles a
picture frame, helps ease the transition from the grays of the small rectangle near
the picture plane to those of the large squarish portrait in the shallow space
behind Elena’s head.
Barnet’s deep sense of form and placement – which derived from his close study
of the art of the Renaissance and antiquity, along with folk art and Native
American art, particularly of the Northwest – is unrivaled. In these paintings, the
use of muted colors, accompanied by a predilection for grayish blues, dark
browns, grays, and blacks, is pure Barnet, establishing a tone both celebratory
and somber. Every inch of his surfaces is marked by tenderness and a love of