Will Barnet was the elder statesman of our New York art world.
Born in 1911, his life and work included and was framed by the major art movements of the last 100 years.
As a child in Beverly, Massachusetts, he spent long hours in the public library studying their collection of art books on Rembrandt, Daumier, and other old masters.
A little later he went on to Boston to study at the Museum School with Philip Hale. Philip Hale had studied with somebody who studied with somebody who had studied with somebody who had studied with Ingres. During that time in Boston, Will observed John Singer Sargent painting the murals in the Boston Public Library. Then, as he said, “I had the good luck of leaving Boston at the early age of 19 or 20 to come to New York in 1930, after the great stock market crash of ’29.” He had received a scholarship to the Art Students League, rented himself a room for $1 a night, and ate at the Automat.
Motivated by the enthusiasm and excitement around printmaking in the ’30s and his love of graphic works of Daumier and Rembrandt, he took up printmaking, largely self-taught.
The ’30s were an era in American Art of strongly representational work depicting the crisis of lost jobs, breadlines, and suffering families. Will was part of that art movement. He was a Social Realist, roaming the city and sketching people in the streets or couples relaxing on the grass in Central Park.
Four years after his arrival at the Art Students League, he was appointed their official printer and went on to participate in the W.P.A. Federal Art Project working in the graphic arts.
In his capacity of official printer at the League he made prints for José Clemente Orozco, the Mexican muralist, and for the political cartoonist William Gropper, among others.
Robert Blackburn came to the Art Students League in 1941 and began working with Will there. Later, together, they set up the Printmaking Workshop, which Bob ran throughout his life and which continues as an important resource for printmakers in New York City.
Will’s first solo exhibition was at the Eighth Street Playhouse in 1935, his second at the Hudson Walker Gallery in 1938. In 1939 his work was included at the New York World’s Fair in an exhibit entitled “American Art Today.” The 1940s introduced a new dynamic into the New York art world.
There was the migration of many prominent European artists to New York for the duration of the war.
The Surrealists came and brought their ideas and gained a few American adherents. The ensuing dialogue and ideologized conflicts produced clarity of motive and pushed forward the development of separate groups with their memberships and clubs.
The American Abstract Artists and the Abstract Expressionists emerged as groups at that time.
Will Barnet and Steve Wheeler were founding members of a group called the Indian Space Painters. The group formed around an interest in the form line painting and painted sculpture of the Northwest Coast Indians. They incorporated the iconography, strong shapes, and vibrant color of that culture into their paintings. The group exhibited together as a group in the ’40s and ’50s.
Returning to the depiction of the figure in the 1960s, Will developed the works with which he is perhaps more frequently identified.
Inspired by the painters of the early Renaissance and looking closely at Japanese prints, he produced a number of precisely contoured portraits of the architect Frederick Kiesler, art critic Katharine Kuh, art collector Roy Neuberger, and others.
Elena and Ona, his wife and daughter, became favorite subjects as well as cats and blackbirds that have appeared and reappeared in his work throughout the years.
In the early 2000s at the age of 89, he became re-engaged with abstraction and exhibited those works most recently at Alexandre Gallery.
Will was a dedicated teacher and one feels that three quarters of American artists of a certain age first met him in that capacity and went on to enjoy his friendship over the years.
In 1998 he oversaw the Centennial Print Portfolio, an edition of 50 prints by members of the Academy. He was honored most recently by receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2011 from President Obama.