The World Outside the Figure, the World Within the Figure: Painter Will Barnet

Portrait of Will Barnet by Anne Sager
© Anne Sager

On a bright fall afternoon in 2010, Will Barnet, ninety-nine, welcomes me into his National Arts Club apartment, as he did for our first interview in 1983. I had filed away the many artist interviews I did back then, but this summer, after attending his latest show at the Alexandre Gallery, I mailed it to him. He wrote back “…it is indeed one of the finest interviews I have ever given.”

We sit at a long table in the center of this huge rectangular room. On the wall behind him is a tall vertical painting of his daughter Ona holding her young son up on ice skates. To the right, in a large circular painting, a black-gowned woman, his wife Elena, faces a winter-bare tree possessed by crows. Each painting, though realistic, recalls and predicts his abstract phases. Behind me, a white-faced blue-eyed mask hangs below a balcony stacked with paintings. At the far end of the room, the sun comes in a windowed wall framing blue sky cut by a low building across Gramercy Park.

As we lift our water-filled glasses, he toasts “…the new season.” He means his upcoming retrospectives. Two, at the Art Students League and the Montclair Art Museum, are imminent.

His eyes are gray-blue and as he speaks, I remember this openness and generosity. His pale, blue-veined, long-fingered hands dance apart, then return to each other each time he concludes a thought. He points to his recent abstract painting on the wall. It has, he says, “A light… penetrating the walls we are living in…”

Our 1983 interview returned me to the Metropolitan Museum to ponder an Ingres portrait he had discussed. In the 1980s, as a beginning writer, I interviewed artists because their words gave me insight into the visual, the way words can decipher meaning in a dream. So when Will Barnet told me, “I had to just work with that (wood) block,” I was beginning to understand how the process of art works, unblocking blocks. He was blocked. He was creating Singular Image (a powerfully expressive woodcut and painting, an abstract self-image “pressured from all sides”) by incising the block.

He told me that an early “achievement” of his was to give background and foreground “equivalent weight.” And how Memoir, a portrait of his wife in “a closed room with a mask on the wall,” lay dormant for nine years until he removed the mask. “For the memory to be completed, I had to open up the windows and show the town that she came from.” This echoed what other artists had implied in interview and what I saw in their work. That the process of art is a process of opening to the self, the background, the past: to memory.

In Barnet’s body of work, I saw something else I had seen in other bodies of work: repeats of images, as if each artist has an indigenous language. Louise Bourgeois told me that the final sculpture in her MoMA show in 1982 unconsciously reproduced her first drawing. Since Barnet’s early work, variations on a “C” shape recur.

Like other artists I interviewed, his “personal” language relates to primitive art. The “C” is a shape on a prehistoric Hopi Indian bowl, and twenty-seven years later I am still trying to find out why: why art lasts… why in the interview he kept repeating “identity” …what is human and common… why many of these artists repeated various combinations of two words, “body” and “mind,” whose conflict and compromise I was sure I saw in their processes, and that the process mapped a return — in a honed personal language — to primal consciousness.

I have returned twenty-seven years later to the same apartment, the same gray-blue eyes, the same passionate spirit steeped in art history. And during the second interview I will ask about this repeating “C” and its reference to the primitive, as if that will answer all my questions.

“Primitive… is not primitive… just early…” he will say. “In time people know too much but it doesn’t seem to mean much.”

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