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.”

This tape-recorded interview took place at Will Barnet’s home
in the National Arts Club in New York City, on October 27, 1983.

Will Barnet (looking at his painting Child’s World): It’s a strange thing, I look at these paintings today and I’m amazed at how I composed them. This sense of relationship which always fascinated me: the idea of the world having a dynamic order. And here’s something (pointing to the painting) that’s almost like a multiple of colors, and yet they work.

Toward the end of the forties everything started to abstract in your paintings.

Child’s World, 1947
(Oil on canvas, 28″ x 32″)
© Will Barnet

Right. But it was still part of the same thing: the family, the kids. Then all of a sudden the fifties hit. Then when the separation came… I was getting more and more abstract… then my world became very personal, sort of inward for a while. I did very inward paintings. That began that whole period of abstraction from 1950 to 1964, about fourteen years of abstraction. Completely abstract. But they really weren’t. They were just figures taken… well take a look at this one (leading me from the library through the living room to the stairwell where Singular Image, woodcut, 1964, is hung). It’s a singular image. It’s myself. It came about through a relationship to my own personal being. When I had it in Rome, a priest came in and wanted it for a church because he thought it was a crucifix.

I remember reading your description of how it came about. You saw a crack in the sidewalk and in that image something that brought to mind “a raw concept of a person who was pressured from all sides by severe subconscious forces.”

That’s right.

And this central image, the thin, jagged vertical and horizontal intersecting, is literally pressured from all sides by the surrounding color rectangles. It’s very interesting to me, because this woodcut was created in 1964, and the painting, Singular Image, in 1959, while during this same period you also did figurative work.

Right. Now take a look at these figurative paintings. At the same time this figurative work came in. They were going along simultaneously. It’s quite extraordinary.

I know. I’m curious about it because in some way the abstract mode must have felt fulfilled and finished.

Yes. Well, I felt I was coming to the end of my abstract period, but I still had something to say that had to do with my western experiences.

Singular Image, 1959
(Oil on canvas, 68 1/2″ x 46″)
© Will Barnet

Is there a way to talk about the feeling of that abstract period coming to an end? Why you turned wholly toward the figurative mode?

I knew that I could no longer, after the sixties, do abstract art. I knew that. I knew I had completely finished it. It was impossible, just impossible. I couldn’t feel it any more. And during the period when I was doing abstract work, I was always trying to figure out how I could once again introduce the human form.


Because I felt that I needed to set down, for myself anyway, a tangible image that would be universal for people to… first for me to express it, and then for others to get some kind of experience from it that would tie up with their own lives. I needed the warmth of human beings too. I couldn’t just do these abstract things any more. Actually my abstract work is warm. It is not cool at all. So I never really changed that much except that I had to have, I had to finally have an image. The figure was something that… the fact that I had a new life, the need to express that new life was so great that it had to be a figure again. There was no other way of doing it, for me anyway.

Well, it’s interesting because your abstractions were always generated by an image. Whereas Mondrian had the pier and he abstracted from the pier, and then the next step was total abstraction. I don’t think you ever went that next step.

I didn’t want to step. It’s like… how can I put it to you… it was like… it was like cooling it. It was like something very cold, like putting it on ice, the next step. It was like death almost to make it, to make that shape alone.

When you were working on the woodcut of Singular Image did you sense that using that medium was in a way related to what the image was about?

I can only explain it in terms of why I took up woodcuts. Maybe that’ll answer it a little bit. This goes back to the thirties, because I took up woodcut early. It won’t answer your question but it will answer some questions related to the medium: why I take up these new mediums, why I took up the medium of woodcut. I was doing a lot of lithographs when I was young. Lithography is using a point, a crayon point. You’re drawing on stone. It lends itself to a certain kind of line and detail. Even in my painting I wasn’t breaking away. So I said — I’ve got to do something. So I began to look over the mediums, and woodcut began to show me that it has broad planes and masses, and you’re cutting out big shapes. I said — this is what I need to fulfill my development as a painter. I wanted my paintings to become bigger and stronger and broader in view. So in that sense a medium was done for aesthetic reason. Now as far as… maybe you’re thinking of spiritual reasons for doing a medium.

I’m thinking of metaphorically. In those abstract pieces such as Singular Image, you had an image that was being pressured and you used a medium that pressured the image into its being.

That’s very possible. I don’t think I could have done Singular Image (other than in painting) any other way but with a woodcut. I think you’re right. I can’t picture it any other way.

There seems to be a consistency across your use of different media. You deal with the canvas with a certain respect; you push the paint back in and take dry brushes to absorb the paint so the linen shows through. Similarly, in woodcut, you respect the natural wood. You use ink in such a way that the wood grain comes through.

That’s right. I’m using the wood like I’m using the canvas almost.

Could you talk about the consistency and what that is — the respect for the medium itself?

Well, I would say so. I think the first thing I try to do in graphic (let’s use the word “graphic,” which means lithography, etching, woodcut and silkscreen) is that I’m going to translate my idea onto paper. I have to think that it’s no longer a painting. It’s now something in another medium and another material, which is paper. So the paper has become more important. And one of the things I try to do in my best work is to make the paper become form and breathe. So the paper is important.

For instance, one of my most important prints of the thirties was Early Morning, 1943. A woman is lying in a bed awakened at a very eerie hour, in a lot of black and white. There I felt I’d made a breakthrough because my white areas became forms, and so I achieved something which I’d been trying for years to get to — that white would become a shape and form against the black. Because before, when you modeled and you did a lot of tones, you could achieve a certain amount of background and foreground weight and so forth by the way you toned and modeled it, which to me was not the right way because that was a past experience. It was a tradition that I wanted to break away from.

…one of the things I try to do in my best work is to make the paper become form and breathe. So the paper is important.

I loved the wood. I worked on this a whole summer. It’s the only thing I did that summer. And I just looked at the wood. And I had no drawing. And the whole thing was created on the block, which is a terrific experience. In a strange way the block became like a family member. It became part of me. The block really became part of me: the wood, the smell of it, everything about it. And so I had a knife and a gouge and a chisel and I spent the whole summer just living with that block until I got this thing realized. It’s really one of the nicest things. As a matter of fact, Paul Sachs, who was famous at one time at Harvard, said it was one of the great prints of the twentieth century.

When I did Singular Image, I had similar feelings. When I did that woodcut I wasn’t painting much at that moment. I had to just work with that block. And so the block became my whole life: cutting it, feeling it. You’re right, it does become in a sense, you might say, part of my family of experience, the block itself. Then when I feel that I’ve done it and I no longer have the same feeling, I’ll change my environment. I move on to something else. But while I’m doing it, it’s real. Also, I never try to repeat it. When I did those early lithographs, I was influenced by Daumier. When I look at them, they’re very good pieces of work. I’m proud of them. Now that’s a fifty year span, sixty year span and I see them objectively, like a stranger maybe had done them, but then I realize the experience I went through when I did them. I believed in it and I gave my life to it. What I’m trying to say is that it isn’t a question of being a painter, it’s a question of experiencing something and then it becomes a painting. But it isn’t a painting until the experience develops over a period of time.

Everybody is using the words “abstraction” and “abstract,” and I’m not sure we all agree on what they mean.

Every great artist is abstract. The fact that he uses an image… the best example is Ingres or Chardin. The way people looked at Ingres, the academicians, the people I studied with; they thought of him as someone who worked with surfaces, made beautiful surfaces, textures. And he did. He caught the high bourgeois development in the French social setup. But beneath it he was probably one of the most abstract artists of the period, much more abstract than Delacroix or any of those. He was considered old-fashioned at that time, but later on he had a greater influence on Picasso and all the modern painters, more than anyone else. What happened with Ingres was that he understood that the figure had to be carried way beyond its immediate reality. For instance, he did that famous figure of the man at the Metropolitan Museum, the man with his hands on his knees, and you can see through all the drawings how he struggled to express that man.

…it’s the forces of nature retranslated into the forces of painting. It’s painting the natural aspect of reality and finding a way of saying it in the language that’s proper for painting — the use of the vertical and the horizontal — which is what I call the anguish of painting.

First he had him leaning on a pedestal and other things, and he felt very dissatisfied. But when he was able to get that tremendous sense of that body sitting in that chair, sagging down with the hands pressing on the knees, you begin to get the intensity of that personality, the physical power, the mental power, the concentration on that man. So Ingres was able to go beyond the hundreds of sketches to the point where he made this figure represent the total aspect of the man’s life as well as Ingres’ life as a painter. You begin to say the painting is like a Mondrian in the sense that it’s broken up into a series of horizontal expansions that only Ingres understood.

It’s like the Odalisque that he did when he was young, how he stretched out that woman. She has about 1,500 vertebrae in the back. He pulled it and pulled it until it became a tremendous mass that stretched out, and he was able to create other masses that countered it, moved in and compressed it so that it wouldn’t just simply slip out of the picture. He contained it. So those forces that I speak of, the horizontal and vertical anguish, have to do with the way I think of painting being abstract. In other words, it’s the forces of nature retranslated into the forces of painting. It’s painting the natural aspect of reality and finding a way of saying it in the language that’s proper for painting — the use of the vertical and the horizontal — which is what I call the anguish of painting. It’s a struggle all the time. No matter what painting I touch. It’s how how do I make this thing work?

I was looking at your latest paintings at Kennedy Gallery. The colors that are balanced in Child’s World, by being contained in forms, are now balanced (without any forms) as minute and intricate oppositions in space. In a way, this is another kind of tension or dialogue related to the horizontal and vertical tension: another retranslation.

That’s right, retranslation. The word “abstract,” you can’t isolate it. For instance in my case, the masters that I enjoy, there’s always that tremendous content that I believe in. There’s that content always being subjected to the concept of language itself. The language and the content have to go together all the time, as it’s impossible to really understand painting unless it has those two elements at work. Because if it’s just pure abstraction… I suppose it has its possibilities, and I think some painting in that direction is very beautiful and very good. I can only say this is more personal.

The word “content” too may be a problem. In a later painting like Early Morning (1972), maybe a quarter of the canvas is objects: a standing woman silhouetted in the right angles of a porch. The rest is the space she looks out on, space with a single horizon line: space cut into by the diagonals, verticals and horizontals of the porch. But most of the content is in the space, the space in relation to the shapes. There seems to be more space in the later paintings.

Early Morning, 1972
(Oil on canvas, 57 3/4″ x 57 1/2″)
© Will Barnet

Yes, definitely, the space is much more enormous, yes.

And it seems a natural extension of your early discovery in Early Morning (1943), the first breakthrough that you spoke of where negative space became positive. It became an element of the tension.

From the time I became aware of these problems, which was early in the thirties, I had premonitions of how to do this. That’s when my thinking became more abstract. In other words, here is a piece of air that I want to make into a piece of form. That’s the whole idea. So that those women, the woman standing there, the lone woman in the space between sky and water, are not just… It’s not just sky and water, but they’re actual structures that have been related in such a way that you feel they have form, they’re full. In the Rembrandt portraits, the backgrounds are so powerful that these big heavy forms of these bourgeois Dutch people (usually they were fat)… that the weight of the background was balanced with the weight of the figure. That’s what I mean by abstraction: to be able to see the two, the world outside the figure, and the world within the figure. To put the two together.

You used the word “translate” and the word “nature.” So that abstraction means taking what is significant to you and translating it into the language of painting.

Yes. It’s gone through metamorphosis, a whole metamorphosis.

The Abstract Expressionists were getting into the spotlight while you were going along in this vein. Were you impressed by them?

No. I had no response.

It didn’t get suffused by your art… what they did in no way diluted what your intentions were?

I never was influenced by a contemporary artist. Never. I was always influenced by the past. Always. It’s like growing up… if you’re Catholic, you grow up with a great belief in something. I grew up with a great belief in these masters and they were my soul.

What should art education be?

If the student really wants to learn something about power, you go back and study the Mesopotamians. There you understand what power’s all about because they had power. To me, the great artists are the ones you can be nourished from.

Would you also teach drawing?

Academic drawing? Oh no, that’s the wrong thing to do. That’s the reason I became a teacher. I said, “No academic drawing!” When I was a young student at the Boston Museum School, I used to tell my fellow students, “Don’t study Michelangelo. He’s the end of a period. He’s decadent. He’s a great artist, one of the greatest that ever lived, but you won’t learn anything from him except he’ll give you hell and destroy you. Go to Giotto. And don’t even go to Giotto. Go back before Giotto. Just keep going back, back and that way you get the very essence of the beginnings. And that way you grow.” So that was my method of teaching. In my classes, we went all the way back and then we went forward. So we kept moving between today and yesterday. That’s what I consider an important part of art education.

Will Barnet: A Sketchbook

Will Barnet: A Sketchbook,

BY Will Barnet
(George Braziller, 2009)

Painting Without Illusion

Will Barnet: Painting
Without Illusion

BY Patrick J. McGrady
(Penn State Press, 2003)

Will Barnet: A Timeless World
EDITED BY Gail Stavitsky
(Rutgers University Press, 2000)

If you were to have a retrospective, what would you show?

I would want to show everything, and that it was, for that period, a true expression of myself, what I felt deeply about.

Are a lot of modern artists going to vanish from art history?

They’re going to be reevaluated.

When you talk about art history and what survives, why does what remains remain? Have the values changed?

The underlying values in art have never changed. Because to be a fine artist, to be an artist worthy of lasting, first he has to have an identity. I mean, you know it’s Juan Gris. Or you know it’s Picasso. He has an identity. Identity is what I call being avant-garde. It’s very fresh. It’s a new experience, a new personality. It’s a new person. It’s a new painting. It can have old values, but it’s new. You look at the painting and you feel that person. Cézanne has a body of work. In each period of his life, there was an intensity and a struggle going on, a searching. There’s powerful emotion there. Later on, he refined that emotion. But when you look at the whole body of work, it’s the same guy going through the whole thing.

Why did it take you nine years to paint Memoir (1970-79)?

Memoir is a portrait of my wife originally in a closed room with a mask on the wall, which is a death mask of her father. But then the painting was not satisfying and it remained that way for eight years, or nine years. I picked it up nine years later and saw the solution: that the mask can no longer be there, and that for the memory to be completed I had to open up the windows and show the town that she came from. So the windows make the painting breathe. It gave you a space out and a space in. It made the room much more exciting because before that it was just closed up.

Can anyone relate to art? Does art relate something we all share?

Oh yes. They might not understand the finer points, why should they? If I read a great novel, or listen to a great symphony, I don’t know all that goes into it. But I certainly want to hear it over and over. It means a lot to me in my life. So a picture is the same way. It has that gut reaction. It has that emotional response. If I listen to a Beethoven, it means something special to me. Or if I listen to a more lyrical composer, it means something. I’m not a musician, but I really appreciate good music. I really can. I can appreciate good literature too, read a good book. I think there are some people who don’t know what goes into a work of art, but can appreciate it. And can distinguish too. It’s a taste. Why was I able to have an early taste for Baroque music? I wasn’t raised that way. They played nothing but sentimental junk when I was a kid. Yet when I grew older, the first thing that appealed to me was Baroque music. It’s identity. Aesthetics. It’s there. It’s within you and you don’t have to know everything about it in order to have a reaction to it. And I think that’s what happens a lot of times when people go to the Met. They look at a good Manet and they get a response. They don’t know how he painted that picture. But it’s there and they know it’s good. And they don’t have to have any museum person tell them. But as long as they can have that response.

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