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Thursday, September 8th, 2011

“He Still Draws Beautifully and Paints Every Day”: Will Barnet at 100

On the eve of the Will Barnet retrospective at the National Academy, a doubly anticipated event as it also marks the reopening of that institution after a year-long renovation,  two of the artist’s sons share reminiscences from their childhood in touching interviews with Roslyn Bernstein.  Will Barnet at 100 opens at the National Academy Museum September 16

Will Barnet, The Blue Robe, 1962. Oil on canvas, 50 x 54 inches. Private Collection, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York
Will Barnet, The Blue Robe, 1962. Oil on canvas, 50 x 54 inches. Private Collection, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York

Will Barnet married the artist Mary Sinclair in 1934. They had three sons, Peter, Richard, and Todd. The boys spent a great deal of time with their father, creating art on the living room rug or the studio floor. “Will was there to set an excellent example for us three boys growing up,” says his son Todd, now a lawyer and a law professor at Pace University. At the age of eight at Robert Blackburn printmaking workshop, Todd recalls creating an original art print of his own, with his father providing guidance and direction in the joint project. One of Todd’s fondest childhood memories is of his dad pushing him around in a wheel barrow.

His brother Peter, a painter and professor of fine arts at Montclair State, has vivid memories of their earliest home, a two-bedroom apartment at 106th Street and Manhattan Avenue, near the top of Central Park. It was a cramped place with one bedroom for the three boys and the second bedroom used as Will’s studio. Their parents slept on a pullout bed in the living room.  The big rug in the living room was where we played. Peter, the oldest at 72, Richard (head of the art department at the College of Mount Saint Vincent and a teacher at The Art Students League) who is 70, and Todd, now 68, would watch Will create his art. “Will painted in front of us,” Peter explains. “He got right down on the floor. In the 1980s, many of Will’s paintings were done from a child’s eyes point-of-view.

Will and Todd Barnet. Photo by Alfred Gescheidt
Will and Todd Barnet. Photo by Alfred Gescheidt

Since Will did not have a tenured teaching job, he pasted together different jobs. In the late 1940s, he worked at Cooper Union and he always worked at the Art Students League where he moved from assistant printer to printer. He learned printing because it was a way to make a living, Peter says. Printing meant stability.

Will was quiet but very social. Peter remembers visits from Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Stuart Davis (who had been Will’s teacher), Romare Bearden, and Bob Blackburn, a good friend. We often would go to Bob Blackburn’s studio or the Art Students League and watch Will. We would go to the Thalia Theater on 95th Street and Broadway where Will’s favorite movie was Children of Paradise. We loved Jacques Tati and we saw Alexander Nevsky and other Eisenstein movies. This, of course, was before television so movies were magical to us.” Will also took the boys to the American Museum of Natural History because he was very interested in Indians of the Northwest. Many of his late 1940s and ‘50s Indian Space paintings reflected this passion.

When the boys were older, in 1950s  Provincetown, Will was friendly with the Abstract Expressionists. “There was lots of womanizing in those days but,” says Peter, “Will would be listening to Vivaldi and keeping his own counsel.”

It was a very close family with the boys calling their parents Will and Mary and only occasionally Mom and Dad. Will worked all the time, whether at teaching or at his art work and his work ethic was apparent to his sons. “While talking on the phone, he would always be drawing,” says Peter, who has a whole envelope full of these signed drawings.

Peter attributes his father’s work ethic to what Will observed as a child since his father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, worked for 55 years from 6 AM in the morning till the evening at the United Shoe Factory in Beverly, Mass. Although Will definitely did not want that way of life, he clearly imbibed the work ethic. “He believed in working and working hard,” Peter says.

After his divorce in the mid-1950s, Will married his second wife Elena, a dancer from Lithuania. They have one daughter, Ona Barnet. “We are friendly,” Peter says of the two families.

Peter is particularly passionate when he talks of his father’s philosophy of life. “Will never talked about investments, the stock market, or his mortgage. Even now, in his old age, he talks about the interactions of pigeons and squirrels and the light on buildings. He had a great capacity of being in the moment. Maybe that is the secret to his longevity,” Peter says. “Even today, the first thing he will talk about is the weather.”

“I once asked him if he believed in God,” Peter said, and Will replied that he only believed in nature. He told me that had he not become an artist, he would have become a gardener.

These days, Peter takes Will out every Sunday, in his wheelchair, because Will’s knees are bad. They often go to the Met where the teacher in Will comes out. “We keep meeting people there who say, ‘Oh Will, I studied with you 40 years ago.” Two years ago, at the Vermeer exhibit, we ran into Chuck Close. It was a moment,” Peter smiles, the two of them in their wheelchairs. “Chuck said Will and Will said Chuck!”

“His mind is good. He is totally articulate. His eyes are good. His hands have no tremors and he still draws beautifully and paints every day.”

Will Barnet at 100. National Academy Museum, 1089 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. September 16 – December 31, 2011

Will Barnet, Male and Female, 1954. Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches.  Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
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