Almost one year ago to the day, I included in my October 24th blog POTPOURRI III mention of meeting one of America's foremost artists, Will Barnet, at a screening of a documentary film on his life in New York the previous week. That opportunity was a direct result of going to Maine two months prior and reconnecting with a dear high school friend who lives there (re: my RECONNECTIONS blog of August 29, 2010) and who, along with her husband, was involved with the production of that film. Unbeknownst to me at the time, those two events helped plant the seeds for what has now blossomed into the current spectacular showing of a collection of Will Barnet's drawings at the Arkansas Arts Center which are on exhibit from now until January 15, 2012.
For those like me who until last year were unfamiliar with Will Barnet, allow me to briefly acquaint you with this most remarkable man. Born 100 years ago in Beverly, Massachusetts on May 25, 1911, where he began painting self-portraits in the basement of his parents' home, he then progressed to formally studying art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in his teens during which time he added seascapes and family cats to his portfolio. In 1931 he left for New York and began his 50 year association with the very Art Students League where I was privileged to see the documentary film mentioned above, as well as meet his lovely wife of 59 years, Elena. As revealed in Robin Finn's article in the New York Times last October, the city became his muse where he began "sketching the forlorn and angry faces he saw on every corner" developing his style of "stark, brooding social realism". At the same time he focused on and mastered print techniques at the Art Students League where he taught Mark Rothko in that process. In addition he has taught at Cornell University, Cooper Union, Yale University, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Montclair State University in New Jersey where he was a visiting art professor from 1940 to 1945, and where his son, Peter, has taught art for forty years. His body of work has been featured over the years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Whitney Museum of American Art, so the Arkansas Arts Center is in very good company.
Over the last eight decades he has constantly elected to travel the road less traveled artistically by opting to pursue that which was neither popular nor easy. As noted in Finn's NYT article, his work "morphed from social realism to a nuanced abstraction that used flat planes of color to convey emotion and depth". A clear example of this unusual technique is demonstrated in the lithograph "WAITING" depicting a group of women forlornly awaiting the return of their husbands from the sea, a recurring theme of Mr. Barnet's, which you can see at the Arts Center alongside his prototype pencil drawing of that very scene. In fact color is so important to him in his paintings that he has been known to experiment for months if not years trying to blend the precise shade and hue of a particular color to achieve those artistic dimensions. He also prides himself in saying that "I love moving on and finding fresh ways to use color and form. That's been my excitement".
Even though as a centenarian he still continues to engage in his passion of art by spending three to four hours a day creating it, albeit from a wheelchair, he is not oblivious to his mortality, as related in a story he told for the same NYT article about his grandfather's impending death at the age of 96. At the age of six, Will was taken to say goodbye to his grandfather who said to him at that time: "Do you think it's easy to die at the age of 96?" Consequently, we in Central Arkansas are truly blessed to have this marvelous 85-piece collection of Will Barnet drawings at our doorstep which are beautifully arranged chronologically from 1928 to 1990 to show the evolution of the style and content of a truly amazing artisan who refuses to quit. To get a glimpse of his remarkable range and talent please visit the Arkansas Arts Center between now and January 15, 2012. You will not be disappointed.
As a late PS, there is a featured article on Will Barnet in the Arts and Leisure section of today's New York Times, so our exhibition here in Little Rock is very timely.