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Will Barnet Nears 100—His Centennial Exhibit at MAM is Timeless

Ten of Barnet’s current paintings on view in the perfect setting

Revered artist Will Barnet, who turns 100 on May 25, was seeing for the first time the installation of 10 of his most recent paintings at the Montclair Art Museum’s (MAM) Shelby Family Gallery: “I’m fascinated by my work up there,” Barnet said, gazing at his “The Eye.” The 2010 oil on canvas is hung above the room’s fireplace. “It looks different than from down below," he said.

Barnet has been looking at art from down below since a fall two years ago that put him in a wheel chair; he uses a rolling chair when painting.

Men may be subject to mortal ills, but art is not and Barnet’s profound vision is timeless.

His work continues to evolve and inspire, as witnessed by the hushed art world observers in the gallery this past March 5. The occasion was a member’s reception for MAM’s three most current exhibits: “Will Barnet: Centennial Celebration,” “Robert Mapplethorpe Flowers: Selections from the JP Morgan Chase Art Collection,” (see ), and “Warhol and Cars: Americans Icons.” (See .) The Barnet and Mapplethorpe exhibits run through July 17, Warhol to June 19.

MAM chief curator Gail Stavitsky had just introduced Barnet with these words, “It is filling my heart with joy to see you in the room with your works.”

Stavitsky and Barnet have a long and close professional relation. She organized his first traveling exhibit in 2000—from MAM to Florida, Maine and Arkansas—writing her excellent “Will Barnet: A Timeless World,” that same year. “Gail has been one of my biggest supporters. You were so wonderful,” Barnet said, addressing Stavitsky—“It was a great retrospective and you wrote one of the best—one of the most movin—catalogues I have. You have a better vision of my works than so many others.”

(Note, if you can get a hold of Stavitsky’s 2000 “Will Barnet: A Timeless World,” read it now.)

Stavitsky also brought to MAM a memorable 2007 exhibit of Barnet’s then recent works. Plus, I was lucky to be part of a standing room only audience at the 2003 MAM Babson lecture when Barnet spoke at length about his art and to have interviewed Barnet this past fall. (See.) 

Returning to “Will Barnet: Centennial Celebration,” Stavitsky said, “We realized you were so productive, it was time for a new show.”

It is time for everyone to experience this artist and the works in this current exhibit.

To borrow from Stavitsky’s March 5 remarks, the exhibit will fill your heart with joy—joy for its sheer beauty and mastery of the pictorial plane. Barnet has created a moving, personal vocabulary of abstracted figurative forms using a nuanced palette.

While his titles come afterwards, many speak to communication as in “The Voice,” “Dialogue" and “The Reach": These works reach deep into both your heart and mind and don’t let go.

Many find the spiritual in religion, other in nature, others in art and the creative act. The Shelby Family Gallery affords the rare museum experience where you can sit quietly, contemplate the works of a true master and find the spiritual.

The Montclair Art Museum also allows you to wander into the nearby Native American Gallery and see art that inspired Barnet and the other Indian Space painters to integrate “organic and geometric pictographic forms within a flat seamless space.” (From Stavitsky in her 2000 writings). Barnet’s Indian Space works of the1950s are the spiritual and formal antecedents of the current Barnet paintings.

As to Barnet, he remains devoted to his wife Elena-- the unnamed subject of his famed “Woman Reading” (1965) and its oft reproduced print--, his family and his love of nature and natural creatures. Both Elena and son Peter, also an artist and long time professor of painting at Montclair State University, were at the museum on March 5.

Barnet was a famously giving teacher, master printer and important presence in the 20th Century New York City and national art world. He kept true to his artistic vision during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and always had close professional associations and friendships with other artists.

Barnet said a few words about his life in art and closed with these self revealing words about Mapplethorpe and Warhol “They are artists so different from where I come from, but it’s nice to be in company--I was always sharing and showing with other artists,” Barnet said. ”I get along with so many artists whose work is different from my own, as long as their vision is consistent and they are true to it.”

“Will Barnet: Centennial Celebration runs through July 17. The MAM is open Wednesdays through Sundays. See www.montclairartmuseum.org or call (973) 746-5555. It is located at 3 South Mountain Ave., is handicapped accessible, and has adjacent parking. Nonmember admission is $12; $10 for seniors 65+ free for children under 12 and for all the first Friday of every month.

What are your thoughts about this exhibit? 

Carol Selman July 29, 2011 at 01:20 PM
This sublime exhibit has been extended through Aug. 21 and the show on engaging nature through Aug. 7. The perfect summer afternoon.

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