Will Barnet was a great American artist, beloved by many and broadly respected by his peers. His work is instantly recognizable and yet uniquely difficult to encapsulate. Many explain the complexity by noting that he worked throughout the most culturally dynamic century in human history, until he was 101 years old. On the day he died in 2012, Barnet worked on a large, ambitious painting of his granddaughter, Ellie, whose own show of paintings opened at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth on July 13.

Looking back, all of Will Barnet’s phases aligned with major moments in American art, but Barnet was always outside of the mainstream. He could reach into the past, and he could push into prescient depths of important developments. At times, he worked against the grain – such as when he would make quiet, flat and reductive narrative paintings while abstraction reigned in the postwar cultural moment. Not only was he working in a different mode, but his approach contained the critical terms applied against, not only abstraction, but notions of narrative work. Maybe that makes the revolutionary New Englander the most American of them all.

Intimate rather than oversized, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art’s “Family Homage” is a deft view of Barnet. The 20 or so works present a man with his priorities intact: his family, his love and his soul-feeding need to paint. We see his threads of engagement with culture and the world of art: style, subjectivity, narrative, abstraction, design intelligence, portraiture, solitude and the socially shared space of art.

“Soft Boiled Eggs,” 1946, oil on canvas, 36 by 42 inches. Photos courtesy of Ogunquit Museum of American Art

A discussion of Barnet as an artist could go in too many directions to list, let alone follow. But his view of the world is now easier for us to see than ever: We can finally digest the idea of the stay-at-home art dad who is in love with his family. Barnet could appear as a harbinger for the digital world: His facility with the brush gets hidden by an image-oriented mode of painting that seemed suited to the print and poster boom of the 1970s. Barnet found – and beautifully rebroadcast – a deep understanding of the Native American art called “formline design” before there was an academic understanding of this powerful and truly American art. Barnet revitalized modernist portraiture with elements of the leading styles of the day (abstraction, puzzle-piece-like interlocking forms, flatness, etc.) to such an extent that it transcended what modernist’s critics could call “modernism.” And, among so many other strands, Barnet’s work offers an expansive understanding of those painfully limited terms: drawing, design and their Italian forebear, “disegno.”

“Self Portrait,” 1944 oil on canvas, 18 by 14 inches.

Disegno can help us understand how we so easily sense the intelligence in Barnet’s distillations. His 1973 “Woman and the Sea,” a series that attained immense popularity, is not simple or cartoonishly easy, despite the reductive visual clarity. We see a woman from behind with her hair up, wearing a long dress, standing on a cottage porch, gazing out towards the sea’s flat blue horizon. The bend in her pose as she leans against a porch post shows calmness and patience. She embodies solitude, but her presence makes us question who we are in this image – the viewer? We are not literally there. We are witnesses by empathy. The solitude is hers. But we all know it as our own.

A few flashes show Barnet’s brilliance with a brush and drawing (such as the warmly wizened face of “Grandmother” or the abrupt smoothness of his 1944 “Self Portrait”), but he puts his facility aside for a slow-cooked experience. While the apparent simplicity of his distilled forms would hint at a speedy cartoonish zoom (think Stuart Davis), Barnet slows the eye by making his lines with the flat edge of his brush, thereby hiding any bolted stroke. And yet his lines couldn’t be straighter when straight or more graceful as they curve.

“Mother and Child,” 1961, oil on canvas, 46 by 39 inches.

Disegno is when design meets drawing through well-considered intelligence. It’s a term that long predates our current consumerist notions of industrial production associated with “design,” or the misguided but too common notion that “drawing” is mere practice, the warm-up for the main act of painting. Disegno was something more, and finding this in Barnet’s work can make you a far better viewer of the art of the old masters, who are Barnet’s true peers, however far removed by time.

Barnet’s 1961 “Mother and Child” is a delicious bit of design: two appealing figures molded into interlocking shapes. But it is so much more. There is content and psychology in the work that reveal the artist’s personal interrogation of his own life priorities: Barnet didn’t need to hide his loving affection behind macho walls, unlike most men then and too many now. While it works as an image, it is a gorgeous painting and needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Compare “Mother and Child” to the formline-style abstraction “Enclosure,” seeded the following year, and you may find extraordinary insights about both. The positive/negative space logic of “Enclosure” reveals the inspiration for the earlier piece, which casts light on the psychological intentions of the later Tlingit-inspired piece. Both exude power well beyond expectation.

Barnet’s sense of spiritual elegance is smartly presented by the 6-foot circular “Hera” of 1980. Hera was the Greek goddess of marriage, the queen of the gods. Classically draped and rendered (like all of the “Woman and the Sea” figures), Hera holds a berry to a raven as dusk descends in a smooth blue sweep of sky past the branches of a silhouetted tree.

I see the seeds of Hera’s tree in “Soft Boiled Eggs” (1946). There, Barnet followed a jauntier, almost crinkly rhythm set up by a scene in which a mother sits among three animated children at a table on which are set five variously hued eggs. It’s joyously playful wit: With the unpredictable colorfulness of children, every day is Easter – that bunny-and-egg-associated springtime ode to lively productivity.

Barnet returns to the season 30 years later with “Early Spring,” featuring 12 of the “Woman and the Sea” figures. It is a book of hours. Solitude is not one moment, but many, which shift, if only slightly, over time.

It is not possible to fully understand the vast, century-long artistic journey of Will Barnet through any 20 works, but “Family Homage” opens doors to lighted paths. Some of the best American artists worked against the obvious grain of the times, blazing trails for the future and deepening our understanding of the past. Barnet was one of them and his work isn’t finished.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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