November 14, 2012

Will Barnet, legendary artist with strong Maine ties, dies at 101

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Will Barnet talks about his art in 2006 prior to a reception at Tom Veilleux Gallery at 75 Market St where some of his work is being featured.

Staff Photo by Gordon Chibroski

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Will Barnet, The Blue Robe, 1971, etching and aquatint on Arches cover paper, 23 5/16" x 29 7/8"

Photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

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Employing flat planes of color, he painted stark, dramatic images, often using family members and pets as models.

As a realist, he railed against abstraction during the height of its popularity. He eventually incorporated abstract images in his work, and moved easily back and forth.

He also was a gifted printmaker, and taught at the Art Students League in New York for many years, and at Cooper Union, Yale University and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

His connection with Maine emerged when he and his family began summering at Chamberlain. Barnet said Maine's rocky coastline, tall pine trees and "vast luminous sky and ocean" sparked his visual imagination.

He said his first inspiration for painting in Maine came when he caught a glimpse of his wife standing alone on their porch at dusk, her figure silhouetted against the sea. He called it "a moment to remember. I made a sketch of the scene and began a series of paintings of women and the sea."

Barnet was linked to many of the greatest painters of the 20th century. As a young man, he showed his paintings alongside Marsden Hartley and was a contemporary with Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns, said Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire.

Bessire called Barnet "one of the most amazing artists to live and work in America -- an artist's artist and an artist of the people. (It is) hard to imagine the art world continuing without having access to Will's engagement with every major artist and trend since 1940."

Barnet was eager to share his knowledge. He regularly hosted guests in Phippsburg, and he opened his New York studio to anyone who cared enough to ask. For his 100th birthday last year, he participated in a question-and-answer session at the Portland Museum of Art.

Barnet remained mentally sharp, and never stopped learning or talking about art, said Goldberg.

Just 10 days ago, when Barnet was forced out of his duplex by the power outage, Goldberg took his friend to The Frick Collection in New York. Although Barnet had visited the Frick hundreds of times over the years, Goldberg said he treated his final visit as if it were his first.

"He was an empty sponge that was ready to absorb everything the work had to give," Goldberg said. "We were looking at a Van Gogh painting on loan, and he just couldn't stop looking at it. Every couple of paintings, he would stop and look for 10 minutes, 20 minutes. 'Look at that color,' he said. His reaction was visceral. No matter how old, when the eyes can see, just the energy that is conveyed through art is timeless."

In Portland, Aucocisco Galleries' owner Andres Verzosa showed several Barnet drawings this summer in tandem with Barnet's granddaughter, the painter Ellie Barnet, who lives in Portland.

Barnet and his family showed up for a First Friday Art Walk event, happily greeting visitors. Verzosa was impressed that an artist of Barnet's stature would attend the art walk and engage so many well-wishers. More often, famous artists arrange private viewings or visit during quiet times.

"Can you imagine? Oftentimes, you just know about well-known artists through their work or through an exhibition or books or articles. Rarely do you get a chance to meet them," Verzosa said.

Ona Barnet said the family will have a private funeral this week. A larger memorial will be planned for a later date.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Barnet is survived by three sons, Peter, Richard and Todd.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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Additional Photos

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Will Barnet, "1823," from 2008, oil on canvas.

Photo courtesy Colby College Museum of Art

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Will Barnet's "Between Life and Life," a 1998 lithograph for the Print club of New York.

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Will Barnet's 1985 oil painting “Winter Sky” will be hung at the Portland Museum of Art this week in tribute to the artist, who died Tuesday in New York.

Courtesy Portland Museum of Art

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