Will Barnet

New York

at Alexandre


The recent abstract paintings of Will Barnet (who turned 99 this year) were the focus of this exhibition, and it was a gem. A departure from the artist’s signature style in which figuration predominates, the 16 midsize oils on canvas from 2003 to 2010 mark a return to his early investiga­tions into abstraction. Barnet seeks to render the invisible visible but wants his imagery to remain rooted in the physical world. When he started his abstractions in the mid-’40s, Native American art showed him the way, particularly Hopi ceramics from Four Mile Ruin, a prehistoric site in northeastern Arizona. He was inspired by the use of simple flat shapes to depict birds, fish and animals, which in turn sym­bolize forces of nature, such as rain and lightning. In the canvases at Alexandre, Barnet’s own stripped-down object-symbols resonated with a power and pre­cision that could withstand comparison to the Hopi’s distillations of their world.

Characterized by subtle color harmo­nies and flat, finely honed biomorphic and geometric forms, Barnet’s compo­sitions have an air of quiet poise that belies their inner dynamism. In Call It Winter (2003, 34 by 26 inches), a creamy white background underpainted with a salmon hue glows with the promise of spring, lending warmth to a mostly cool palette of olive green, black and pastel blue scumbled over grays. A dark brown ovoid angles toward a cactuslike shape with swelling protuberances, furthering the vernal association.

The bipartite Overview (2005, 40 by 28 inches) calls to mind a children’s playground. The upper two-thirds of the picture suggest an aerial view; a straight-on perspective governs the bottom third. Though close in value, different ground colors separate the sections: a soft green brushed over sanguine above, a raw sienna below. Across the latter, inter­connected shapes in grayish-blue, pale yellow and red ocher convey the image of a figure on a slide. In the upper sec­tion, flattened organic forms enclosed within larger shapes suggest figures bal­ancing on a seesaw or walking up a hill. Even more pared down is Inauguration (2009, 323⁄8 inches square), in which two black silhouettes stretch across the surface like painted images inside a Hopi bowl. Is the spectral lower figure about to surmount a barrier before it, or is it flying away? Is the bloodred disk limned in black flapping its uneven appendages triumphantly or struggling to resist grav­ity? Perhaps the picture represents a spirit rising above death’s reach, a mixed message both ominous and hopeful.  

Photo: Will Barnet: Call It Winter, 2003, oil on canvas, 34 by 26 inches; at Alexandre.