A 1971 painting by Will Barnet, depicting a mother and child in front of a fireplace, has a fitting title: “Reflection.” The people in Barnet’s art are usually reflecting – on couches, on balconies, in studios, in trees, on windowsills, lost in thought. Emotions are elusive: They rarely smile, but they’re usually not sad either. They often dress in black, and if Barnet were an animator, they might move across the frames like spirits.
One thing is for certain: Spending time with them in an art museum is a pleasant and inspiring experience. “Will Barnet at 100: Eight Decades of Painting and Printmaking,” at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through May 20, celebrates the centenary of this renowned artist and educator, who, at 101, has outlived many of pupils (Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly among them). The exhibition does not purport to be a complete retrospective – you would need a much bigger gallery space for that – but it offers examples of the many genres Barnet would inhabit over eight decades, from social-realist chronicler of the Great Depression to the creative detours into geometric expressionism and cubism that would eventually foster the signature Barnet style from 1961 to 2003: figurative realism, the stuff of muted colors, prominent lines and copious lived-in warmth.
To describe Barnet’s art in writing is to reduce it to banality. A woman plays chess. A woman looks out of her window. A boy plays paddleball. A woman lies on a hammock. (Most of the people he paints are members of his immediate family.) Through repetition of style and purity of artistic vision, these images of everyday actions (and inactions) take on their own compelling reality – a two-dimensional world at peace with itself, with man, animals, nature and architecture all inhabiting the same harmonious plane.
Though most of the works on display are of a figurative nature, this is a wonderful exhibition for abstractionists, because Barnet’s paintings work on that level as well: They are perfectly, painstakingly devised and revised (some took years at a time) to Barnet’s specifications, and by showing us early studies next to the paintings to come, the exhibit gives us a glimpse into his process. Barnet understood the geometry of the image better than almost anyone, with straight lines always juxtaposed with the curves of its figures. His subjects, you can argue, are just another artistic tool; even their long, flowing hair is its own aesthetic object, adding artistic heft to certain areas of his canvases.
Barnet completed a series of paintings inspired by poetry, which is only fitting. Poets could easily return the favor by drawing their own inspiration from Barnet’s open-book images of beautifully rendered stasis. Even if you’re just visiting the Boca Museum for its jaw-dropping “Contemporary Glass” exhibition, make sure you reserve some time to spend with Barnet – you won’t regret it.
“Will Barnet at 100” is at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.