Timeless Traveler

There's a subtle paradox at work in "Will Barnet: A Timeless World," a retrospective of the American artist's career now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Barnet's themes and subject matter, which include the domestic life of his family and humanity's connections with nature, are indeed timeless, resurfacing again and again, regardless of his medium or style.

But the only way to make sense of Barnet's serpentine career is to track it through time, breaking it down into more or less distinct periods. And that's how this show -- originally curated by Gail Stavitsky for New Jersey's Montclair Art Museum -- is organized. There are eight eras represented here, most grouped by decade. It's an artificial device, all right, but it works as a way of giving a flow to the more than 50 pieces in the show.

Barnet, who turns 90 years old next year, has sometimes been compared with the 19th-century French artist Daumier; the handful of pieces in the first section, "The 1920s and 1930s: Boston and New York," highlights his affinities with, as well as differences from, this Frenchman. The rich, realistic details of the lithograph Fulton Street Fish Market (1934) are a fine example of Barnet as social observer, though he's typically less grimly satiric than Daumier. And the graceful male nude portrayed in the charcoal-on-paper Life Study (1929), done when Barnet was still a teenager, reassures us that his roots are in the increasingly underappreciated art of drawing.

In "The 1940s: Modernism," we see Barnet assimilating the influences of cubism, among other things. The stark realism of his youthful work gives way to a fascination with shape and color, as in the brightly hued, whimsical oil-on-canvas Soft Boiled Eggs (1946), which includes a mother and two children at a table covered with the titular objects; a third child reclines under the table. (Barnet and his three sons re-created the scene in a clever 1952 photograph which is posted next to the painting.)

The few pieces in the section "1948­54: Indian Space" show Barnet edging closer to outright abstraction, even as he's toying with influences from such varied American Indian sources as Hopi ceramics, Mayan totem-glyphs, and Peruvian textiles. The only thing that identifies the subject of the oil-on-canvas Self-Portrait (1953­54), for instance, is its title; otherwise it's a celebration of form that would never be mistaken for a portrait of a human being, much less one of the artist himself.

The transition is complete in "The 1950s: Abstraction." Fourth of July (1954) is a jangled assortment of unidentifiable shapes assertively painted in red, white, and a blue so deep it's almost black. Cave, a 1953 oil dominated by a large patch of bright yellow, displays a lighter touch and more sharply defined lines, what Barnet called "clear-edge painting."

Barnet really hits his stride with the large oils grouped in "The 1960s: Figurative Composition and Portraits." He paints people not with an eye for realistic detail, but with a strong sense of their presence. The looming 1967 Self-Portrait, for instance, works with only the most basic elements of the artist's physical self, and yet it's a striking summation of his persona. Barnet himself calls the piece "one of the best examples of my use of the figure, both as an abstract concept and as an idea of a person in its most intense and essential aspect."

This section also includes a wonderful portrait of Barnet's wife, Elena, called Woman Reading (1965), in which she lounges serenely in bed with a large white cat curled on top of her. She holds her book above the cat, and the look on her face should be recognizable instantly to anyone who has attempted to read in bed with a feline.

Other portraits feature Barnet's friends and patrons. In Remi (1962) the artist's friend Remi Messer, with her stylized dress and shawl, comes across as vaguely Asian, as do the subjects of the earthy Mother and Child (Elena and Ona) (1961). Barnet draws on the classicism of Ingres for the muted Kiesler and Wife (1965), which portrays architect and friend Frederick Kiesler and his wife, Lillian, sitting on a sofa. She teasingly holds an apple in her right hand, while her left arm reaches across the back of the sofa toward a black cat that lies with its back to us. The man sits, poker-faced, a few feet away, reading. It's a strange composition that's simultaneously playful and enigmatic.

Two large vertical oils -- Big Duluth, Night (1960) and Eden (1964­65) -- make up the section "The 1960s: Abstractions," which is a sort of footnote to the artist's work from that decade. The latter painting, in particular, with its cool, pale off-whites and delicate, washed-out greenish yellows, is in sharp contrast to Barnet's more volatile abstracts from the '50s.

From here the show shifts gears as it moves from the museum's main gallery into the long, narrow gallery adjacent. "The 1970s: Figurative Compositions -- Maine" features a trio of large, stark compositions built around one or more women in long, dark robes. In Eos (1973), the Greek goddess of the dawn stands with her back to us in a largely featureless landscape rendered in a near-monochromatic palette of deep blues, violets, and blacks.

That figure reappears, virtually intact, in Vigil (1974­75), accompanied by a second woman facing us and a third in right profile; all wear their hair in tight buns and hold their arms crossed in front of them. They're positioned on a rooftop widow's walk of the sort often found on coastal houses in the Northeast, where fishermen's wives gazed out to sea, awaiting their husbands' return. Infinite (1974) is another variation on the same theme.

The exhibition winds down with the half-dozen pieces in "The 1980s and 1990s: Recent Work." Homage to Léger, With K.K. (1982) acknowledges the artist's admiration for the French cubist by inserting one of Barnet's friends, the curator Katharine Kuh, into a composition that lifts elements from Léger's famous painting The Mechanic (1920). Croquet (1985) pulls off an oblique, tongue-in-cheek variation on Grant Wood's American Gothic by placing the artist's daughter and her ex-husband in a stiff, formal pose facing us, accented not by a pitchfork but by croquet balls, mallets, and wickets.

An especially haunting work in this last section is The Three Windows (1992), a portrait of the artist's older sister contemplating the death of another sibling. Barnet has situated her in a dark, empty setting that emphasizes her isolation and emotional desolation.

In a 1986 interview with the curator of this show, Barnet spoke of his "love of purity and geometry in painting, the beauty of a flat surface, a cohesive quality of structure and clear forms." I can't think of a more succinct way to characterize the thread that runs through almost all his work and particularly that of the past few decades.

There's never the illusion of depth in Barnet's art, and aside from the early lithographs and woodcuts, there's typically a striking lack of interest in detail. Especially since 1961, when in emulation of Rembrandt he turned to portraiture, his concern has been the human figure, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Thus Will Barnet, a true American original, has staked a claim on his own little corner of the art world, a carefully defined space he continues to explore with vigor and originality.

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Michael Mills