Museum Moment: Modern American Master, Barnet, Still Going Strong at 99

Apr 21, 2011

By Rosemary Maravetz

As a pivotal figure in the development of American art, Will Barnet has found great success with both abstract and figurative work, often blurring the line between the two. As he turns 100 years old on May 25, he still paints every day, and his artistic vision has been informed by experiences most artists working today will never know. He has always followed his own artistic instinct, forgoing the trends around him.

He got his start in the late 1920s, studying art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Art Students League in New York, where he would go on to teach for more than 40 years and become a master printmaker. Over the years, Barnet has also taught at other distinguished schools such as Cooper Union, Yale University, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Cornell University.

Barnet’s work focused on social realism during the nation’s hardships of the 1930s. During this time he pursued printmaking and created some of his best known work. He also worked for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), serving as technical advisor and printer for the Graphic Arts Division.

In the 1940s, Barnet’s work shifted from printmaking to painting in his abstract style. By the 1950s, much of Barnet’s work was defined by Indian Space painting, an abstract style rooted in Native American art.

In the early 1960s, Barnet worked in both abstraction and figuration, but by the mid-1960s he had progressed naturally into the stylized figurative work that would become so recognizable.

By the 1980s, Barnet had long been back to working in his figurative style with a renewed interest in what he has called “New England Values” – ideas formed by his upbringing in the Massachusetts coastal town of Beverly in the early 20th century. He identifies this set of values as stoicism in the face of adversity, fierce independence and a profound kinship with nature. Although he has lived in New York most of his life, he still identifies himself as a New Englander.

While Barnet’s painting styles have varied throughout his long and illustrious career, his compositions have always been driven by a sense of order and harmony. It is a direct result of his admiration for classical painters such as Rembrandt. During the 1980s, he found new inspiration and subjects during trips to visit his daughter, Ona, and her family at their resort, the Rock Gardens Inn on Casco Bay near Bath, Maine. A series of paintings emerged depicting leisure activities like croquet, squash, ice skating and golf, taking place on or near the grounds of Ona’s inn.

One of the USGA Museum’s most treasured contemporary art pieces, “The Golfer,” created by Will Barnet in 1987, depicts a father and son on a golf course, with the son serving as caddie. Barnet says he spent a lot of time sketching at the Sebasco Harbor Resort Golf Club, adjacent to the Rock Gardens Inn, in preparation for “The Golfer,” which hangs next to the magnificent hanging staircase at the rear of the Museum.

While the figures are clearly the main focus, monumental against the background, Barnet creates a careful, harmonious geometry throughout his composition. He renders the figures with an architectural, heroic quality. The golf clubs, bag, flags and even the landscape behind the figures consist of clean geometric forms with another hole and the waters of Casco Bay visible in the background. The light conveyed by the sky suggests an early morning round. Barnet says his rendering of the sky and water is meant to express what he calls the “Maine feeling” – the cool, sparse palette indicative of his style, formed by the New England landscape and atmosphere that has been a constant source of inspiration for him.

In part, the figures illustrate Barnet’s interest in Byzantine art and early American colonial portraiture with their stoic, straightforward bodies, intense gazes and the father’s imposing figure compared to his young son. He commands full authority and respect.

Barnet chose to use familiar faces in his composition, as he has done in much of his work. The boy in the painting is his grandson and the father’s face is that of art dealer Bill Meek. Barnet’s decision to use Meek’s likeness was inspired by the friendship and professional relationship they have maintained since the early 1970s and Meek’s love for the game; Barnet describes him as “a great golfer.” While Barnet himself played the game casually many years ago on courses in Massachusetts and New York, he jokes that he “played before anybody else,” a reference to his advanced age.

Another golf-themed piece he created as part of this series, “The Yellow Cart,” depicts a woman, Barnet’s daughter, holding a golf club and a boy, also his grandson, seated in a yellow golf cart behind her. The composition is similar to “The Golfer” with its monumental figures and geometric sense of order, but the palette is strikingly different, with brighter tones and the suggestion of the orange glow of a sunset. While similar in subject matter, “The Golfer” and “The Yellow Cart” are wonderful juxtapositions of each other.

Today, Will Barnet’s work is in more than 200 museums worldwide. His work has been the subject of more than 80 solo exhibitions and has been included in countless group shows. He still paints every day and is still producing new work in his abstract style. He still teaches and remains involved in the art world. He is pleased to be part of the USGA Museum’s permanent collection along with artists such as Norman Rockwell and A.B. Frost, and he is flattered to know that “The Golfer” is considered one of the most important works of art in the collection.

Barnet’s latest work can be seen in “Will Barnet: A Centennial Celebration” – on view at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, N.J., through July 17, 2011.

Rosemary Maravetz is a consultant for the USGA Museum. She helped develop and implement the Museum’s conservation plan. E-mail her with questions or comments at

Will Barnet (©MMV JoAnne Kalish)

The golf clubs, bag, flags and even the landscape behind the figures consist of clean geometric forms with another hole and the waters of Casco Bay visible in the background. (USGA Museum)