The Blue Robe (1962) courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York

The remarkable long life of Will Barnet, born in 1911, is all the more remarkable when you consider what he’s created over these hundred-plus years. That’s the take-away of a must-see exhibition now at the National Academy Museum called “Will Barnet at 100.”1 Curated by Bruce Weber, the show stitches together the various chapters of Barnet’s life into a single narrative. The task is not an easy one with an artist who had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1935 and has been producing compelling work ever since. The difficulty is especially acute when you consider Barnet’s varying styles, which have regularly crossed the lines between representation and abstraction, paintings and prints, personal visions and family obligations. The brilliance of this exhibition comes from the way it brings together all of these variations to reveal the continuity of Barnet’s lifelong themes.

Arranging his work by type rather than time, the show begins with a room featuring paintings from Barnet’s abstract period, or, rather, his two abstract periods—the late 1940s to the early 1960s, and then again from 2003 to the present. As a young artist, Barnet teamed up with Steve Wheeler and Peter Busa to explore “Indian Space,” what they called the particular compositional structure of American Indian art. This influential subset of American abstraction, which deserves a reevaluation, formed a counterpoint to Abstract Expressionism and pitted Barnet’s own artist group, called The Forum, against the Ab Ex gathering known as The Club.

Barnet’s best abstractions came out of his investigations into Indian Space, including Positano (1960), a work that re-imagines an Italian moonscape as a simple arrangement of blacks and blues hovering between flat composition and infinite depth, and Enclosure (1962–2003), an equally haunting painting that brought Barnet from representation back to abstraction. Confined to a wheelchair in 2003, Barnet completed this work after having started it nearly forty years before.

In the middle of his career, Indian Space also helped inform his move to portraiture. In his abstract work, Barnet never fully dispensed with representation, just as in representation he maintained a sense of flat abstract structure. Barnet’s genius was to understand how family could impart its own compositional framework. Barnet has called the family an “organizing idea—a way of making order out of chaos,” as well as the “essence of civilization, everything is based on it.” A room of his earliest representational work from the 1930s and 1940s, depicting his children in prints and nursery-like paintings, reveals how family has been a lifelong theme for Barnet.

“In my art the family gave me a form, a structure,” he said. “It has to do with stability­—about discipline and family as a strengthening idea, and about making a work of art out of human relationships.” These relations formed the basis for Barnet’s foray into representation from the 1960s through 1990s, when he produced his most well-known portraits of his second wife, Elena, and their children and grandchildren—works that borrowed from Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek vase painting, late-nineteenth century Symbolism, as well as the structure of Indian Space.

“Will Barnet at 100” inaugurates the reopening of a storied institution. Founded in 1825, the National Academy, a block from the Guggenheim Museum, has counted the masters of the Hudson River School as artist members while long serving as a school and museum of art. Only a few years ago, it faced financial and ethical questions after it sold work from its permanent collection to pay expenses, a serious misstep that led to its blacklisting by the museum establishment. A dramatic overhaul of its governing structure was followed by a year-long refurbishment of public spaces. The reopened museum is still not flawless. The stripped-down lobby lacks warmth. The Barnet exhibition pairs overly long wall labels with an interview on video loop that is interesting to watch but distracting to hear amplified in the exhibition halls. Still, the Academy has done much that’s right, matching Barnet with a show of collection highlights on the upper floors and a public program series that will feature the artist in conversation on October 12. A symposium on the artist’s work is scheduled for November 5. The overall result is an institution that has never appeared better as it honors its most famous living artist member.

This month Alexandre Gallery complements Barnet’s National Academy exhibition with an intimate survey of the artist’s “small works on paper from the 1950s.”2 In the Academy’s exhibition catalogue, Bruce Weber discusses the “spontaneous doodlings” that Barnet created on scrap paper, especially around the time he moved to an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. These works in pen and pencil turn junk mail into faceted gems. They also reveal some of the ways Barnet composed Indian Space. From the shapes and words printed on these found objects, the artist built up simple structures, crossed out names, and drew squares around letters. The process is not unlike the way most of us might doodle, demonstrating perhaps the intuitive sense behind his division of the picture plane. In Barnet’s hands these drawings become some of the most personal and revealing works of his career.

A small exhibition at Valentine, a new gallery in Ridgewood, Queens, is showing someone I would call the best doodler in the world.3 With an outsider eye and an obsessive talent, Lori Ellison translates the humble materials of pen, notebook paper, and board into ecosystems of living matter. Other contemporary artists, notably James Siena, can work up studied designs of eye-popping psychedelica. Ellison’s drawings come out of a genius that operates much more under its own steam. This is not to say that Ellison isn’t in the driver’s seat. Perhaps the most interesting item at Valentine is Ellison’s small water-damaged sketch book, where one can flip and see the preparations that she takes in working up her designs from concept to finished board. It should be noted that not all of the resulting pieces here are her best. I found Bedford Boogie Woogie, a series that matched cross shapes with alternating background colors, too programmatic. The simple notebook, in contrast, reveals the depth of variation in what she can do, with curlicues growing into mountains and cells compressed into screens. Matched with the brooding paper masks and alphabet blocks by her husband Lars Swan, “Lars and Lori” presents two artists with singular, personal visions that deserve to be seen.

My natural reaction to Ground Zero is to turn aside. A series of paintings by Sally Pettus gave me a way to see it without wincing. That’s because Pettus takes an oblique view of the site, observing through refractions what we cannot look at head on. For the past several years, Pettus, a longtime associate of this magazine as well as a personal friend, has worked out of a studio just steps from the Trade Center to provide witness to the neighborhood’s transformation. Her paintings, which were on view in September at the nearby KS Art in Tribeca, reveal Ground Zero through screens of leaves and flowers, and in the curved reflections of car windows.4 Best known for her symbolic portraits of nature, Pettus brings a poetic sensibility to this tragic urban site and imbues it with requiem-like stillness.

When Graham Nickson arrived in Italy as the recipient of the Rome Prize in 1972, a carload of his documentation and preparatory work was promptly stolen. This sent Nickson onto the roof of the American Academy, where, with nothing to go on, he began to paint the sunset. Against his better judgment, warning him to avoid a clichéd subject, he didn’t stop painting small impressions of the sunrise and sunset for the next two years. A survey now on view at Knoedler, his first at the gallery, reveals how Nickson never stopped staring at the sun after that first Italian evening.5

Throughout the last decade, Nickson has worked up one glowing watercolor study after the other, many of them arranged in the gallery’s downstairs hall. He reached the summa of sun worship in the Wagnerian masterpieces rising floor to ceiling in the gallery’s main rooms: Traveler: Red Sky (2002) and Red Lightning (2008–2010). The power of these works in oil is conveyed through their composition and paint handling as well as their color and luminosity. Paired with a suite of tree studies documenting different seasons and light, Nickson comes off as heir apparent to the early American modernists Charles Burchfield and Arthur Dove, with synesthetic work that manages to both radiate and rumble.

Richard Timperio is best known as the owner of Sideshow, the omnium gatherum gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that is a hub for New York’s alternative art scene. Here he hosts annual group shows that bring together hundreds of artists across the generations. But Timperio is also an artist himself, and a gallery next door called Art 101 now features his paintings and drawings from the last year.6 At Sideshow, Timperio pays little mind to the styles of the moment. So it should come as no surprise that his own paintings of squares and circles over acrylic washes have their own retro feel: equal parts High Modern and Harbour-Lite Lounge. More surprising, given the vintage of their appearance, is how fresh this work still seems. These fun, appealing paintings might borrow from the past, along with many of the artists Timperio exhibits, but the ultimate source of this work remains exclusively his own.

In this space last February, I declared 2011 to be “The Year of the Munk.” Interest continues to grow around Loren Munk, an artist who mixes an encyclopedic knowledge of art history with urban theory and new-media enterprise (through his YouTube videos known as the James Kalm Report). Now Munk is enjoying a survey of his map paintings at Lesley Heller.7 These large works, many years in the making, locate hundreds of galleries and artist studios on colorful street grids, with lettering stenciled in thick oil on canvas. The Heller show brings out the formal qualities of these compositions, which swirl with an overabundance of information that leaves little doubt how “New York Becomes the Center of The Art Word,” as the subtitle of Ascension (2005–2008) proclaims. As attention swirls around this unique work, it is only fitting that it depicts the landscape where Munk himself is ascending to his own place of prominence.

1 “Will Barnet at 100” opened at the National Academy Museum, New York, on September 16 and remains on view through December 31, 2011.

2 “Will Barnet: Small Works on Paper from the 1950s” opened at Alexandre Gallery, New York, on September 10 and remains on view through October 15, 2011.

3 “Lars and Lori” opened at Valentine, Queens, on September 9 and remains on view through October 2, 2011.

4 “Sally Pettus: Paintings from the Perimeter” was on view at KS Art, New York, from September 1 through September 17, 2011.

5 “Graham Nickson: Paintings 1972–2011—Paths of the Sun” opened at Knoedler & Company, New York, on September 15 and remains on view through October 29, 2011.

6 “Richard Timperio: Paintings 2011” opened at Art 101, Brooklyn, on September 8 and remains on view through October 9, 2011.

7 “Loren Munk: Location, Location, Location, Mapping the New York Art World” opened at Lesley Heller Workspace, New York, on September 7 and remains on view through October 16, 2011.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 2, on page 53
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