Montclair Art Museum

Montclair, NJ


The following essay was written by Twig Johnson, Curator of Native American Art at the Montclair Art Museum, as a catalogue essay for the catalogue Will Barnet: A Timeless World (ISBN 0-8135-2834-8) which accompanied the exhibition Will Barnet in Context: American Art from the Collection which premiered May 14, 2000 at The Montclair Art Museum and toured to three other venues. The exhibition was organized by The Montclair Art Museum. The essay is reprinted with permission of the Montclair Art Museum.


Will Barnet and Native American Art

by Twig Johnson


Will Barnet has long been interested in American Indian art, especially in how it relates to his intention to create "real American art." Barnet was ahead of his time in recognizing American Indian art as art. Unlike many of his colleagues, Barnet realized that each Native American group produced its own unique art forms, and understood that "art" itself is a European term whose definition has continuously changed through time. The "discovery" of Indian art was really a realignment in thinking about the definition of art. Native Americans and other tribal people have artistic traditions that are thousands of yea's old. In Barnet's search for "real American values" he was struck by the strength of American Indian Art and the ability of Native American artists to use abstract designs that projected dynamic movement, balance, and emotion in positive space. Inspired by Native American art, Barnet's art moved in the direction where his visual vocabulary became simpler, straightforward, more telling in their imagery. By eliminating line, and emphasizing the integration of form and ground, he was able to synthesize classical values, aboriginal concepts, and personal experience in his work.

As a teacher at the Art Students League, Barnet often lectured about various tribal arts and aesthetics and organized field trips to The Museum of Natural History and The Museum of the American Indian (Heye Foundation, now The National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian). Barnet would emphasize the importance of the design shapes that were found in aboriginal art, all of which had positive and negative identities that balanced to create an all-over positive form with dynamic movement. He recognized early on that these images were a pictorial language that spoke volumes about the societies that created them. By looking at both Northwest Coast and Southwestern Indian art, his own creative process was forever changed. However, according to Barnet, the Northwest Coast was not as seminal an influence for him as the work of the ancient Pueblo people in the Southwest. Barnet was captivated by the ceramic art from Four Mile Ruin, a prehistoric Hopi site in Northeastern Arizona. Like many artists, he shared the common belief that the art of early cultures, especially the American Indian, exhibited formal power and profound insights, both psychological and conceptual which should be studied. Barnet viewed native arts as a way to understand human nature and the environment. Thus Barnet began to eliminate line from his work and instead to emphasize shapes. These shapes never overlapped, but expanded and contracted, pushing, pulling and interacting with each other. This dynamic interaction of positive and negative form and surrounding space were central features of a style that would come to be known as Indian Space Painting.

Indian Space Painting was a style developed by an informal group of artists working in New York in the 1940's. This group included Robert Barrell, Gertrude Barrer, Peter Busa, Howard Daum, Helen DeMott, and Ruth Lewin. Daum, Lewin, and Barrer were students of Barnet's at the Art Students League. Steve Wheeler, a close friend of Barnet, was regarded as the progenitor of this movement, a role he deplored as confining. Indian Space refers to the flat, all-over, non-illusionistic designs that balance organic and geometric forms. On these flat surfaces, intellectual, sensory, and emotional experiences come together to form the meaning or essence of the work. Color and form are used to show depth and time, forming pictures of ideas. In a sense, the works were experiments in a new pictorial language. Will Barnet and the other Indian Space Painters were looking for a way to equal, if not surpass, Picasso's Cubism in forging a new American modern art. The journal Iconograph, published by Gallery Neuf owner Peter Beaudoin, featured many examples of Indian Space paintings as well as articles dealing with Northwest Coast mythology, and primitive art. This journal was instrumental in encouraging an awareness and understanding of Native American art and its influence on artists in the 1940's. Iconograph and Barnet both recognized that Native American art was an influential and inspirational art source.

The focal point of the "Indian Space" group was the exhibition entitled Semeiology or 8 and a Totem Pole at Gallery Neuf in New York in 1946. However, neither Barnet nor Wheeler took part in this exhibition. Wheeler declined to participate, attempting to distance himself from this group. Barnet's work was absent because he was concentrating on his family, teaching, and finalizing his work for a exhibition at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery. He was still experimenting with and synthesizing the concepts of "Indian Space" with his own thoughts and emotions to create a unique visual language.

By the late 1940's Barnet began to incorporate the use of positive space in his own work. The native art forms he saw at the museums, and especially the objects illustrated in the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology volumes he collected, became his dominant influence. The ceramic works from Four Mile Ruin in Arizona enlightened him to the use of form over line. These works were particularly important in Barnet's work and overshadowed the Northwest Coast iconography that influenced most of the other Indian Space painters. In these aboriginal works he saw representational life forms within an architectonically controlled field. Most of these forms usually occur framed on bowl interiors so that the entire composition can be seen at once. Mass and three-dimensional space are implicit even though the figures are flatly painted silhouettes. There is a focus on large, single motifs, and many often lack bilateral symmetry. The strength of the ideographic unity and structure of these compositions were driving forces in Barnet's work. The ability to create mass and scale by using forms became pivotal.

In his lithograph, Strange Birds, Barnet blends the imagery of the prehistoric Hopi work from Four Mile Ruin and his own observations of animals, in this case, a chicken and a cat from his family's farm in upstate New York. The works from Four Mile Ruin in Arizona that influenced much of Barnet's work often depict animals especially birds and supernatural beings. These works are illustrated in the Bureau of American Ethnology volumes in Barnet's collection. The images piqued his interest and imagination. He felt these images were "fantastic." Barnet was excited by the way the prehistoric Hopi artisans handled their forms. This manipulation of form and space influenced Barnet for at least 15 years. To this day, he feels the Hopi are among the most wonderful artists he has ever encountered. He worked for years to understand how they "can take a bird and make it into a kind of monumental object that takes up positive space, and makes it all seem as if it's bursting with energy." This is exactly what Barnet was attempting to do with his use of forms, to imbue them with a sense of life and energy, to enable them to explode off the canvas. In Strange Birds, Barnet is analyzing the behavior and relationship between the bird and the cat. By using a combination of geometry and imagery, Barnet was able to focus on the spirit of the image. Bird imagery is found throughout Native American art. Because of their ability to exist in the sky, on land, and in some cases in water, birds are frequently linked to the supernatural and secular worlds. Many historic Southwest ceramics depict chickens and other animals associated with European contact.

By assimilating native art ideas into his own work, Barnet was able to explore everyday life and relationships in a new positive manner. Concentrating on the rectangle, he focused on the vertical and horizontal expansion of forms. As Barnet researched the prehistoric Hopi work, it continued to stir his imagination. "What really happened in my work, in relationship to their work, is how they [the Hopi] depicted people in their imagery.... I began to take things around me, like my children, and I would use them as a take-off because they were in their primitive stage and it interested me a great deal." Barnet was struck by the scale of an object. When looking at the ceramics from Four Mile Ruin he was enchanted with the manner in which the Hopi used rounded forms with a sense of great scale, resulting in the feeling that the images are hovering above the surface of the object. Barnet strove to understand the way they manipulated simple forms to create such a feeling of space and expansion. He sees this relationship between simple forms and mass as an almost miraculous synthesis.

In his work Self Portrait, (1953-54), Barnet eliminates realistic space and renders only details, a dissection or dismemberment of the human face. Forms, not line, become the dominant elements. As Barnet commented, "I don't work in a lineal sense, I work with mass." Much like Northwest Coast art, this work seems to utilize the idea of schematic characterization through the exaggeration of certain anatomic features, the dislocation of split details to other parts of the decorated surface, and the illogical transformation of details into new representations. But unlike Northwest Coast art, there is no formline. Formline delineates design units; it is what gives Northwest Coast art its fluidity. Self Portrait is contained by the limits of the canvas, yet has mass and depth. Like the ceramics from Four Mile Ruin, Self Portrait uses large single motifs and internal hatched elements. The geometric forms in Self Portrait are treated as biomorphic forms, with the shoulders, arm, hand and nose becoming apparent. Barnet, like the ancient artisans of the Southwest, has in this work rearranged and reduced the subject to its most essential structure. This is another parallel with Native American art, the idea of expressing nature symbolically by using geometry and imagery together to visually express important emotions.

Barnet continued to experiment with Indian symbols to create his own personal "American" visual language with The Cave, (1953). In this painting, he experimented with compressing pictorial space. Barnet uses shapes that swell and push against each other in a tight flat design, derived from the ancient works from Four Mile Ruin. The Cave visually explores the relationship between parents and children. The larger figure is a portrait of his son Todd. The smaller figure is Barnet, the adult, watching the larger figure who appears to be ready to explode from the canvas. This use of forms to denote motion and mass is directly related to the early Hopi ceramics that were found at Four Mile Ruin. The size and form of the child also conveys the complexities of childhood emotions and the promise of the future, while the adult is "caged" or held hostage by the cave. The cave in this instance can be understood to be the environment or rules governing the society in which we live. The child is pushing those limits and challenging them as he grows. The adult is offering a helping hand to the child who will not be constrained by the rules governing his parent's life. By using these strong forms in a combination of geometry and imagery, Barnet was able to convey the complex psychological relationships shared by families.

Fourth of July (1854) continued Barnet's work with reducing images to their most essential positive form and rearranging them to create a visual language capable of expressing emotions and nature. Fourth of July is a portrait of Barnet's three sons. Family groups are often the themes in his work. Here he has simplified and unified form in positive space. Figure and background are part of each other, just as family members are related. Barnet was taking the human form and changing it, abstracting and stretching it so that it possessed power, movement, change. These abstract figures are created as symbols for all of humanity. This same power can be seen in the ceramics from Four Mile Ruin that had originally influenced Barnet's work. The forms are abstracted and possess a power that makes the observer feel the image is about to leap off the page. Because of his play with rearranging and reducing the images, and the geometric forms that may be related to skeletal imagery, some influence from Northwest coast art is also evident. There is a feeling of totemic structures in the life forms that have been rendered within rectangles concentrating on the vertical expansion of the forms. The energy in this work translates into a metaphor for life and celebration of the future.

Creation (1954-55) is an emotional response to his wife Elena's pregnancy with their daughter Ona. Two forms, one male and one female sit in the hand of God. Again, Barnet has used pared down abstract imagery to show equilibrium between forces, the pushing and pulling of shapes in positive space. The figures of the children are pictographic in nature and resemble the many petroglyphs and pictographs found among Native American cultures. These geometric forms become symbols for all of humanity. This somewhat totemic work is imbued with emotion and demonstrates the power of shapes to tell a visual story of emotions and beliefs. Like the ancient artisans in Native America, Barnet captures human thought and feelings with uncomplicated forms. This image explores the idea of "art being almost a religious experience because you are creating something." This is another analogy with Native American art. All of indigenous art had a spirit that made the object a living thing.

In Janus and the White Vertebra, (1955) Barnet explores the role of duality in human nature. This work displays many influences from Native American art, including the x-ray like quality of the main figure, the elimination of unnecessary detail, the use of positive space and forms, and the concept of duality. Another possible link to Native American art can be found in the title. There is a group of Inuit carvers, known as
the Clyde River Artists, in the Mary River area of Northern Baffin Island, Canada, that carve whale vertebrae with Janus faces to best utilize the natural shapes of the bones. Skeletal imagery in art is an ancient concept that probably began with the Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers around 15,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C. and is now found worldwide and in many Native American cultures including Inuit, Woodlands, Northwest Coast, Plains, and the Southwest.
[1] Skeletal imagery is often linked with religious ideas including transformation, death, rebirth, and the ability of the invisible to become visible. The divided figure speaks of duality of persona, which in turn relates to the dualism and complexities of life. Again, Barnet has been able to evoke human thought and emotion. Although he was influenced by Native American art, Barnet did not merely incorporate Indian designs but rather reinvented and synthesized them into his own unique visual language of human emotions.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Barnet recognized the powerful cultural metaphors found in the geometric forms that abound in native art. Barnet understood the artistic motivations of native people. He found that native art could serve as an intellectual forum for his need to create a uniquely American art form. By using his own visual vocabulary and manipulating form, Barnet gave his work a history and a life. All of his art is personal and deals with the universality of human experiences. He connected with ancient native artists because of the underlying themes of environment and the universality of humanity's spiritual emotions that are found in his work. Barnet and Native American artists shared a common bond within the iconography they used. Both incorporate iconography that represents emotions, spiritual essences, and unseen forces experienced in dreams and thoughts. Barnet and native artists share the idea that art as a whole reaffirms a belief system that values creative adaptation as a means of expression. Their art reveals a progression in response to environmental, social, and economic influences. Both view their art as living, spiritual expressions of the integrated forces that tie together and unify all aspects of life.


All quotations are from the author's interviews with Will Barnet on December 10,1999 and January 6, 2000.

1. Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment (New York: Harry N. Abrams. lnc., 1999.)

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