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99-year-old artist says his brush and canvas keep him alive

posted 21 Apr 2011, 13:26 by Mpelembe   [ updated 21 Apr 2011, 13:28 ]

Artist Will Barnet paints every day, as he has done for the past 80 years, putting brush to canvas in his New York studio.

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES (APRIL 20, 2011) REUTERS - At 99 years of age, Will Barnet's eyes are still sharp, his hands are still steady and deft. Barnet has been painting for over 80 years, and he says he doesn't plan on stopping any time soon.

"The love for painting is still there," Barnet told Reuters in his New York studio, surrounded by a life's work,

cans full of paint brushes and table tops covered with palette knives and rags.

"The idea of touching the canvas with a brush and a touch of paint is a passion. I feel, I need it, every day I have to do it," said Barnet. "I have to have a certain amount of time with that brush and the canvas to stay alive."

Barnet, who will turn 100 on May 25, has been making art since he was a twelve-year-old boy growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts.

By all measures Barnet has lived an exciting life. He has had a front row seat in the New York art world, witnessing the emergence of new styles, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, only to see them replaced by even newer trends. He has known some of the most famous artists of the day, from Ashile Gorky and Mark Rothko, who was a student of his in the early 1950's.

As he approaches the century mark, Barnet takes the milestone in his stride.

"The idea that I could get to be a hundred is, OK. I'm able to make it and that's natural."

Citing the writing of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who said that nature, and not supernatural forces, dictate the way life progresses, Barnet takes no credit for his longevity, but welcomes it just the same.

"Nature allowed me to live that long, you know, and I appreciate it. And I still work and I still feel passionately about a lot of things and at hundred I'm still a young man in a lot of ways," said Barnet.

Barnet was a young man when his journey to be an artist got off to an exciting start. In 1931 he left Boston, where he had been studying at the Boston Museum School, and with ten dollars in his pocket, he moved to New York.

New York at the time was in the midst of the Great Depression. Just two years had passed since the stock market crash of 1929 and it would seem to be not a good time to make a bold move, but Barnet said New York, the center of America's art world then and now, was a pull he couldn't resist.

"At that time, New York was absolutely down to the bottom. In other words the streets were dark," said Barnet.

"If you walked down Broadway, no lights, it was just dark. You couldn't believe Broadway could be just dark. Nothing but shadows. And but also it was a period where bread lines were the images you saw of New York around the block, people waiting for soup, soup lines and so forth. So New York was a very depressed town in one way. In another way it was exciting," he added.

Barnet landed on his feet fast. The Arts Student's League, then the mecca of figurative art instruction, gave him a four year scholarship. Barnet went on to teach at the League for many years and says teaching has always played a supportive role to art in his life.

"I was very much involved with the idea of also being a teacher too. That's another thing that was very important in my life, because I saw what was being taught and I felt is wasn't substantial enough. I wanted to give it somebody, so teaching became a passion too. So between teaching and painting the two kind of merged nicely together."

When Barnet moved to New York his work fit in nicely with the social realism of the era. He credits Roosevelt and his new deal with providing projects and funding for artists, allowing them to survive and grow.

Over time the nature of Barnet's work has seesawed back and forth between figurative and abstract. This wavering is not surprising for Barnet, who says he always admired the abstract qualities that lay under the surface of the art of the great figurative masters like Rembrandt, Ingre, Daumier and Titian.

Barnet said this emphasis on history and studying the form of the art of the past, but altering it and making it current, is best exemplified by the work of Paul Cezanne, who is often credited with being the first modern painter.

"I'd like to be like, in many ways have the same feeling that Cezanne said, he wanted to be part of the history. He didn't want to separate from history."

"So that's the way I feel strongly about it, I want to be part of history, but I want to be new in the sense I say something fresh, contemporary."

Barnet's work has been featured in museum shows throughout the country, and works by Barnet are held in such lofty institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The public will get a chance to survey all of Barnet's work this September, when the National Academy Museum features a retrospective of his entire career, which, as Barnet points out, is by no means over.