|“Herbert Barnett and the 1950s,” this winter’s painting exhibition, is the most recent addition to our successful series of Art of the Mid-Century exhibitions that have recognized the interest in the Modern movement in art and design, particularly from the 1950s. Through these exhibitions, which have included “Henry Botkin: Abstracts and Collages” and “Art of the Mid-Century,” we have sought to demonstrate how seemingly traditional work—such as the still-lifes of Herbert Barnett—can be seen as modern in spirit and form, offering a unique opportunity to view together the works of many artists who were painting during this important and pivotal decade.|
The 1950s was a decade of focusing and grappling for Herbert Barnett. Having been appointed Dean of the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1951, Barnett became a leading figure of the Modernist movement in a town still predominantly interested in Impressionistic approaches and traditional subject matter. In this moment, when all eyes turned to Barnett, he shifted his gaze towards Cezanne.
Considered one of the founders of Modernism, Cezanne—as Barnett and many others like him believed—tackled the fundamental problems of vision and the limitations of art. With an eye towards Cezanne, Barnett turned away from the highly abstracted works that characterized his paintings of the late ‘40s and began working with the formal issues of color, composition, and structure on a flat canvas. Acknowledging that paintings and visual art are the juxtaposition of shapes and line on a flat surface, Barnett approached still-lifes, landscape, and figure drawing with a truly Modernist eye. As one of the most important teachers in Cincinnati and Worcester, Massachusetts, then, Barnett influenced generations with his bright color palette, vigorous, short brushstrokes, and discrete squares of color placed next to one another to create the harmonious, vibrant works we see today in this exhibition.
The other mid-century artists featured in “Herbert Barnett and the 1950s,” including Henry Botkin, Sally Michel, Ben Norris, and Ted Davis, addressed similar issues in their 1950s works. The color palette is robust throughout, and many artists utilize similar semi-abstract techniques to Barnett’s: Sally Michel splits the foliage in “Dark Mountain, Pink Sky” into distinct blocks of color in a perhaps Cezanne-influenced puzzle; Ted Davis also breaks up the images on the picture plane into a sort of puzzle that uses blocks of shape and color to convey an image of a whole. Even Henry Botkin, with his feet firmly planted in the Abstract Expressionist movement, is addressing similar issues—the ways color, form, and composition fit together on a flat canvas.