Playing Favorites: Amanda Shepard & Will Barnett

We’ve asked FWMoA staff the hardest question you can ask art museum people: so, what is your favorite artwork currently on display? As “art museum people”, we often get asked about our favorite artists, artworks, and the art we choose to hang on our own walls. Since not all of our staff are front-end, and not all of them write for the blog, this series gives everyone a chance to get to know them, too. Taking advantage of our rotating exhibitions of artworks, from painted portraits to sculpted bronzes, FWMoA staff from all departments are choosing artworks that enthrall and enchant them; or, in other words, playing favorites.

A portrait photograph of the writer, she stands smiling directly at the camera.
Amanda Shepard, FWMoA VP & COO. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Amanda Shepard, VP & COO, 13 years A Century of Making Meaning: 100 Years of Collecting, Will Barnet, “The Dog”, 1996

A gallery shot of Will Barnet's piece shows the medium-sized painting of a man with arms held aloft, holding a string in a triangular shape that is held down at the point by his white dog, stood between his legs. To his right, a purple ball.
Amanda’s chosen piece is front center. Will Barnet, American, 1911-2012. The Dog. Oil on canvas, 1996. A gift from Mark M. Suedhoff, 2018.286. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Q: What is the first thing you noticed about this artwork? What drew you to this particular piece? 

A: I was drawn to the symmetry, the precision of the composition, and the deliberate use of each element in the painting to convey meaning, even if that meaning is not entirely clear. This painting is weird, but orderly. I like that tension between the uncomplicated, straightforward scene and the somewhat puzzling narrative. To me, this is a no-nonsense painting that is still perplexing. Something else I noticed is that Barnet hasn’t overworked this painting. It is precise without being detailed like a photorealist painting. You can even see the pencil marks from his drawing of the figures, especially around the boy’s face. I enjoy when an artist leaves evidence that a human made this work, and the pencil lines make me think of Barnet’s own hand at work. I feel personally connected to artists, even from other times and places, when I am invited into the work in this way.

Q: Would you hang this artwork in your home? Why or why not? 

A: You bet! Do you think anyone would mind if I borrowed it for a while?

Q: What does this artwork mean to you? 

A: There are many themes I can glean from this painting. Barnet, at least in his later years, explored domesticity in various ways, and I can see that in the barefooted adolescent, his dog, and ball. And yet, there is nothing sentimental or emotionally charged about this painting, as many domestic scenes can be. These domestic creatures—a dog, a pre-teen boy, and a plaything—synonymous with unpredictability and liveliness, become stable figures of great stature. In fact, the boy’s position, justified by the taut inverted triangle, reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, a drawing by the Italian genius that illustrates the perfectly proportioned man. Barnet is certainly paying attention to proportion in many senses, balancing all elements with a counter-element: The boy’s triangular arms mirror his legs; the green triangle finds its opposite in the larger, inverted orange triangle; the boy’s gaze is to the left while his dog’s is to the right; and the rather flattened realism of both the boy and the dog are in contrast to the spherical ball. In this painting, no movement, no color, and no spatial reality is without its equivalent opposite . The element of this painting that seems to have no counterbalance is the eye within the green triangle on the boy’s shirt. This image might be based upon the “Eye of Providence” found on the Great Seal of the United States, which we see on our $1 bills. The symbology of this image refers to the all-seeing eye of God, conveying that all of humanity is under this watchful eye. The image was adopted by the Freemasons around 1797, who referred to God as the “Great Architect of the Universe.” In Christian iconography, the eye within a triangle represents the Trinity, the name for the 3-in-1 God consisting of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. I have yet to find any specific mention of Barnet’s religious inclinations, though he has spoken often of his work in transcendent terms and points to enduring virtues such as harmony, peace, and finding meaning in things both seen and unseen. He has said, “I have always searched for clarity and harmony over violence, chaos and accidents.” (Statement for Channel 13, WNYU, New York, 1989.) If, indeed, Barnet’s eye contained by the green triangle references the Eye of Providence, then perhaps we can see this symbol, central to both the painting and the boy, as the foundation of harmony and the sustaining reality that binds this painting with order and balance.

Q: Are there any particular details about the artist or artwork you want to share?

A: Barnet lived to be 101 and made this painting when he was 95 years old. Around the age of 8, he decided to become an artist after discovering art books at his local public library. By age 12, he was six feet tall and preferred drawing and reading to any other activity his peers enjoyed. At age 16, he abandoned his academic studies and enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His work from the late 1920s and early 1930s are realistic but expressive, and in the ‘40s and ‘50s he moves into Cubist abstraction. By the ‘60s, he’s working in Geometric and Minimalist abstraction, and in the ‘70s he reintroduces the recognizable figure but keeps his minimalist style. This is when Barnet begins to confidently blend realism with abstraction, giving us narrative scenes without attempting to create illusory images that look like photographs. The flatness of the canvas is no challenge to be overcome for Barnet, whose two-dimensional figures act as agents in the scene as well as shapes in a composition.

Q: Why did you choose to work in an art museum? 

A: There are many reasons why I love working in an art museum. Wonderfully made objects are bearers of so many things that are particularly human: beauty, mastery, wisdom, memory, transcendence, history, preservation, and a connection between people across time and place. Keeping and showing these physical objects that can convey deep meaning is a worthy human pursuit.

Q: What has been your favorite exhibition at FWMoA during your employment? What exhibition are you most looking forward to in the next year or two?

A: I’m looking forward to the Liz Quisgard exhibition. At age 92, she defies what I just said about my love of objects because they convey deep meaning. “When called upon to explain what I do, I am inclined to say ‘What you see is what you get.’ Couched in this flippant response is a firm conviction that the visual arts are exactly that – visual. No meanings. No preachments. No symbols.” Art that delights us visually and nothing more is fine by me–and sometimes, it’s truly needed.

Come see this much-loved iteration of A Century of Making Meaning: 100 Years of Collecting at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art through November 7th, 2021.

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