Will Barnet, Male and Female, 1954


NARRATOR: Will Barnet’s Male and Female consists of a number of vertical forms. The artist has identified the red one near the middle as the male, and the earth-toned form to the right as the female. He’s said that rather than making abstractions, he takes figures apart and puts them into an abstract relationship. Barnet is interested in the tension between certain colors and forms, and the sense of resolution in the painting as a whole.

Barnet has said that his artistic heroes are the Old Masters—Giotto, Daumier, and Ingres. Despite the relative abstraction of Male and Female, Barnet’s commitment to classicism shines through in the painting’s balance and composure. The vertical forms in Male and Female also bear a certain resemblance to Northwest Coast totem poles. Barnet, like many artists of his generation, was very impressed by Northwest Coast Native American art. He was part of the group known as the Indian Space Painters—so-called because of the patterned, all-over composition that they based on Native American textiles and pottery.

Will Barnet (b. 1911), _Male and Female_, 1954. Oil on canvas, 40 x 32in. (101.6 x 81.3cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of an anonymous donor through the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors 55.17. © Will Barnet/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins