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Artist Will Barnet dies at 101

Will Barnet, an artist who during an acclaimed eight-decade career depicted the Great Depression's victims in gritty prints, sojourned in abstraction and finally returned to a haunted and stylized realism for which he is best known, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 101.

Barnet died of cardiac arrest at an apartment building for artists in Gramercy Park where he had lived for 28 years. He had continued to draw even after turning 100, and four days before his death he visited galleries in Chelsea to see how they were faring after superstorm Sandy.

In February, President Barack Obama awarded Barnet the National Medal of Arts. The artist's daughter, Ona Barnet, confirmed the death.

Barnet is best known for perspective-flattened scenes of domestic life, which he produced in oils and serigraphs starting in the 1960s. Many of the works include images of his wife, Elena, and their daughter, as well as dogs, cats and birds.

In style, they were a synthesis of what had come before in an already long career.

"He started out as a representational artist and moved into abstraction," said Joann Moser, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

"Then in the mid-1960s, he adopted a type of abstracted realism in which he achieved a precise balance between abstraction and representation."

The draftsmanship in the images is impeccable, but there is little shading or perspective. Many have a dreamlike quality. With areas of unmodulated color and dark lines, they recall Japanese prints. In their austere simplicity, they echo Shaker furniture.

Some of the images evoke 19th-century scenes -- women in long dresses, perhaps seafarers' or soldiers' wives watching for someone to return. Some include black birds in bare-branched trees. His piece "The Stairway" (1970), rendered in both paint and print, shows a raven-haired girl -- his daughter -- in profile descending a staircase.

Barnet met, and influenced, many artists who went on to become better known. Jackson Pollock was a classmate at the Art Students League in Manhattan. Barnet socialized with Morris Louis. He taught etching to Mark Rothko.

While Barnet's reputation fell short of famous friends and students, his work was respected and admired by critics and the art market.

In 1964, Time magazine noted that Barnet's "best work on canvas combines subtle coloring, exquisite composition and severe economy of line. There is no contemporary remotely like him."

An article 15 years later in the same publication noted that as a printmaker, "his reputation as a formal virtuoso and innovator is now secure."

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