on will barnet

s pai ntings
© 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid- free paper ♾
Designed by Heather Hensley
Typeset in Arno by Tseng Information Systems, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging- in- Publication Data
Dumm, Tomas L.
My father’s house : on Will Barnet’s paintings / Tomas Dumm.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isBn 978-0-8223-5546-5 (cloth : alk. paper)
1. Barnet, Will, 1911–2012—
Criticism, interpretation, etc. I.Title.
nD237.B264D86 2014
COver art: Will Barnet, My Father’s House. Oil on canvas, 1992.
35 1/8″ × 38 1/8″. Gift of Will and Elena Barnet. Yale University Art
Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. 2009.6.1. Art © Estate of Will Barnet /
Licensed by vaga, New York, NY. Alexandre Gallery, New York, NY.
Duke University Press gratefully acknowledges the support of Amherst
College, which provided funds toward the publication of this book.
aCknOWleDgments vii PrefaCe ix
intrODuCtiOn Te Living and the Dead 1
One My Father’s House 35
tWO Te Dream 45
three Te Family (Te Kitchen) 55
fOur Te Mantle 65
five Te Vase 73
six Tree Windows 83
seven Te Mother 91
eight Te Father 99
nine Te Golden Frame 107
COnClusiOn Becoming Human 115
nOtes 121 inDex 123
For sustained support and critical comments regarding the essays in this
book I wish to thank Julian Olfs, Judith Piotrkowski, and the collective
wisdom of the advisory board of Teory & Event.
Tis project would never have been possible without the support of
Randall Grifey, who was curator of American art at the Mead Museum
of Amherst College when I received his invitation to meet Will Barnet
in the autumn of 2008. Te director of the Mead, Elizabeth Barker, was
generous with her time and advice as well. Tey both have my gratitude.
More globally speaking, Amherst College sustains and supports the re-
search and scholarship of its faculty as always. I have been happy to take
advantage of its generosity once again.
For her continued friendship and advice and insight into the world of
: viii :
art and artists in Manhattan in the twentieth and twenty- frst centuries, I
am most grateful to Elena Barnet.
Most important, my deepest gratitude, as I hope the essays herein at-
test, is for the generosity and friendship extended to me by Will Barnet.
Since our frst exchange of letters in the autumn of 2008, he shared with
me not only his biography but also his wisdom, with characteristic hu-
mor, charm, and kindness. He is missed.
An early and abbreviated version of the introduction to this book ap-
peared in the Massachusetts Review 50, 4 (December 2009): 577–85.
Sometime in the summer of 2008 I received a call from Randall Grifey,
the curator of American art at the Mead Museum of Amherst College.
I had not met Randall before and had not really had any connection to
the Mead, even though I had been on the faculty of Amherst College for
decades. Randy (as I came to know him) was calling me because he had
read a book I had recently written on loneliness, and thought that I might
be interested in participating in an event at the Mead during the 2008–9
academic year. A New York artist named Will Barnet was donating a
painting to the Mead Museum. Given the subject matter of the painting,
he and Elizabeth Barker, the director of the Mead, thought I might be a
good interlocutor with this artist when he came to present the painting
in February of 2009.
: x :
I had never heard of Will Barnet. My ignorance is not surprising, to
me anyway, as I had not really followed the world of high art very closely.
But I thought it might be interesting to look into the matter, and so I
tentatively agreed to have a public “conversation” with the artist. Randy
said he would send information about Barnet, especially about the paint-
ing Amherst College was being given and its place in the series of paint-
ings, collectively named My Father’s House, that Barnet was donating to a
group of New England colleges and university museums.
When I fnally saw representations of these paintings, I was aston-
ished. Te painting being donated to the Mead, Te Dream, was as power-
ful an image as I had seen in a very long time, but each of the nine paint-
ings in the series had a similar impact on me, and the cumulative efect
was stunning. I felt a strong need to understand why they so afected me.
In the weeks that followed, I found myself becoming more and more
nervous, worried, fretful, deeply concerned that I wasn’t up to the task of
discussing this work in public, let alone in the presence of the artist who
had created these paintings. I tried to come to some understanding, dig-
ging through my limited education of art to try to verify my naive belief
that what I was seeing was not only my impression but perhaps that of
others as well.
A promise is a promise, and so not only for my own edifcation but be-
cause of my commitment to the public event, I did what I could to try to
understand what Barnet was attempting in this series of paintings. Sev-
eral weeks before he was scheduled to come to Amherst for the public
celebration surrounding the bestowing of this gift, I wrote him a fairly
lengthy letter trying to explain to him what I thought I was seeing in
these paintings. He wrote back to me immediately, assured me that I had
understood his intent better than most people who had written about this
series. While I did not really believe him—I had by then heard about his
kindness and generosity—I thought that even if I made a fool of myself
: xi :
in public, it was for a good cause, and besides, it certainly wouldn’t be the
frst time (that I had made a fool of myself, that is).
So early in 2009 Barnet came to Amherst to give a lecture on the paint-
ings. Following his talk, I was invited to join him on stage for a public con-
versation. Questions were posed and answers given, and I escaped from
the stage relatively unscathed. Later, at dinner, Will and I talked for real,
not for a public audience, and I discovered that he was not only an art-
ist but a highly articulate artist who explicitly understood himself to be a
New Englander, albeit a New Englander who had been living in New York
since 1929. He understood himself, in other words, as an intellectual in
the tradition of New England transcendentalism. Tose whom he read in-
cluded some of my favorite American and European thinkers—Emerson,
Toreau, Dickinson, Nietzsche, Spinoza—and much of what he painted,
especially his fgurative work, was deeply infuenced by their works. It
turned out that what he liked about what I had to say stemmed from my
having noticed those infuences in these paintings.
By the end of that evening he had invited me to travel down to New
York to visit. Among other things, during the course of the dinner Eliza-
beth Barker and Randy had come up with the idea of conducting inter-
views with him about his long history in the world of New York art. While
that project was eventually abandoned, it nonetheless was a spur for me
to continue to travel to Manhattan from Amherst periodically, digital re-
corder in hand, to listen to what he had to tell me.
At the time of his visit to Amherst, Will was ninety-eight years old. He
still painted constantly and did so up to the day of his death at the age of
101. One way of comprehending the scope of his career is to realize that
he had remained a continuously visible presence in the world of art since
he frst exhibited in New York City in 1934. But as impressive as his endur-
ance was, his reputation isn’t a result of it. Instead, his reputation is built
upon an extraordinary range and depth of talents: as a painter who has
: xii :
mastered both abstract and representational genres, as a master print-
maker, and as a teacher of other great artists. He always went his own way,
and yet it always seemed as though everyone else would, if not follow,
eventually come to understand and appreciate his singular vision. Indeed,
in recognition of Will’s extraordinary accomplishments as an artist, he
was awarded a 2012 National Arts Medal, the highest honor an American
artist can be given, by President Obama.
So I visited him. And then I visited him again. By the time of the
third visit, I needed no excuse to come see him. We realized we had be-
come friends across the gap of several generations. I mourned his loss in
November of 2012. I remain in contact with Elena, his wife of over sixty
In December of 2009, the Massachusetts Review published a short essay
of mine on My Father’s House. Te essay, which had grown out of our ini-
tial engagement, included a color inset of the nine paintings that com-
pose the series. Tough I really needed no excuse to keep coming to New
York, we nonetheless struck upon the idea that I would help Will write a
book about his philosophy of art. Over the course of 2010 I traveled down
to New York periodically to ask him questions about his ideas concerning
art. I took notes, trying to keep up. I even was invited to come to Maine
to visit him while he and Elena vacationed at his daughter Ona’s artist
colony / summer resort.
I came to realize that I could not write a book on his philosophy of art.
I was simply too ignorant and my education too belated to do justice to
his thoughts and words. Toward the end of 2010, I came down to New
York City on yet another visit; over dinner I explained to Will and Elena
how I couldn’t continue the project. He was very gracious, as always. I
felt terrible. Tinking again, I realized that I had barely scratched the sur-
face of this series of paintings, that as I had come to know Will better, as
: xiii :
I came to learn more about his life as a child in Beverly, Massachusetts, I
understood the paintings better and had more to say about them.
Tere are some lessons in life that are hard earned, but there are others
that come as gifts. With these the happy obligation is to give back, even
as one knows one need not. Discharging such a happy debt is impossible
anyway. Emerson once put it this way, “Te gift was overfowing from the
start.” So it seems here.
Tis little book is the result of the gift Will Barnet gave, not only to me,
but to any and all who want to look and see. What follows is not a work
in art criticism or art history. If I had to declare what it is, I would have to
say it is a written narrative accompanying a visual biography of a family,
a work of critical appreciation—if such is still allowed—and perhaps an
amateur docent’s exercise in imagining what he would say to a group of
people with questions about this series.
It is also an efort to describe and decompose. De- scribe, in the sense
of bringing to the paintings a sort of script or scripture concerning their
appearance in the world. De- compose, in the sense of provoking in those
who see the paintings some of the feelings of ghostly uncanniness that
informs their composition. I want to dwell in the possibilities of thought
and feeling that are enabled by this series, possibilities that Will Barnet
has illuminated with such care.
Montaigne is commonly said to have invented the essay form in the
West. One of his most brilliant successors, Emerson, liked to invoke
Montaigne by noting that an essay is an attempt, an efort to articulate
something that is not so easy to otherwise articulate. Essay by essay—one
attempt after another—a series comes together, as in Emerson’s famous
collections Essays, First Series and Second Series. Te hoped- for efect in
any such series is that eventually each member of the series touches all
others, that through tacking this way and that an uncertain path forward
: xiv :
and through an experience, we are provided—again to think of Emer-
son—with that which has been dis- membered in the form of a conscious
re- membering. In other words, I want to share with interested readers my
experience of thinking about and through this series of paintings, realiz-
ing that each painting is anticipating the next while building on all others
that have been fnished before, not in the desire of representing any par-
ticular order of progress but in re- creating a moment when there was a
world that still has something to tell us.
In short, I want to show how this series of paintings ought to matter to
us. I want to try to explain how in Barnet’s recreation of a world past we
can see refected, in what we now think and do, the tragedy the past world
has handed down to us and its continued and unresolved presence in our
lives. Perhaps this is too much of a demand to be made of any series of
paintings or, for that matter, any single work of art. But it so happens that
even in the absence of such a demand, art continues to be made, great art
still happens. Surprisingly but not so surprisingly, too often when it does
occur, it still is not always noticed for what it is and might become. I do
not know whether to be concerned or comforted by that fact.
amherst, massaChusetts
January 2014
I grieve that grief can teach me nothing . . .
—Emerson, “Experience”
this is a BOOk aBOut the Barnet family of Beverly, Massachusetts. To
be more precise, it is a book containing reproductions of a series of paint-
ings collectively named My Father’s House and a series of essays refecting
on those paintings.
Te paintings illustrate the members of the family in the way that por-
traiture has classically attempted. Yet we need to remember that portrai-
ture itself is a struggle to copy more than the features of a face or a body.
Portraits are copies, models, of the body, of the face. But they are models
that in some ways are designed to tell us more about their subjects than
the subjects themselves might be able to tell otherwise.
Tese paintings are dramatic; some might even say tragic. In a strange
way the series is a family album. A hope underlying the essays accom-
: 2 :
panying these paintings is that they may help us understand how the
images our artist produced of his family are about much more than just
that one family, even as it is a powerful and strange testament to their
lives together and apart from each other. My sense is that in exploring
both the family and how it has been fgured and confgured by the artist,
we may learn more about our own condition now, something of the state
of our relationships to each other and ourselves and the predicaments we
fnd ourselves facing in a time of turbulence and trouble. Perhaps this is
the larger sense of portraiture, after all: that in modeling this family, the
artist helps us learn more than we otherwise would have learned, only in
this case not only about the family but about us.
Te essays hew closely to the paintings, but they also try to reach
slightly beyond or behind them. Tat is, because I, the author of these
essays, am given to thinking and writing about the pull of the private, the
depredations of loneliness, and the stubborn will of human beings as they
try both to inhabit and to overcome the limitations of mortal life, I see
in these paintings themes that sometimes reach beyond or away from or
outside their frames. Beginning from a perspective informed by the writ-
ings of philosophers and absent a serious education in art or the history
of art, my hopeful pretense, or perhaps arrogant wish, is that something
can be said to and about these paintings that otherwise would be missed
by those with a more disciplined understanding of the art of painting.
PeOPle are very Often sentimental about their families. But we know
that these sentiments can include a broad range of feelings, not all of
them warm and loving, some even deadly in their force. Family members
too often are the authors of their own tragedies, family homes too often
places where violence is done, cruelty imposed, life lost, trauma inficted.
Oedipus. Ophelia. Jesus. Juliet. Lear. Abraham. Isaac. Ahab. Antigone.
: 3 :
Hamlet. But also Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, the salesman crushed
by his own careless life. But also Sethe, the heroine of Toni Morrison’s
Beloved, killer of her own child. But also the Gilmore family of Utah,
portrayed famously by Norman Mailer in Te Executioner’s Song, less
famously but perhaps more tellingly in Mikal Gilmore’s searing family
history Shot in the Heart. Tese latter references are important to bear in
mind because these American works refect a variety of favors of tragedy
that our artist clearly understands, himself the only American- born mem-
ber of an immigrant family.
Te tensions of family life, even in families whose members love each
other profoundly (perhaps especially in such families), are multiple, in-
tense, and often connected by the despair that can accompany trying to
live, to get by in life. Havens in a heartless world, our houses refect the
desire of families to turn inward, to make of home more than it can bear,
to succumb to the temptation to become citadels of protection. Such a
demand for protection creates the preconditions for tragedy, for like all
citadels, families can come to be prisons as well, dark and gloomy con-
tainers of loss and fear.
Do we live like that now? Contemporary American families seem
to be scattered to the winds. Most of our families partake in no com-
mon meals, have no common schedules, and when together have little
in common except for parallel activities or parallel passivities. We don’t
even watch television together anymore. Te screens that we eyeball are
customized to our common yet separate eccentricities. We are always
searching for something new to desire, not even desiring that for which
we search, going down a common road to nowhere. We are in danger
of being crushed by the weight of nothing at all. In many ways, we are
homeless people seeking a home.
Te Barnet family, being of an earlier generation, would seem to have
little to tell us about our more deeply commodifed existence. Except
: 4 :
they do. If anything, with our lives dissolving into the sea of waste we have
created for ourselves—what has been called at least since after World
War II our consumer culture—Americans have been in an ever more
desperate search for something that we might imagine to be a space of
quiet and succor. Traditionalists become more shrill in their dismal asser-
tions about the shape- shifting form of the family the more its shape has
shifted, but their bellicosity, whatever their underlying beliefs may be, is
also a sign of their deepening despair for the future. Nontraditionalists
are increasingly turning to living alone rather than face the challenges
that come with being with others, hoping to achieve some measure of
peace but fnding that they do not even know how to be home alone. All
of us still want to be at home, however we imagine it, but we do not know
that when we come home we may want to run away again, for the very
same reasons we have been attracted to home’s possibilities. Te terrors
that accompany home life are multiple. And yet we cannot turn away
from the idea and institution of it. Te Barnet home is not an exception
to this problem. It is a distillation of its contradictions.
Te gothic understanding of home and family has been a common-
place in American arts and letters, certainly since Edgar Allan Poe wrote
“Te Fall of the House of Usher” and probably before. But there are some
iterations of the gothic that resonate beyond the genre, that exist to carry
us into other places, other ways of seeing, even other ways of being. How-
ever, the gothic sensibility does not allow us to escape easily from its
powers. Te gothic reminds us that our homes are haunts, flled with
ghosts. Tese ghosts are to be revealed to us, and we can become recon-
ciled to them but only if we have the courage to look carefully and see
them in their fullness, in their late humanity.
Te Barnets are only one family, but by the grace of the artist in the
family who portrayed them, they have come to represent multitudes.
Teir home is a haunted place. Tese paintings encourage us to ask, how
: 5 :
do houses become haunted? Te usual ghost story tells us about a mur-
der, a suicide, a fatal illness, all of them preventable, all of them associated
with broken hearts. Family ghosts come back to our houses, together and
alone, to remind us of their absent presence. If we ignore them, a deep
and massive spiritual unrest awaits us. Time comes out of joint, a turbu-
lence of souls overwhelms us, an unnamable something so pervasive as
to become inseparable from our very existence, even as we would never
want to be a part of it. It is when we comprehend just how little we know
of those who haunt us that we recoil in horror. Yet we must be brave. We
must have courage to live, to confront our ghosts. Tere is no escaping
the memory of our past relations, even though, paradoxically, we are con-
stantly forgetting.
if ghOsts haunt Our hOuses, lost and forgotten, then angels—
those emissaries of God, who, as Tony Kushner has suggested in Angels in
America, have been abandoned along with the rest of us as that entity has
taken what seems to be a permanent vacation—watch over us, only help-
less to do more than witness the catastrophe that is unfolding before us.
Walter Benjamin famously tried to describe something akin to this.
He presents us with an angel of history, the reluctant caretaker of what
Benjamin imagined to be a part of history’s unthought heritage. For
Benjamin’s angel—inspired by a remarkably strange painting by Paul
Klee, a painting he cherished as a prized possession—the past is con-
stantly receding as the angel is blown into the future, helpless to do any-
thing but look back at the ruins. Of this angel Benjamin writes,
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of
events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage
upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. Te angel would like
: 6 :
to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.
But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings
with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. Tis storm
irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned,
while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. Tis is what we call
Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus (1920), is an unusual image for an angel.
It is a copperplate engraving painted over in spots with some watercolor.
Te image we see is formed from a line drawing, the hair like thick rib-
bons curling into a halo. Te shapes that compose the angel’s body and
limbs are predominantly rough triangular forms. Te body has the ap-
pearance of being transparent or at least translucent. And it indeed does
seem to be being blown backward into the future.
Benjamin sees wings. So too, it seems, does his friend Gershom Scho-
lem, who wrote a poem, Gruß vom Angelus (Greetings from Angelus)
especially for Benjamin, containing the following lines:
My wing is ready to beat
I am all for turning back.
For, even staying in timeless time
Would not grant me much fortune.2
For Scholem the angel is interested in going back, but how does that
compare to being in “Timeless time?” Presumably it would mean turn-
ing back to the Paradise that lies before history, away from which he is
being blown—but why is such a return to Paradise not the same as time-
less time? Te only diference might be this: a return to Paradise would
suggest the erasure of history. In timeless time, the angel of history is re-
signed, Scholem might say, because simply being “all for turning back”
is not the same as struggling to go back. For Benjamin the angel con-
Paul Klee (1879, Munchenbuchsee, Switzerland–1940, Muralto, Switzerland), Angelus Novus. Oil
transfer and watercolor on paper. 31.8 × 24.2 cm. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Gift of Fania
and Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem; John Herring, Marlene and Paul Herring, Jo Carole and Ronald
Lauder, New York. B87.0994. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Elie Posner.
: 8 :
tinues to struggle, struggles to go back to Paradise, and is relentlessly
being blown into the future. Te angel is not resigned, never resigned,
always struggling. We might say that for Benjamin the angel is never de-
feated yet always losing.
I want to understand why Benjamin and Scholem see wings on this
angel but fail to note that this angel lacks arms or that its arms have be-
come wings. Why might it matter that the angel’s wings are arms that end
in hands? If we were to speculate, could we imagine these hands as being
useful—that is, useful as hands? Te fngers appear blunt, almost vesti-
gial, as if the angel does not need them. Indeed, as wings they appear to
be held away from the angel’s body, the fngers unable to allow the hands
to do the things hands usually do, like grasp or open or applaud. Not
being human, perhaps the angel has no use for hands.
But a characteristic of the human is handiness.
Tis question concerning hands matters if we are to understand at all
the paintings we are to see. We will be observing hands doing things in
this series of paintings, things that are very human; extraordinary things,
though not in grasping ways. Hands will be telling us about things. Hands
will be moving across faces, across pads of paper. Hands will be petting
cats. Hands will be conjuring. And hands will be invisible, out of frame,
doing their work, thinking.
But let us set hands aside for the moment. Instead, let us return to
the angel of history. Let us imagine that the ruin piling upon ruin that
Benjamin’s angel witnesses, born of the violent collisions of so many
events and things, not only piles upward but in its pressure produces heat
and, combusting, sometimes light, light out the darkness of all that we
have done to this world. Let us imagine that the history we write is only
a series of descriptions of those ruins, written over and over on a single
page, ruin after ruin, akin to the Freudian archeology of the unconscious.
If held up to the palimpsest of our spectral markings, the memories we
: 9 :
have scrawled on lines, would we be able to decipher what has been left
behind, through the terrible clutter we have created? I doubt it. Perhaps
the debris has piled too high or not yet high enough. Perhaps we could
never dig deep enough, fast enough, to clear the site of progress. Per-
haps Benjamin’s catastrophe is piling up behind us, and that overwritten
page—call it history—is going up in fames.
What if there were no angel looking back, no angel weeping for us,
struggling with the terrible wind, beating its wings, furiously trying to re-
sist what is called progress? What might we see for ourselves in the ruins?
Anything at all? Could we hope for a light that would enable us to locate
the horizon of night and the end of day? Or would we be fnally blinded,
condemned to live in a dark that has become so total as to eliminate the
very idea of seeing? Would we still try to fght our way back, to resist
progress, or would we resign ourselves to the woe of loss? If that were
to be so, how would we ever be able to see our ghosts? How would they
ever communicate with us? Do our ghosts need angels to light an uncer-
tain path to the future?
If we are left to remember the past, we must also remember that the
past exists for us in the form of thought images. Benjamin writes, “Te
past can be seized only as an image which fashes up at the instant when
it can be recognized and is never seen again.”3 Articulating history for
him means seizing “hold of a memory as it fashes up in a moment of
danger.”4 And the danger is not only to the living, who will be defeated if
they fail to remember the past, but to the dead themselves, who will be
forgotten, who will disappear into something that isn’t even the past, but
is instead oblivion.
Our ghOsts are Our anCestOrs, our formers, those who through
the hydraulic forces of Dna sucked in and out have made us who we are,
: 10 :
if not who we will become. We know most of our ghosts because they
have died before us, sometimes at our hands. We may have thought we
knew them when they lived. But we also know that they died with many
of their secrets intact, even as they have transferred to us some of their
vital matter. In return, what do we do for them? We revere them. But we
also forget them in the very act of revering them, bury them by remem-
bering them in a way that will allow us to forgive ourselves for forgetting
them. Tey sufer from being forgotten, they sufer their abandonment as
a second death. Tey are restless because we forget them. Tey haunt us
more deeply than any of us can properly fathom. Tey remind us that we
too will die, that we too will be revered, forgotten, and restless.
We could say to our predecessors as well, what did you do to remem-
ber those who came before you? Perhaps some endless chain of bad faith
in and of humanity is at work. More forgivingly, this reverence and for-
getting may be part and parcel of the fear we have always had of and for
those who have died before us. If the equation we produce tilts the bal-
ance from that of being more afraid than forgetful or more defected than
acting in bad faith, can there be something more forgiving in the way we
approach this sorrowful past? Can we remember our ancestors in such a
way as to allow them the peace of memory? Can we suspend the time of
their time without killing time? Can we unbury the dead, so that they may
be properly buried at last? Can we wave good- bye to the new angel, our
angel of despair? And what would that mean? Will we ever be able to live?
I ask too many questions, I know. But these are not only my questions.
Tey belong to all of us, just as we belong to them. Tey are questions
that are unanswerable, but they still must be asked. Our artist asks these
questions. He captures the fash of memory in those dangerous moments.
: 11 :
he is a native Citizen of the United States, the only one of his family
born within its borders as, after a complicated and obscure family migra-
tion from Europe, the Barnets settled into American life in Beverly, Mas-
sachusetts, on the North Shore across the bay from Salem.
He is a denizen of an overfull century of turmoil and transformation.
(Has there been a century upon which we have left our traces that has not
been full of turmoil and transformation? We are always at the end of the
world, it seems. We struggle, like the angel, against a speed that gathers,
pulling us toward the future, as sure a force as the wind. Still, the twenti-
eth century certainly seems to us who have lived through it to be one of
great turmoil, if only because it has been our turmoil.) Te litany of disas-
ter and wonder is a familiar one to all sojourners of the twentieth century:
two world wars, a world depression, the great and terrible fu epidemic,
split atoms, space travel, the hiv epidemic, technological advances un-
paralleled in human history, crucial advances in human rights, vaccines
that eradicated entire diseases, and still, greater levels of destruction of
humans by humans than ever before recorded. Te word “holocaust,”
which once meant a burnt ofering, became with the capitalization of
one letter the name of what was foolishly hoped to be a unique political
catastrophe. But it wasn’t, excepting in the true but largely inconsequen-
tial sense that every snowfake is unique.
Te person who I am referring to as “our artist” or “the artist” (and to
whom I will refer throughout the rest of this book) saw a particular form
of art in this country and throughout the world become a dominant aes-
thetic of the twentieth century. Tis art troubled the waters of represen-
tation, called into question almost all of the received ideas as to how art
might bear a relationship to truth, and so reconfgured that relationship
as to present art, and us, with a philosophical crisis.
Shortly after our artist met Arshile Gorky in 1934, the two of them
went for a walk through Manhattan. Gorky pointed to a commercial sign
: 12 :
in a shop window and suggested that that would be the future of art.
Gorky was prophetic, but only to a point. Te staging of pop art was but
one of many futures of art during that century. Cognizant of this future
development in art, our artist did not go into the future with pop but ex-
plored so many other futures as to become a master of arts—in a sense
the wise man of the New York art scene but with his own aesthetic sense
Our artist has his own thoughts. He has long known how to bide his
time, quiet, informed, knowing what he was doing, knowing the limits
of that knowledge, Socratic in style, aware of his own ignorance and the
truth of the limits it has imposed on him but, perhaps even more inter-
estingly, on the rest of us as well. He has had the patience to show us who
we are to be, who we have been, and—I believe most difcult of all—who
we are. He does not provide us with a simple mirror in which we can see
ourselves but much more: a vision of possibility and impossibility repre-
sented in every trace of every shape.
Little Duluth, Big Duluth, Spokane, to name just a few of his own abstrac-
tions, major paintings resisting other abstractions, browns and whites,
arrowhead forms, shapes from who knows where (he does), colors of
such subtlety that they don’t exist anywhere else but on his canvases and
in the night sky, ever- seeing cats, yarn, wise children assured of their sup-
per, Madonna not grieving yet solemn, Central Park, desire displayed in
the hitch of a hip, despair on the streets, blue Maine light, memories of
widow walks, walking widows, ocean horizons akin to the infnitely blank
expanse Ishmael is urged to contemplate before signing onto the Pequod,
weight in the forms of the rich men and women, lightness of step and
grace in despair, occasional dogs, sweet and dumb—not nearly as atten-
tive to the subtleties as those shrewd cats, the dogs fountains of want and
laughter, tails wagging.5 In other paintings, like Enclosure, a deceptively
simple fatness only emphasizes the infnite labyrinth of the mind.6
: 13 :
Lithographs, prints—our artist, ubiquitously present throughout this
land and world, yet strangely underknown to all but himself and those
close to him, a personage internationally famous among a small group of
aesthetes (though that is changing even as I write these words). Tough
it may be too obvious to say so, he is very self- expressive. Yet even as he
explains his art a deep mystery adheres to it. His admirers cannot always
express why, cannot reach the point of saying what it is that renders him
diferent, despite the many spilt words, as here. But it also is true that any-
one who sees even one of his prints from the 1970s is likely to exclaim in
recognition, “Oh, that’s Will Barnet!”
He has been a teacher of other artists during most of his years in New
York at the Art Students League, including some of the most heralded
artists of the twentieth century. He has been sought after as a teacher
throughout the United States and over the decades has painted where
he has taught as well. In all of his years he has resisted the anxiety of the
infuence of those he taught and his own peers, preferring instead to be
perturbed (which is to say inspired) by Vermeer, Rembrandt, El Greco,
and other classical European and American painters, as well as the indige-
nous artists of North America. Tese artists, it seems, have been his famil-
iars even more than his contemporaries have been. He was encouraged
since a child by the librarians at the Beverly Library to look all he wanted
at the art books they had in the collection, and he took full advantage of
the privilege. Tis early exposure created his yearning to become an art-
ist, and he started in earnest by the time he was twelve. (Michelangelo,
whom he admired as a child though he was not to infuence Barnet’s
work, was a fgure he discussed with his baseball teammates with such
familiarity that they mistakenly thought that the painter of the Sistine
Chapel was just another kid from a nearby Italian neighborhood.) His
longevity has allowed him to share his memory of seeing, as a young stu-
dent, the great John Singer Sargent at work in Boston. Of course, as he at-
: 14 :
tended to the work of these past masters, he also listened carefully to his
peers, his students, the other New Yorkers who worked the same streets.
Having been both alone but not lonely and lonely but not alone, he has
learned enough through experience to have been able to give renewed
expression to this most fundamental of American archetypes, the lonely
ones. Herman Melville once called them the “isolatoes.” As loneliness has
become ubiquitous in modern times, as the world itself seems to have
succumbed to that larger pathology, absorbing but also transforming the
cultural meaning of this existential angst, he has drawn upon the memory
of and arc of the life of a family that only he can depict. He has painted the
family he grew up in, his birth family, and the family he made with a frst
wife who left, and then the family he made with his beautiful and care-
ful second wife. Always he has worked to connect the specifcity of each
family’s life to whatever larger meaning it may have for anyone who can
appreciate the beauty of despair and the blunt endings of all moral jour-
neys. A prodigal son of sorts, he left his birth home early, but unlike his
older brother, who left in anger, he returned, and remained attached to
his mother and father and his sisters. Tat attachment deepens the sense
of sadness and beauty informing his work.
His heartbreak and joy have both been bountifully measured through
his adult life. Heartbreak: a frst marriage ended badly. Joy: the fact of
sons and the fact of another marriage, to his wife since 1954, Elena, who
bore a daughter, Ona, and who sustained him and loved him through his
long second life.
He experienced what only a few of us have experienced, having lived
so long as to cross over the one hundred year anniversary of life. Te
sadness that comes with the loss of one’s own generation, one by one,
is a wilderness only the very aged experience, and he is older than most.
He knows from close observation how hard death is, but even here he
learned early. When he was six years old his father took him to say good-
: 15 :
bye to his aged grandfather, after his grandfather was hit by a car and
mortally injured. Looking up from his deathbed his grandfather asked
this little boy, “Do you think it is easy to die at ninety- six?” (Probably no
easier at 101.)
He is a deep diver (as Melville once observed of Ralph Waldo Emer-
son), someone willing to risk his lungs bursting if he is able to bring back
to the surface the treasures he has found far below, in the dark, unknown
as yet to anyone but fathomed by his intuition. (He is extraordinarily
sensitive to the dark and seems easily able to paint it in all of its hues.)
And he is a reader, which is to say a writer, someone in conversation with
the thought of other American thinkers, especially Emerson and Emily
Dickinson, as much as he is of any other writers of the unconscious.
His youthful reading of Nietzsche (who himself named Emerson as
one of his most admired and infuential predecessors) was not that of a
young man leaning on the strength of another heroic thinker but of an old
soul in conversation with another old soul, an artist ready to absorb the
tragedy Nietzsche ofered to explain. Nietzsche furnished him with ideas
of solitude and its power, of plasticity and the control of chaos, and of
chaos’s blessings. Apollo and Dionysius but not in equal measures. Nietz-
sche paradoxically showed him ways to be a better democrat as an artist.
He responded to this philosopher not by repairing to the insularity of the
mountaintop but by fnding his own way through the conundrum- flled
valleys of the ordinary of modernity. It would be too much to say that he
has always known what he is doing, but it would be a tragic underestima-
tion of the power of this artist to imagine that he has not known better
than most.
As a denizen of Manhattan through most of the twentieth century
and beyond, our artist, like so many other New York intellectuals of that
period, absorbed the thought of Freud as though it were in the water. He
learned enough to take his own dreams seriously. Like the philosopher
: 16 :
Stanley Cavell, he would be puzzled if anyone were to suggest that he not
take himself seriously, knowing that if he didn’t take himself seriously,
no one else would need to.7 (Of course, Freudian seriousness is the most
serious seriousness of all forms of seriousness. Even its jokes are serious.)
Te artist is smart enough to know that it is only when one takes oneself
seriously that one can learn to laugh, and he is indeed a man of great and
good humor.
Tere is yet another thinker with whom our artist converses, the anti-
Descartes, Spinoza. Spinoza of Amsterdam, who thought of the univer-
sal as a material principle in our lives, Spinoza, the excommunicated Jew,
Spinoza, the atheistic lover of god, the lens grinder, the ethicist, another
companionable thinker, another fellow traveler for this compassionate
democrat. Spinoza, a man of substance, that is, a person who saw the
substantial body of our souls, the connections, the rhizome under our
feet, who recovered horizontal links in the subterrain, sub- stance being
his way of understanding.
Our artist is not a philosopher, at least no more a philosopher than any
of the rest of us. But he is informed. More than that, it is not information
he has but the practical wisdom of someone who for so long lived on his
wits, lived the life of the New York artist, knowing that art, philosophy,
science, are enjoined by care, love, anger, and a desire so painfully blissful
that it is too often denied, that must not be denied not only if he were to
succeed as an artist but if he were to succeed as a democratic artist.
in sO many of this artist’s paintings we struggle to see with him what has
not yet been shown, what lurks inside the dismembered remains of our
private and separate pasts. We are drawn to the fat surfaces of his paint-
ings, a fatness that defes and yet gains depth not by perspective but by
light and shadow, parallax, framing, atmosphere, balance, strange shape-
: 17 :
liness, odd geometries, so that a new clarity emerges for the viewer, as
though we ourselves have been fattened and reconfgured, an enactment
of the dismembering that precedes all remembering. If his representa-
tions of fgures did not appear to be so real, we might call them surreal.
(Isn’t that what surrealism is, in the end—an intensifcation of the real?)
He holds a metaphorical mirror up to us, and we see things about our-
selves and about our others that we never have seen before. Whether we
are disturbed or relieved by what we see depends on who we have been.
And yet there is objectivity to his work, as though the plurality of human
being is both reduced and expanded in his representations.
Our artist once summarized his approach to painting and, more gen-
erally, to the plastic qualities of his art with this single, potent sentence.
“My interest has been in developing further the plastic convictions that
have been evolving in my abstract paintings; so that a portrait, while re-
maining a portrait, becomes in this sense an abstraction: the idea of a
person in its most intense and essential aspect.”8 Te notion that he is en-
gaged in painting the idea of a person is yet another sign of the intensity
with which he approaches the relationship of reality to art. Tis intense
focus on the conceptual is what we might call a metanarrative, a self-
consciously refexive efort to be sure to maximize the meaning of every
stroke, every juxtaposition, every blending of color and line. To apply the
abstract to the form of the person—he of course has no monopoly on
that count, but he is so successful at it that at times it is as though he has
painted what Emerson, when speaking of the human person, once re-
ferred to as “a golden impossibility.”
What is a person? We know that a person, when imagined in juxtaposi-
tion to a human being, is an artifce, a being less of the earth and more of
the plastic arts, of the power of life and experience, and of politics as well.
To be a person is to be in the feld of life, moving across vectors of touch
and interaction, the play of life marking the shape of who we are and who
: 18 :
we will be. In this sense, remembrance is always an act in the ongoing re-
construction of the person. Who am I? I am more than this human that I
am; I am a person, as difcult as being a person may be. And to know this
person it is necessary to know who this person once was. Who are these
persons, these Barnets portrayed in this series of paintings?
Our artist’s work on the theme of memory and its repression reaches
a climax of sorts in this series. But memory is ubiquitous. Te project of
memory fnds expression in almost every phase of his artistic life, from
the sketches he produced in 1932 wandering in the dark heat at night in
Central Park, a heat that drove everyone from their apartments and tene-
ments to seek relief in the cool quiet of the park, to his period of abstrac-
tion, one rooted in his persistent attempt to paint reality, to the paintings
under consideration here (to which we will be able to devote this book),
and then to his recent return to abstraction. But in this series it is as
though everything else he had studied, every work he had painted, every
sketch he had made, and the innumerable products of his extraordinary
skills as a lithographer had somehow prepared him for this intense ex-
ploration of his own birth family, a family lost and recovered and, as will
happen in the end for all of us, lost again.
Did I say he is a man of great and good humor? He is. But there is
almost no comedy in this series of paintings (perhaps in the parrot, per-
haps in the cat, but not in the persons). In these paintings he traces the
tragic line. Tis is a series of paintings about absence, loss, a family bereft
of itself, melancholic in the most ordinary, which is to say, most extraor-
dinary, way. He fnds the extraordinary in the ordinary; if he is a philoso-
pher, his is not only a philosophy of art, it is a philosophy of existence in
all of its complexity.
In speaking about this series, he once suggested that the capture of
memory itself was his quest. He asked, “How do you paint something that
: 19 :
is no longer there?” What a question! It is our question, a question of our
time, for this is a time that could be characterized as sufering from an
aphasia that prevents us from being present with each other or ourselves
or even realizing how absent we may be from the experience of our own
lives and of the lives of each other.
A key question this series poses concerns the idea of presence. For us
who are living now, the question of being present is a complicated one.
So many of us have learned how to be absent while present and how to
be absent in the present that actually being present in the present has
become the most difcult thing for us to experience. Why is that so im-
portant? Because this fracturing of time is an exemplary feature of the
modern world, and its power consists of denying our persons the possi-
bility of acknowledging each other as we are. Being absent while present
means that while we may physically be somewhere, we are nonetheless
unable to think or feel our place there. In such circumstances we fnd our-
selves lonely while in the midst of a crowd. Being absent in the present
means that we fnd ourselves to be the only ones who are where we are,
all others not being there. It is as though we enter an empty room and
have the thought of being in the wrong room, thinking that no one is here
or, worse, that I am not here and all the others are. In this circumstance
we are unhappily suspended between the past and future, with no way of
imagining ourselves in our own time.
In developing his philosophy of moral perfectionism, Stanley Cavell
has identifed the problem of being present in the present as the very
quest of moral philosophy.9 We are imperfect beings who seek to be
better, realizing that we will never achieve our end but can measure our-
selves against the terms by which we depart from being here. For Cavell,
this is the essence of what he calls moral perfectionism. Te difculty is
that of distraction, which is itself as much an ethical problem as it is a
: 20 :
psychological one. When we are distracted is when we are unable or un-
willing to see what is in front of us or in seeing what we see, fail to see
what is not there.
Both of these conditions of distraction are kinds of loneliness. When
we experience either of these conditions the space of presence and the
time of the present are both lost to us. Our others are lost to us. To strive
to be present in the present, to try to make oneself intelligible to others
but also to one’s own self, is a major element in thinking about the loneli-
ness of our age, addressing it as an ongoing experience, not overcoming it
but dwelling within it, reaching for a better solitude in hope that we might
reach a better understanding of our circumstances. Tis series of paint-
ings brings to light the terrible problem of not being able to be present.
And yet these paintings also reconcile us to that sad fact of absence. In
that sense, the artist demonstrates a way in which we might better live
together, even as we come to realize that we are destined to be apart.
tO ask the questiOn “How do you paint something that is no longer
there?” leads to further questions and answers about how we remem-
ber the houses of our past. Our artist was inspired to compose this series
of paintings by his older sister Eva, who in 1990 was living alone in his
father’s house. Eva, his last surviving sibling, was eleven years his senior
and in failing health. When he visited her, he saw her wandering through
the rooms of the house. He soon understood that, sufering from illness,
she was hallucinating the presence of departed family members. Notic-
ing when and how her hands would touch her face, he was able to infer
when she was seeing images of the past. Tis is the past that is no longer
there, still present in a ghostly form. Tis is the past she was seeing, the
ghosts of the family gone.
Immediately after he returned to his studio, our artist began work on
: 21 :
a painting of Eva, a portrait of her staring out of a window. He was to en-
title it Te Dream. Tat painting turned out to be only the frst one, as that
painting led to another and another, and the series emerged. Composed
over the course of the next four years, each painting is directly and indi-
rectly related to each and every other one.
Unlike Benjamin’s angel of history, whose hand- wings are blown back
by the wind of progress, Eva is able to touch her face, and in touching she
is able to conjure the past, to remember what has been buried and for-
gotten. But remembrance is never complete and not always even begun
before fnished. Suspending the moment, that is, representing the mo-
ment suspended, is a quest, never an end.
A comparison may enable us to see the enormity of the task our artist
took upon himself. Ralph Waldo Emerson begins his famous essay “Ex-
perience” with a frightening description of the sense of disorientation we
feel when we are lost. For Emerson, in its depiction of a kind of disorien-
tation, the sense of loss feels like a loss of feeling itself.
Where do we fnd ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the
extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and fnd ourselves on a
stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there
are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.
But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door
by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no
tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake of the lethargy
now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night
hovers all day in the boughs of the fr- tree. All things swim and glitter.
Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike, we
glide through nature, and should not know our place again.10
Cavell has noted that “Experience” appears as the second essay in what
Emerson explicitly calls Essays, Second Series. He suggests that Emerson is
: 22 :
telling us in his punning way—“in a series of which we do not know the
extremes”—that he does not know where or when this series of essays
begins or ends, that it is indefnitely open, that it will continue at least as
long as he does, and now we know, even longer (since we still are think-
ing through the meaning of his words, sentences, and paragraphs almost
two centuries after they were written).11
Within each essay in his series, Emerson famously juxtaposes sen-
tences and paragraphs that, at frst glance, do not seem directly con-
nected to each other. Only through refection and repeated readings do
the multiple perspectives and meanings that he seeks to convey come
through to his students and readers. Any single essay in Emerson’s series
is to be defned not only as a descriptive piece of writing but as an at-
tempt to accomplish something—in his case, to show the uselessness and
perhaps, paradoxically, the usefulness of experience itself. And yet even
more, this particular essay is an attempt to show how we attempt to essay,
assess, how we attempt to measure the distance between where we are
and where we have been—that is, how we may go about writing an essay,
moving from an indefnite beginning to some sort of end. Cavell has said
that it is an essay on the possibility of writing an essay. It is an essay that
Emerson is writing, an essay that demonstrates by its existence that an
essay can be written. So in a very particular sense, Emerson’s essay on ex-
perience is devoted to the efort to describe what is no longer there—in
his case, the reality of his grief for his dead son. He conjures his son’s
ghost out of the uselessness of his grief.
Emerson’s description of grief eerily parallels what the artist has
painted. “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one
step into real nature,” he writes. Te indolence, the lethargy, the sleepi-
ness—he writes, “Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illu-
sion”12—becomes an important element, but not the only one, in what
: 23 :
the artist paints. Te shadows that threaten our perception, the night
clinging to the noon of our day in the groves of trees, the shadows of the
interiors of our houses, and the glimmer of light just beyond our sight
that might somehow lead us back to the life we have forgotten become, in
the images the artist created with his hands, something more, a conjuring
of family ghosts and a recovery of memory, two handles on everything,
never a settled meaning because of being composed of time within time.
So it is for Emerson. His sentences almost always have at least two
meanings, and when he says that he grieves that grief can teach him noth-
ing, he is grieving the lesson that grief is teaching him, the lesson of noth-
ing, that we come from nothing and return to nothing. “It is very un-
happy, but too late to be helped,” he writes, “the discovery we have made,
that we exist. Tat discovery is called the Fall of Man.”13 In the face of
this unhappy discovery we nonetheless attempt to be present while we
are alive on earth. We attempt to think, even if we fail, as we will. And if
we fail, we try again.
Tinking is something that we do with our hands as well as our heads.
(Benjamin’s angel may be considered a thinking angel to the extent that
we can say that it has hands.) Emerson refers to hands in “Experience” in
a way that refects our artist’s painterly use of them. He writes, “I take this
evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our
fngers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of
our condition . . . Direct blows [Nature] never gave us power to make; all
our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other
are oblique and casual.”14 Te clutching hand will not attain to the knowl-
edge of objects. We will be frustrated in our desire to capture reality, be-
cause reality cannot be captured. But we might engage in another relation
to reality if we are ready to receive what thoughts come to us. Emerson
once said that all he knows is receptivity. Tinking as receptivity is the
: 24 :
opposite of thinking as asserting, as knowing with certainty. Te former
shows an open hand, the latter a clutching one. One is handsome, the
other unhandsome.
“Our oblique and casual relations . . .” We do not directly see each
other or even look at each other directly. Is this how the artist sees things?
It is like telling the truth on a slant, as Emily Dickinson once wrote. But
how is this obliquity connected to casual relations? Later in “Experience,”
Emerson says, “We thrive by casualties.”15 Tere is something fatal about
the casual character of our relations, something determined by tempera-
ment, by fate. We want to resist that fatality even as we appreciate its
power. Freedom itself largely consists of such acts of resistance. Emer-
son says, “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on
them.” What else are the paintings in this series but surfaces? Te fatness,
the surface of the canvas that allows us to look into a house as though it
is still there, sharpens our insight and allows us to see the mistakes that
were made by those who lived within its walls.
Indirection, glancing blows. What might we fnd in a glance? In his
essay on art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin suggests
that people view flm in a state of distraction and that the distraction
itself enables them to see what they otherwise would not be able to see.16
Is this the indirect glance of which he speaks? If so, does such a seeing
not disable our ability to slow down, to pause, to walk in the manner of
his nineteenth- century faneur? Quick and slow, slow and quick—is the
path of our vision determined by the politics of speed itself? When I ask
you to slow down, am I saying that you do not see certain elements of our
artist’s work? And what would those elements be?
Perhaps it is incumbent upon us to look both ways, both distractedly
and attentively. Perhaps it is the object itself that might tell us how to look
or at least send us a signal as to how it wants to be seen. Perhaps there is a
struggle, involving seeing, between the viewer and the viewed—and the
: 25 :
artist as well. In any case, our attention to how we are seeing, the moods
we are in, our vacillation between sleepiness and alertness, only deter-
mines so much, and even then the object itself remains—shimmering,
various, yet there nonetheless.
We may try to separate our thinking world from what Emerson called
“our great talking America.” But it was also Emerson’s hope that our true
romance would be found in realizing—that is, making real—the world we
think. Up again, old heart, he urged. Emerson’s way of giving us heart was
through his essays. For our artist it is through his paintings.
Our artist’s hanDs are handsome. Exceptionally large, powerful, with
long, tapering fngers, hands remaining strong enough to be incredibly
delicate as well. Operating on the fatness of these canvases he rearranges
and re- members the limbs of his family tree. He juxtaposes shapes that
compose themselves into representations of bodies in space. Tey adhere
to the surface of the canvas, enacting their own rigorous casualness. We
glance at those who are appearing to us on those surfaces; we try to take
in the entire image of the being and, of course, do not quite ever absorb it
all at once. But we are equipped to receive if we forgo our clutching, if we
give up our desire to hold. Tis is how our artist prepares to paint some-
thing that is no longer there, the nighttime that is always present in the
shadows of noon. He comes to us with fgures that are reassembled body
parts, ready as ever to become who they are.
It is not only a process of making real that is involved in the represen-
tation of things in the world. It is also writing, painting, and acting so as
to discover what it is that we think and feel. Tis is the artist’s way. Our
artist is a genius in the sense that Emerson gives the term: a person who,
having access to his truest self, is able to show it to the rest of us as a part
of our experience as well. (Such a form of genius is equally available to
: 26 :
us all. Tis is a fact of democracy.) He is able to give testimony to the
truth of the present, in a constant struggle to realize himself as a person,
relying on whatever tools are at his disposal, the hands of thought and
craft, the head, the heart, the receptive eyes, and whatever is strewn on
the ground—struggling through the sleepiness of midday, the shadows
in the woods, in the house, in the clouds above the endless plain of the
Midwest, in the infnite ocean of the Maine coast, in the widow walkers’
eyes seeking an end to the endless horizon. Glancing casually, that is to
say obliquely, at his paintings we learn how tragically casual our casualties
are. Emerson said that he thrived on casualties. Tat is a bloody thought,
but it is also sanguine in the other sense as well—a vital element in the
self- confdence of one who can take on the surfaces of life and give them
Te shadows, the shades, the presence of ghosts just out of the frame
or in the frame and out of the line of sight, the haunted faces, the solid
walls, the blocky furniture, are all there. Looking past each other, afraid to
look directly in the face of the losses of lifetime but also afraid not to look,
how is this dreadful sadness to be conveyed? Perhaps it is only someone
who has a lasting love of the humanity of those he has lost would ever be
able to paint such a scene. And yet he has, not just one portrait of a sister
in a hurting place but nine paintings, an indefnitely open series where he
hopes we will fnd ourselves, a series that will be completed only when
those who look upon it cease to be moved by it.
But there is more here than love, there is the bitterness of loss, the
starkness of a past that can never be recovered. We can smell death in
the colors on the canvas. While there is love, love is never enough. With-
out the terrible pain of loss the tragic line he wants to draw cannot be
expressed, the representation of the representation, the staging of the
tragedy, the echo in the hallways, the palpable sense of the presence of
: 27 :
those who have long been gone. He would be left with something less,
perhaps in its own way every bit as worthy of exploration, the melodrama
and even the comedy of the comings and goings of an American family.
But the truth of his family, the bedrock reality of its idea and history, is
founded on this loss, found in loss, lost and found. (Tragic beauty, the
product of pain, does it tempt us to seek the pain to fnd the beautiful?)
We are always ready to become human. Our artist realizes that his
open hand, ready to close upon his brush, but not to clutch, never to
clutch, not to capture, but to draw us forward, inward, leaning forward,
ever closer to the infantine joy that is intertwined with and underlies
every tragic moment of our lives, is all that he has to ofer. And so he leans
forward, as we shall see.
Emerson says, “Let us treat the men and women well; treat them as if
they were real; perhaps they are.”17 Our artist responds, wholeheartedly:
Let us paint the men and women as if they are real, because even with
our great uncertainties, we can make them so. We have our tools to make
them so. If we do it well, we will have given them a gift of the reality that
they might have otherwise denied themselves. Tis is the gift he ofers us,
as an artist of the ordinary. He gives, he does not take. In this series, his
whole heart is thrown into this act of giving, of rediscovery. What he is
recovering is a melancholic house, another dimension of the gothic ex-
perience, New England in the clear light of a dusk that will soon to turn
into darkness. Te ghosts come out after dark, not because they are afraid
of the light but because the light is afraid of them. We conjure our men
and women into reality, and then night falls, and they reappear as their
ghostly selves.
So another gift of our artist is the boldness of his mistakes, which he
turns into misgivings. His misgivings are almost never mistakes. Te hesi-
tation, the frozen moment, the stillness in these paintings at times makes
: 28 :
them seem as though they are, paradoxically, still life paintings, not a
series of portraits of the members of a melancholic family. How does
one express such stillness in a medium that is already composed of fxed
images? I do not know. But our artist does. Tis is the task this artist has
charged himself with: to present his family not as a mistaking but as a
PriOr tO the DisCOvery of the optics of the unconscious, the real-
ization that we see more than we can consciously absorb—introduced
to us with the invention of photography—we relied on our painters to
represent the unconscious, giving us no more correspondence to who we
are than photography can do but in their own way being discriminately
observant of the posture, the gesture, the thought behind the bodily still-
ness that manifests itself in the smallest of movements. An exposed ner-
vous system through which the wind can blow and animate these paint-
ings allows us to listen to them as well as see them, observe them well, as
we might observe our sleeping infants, checking their breath by listening,
and noting the rise and fall of their breasts. With the rise of photography,
many of our painters abandoned this task. It seemed over for them, it
seemed they needed to move past the claims of the bodies that walked
before them, to plunge into the abstractions that were to constitute our
new way of seeing after the photograph claimed that earlier turf of rep-
Our artist knows that it is a foolish wisdom that imagines that we will
ever be able to move beyond the body to something that is outside it or
to pose the idea of freedom as being somehow beyond our bodies. Te
gestures in these paintings are nothing less than signs of how our bodies
think and feel. Tis is what our artist knows.
: 29 :
i have referreD tO our artist as a wise man. It is such an uncom-
mon label to use these days, because we are lacking exemplars of wisdom
in our culture. But he is wise, and his wisdom is not common, however
democratic he is and however democratic the consequences of what he
has to show us might be. We ought to pay attention to a person who has
been as wise as he has been for as long as he has been. We ought to look
at those bodies he has painted for us, for they continue to whisper to us,
truth on a slant, which is the only way we will come to know it.
It may help us to recognize that for our artist biography can be under-
stood in its most specifc and primordial sense: as a kind of writing of
the body, an essaying of the terrible weight of the refexivity of all of our
eforts to think about ourselves, the walls so often closing around each of
us as a protection against the light of words. Te bio- graph, understood
here as a body marked, tattooed, re- presented to itself as itself, written
on itself, is an ongoing theme of this series. Tese bodies represent them-
selves as bodies, over and over again, in an infnite regress, in two dimen-
Te painting of this series has been the creation of one of those im-
proper histories, a strange biography of a family, a very specifc family
that once lived in Beverly, Massachusetts. Te members of this family—
mother, father, sisters, brothers—are his subjects, his collective subject.
He includes himself, especially himself, for there is no looking at these
paintings without our being aware of the presence of the person who has
painted them. He is in our place throughout, even as he sometimes is
looking at himself.
It is a strange kind of biography in another sense as well. Tere is no
narrative, only images, and the images refect not only the artist’s per-
spective, his interior exteriorized, his pain, his guilt, his love, and his
fear, but the perspectives of the others as well. And yet the very titles of
: 30 :
the paintings in this series, with the exception of the painting that they
are collectively named under, achieve their strange objectivity through
the simple use of the nonpossessive, defnite article the. Te father, the
mother, the family, the mantle, the vase, the three windows, the dream, the
golden frame. Objects are linked with specifc family members as totems
and symbols, each family member has a separate existence, and yet they
are as joined as the limbs of a single body. What has been dismembered
is re- membered here.
As a way to see these bodies, the artist presents us with the most rigor-
ous formality. Te formal characteristics of the paintings allow us to see
these bodies as abstract representations—no humans look like them, and
yet all humans do. He captures them, as might a camera. Abandoning the
nonpossessive and labeling the series and the signature painting of the
exterior of the house they lived in with the possessive my confrms our
artist’s own presence in his past, his endlessly unfolding story, told frame
by frame, with no necessary order needed, a nonnarrative past recovered.
Tis is his account, his essay, his attempt, no one else’s, and yet we
know that he realizes a larger truth than merely his own, merely the
image of his family (as if we can dismiss them with a “mere”). We are
to learn something, something perhaps not expressible in words, about
the shape of love, abandonment, and ghostly existence. And even though
words may not express it, they may be used to at least acknowledge what
he has done.
rOBert POgue harrisOn has suggested that Martin Heidegger got it
exactly wrong in his essay “Building, Dwelling, Tinking” when he argued
that we will come to know what a house is only when we successfully
think through what the essence of being is. Harrison writes, objecting to
Heidegger’s argument, that “[I]f anything, it is by thinking the essence of
: 31 :
a house that we will come to know what being is.”18 He goes on to note
that it is well known that the frst houses were houses for the dead, our
forebears, designed to preserve them through our long period of awaiting
our reunion with them. We might think of the artist’s series of paintings
as an act of preservation and transference as well as his narrative of loss.
We might imagine it as a form of ancestor worship in the form of the re-
creation of a house, a graveyard for grave men, to follow on Mercutio’s
deathly pun.
As early in Western thought as the pre- Socratic Greeks, a surprising
number of thinkers who would be considered serious have been deeply
concerned with the question of metempsychosis—what we more com-
monly call the transmigration of souls. But their attraction to this ques-
tion is not superstitious. Our ordinary lives are extraordinary in part be-
cause we achieve this intimate interaction with the dead through the
plain and simple inheritance of parent to child, older sibling to younger,
a communication as deep and mysterious as any available to us mortals.
Te memetic faculty is a barely discovered continent of human being,
even a century after Freud. But it is by taking on the characteristics of
our forebears, by imitating them and modifying them, and then by pass-
ing them over to our children that we achieve this feat of transmigration
in the most prosaic and ordinary of ways. Tis ordinary experience is ex-
traordinary, it presents us with the plain fact of human being. Tat we so
often fail to recognize its extraordinariness is part of its power over us.
And, as Cavell would hasten to remind us, perhaps the most extraordi-
nary thing about it is that it is ordinary.
For all of the pain that our lives entail, we have had this gift, we humans,
to invent all sorts of ways to transfer a part of ourselves to those who are
to come. We do this in the face of, and because of, our knowledge of the
fact of our mortality. Te representation of mortality rarely achieves such
levels of perfection as it does in this series, these essays on a family of
: 32 :
ghosts. To enter My Father’s House is to enter into the possibility of some-
thing rare, the possibility of a change of mind, of a transfguration of our
own selves through the experience of seeing something that is no longer
there. Why should we be surprised by this possibility? Like true philoso-
phy, that is exactly what great art does. It changes everything, even as
everything remains somehow the same.
We could follow Toreau’s similar suggestion about writing and read-
ing and try to see these paintings as deliberately as they were painted. For
our artist, deliberation is everything. He will not spill his paint, as Jackson
Pollock did, counting on the random gravity of the drip to show him the
way, expressing his genius in a single gesture multiplied. We might say
that Pollock is an extravagant painter, pouring out excess in every splash,
letting the paint think for him, transferring his handiness with elaborate
abandon. Our artist is extravagant as well, but his extravagance is of a dif-
ferent kind.
He realized early on that to probe deeply by staying on the surface,
respecting the power of the paint by thinking with it, required that he
embrace the luxury of the lifelong student who has become the master,
always observing as directly as he can, making study after study, carefully
waiting for his paintings to tell him when they are done. He understands
the power of revision, the power of waiting, the power of repetition.
Patience, patience, he might say to us; the true romance will be realized
in the practical power of the paint. Because the quest for the sort of per-
fection he seeks is a lifelong one, his longevity is a special gift. Or perhaps
it is the other way around, perhaps he has lived so long precisely because
he has lived in such close proximity to the perfection he will never reach.
In either case, the way he works, producing as many as a hundred studies
before committing paint to canvas, not realizing a completed canvas until
he is certain, even if it takes years or even decades for certainty to arrive,
his time is never wasted. Tat is, just as for Emerson books are for the
: 33 :
scholar’s idle times, so too for our artist painting is for his idle times. Te
trick to this sentence and this advice is that for the scholar all times are
idle times, all times enable us to read and write. And so it is for our artist.
Time is never wasted. He sees and paints as Emerson thinks and writes,
always ready.
Imagine. Were we able to devote one tiny fraction of the time our art-
ist has devoted to painting this series of paintings to looking at them for
ourselves, we could spend fruitful days with each one of them. We would
have the opportunity to go close to the canvas, to see what we can detect
in each brushstroke, or given the smoothness, the seamless quality of the
line and the paint, to reimagine the place of each form, the careful juxta-
position of images, so that we would come to know how impossible his
paintings are. We should only spend our time so well. How much time
do we have?
the questiOn Of time is a pressing one for us denizens of the mod-
ern world. Te difculty is that we always seem to be running out of it,
and hence we fail to slow down. One of the frst things that we need to
do when looking at these paintings is to slow down. Slowing down sug-
gests that there is something that can be revealed to us only through long
looking, through detailed description, so that the painting before us in a
sense falls apart and comes back together again but not as it was before.
Oh, to take apart these paintings as though they were made of building
blocks and then to put them together again. Would we have a better sense
of what it means to remember?
Our time is to be one of re- membering and recovery, for we have
been dis- membered and our cover has been stripped away. Tose who
thought they were at home are now homeless, just as we all will be, even-
tually. Ghosts we will become. But there is no need for this life to end
: 34 :
as tragedy, though it surely will end. As another of the artist’s favorites,
Emily Dickinson, once observed: “’Tis Life’s reward—to die.”
But to die is not the only reward of life. Tere are other pleasures along
the way, and the pleasure we may experience with this series of paintings
is that rare realization that someone we may have never met is able to
tell us something profound about ourselves without ever saying a word.
Emerson began his most famous essay, “Self- Reliance,” by telling us
that he had recently read some verses written by an eminent painter. I
wonder if he could have had someone like our artist in mind. Emerson
noted how one is somehow admonished when one confronts such origi-
nality. If well taken, that admonishment will only be a spur encouraging
us to further self- trust. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what
is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.
Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense; for the
inmost in due time becomes the outmost . . .”19 My Father’s House, it
seems to me, speaks our artist’s latent conviction as a universal sense. We
are admonished by this series, in the best possible sense—spurred on to
think our own thoughts, convicted by the truth, and thus, perhaps, made
free, if only feetingly, in that brief period that lies between two eternities.
nOte s
1. Walter Benjamin, “Teses on the Philosophy of History” (Tesis IX), in Illuminations,
edited with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York:
Schocken Books, 1969), 258.
2. See Te Correspondence of Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin, edited by Gershom
Scholem, translated by Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1992), 79–80. Te poem is incorporated into this thesis.
3. Benjamin, “Teses,” 255 (Tesis V).
4. Benjamin, “Teses,” 255 (Tesis VI).
5. For a comprehensive catalog of Barnet’s work up to the mid- 1980s, see Robert Doty, Will
Barnet (New York: Harry Abrams), 1984.
6. See Patrick J. McGrady, Will Barnet: Painting without Illusion: Te Genesis of Four Works
from the 1960s (Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, University Park;
distributed by Penn State Press).
7. See Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford Uni-
versity Press, 2010).
8. McGrady, Painting without Illusion, 25, quoting Barnet in 1962.
9. See, e.g., Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” in Essays, Second Series, in Emerson: Essays and Lec-
tures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 471.
11. See Stanley Cavell, “Taking Steps in Emerson’s Experience,” in “Tis New Yet Unapproach-
able America” (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1984).
12. Cavell, “Taking Steps,” 473.
13. Cavell, “Taking Steps,” 487.
14. Cavell, “Taking Steps,” 473.
15. Cavell, “Taking Steps,” 483.
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16. Benjamin, “Te Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations,
edited with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York:
Schocken Books, 1969).
17. Benjamin, “Te Work of Art,” 479.
18. William Pogue Harrison, Te Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2003), 37–38.
19. Emerson, “Self- Reliance,” in Essays: First Series, in Essays and Lectures, 259.
1. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: Te State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New
International, translated by Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 10 (emphasis in
the original).
1. Tis point is famously made by Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations II, xi.
“But we can also see the illustration now as one thing, now as another.—So we interpret
it, and see it as we interpret it.” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed., translated
by G. E. M. Ascombe (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 193.
2. “Experience,” 473.
3. Tis painting was completed in 1991. Given the pose of the woman in the painting, two
remarkable images come to mind. First, we might think of the famous American flm com-
edy Home Alone, which premiered in 1990 (written by John Hughes, directed by Christo-
pher Columbus). Te poster for the flm advertised it as “a family comedy without the
family,” and the child actor in the flm, Macaulay Culkin, is pictured in the poster with
his hands pressed against his cheeks. His mouth is wide open, whereas in the painting the
woman’s mouth is shut. Of course, the other famous reference that could be made, per-
haps the more obvious one, is to Edvard Munch’s Te Scream, the famous series of paint-
ings and prints he completed between 1893 and 1910. Interestingly, Munch’s series is titled
in full Te Scream of Nature. Tis painting presents nature in the form of trees, sky, and
crows. It contrasts strongly with the austere interiors we will be seeing in later chapters.
1. Frederick Seidel, “Easthampton Airport,” Poems, 1959–2009 (New York: Farrar, Strauss
and Giroux, 2009).
1. Tis is a central claim that Cavell advances in his magnum opus, Te Claim of Reason: Witt-
genstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). See
especially part 4, “Skepticism and the Problem of Others.”
2. Henry David Toreau, Walden, with an introduction by Edward Hoagland (New York:
Library of America, 1991; paperback, 2010), 74.

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