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Painter Will Barnet Awarded National Medal of Arts by President Obama

By Amy Zimmer | February 13, 2012 6:54pm
National Arts Club resident Will Barnet was awarded the national Medal of Arts by President Obama, Feb. 13.
National Arts Club resident Will Barnet was awarded the national Medal of Arts by President Obama, Feb. 13.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

MANHATTAN — Legendary painter and National Arts Club resident Will Barnet has had a lot to celebrate lately.

The artist, who turned 100 in May, was in Washington, D.C. on Monday, to receive the 2011 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Barnet received this high honor "for his contributions as an American painter, printmaker, and teacher," according to the citation.

"For over 80 years, Mr. Barnet has been a constant force in the visual arts world, marrying sophistication and emotion with beauty and form," the citation said.

Barnet can no longer stand, but he still paints three to four hours a day in his duplex apartment in the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park, where he and his wife Elena have lived since 1982.

Barnet had his first solo show in the city in 1935 but just had his first retrospective in New York this past September, at the National Academy Museum.

He is known for his abstract and expressionist paintings but also for his depictions of family and personal scenes, like one of his daughter, Ona, as the Greek goddess Hera surrounded by crows, which hangs in his apartment and took him years to complete.

"I made hundreds of sketches," Barnet told DNAinfo in May. "It's like writing a novel. You have to get the language together properly and the story right. But it can't just be a story. It has to be a painting. The color and form is important."

Barnet taught at Cooper Union and Yale, among other places. His famous students included Mark Rothko and Alex Katz. He still visits galleries to see emerging artists.

"So many people have met him. So many people have been delighted by him," Bruce Weber, a senior curator at the National Academy Museum, told DNAinfo in May. "Even now, his presence at so many New York events is still there."

Barnet was one of seven to win the arts medal. Other winners included actor Al Pacino, pianist Andre Watts and poet Rita Dove.