Born in Washington DC, September 24, 1934 the second son of Mahlon Barnes and Marjorie Bain. During the second world war Barnes spent his early childhood in Silver Springs, Maryland and the remainder growing up in Wilmette, IL from 1946-1952. Barnes' interests as a youth involved art, poetry and boxing. In 1952 Barnes graduated from New Trier High in Winneka, IL.
From this point Barnes' fate of becoming an artist was sealed after a visit to the Goodman Theater, which was connected to the Art Institute of Chicago. The intention of Barnes was to get information from the theater on how to explore his interest of becoming an actor. The Goodman, that day however, was closed but Barnes who was with a friend joined him on a whim in taking an entrance exam to The Art Institute of Chicago. What started out as happenstance became Barnes' acceptance into the Art Institute with a scholarship.
From 1952-56 Barnes attended both the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago attaining his Bachelors of Fine Arts degree. Fellow students whom he associated with were Claes Oldenburg, Jack Beal, Irving Petlin, Leon Golub, Ellen Lanyon, Robert Indiana, H.C. Westerman and Dennis Adrian. During this period, Barnes met art dealer Alan Frumkin at one of his first Exhibitions, "Exhibition Momentum 52' ". Barnes and Frumkin would later forge a twenty five year working relationship.
In 1957 Barnes married fellow art student Lia Sayers, they were both 21 years old, very young and together they moved to New York City to pursue their graduate degrees at Hunter College and Columbia University.
In the late 1950's in NYC there were many expatriate Dada surrealists. Through his acquaintance with Matta, Barnes mixed with surrealist greats such as Duchamp, Ernst, Bill & Norma Copley, Hans Richter and art dealer Julian Levy. Among them the young artist felt encouraged and inspired. It was also at this time that Barnes was active in the James Joyce Society at Gotham Bookmark, this experience and the admiration for Joyce's writings along with other great works of literature would come to pervade Barnes' painting themes throughout his career's progression