Thomas Hart Benton: A Life by Justin Wolff

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Thomas Hart Benton: A Life by Justin Wolff

Nowhere in his elegant biography of Thomas Hart Benton does Justin Wolff mention F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American life. Neither does he indicate whether Benton agreed with Fitzgerald, though given his own fortunes, it seems likely the painter would concede that second acts are not guaranteed. Wolff doesn’t advocate for a Benton revival. He concedes early on that his attraction to Benton’s work was belated, and his responses – he found Benton’s work “entertaining” – fell short of the intensity generated by the works of artists he had admired longer. He does challenge regionalism as a useful category. Freeing Benton from the associations attached to that movement could open his work to a larger view, but on this count Wolff offers more of a lament than a call to action.

Benton’s father was a U.S. Senator from Missouri. His mother took on social pretensions while living in Washington. She imagined her son, the artist, would add a touch of sophistication to the family name. Benton tested their patience, his father’s especially, with his gradual progress toward a style which was identifiably his own. Wolff’s account of Benton’s early struggles, his trying on and casting off of the various fads of the day, is more engaging than it should be. His account of how Benton came to the theory and application of color in his work is deliberate and sophisticated. He also demonstrates that the various approaches Benton experimented with were so at odds with his character, which Wolff draws in fine detail, that whether one cares for Benton’s style or not, it feels authentic to him as a man by the time he arrives at it in the 1920s. Woolf fortifies this sense of Benton’s sensibility with details such as his “preparatory drawings on ordinary paper stained with his own tobacco spit.”

From today’s vantage point, it’s difficult to imagine Benton as a pre-eminent American artist, but that’s precisely the degree of esteem he held in the 1930s. He had already painted Boomtown in 1928, a work depicting the sudden excess of a 1920s Texas town during an oil boom. The work Wolff, asserts, is Benton’s true beginning because it was his earliest work which still sparks controversy. The painting was (and is) either fun “and Benton a heroic slayer of pretense,” or “fraudulent.” Wolff finally points out that the critic Karal Ann Marling sums the painting up as “neither absurd mythology nor unpretentious documentary; it’s a bit of both.” Other, larger projects followed, including the murals which made him famous, works like America Today and A Social History of the State of Missouri. They are alive with the densely muscled figures which were Benton’s trademark and his very particular sense of color, which seems always vital and mythic, somehow part of a different reality than the one around us, even when Benton portrays historic events.

During the same period Benton intensified his feud with the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, and made remarks about homosexuality which still undermine his reputation. As early as 1931, he claimed to have left a post at the Kansas City Art Institute because the school had become a “homosexual center.” He questioned the usefulness and necessity of museums and gallery owners, a peculiar stance for an artist. “Do you want to know what’s the matter with the art business in America?” he asked a group of reporters gathered for an April 1941 exhibition of his work. “It’s the third sex and the museums,” he opined, adding that museums were “run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait.” He would do away with museums entirely, he continued, a remark which fell in line with his belief that art should serve a practical function, that it should be embedded in daily life. But the hateful tenor of the commentary as a whole obscured any practical message he might have delivered.

His relationship with Jackson Pollock, which is often portrayed as fraught, gets a fair hearing from Wolff. He notes that Benton and his wife helped all of the Pollock brothers, and that Benton never really turned his back on his most famous pupil. He characterized Pollock as “an extraordinary natural colorist,” and declared “considerable satisfaction with Jack’s final success.“ Benton’s real quarrel, Wolff concludes, was with what he saw as the shortcomings of abstract forms rather than Pollock in particular. Wolff attributes Pollock’s destruction of early paintings he did in Benton’s style to a larger rejection of representational methods than a targeted attack on Benton’s individual sensibility. “The truth,” Wolff concludes, “is that they loved each other too much to let their divergent aesthetic philosophies ruin their mutual admiration.”

Wolff’s ambivalence toward Benton is apt. His analysis of the artist’s work is dispassionate but it shows tremendous clarity. Benton has admirable moments and traits, in spite of his querulousness and intractability. Wolff shows us the aged Benton at work on a mural for Harry Truman’s Presidential Library, toiling through “terrible bursitis in his back and shoulder, which required cortisone injections,” an expense of effort which left him so spent at day’s end that guards had to pick him up off the floor. The most intriguing question Wolff poses is what might have been if Benton had taken a path like Pollock’s, rather than what would have happened if Pollock had continued following his teacher’s lead. “Imagine, for example,” Wolff writes, “an abstract Benton painting; see the push and pull of his dynamic bumps and hollows, and see his vibrant, swirling colors and the anxious, tentative gestures he makes in the process of abandoning representational forms.” Instead we end with Benton heading to his studio to sign the last mural he painted, for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. He died before he could apply that final stroke, but it would not have altered his legacy, which was already firmly established, something even a work as fine as Wolff’s book is unlikely to change.  

– John McIntyre

All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.

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