Editor's note: The following essay, written in 1985, is printed with permission of the author, Don Gray. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

The Challenge of Thomas Hart Benton

by Don Gray

 

"It seemed to me that I must make a choice. Either I would paint in the realistic tradition of Western art with some kind of identification with the natural world, and thus risk being 'unprogressive,' or I would follow the new movements toward an unknown goal, a goal which a number of far-sighted critics were already saying might turn out to be an empty square of paint."  

As early as 1911, painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), sensed the dangers in the seeming liberation of modern art; that it could -- as it has -- evolve into increasingly narrow and meaningless exercises in human willfulness. Once his fateful and courageous decision not to follow the pathway of European modernism was made, Benton opened the door to artistic achievement, fame and virulent denunciation.  

"What I wanted now was to see clearly the nature of American life as it unrolled before me and to paint it without my vision being distorted by any generalities of (Marxist) social theory. The exposition of this change of mind caused my radical friends to see me with a jaundiced eye. I became for most of them a 'reactionary' and a 'chauvinist,' in addition to again being an 'opportunist.'"  

In its implications for the future development of American and world art -- a significant art of meaning based on reality is again trying to surface through an imprisoning layer of theoretical abstraction and mannered imagery -- the excellent exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton's paintings and lithographs at the Queens Museum March 3-May 5, is more important than the recent shows of Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum, the primitive origins of modern art at the Museum of Modern Art, or any other exhibition in and around New York City this past year.  

The Benton show originated at Bard College in upstate New York. After the Queens Museum, it will continue at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, May 12-July 6. It was curated by Linda Weintraub, Director of the Edith C. Blum Art Institute at Bard.  

What was apparently not realized by many in the New York art world who attacked Benton in the 1930's, and may not be understood now, is that Benton was fully aware of the abstract basis of art. For ten years during his early period, he explored all the modern art movements, and remained strongly committed to the underlying abstract framework in his realistic works.  

"Contrary to general belief, the 'Regionalist' movement did not in any way oppose abstract form. It simply wished to put meanings, recognizable American meanings, into some of it. I have myself spent a great deal of time working with the basic properties of art, combining purely geometric forms. In my case, however, the resulting combinations were not themselves what we call ends. The ends I had in view...were always to create effective vehicles for representing and communicating meanings."  

But after much search and doubt amounting at times to despair, Benton became convinced that a significant art could only come from the direct experience of life wherever one happened to be living. John Callison, a Kansas City broker and, for the last ten years of Benton's life, a close friend forty-six years his junior, remembers the artist telling him, "You know, I've been down every blind alley in art; they all lead to blind alleys except representational art. People that recorded history at the time they were alive, these things last."  

Benton began the slow process of altering his thinking in his early twenties in Paris. "I had commenced reading Hippolyte Taine's 'Philosophie de l'Art'...It made a deep impression. Revealing the close ties of the older arts to specific social backgrounds and cultures, it made me question many ideas about art that I had heretofore taken for granted... Seen through Taine's writing, the art of Paris appeared to be feeding wholly on itself; paintings were growing out of paintings rather than out of any discernible cultural situations. Though, as Taine seemed to spell out, this was degradation, the literature circulating about the new movements gave them a persuasive aura of progressiveness..."  

Benton was obliged, during stateside World War I service as a naval draftsman, to record the structures at the Norfolk Naval Base.  

"This was the most important thing that, so far, I had ever done for myself as artist. My interests became, in a flash, of an objective nature. The mechanical contrivances of building, the new airplanes, the blimps, the dredges, the ships of the base, because they were so interesting in themselves, tore me away from all my grooved habits... I left for good the art-for-art's-sake world in which I had hitherto lived... (It) opened a way to a world which, always around me, I had not seen. That was the world of America."  

Benton, with fellow mid-westerners Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, was the founder of Regionalism, that art movement -- named by others -- in the 1930's which sought to discover and express the quintessential meaning of America primarily through its rural folk culture. This need for nature, ordinary people and simple ways was, like many other 20th Century manifestations in art and life, a desire for reconnection with fundamental truth, values, reality in a time of great upheaval and doubt. In fact, Regionalism is another form of the 19th and 20th Century search for the "primitive."  

Barbizon School landscape and tillers of the soil, Marx's proletariat, Impressionist light, Gauguin's Tahiti, Van Gogh's sun, Renoir's women, Picasso's African masks, Kokoschka's feeling, the Surrealist's unconscious psychic automatism, Mondrian's mystic Utopian purity, Alber's "Homage to the Square, "Abstract-Expressionist emotional release -- these and so many more -- all speak, at bottom, of a desire for foundational reorientation in a God-less, collapsing world.  

"The name Regionalism was taken, I believe, from a group of southern writers, poets and essayists, who in the late twenties called themselves 'agrarians.' These, turning from the over-mechanized, over-commercialized, over-cultivated life of our metropolitan centers, were seeking the sense of American life in its sectional or regional centers."Benton continues, "But this Regionalism was not a clear term. Neither Wood, Curry, nor I ever held ourselves, either in space or time, to any American region... (We) thought of ourselves simply as American or Americanist painters, sectional at one moment, national and historical at others. If we dealt largely with 'agrarian' subjects, it was because these were significant parts of our total American experience.  

"We were alike in that we were all in revolt against the unhappy effects which the Armory show of 1913 had had on American painting. We objected to the new Parisian aesthetics which were more and more turning art away from the living world of active men and women into an academic world of empty pattern. We wanted an American art which was not empty, and we believed that only by turning the formative processes of art back again to meaningful subject matter, in our cases specifically American subject matter, could we expect to get one."  

In a world threatened by the probability of war with Hitler and Mussolini, Benton's search for truth and meaning in the American heartland seemed, to left-wing types, not only hopelessly provincial, but dangerous in a world of developing international perspectives and complexity. In particularly vicious and ignorant attacks, Benton's conservatism and national pride were equated with that of the Nazi dictator.  

But -- in a strange irony -- as Benton has pointed out, who were the real provincials? He, who was finding artistic value and meaning in America, or the American modernists who, like generations of insecure brethren since colonial days, looked to Europe for models and guidance in the arts and ideas?  

Benton's search for artistic and human meaning within his own country was swept aside, at least in the public eye, media and art world, though not in his own mind, by the wave of internationalism created by World War II. Following the peace, European-inspired art was strongly in control of New York City, which became the art capitol due to the destruction of Europe and the flight to America of many artists, critics, historians and collectors, and their subsequent influence on American art through art education and art commerce.  

"It was one of the saddest experiences of my life to watch these two men (Wood and Curry), so well known and, when compared with most artists, enormously successful, finish their lives in ill health and occasional moods of deep despondency... It was, as a matter of fact, sort of catching and I had more than a few low moments of my own..."  

Apparently Benton could never completely understand why he was so vilified. "I think I have correctly assessed the aesthetic and political atmospheres which channeled most of the criticisms leveled at me, but I have never understood their virulence, a virulence which made so many of the artists of New York regularly speak of me as 'that son-of-a-bitch Benton.' It could not have been jealousy, because all of my artist critics were convinced of their own superiority. It could not have been my Americanism alone, because other Americanists, like Burchfield and Hopper, seemed generally acceptable."  

What really differentiated Benton from his American Scene or other contemporaries was his prickly outspokeness. If he had kept his mouth shut, his enemies and the enemies of a realist art of meaning, might have allowed him to paint his pictures in relative peace, as the others did, because few people understand the language of art, even though it speaks as loudly and clearly as English, French or German. Few would see the increasingly sterile dead-end that modern art was approaching. But when Benton opened his mouth, he had to be opposed, because people do understand spoken English in America.  

Thus Benton became a focal point in an historical crunch of ideas and human destiny. The conflict was more than a question of style -- realist vs. modernist or theoretical socialist. It was a way of responding to the world and human life; of searching for profound values or nihilistically denying their existence.  

In terms of the specifics of his work, three elements most characterize a Thomas Hart Benton canvas. The artist's figures, often painted from small clay models, have a simple, often intentionally distorted solidity that is at once cubic and cylindrical. His color is jewel-like, fresh, clear and strong, partly the result of oil-glazing over tempera, but like the figure distortions, more expressive of a tremendous need to communicate the intensity of his experience of life.  

The powerful Bentonian energy finds its greatest expression in his third characteristic: twisting, sinuous form. Clouds, trees, people, plants, the earth itself, snap, hump, writhe and heave like serpents, similar to the uncoiling of fundamental, central life energy that found expression in the late 19th and early 20th Century organic sinuosities of Van Gogh and Art Nouveau. It speaks of inner turmoil or torment, of energy dammed up, unable to flow out naturally and evenly, thus forcing, bursting its way to the exterior world in spasmodic knots and coils of movement, the psychic equivalent of physical orgasm.  

Of course, this curling energy of forms has always manifested itself in art as the emotional, Baroque, Romantic opposite of Classical intellect and control, and was particularly responded to by Benton in the work of Michelangelo, Tintoretto and El Greco. In 20th Century terms, Benton is an expressionist-realist. He is far from being a realist in the current denatured use of the term related to Photo-Realism or his own hatred of advertising's vulgarization of reality. Benton's realism is generic, visionary, at times nearly surrealist in its strange clarity and intensity.  

"The reality that we, as full human beings, generally know and act upon is more complicated. It is not the reality of direct perception but that which such perception leads to. The associations attached thereto constitute what we call our knowledge of things; they are our ultimate human reality."  

Benton's realism is of a nearly conceptual kind based upon vast personal contact with the people, land and activities that make up his experience, and endless drawing and painting of that experience. This experience sinks within him, the essential reality becomes part of him, the insignificant, surface detail melts away leaving the core of solid, simply-conceived, herky-jerky, dynamic form that is the Benton trademark.  

"This realism tried to symbolize the turmoil of America by setting up a turmoil of rhythmic sequences." While Benton's psychology cannot be thoroughly explored here, it seems clear that the turmoil is not America's alone.  

Lyman Field, a Kansas City lawyer and long-time friend, feels that the death of Benton's father had, in a strange way, freed the artist to rediscover and reclaim this troubled relationship by a plunge into the realities of Missouri and mid-western life. Benton himself seems to affirm this. "I cannot honestly say what happened to me while I watched my father die and listened to the voices of his friends, but I know that when, after his death (in 1924), I went back East, I was moved by a great desire to know more of the America which I had glimpsed in the suggestive words of his old cronies, who, seeing him at the end of his tether, had tried to jerk him back with reminiscent talk and suggestive anecdote."  

Something in Benton would always remain barren, just as something else would always be immensely fertile and fruitful, the anarchic combination of the two seeking to resolve themselves providing one of the impetuses to such intense creativity.  

This is perhaps epitomized by such works as "Silver Stump," a 1943 oil and tempera. A jaggedly-broken, sharp-pointed, sinuously-gnarled stump strains from the bottom of the picture nearly to the top,, its "living" deadness embraced by compulsively encircling, viney leaves. This picture seems to express the two sides of Benton: the stump the pain and isolation striving amidst the rich fecundity of his own life energy and that of nature in general, as well as the idea of a world at war trying to resurrect itself. Broken or starkly leafless limbs protrude from otherwise fertile trees in pictures of all periods, clearly expressing something fundamental about his character.  

Benton's dynamism found obvious and extended development in the work of Jackson Pollock, his most famous student at the Art Students League in New York City, forming an unintentional but direct link to Abstract-Expressionism.   

The older artist's concerns for an art based on observed and experienced reality utilizing abstract compositional principles foundationed on an understanding of the forms of the late Renaissance or Mannerist artists like Tintoretto and El Greco, were passed directly to the youthful Pollock whose early work is a blend of these artists, Benton himself, Albert Pinkham Ryder and his own inward, extremely tormented soul. Later, Pollock would move on to Picasso, and, like many artists, fight to extricate himself from the Spaniard's crushing embrace.  

"A good deal has been said lately about Jack Pollock's indebtedness to me. In some quarters this has been exaggerated... I did point out certain stylistic factors for his early studies. These, however, were no more than were called to the attention of my other students. Although some of his rhythmic patterns even to the end of his productive life, correspond to patterns I have myself used, it must be remembered that I did not invent these patterns. Their origins go far back in the history of art. Jack's use of them became radically different from mine as he matured. My own rhythms are always closed, their peripheries are contained, turned inward, within a predetermined space. The fully developed Pollock rhythms are open and suggest continuous expansion.  

"I could not but feel considerable satisfaction in Jack's final success. However, there is a philosophy of art and life by which I have lived and which I cannot renounce, even for the sake of a friend... (The deficiencies in Pollock's work) are symptomatic of what I have often said to be the most destructive tendency in the artistic circles of our century, the dehumanization of art in favor of a purely aesthetic formalism. Also, the success and widespread influence of Jack's work has added greatly to the already insidious influences working toward a worldwide artistic conformity. You see today in Venice and Rome what you see in Paris, London, New York, and Tokyo, a procession of more or less decorative patterns carrying no discernible meanings, no marked differentiations of content or of form either."  

Tension in Benton's work and mind are also revealed in the duality of oppositions in his art and thinking like America/Europe, realism/abstraction, past/present, nature/technology, life/death. Whatever problems of personality or early life experience play their part in this split, as they no doubt do, it is also an expected result of living in a stressful, schizoid era.  

Benton clearly expresses duality in his lithograph, based on the painting, "Wreck of the Ol' '97,'" 1944, in which a smoke-belching black locomotive careens disastrously toward a broken rail at a crossing where a rearing white horse topples a woman from a wagon.  

The tyranny of the new, industrial-technological way of life in conflict with the old, is also expressed in the painting "Fire on the Tracks," 1965, which dramatically contrasts the passionate, humanistic twists of a signal flame with the technical, coldly piercing, precision lucidity of the train's headlight, as a figure on the tracks seeks vainly to halt its progress with a raised hand.  

Perhaps Benton's archetypal masterpiece in the show, particularly when related to "Flood Disaster," 1951, is "Sheepherder," 1955-60, which sums up the endurance of the crusty, never-say-die old individualist as a human being and artist.  

After the flood, amid the marvelously painted, tumbled debris of shattered and upended houses, cars and wringer washer (the shambles of his own life, health and position in the art world), three members of a family return to check their losses. They find, or so it seems, a subtly-haloed Christ Child literally on a manger-like pile of straw, symbolizing, like the distant, strangely gleaming, towered city beyond the river, a redemptive vision of fulfillment beyond the disaster of earthly existence.  

In "Sheepherder," nature itself is the magical promised land, with curving, pristine alpine meadows and stands of evergreen and golden aspen dominated by a Teton-like, many-spired mountain with bulging, swelling slopes as organically massive and alive as the thighs and belly of a hippopotamus. The mountain is corrugated, like the face of the aging artist (he's 66-71 when he paints it), by the folds, scours and wrinkled crevasses of life fully and obstinately lived.  

Lloyd Goodrich, authoritative writer on American Art associated with the Whitney Museum since its inception -- its director from 1956-68 -- evaluated Thomas Hart Benton.   

"No question, he was a great originator and a very strong artist. The thing that is so unusual in his work is the extraordinary energy of subject matter; the whole range of America. Not just a studio art, but looking at ordinary American life, industry, agriculture and sharecropper. He saw so many different aspects which nobody was touching at all.  

"A few people touched one aspect or another, but he touched them all. He had the most extraordinary range of subject. And then the energy of the art itself, the extraordinary energy of the forms, the movement of the forms. That is not such a common quality."  

This unusual awareness of the breadth and depth of American subject matter and the American soul came, as John Callison relates, from a yearly habit established early on in Benton's life which has to be a major reason for the genuineness of his art. He'd go off on walking, hitchhiking, sketching trips through the country for four, five, six months at a time, "staying with people he met on the road. He had the greatest ability to get along with people. He could get along with the lowest sharecroppers or the president of the United States. He was the life of the party. Those were exciting trips. He was a great charmer, you know. Every time we'd go on river trips, the banks would be lined with people; the word had spread that Tom Benton was coming.  

"He was a brilliant guy. He could talk on any subject, but he never let you feel that he was superior. You never felt ill at ease. He was a man who had a mission."  

Matthew Baigell, author of an excellent book on Benton, referring to the criticism heaped upon the artist and his work during his lifetime and after, graphically assesses Benton. "If he was that bad, he would have disappeared."  

Obviously, he hasn't disappeared. In fact, Thomas Hart Benton is about to be rediscovered as a major figure, not only as an artist but as a thinker and writer. Anyone not acquainted with his latter qualities is urged to read, among his other writings, his two autobiographies. "An Artist in America" is the anecdotal story of his life, travels, art and insights into America, originally published in 1938, with additional material subsequently appearing in the editions of 1951 and 1968. "An American in Art," 1969, more thoroughly explores his artistic development and beliefs.  

Benton was a thinker of uncommon perceptiveness, originality, depth and integrity. If he is approached without prejudice or preconception, the brilliance of his understanding is not only dazzling, it is cathartic and healing. In the simplest, most directly-stated language, Benton points out the truths of art and life so obscured by the verbiage of the day.   

There is an informed, innocent honesty about the man akin to the child able to see and acknowledge to himself and others that the emperor has no clothes. 

Copyright by Don Gray

 

About the author

Don Gray is a painter who writes.  In addition to being an artist, critic and poet, he was a university professor of studio art and art history, as well as producer/moderator of cable television programs on art.  He received a B.A. degree in Art from Arizona State University and an M.A. degree in Art from the University of Iowa.  Now living in Arizona, he resided in New York for twenty-five years.  He has long been a supporter of significant realist art.


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