Painting for the PeopleJohn Haber
in New York City
Justin Wolff: Thomas Hart Benton
In February 1949, Thomas Hart Benton received quite an honor, an invitation to the White House. He must have felt he deserved it, too, but then he often felt that way. He had fled the midwest in the name of art and New York in the name of America. Why did the controversy keep surprising him?
Nearing his sixtieth birthday, he had been painting for over thirty years what one series calls The American Historical Epic. American regionalism had become a byword. His murals had covered the Whitney Museum on West Eighth Street, the New School, and the Missouri State Capitol. He had represented his state in the 1933 Chicago World Fair and America on the cross as an image of World War II. His "public hoopla," as he called it, had included his memoirs and a documentary film. The son of a senator and the great-nephew of another, he was in Washington at the behest of another of the state's favorite sons, Harry S. Truman.
He should have known what was coming. He was meeting a kindred spirit—if one a little squeamish when it came to female nudes. "Are you still making those controversial pictures?" As Benton described it, the president "put this question in a bantering sort of way, but there was not much humor in the look of his eyes, nor did he laugh when I replied, 'When I get the chance.' " In retirement, Truman eventually had him paint his presidential library. It took less an appreciation of Benton's art than bonding over whiskey.
Never apologize, always explain
As Justin Wolff tells it, in Thomas Hart Benton: A Life, he had a way of striking out on his own, returning in triumph, and nursing disapproval every step of the way. He practically asked for it, from the moment he chose to be a painter in a family of politicians. He asked for it when he insisted on American themes for the American century, only to represent indifference, lust, greed, and violence. He asked for it, too, when he included the Ku Klux Klan in his Social History of the State of Indiana. Naturally liberals saw a spotlight on the Klan, while conservatives saw the glare directed at them.
He had a way of never apologizing, often compromising, and feeling guilty about both. One can see it in his reply to Truman or his surprise at criticism of the Klan. One can see it when he takes on a history of Hollywood, only to show it as more sordid than entertaining, or commissions for tobacco companies and a department store. After art school in 1908, he headed straight for Paris and straight for Gertrude and Leo Stein. I can only imagine egos the size of his and theirs colliding, but theirs were up to the task. Benton "didn't know a word" of French, "the quarter was overrun with geniuses," and "I was no good anywhere."
He had come a long way in the forty years since then, but the road to the White House must have brought it all back. American regionalism never received much critical respect, and he had outlived his friends Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. That same year, his most famous pupil made the cover of Life, while his own piece in the magazine lay twenty years in the future, in 1969. He must have seen in Jackson Pollock another alter ego, right down to Pollock's mural scale, swirls of paint, physical immersion in his work, and heavy drinking. Benton had seen the triumph of American painting at last, but in the form of Abstract Expressionism—and in the New York that he had left behind. He was still painting those controversial pictures, but getting fewer and fewer chances.
By his death in 1975, he had become even more a footnote to history. A lifelong Democrat, he had drifted to the right politically as well as artistically in the Vietnam War. Abstraction was more dominant than ever, and art was divided between New York and LA. The Whitney had moved first to midtown and then to Madison Avenue, and Benton's murals for it lay in storage. Equitable Life (now AXA Equitable) restored them for its lobby in 1985, when it also acquired huge work by Sol LeWitt and Roy Lichtenstein, with curatorial help from the Whitney. Wolff found the spark for his book in seeing them, and he treats their recovery as the artist's last triumph.
As one last indignity, one cannot see them any longer. The building has taken them down in order to renovate, and they face an unknown future. I could not see them to prepare for this review, but it almost makes for a better ending. "The careers of abstract artists," Benton wrote," so often end in a kind of bitter emptiness. It's the emptiness of a person looking into himself all the time." He had to face bitter soul searching of his own.
As usual, though, he is not apologizing. "But the objective world is always rich: There is always something round the next bend of the river." He may have recalled his also painting Huck and Jim, with imaginary human beings round the bend of a real river. They include blacks working alongside whites, in the making of the West, with a glistening city rising by the shore. They include a butcher, a lynching, and a Native American cynically tempted with booze.
Pontificating as usual
The first Thomas Hart Benton was an anti-slavery Democrat. His father, too, was a liberal senator, with a nickname that Wolff relishes, the Colonel. Born in 1889, Benton grew up in Washington, where he saw public murals—and could not stop drawing. When his father lost a run for reelection, the boy must have felt the Midwest as a fall to earth. Approval did not come easily. Before the Art Institute of Chicago, he had to survive a year at military academy. For the future political artist, the tension between art and politics had begun.
In Paris he found Gertrude Stein "pontificating as usual." That phrase comes from the closest thing he had there to a friend and role model, Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Both were working in a dark, heavy style of portrait painting, like Rembrandt as seen by Paul Cézanne. By World War I, Macdonald-Wright became one of the first abstract painters, along with Morgan Russell, whom Leo Stein patronized. And Benton picked up their Synchromism, akin to color wheels. He was restless faced with both Modernism and tradition.
"Realism," he explained, "is not an exact copy of any part of Nature but an effort to reproduce in paint a replica of the sensation received." He reached New York in 1912, when George Bellows and others were working out their own somber compromise between realism and early Modernism, but he missed the fabled Armory Show when his mother had a breakdown. When he wrote of the emptiness of looking within, he knew what he was talking about. He hardly fit with the circle of Alfred Stieglitz either. To hear him tell it, their modern art lacked political urgency. He found an excuse to exit abstraction with watercolors during a term in the service, but he still lacked for a subject.
Back in New York, he turned thirty with no hint of direction, much less recognition. Yet, Benton was to say, something crucial happened: he met a student, Rita Piacenza, and he found his first connection to that "sensation received." They married and spent time out on Long Island, where he packed human bodies into his first compositions to swirl into 3D. The men and women are sailing, but they look anything but at leisure. For the rest of his life, one can describe his art as Norman Rockwell crossed with Mannerism.
It does not sound promising, and it still serves as a put-down. Artists as conservative as Andrew Wyeth show the influence of Surrealism, plus their own anxious gay identities. Benton has not gained their stature to this day, and he displayed a consistent homophobia. Perhaps he found himself drawn to Mannerism for its sexual anxieties, too, and his art resembles a peep show even without Hollywood. As late as 1939, he takes a break from murals to show a rural lecher leaning over a naked Persephone. One can see what worried Truman, and it was not state politics.
Still, the pieces were nearly in place. It took only two pieces of luck, a teaching job at the Arts Students League and his first mural commission. Murals give him something to paint, and their scale alone frees him up. They allow him to break a scene into smaller pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle. That way, he can paint his own contradictions faced with America, and he can start pontificating. He can find his true subject, between politics and popular culture.
As a teacher, he could be surprisingly considerate, although he still had trouble keeping friends. While he taught life drawing, he also drew after clay models—which must have added to the tension between solidity and swirls. Despite frequent comparisons to El Greco, he preferred Tintoretto and Peter-Paul Rubens, although he had no interest in Tintoretto's plunging moonlit space or Rubens's Baroque fulfillment. He just loved the musculature and pull toward the sky. And teaching demanded discipline. It also brought him close to the Pollock brothers.
Charles Pollock, the promising one, had his younger brothers enroll, too. Charles also joined with Benton in a band, while Jackson destroyed a fiddle in frustration. Later, Pollock made a play for Rita and an utter fool of himself. In between, they drank together, and Pollock painted Benton's son sailing. I want to imagine Benton's mural scale as an influence on Pollock, much like Guernica. I also want to see Pollock's native energy, in what would become his great dance with his canvas, as an influence on his teacher.
I want to see the city's influence on them both. The 1930 Whitney murals, America Today, have a litany of motifs from his time, at a fever pitch. The Depression, unlike for Walker Evans or Diego Rivera, did not confer human dignity. Like Mark Rothko, Benton painted the subway, but above eye level and in a glare like hellfire. He shows a boxing ring and a night club, with faces submerged in buttocks and naked arms. He also asserts his politics, with a banker ignoring them all.
It is not his last threat from modernity, but it is last concern for the east coast. Even for the New School, he paints the American west—as a cavalcade of card players, ropers, shotguns, and fiddlers. He may know he is painting clichés, but he may not care. In fact, he may prefer it, believing that it makes his art not just more mythic, but also more in tune with popular perceptions. He is on his way to Hollywood, Huck and Jim, and Frankie and Johnnie. He has the ego now to think that he can paint for the people.
He gets his chance, too, in 1935 with an invitation to join the faculty of the Kansas City Art Institute. It gets him out from the shadow of Stieglitz and modernity. Benton returns to the Midwest in triumph, just in time to spoil it with A Social History of the State of Missouri—with signs of race and class tensions everywhere. Still, those very tensions bring the murals closer to Depression-era reality. For the artist, the tensions run through both history and popular culture. They haunt modern America.
This teacher was a slow learner, and his forties were his maturity. His art has mostly a six-year window, from 1930 to 1936. After that, he is not making much in the way of controversial pictures after all. He paints a cycle for New York State in 1961, but Niagara Falls in the snow look more like a snow globe. He paints a history of country music for the Country Music Hall of Fame just before his death, but sanctimony has taken over. Telegraph poles sway with the dancers.
Still at war
Benton never could appreciate how much he indulged in mythmaking or myth breaking. He could see only the reality around the next bend. Wolff, too, is far longer on real bends than the imagination. His biography has one color insert, not nearly enough to survey the work—and never enough to present work in series. It has little by way of description or interpretation, unless to pin down a political firestorm. It has little to say about changes in style, and it lacks an extended analysis of a single painting.
Wolff has written before about an American original, Richard Caton Woodville, whose Baltimore subjects before the Civil War appear to be hanging on the news. This book, though, has routine prose, with a weakness for the obvious, and turns often to biographers past, including Benton. Indeed, in offering correction as needed, it reads a bit like a running commentary. At barely three hundred pages plus notes, it pretty much sticks to the facts. Even there, it cuts corners. Toward the end, it hurries to the White House, obliging it to double back for much of the artist's final decades.
Its section on the Arts Students League omits who else passed through its faculty, Hans Hoffman. There was more of Modernism in the air than in Stieglitz's studio. Wolff asks if Benton's homophobia masked real urges, but having nowhere to run with this (not to mention Rita), simply lets it go. It sure channeled his resentment at the success of others, and it got him canned from the Kansas City Arts Institute. "Do you want to know what's the matter with the art business in America? It's the third sex and museums," he explained, ". . . run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait."
Wolff starts, at length, with those two senators as Benton's childhood. There, however, he has a point. If the painter feels caught all his life between shame and rebellion, he had two imposing father figures. If he never apologizes, he and his father both longed for apologies. If he never fully escapesd from politics to painting, everyone seemed to demand that he choose. If his father lost popular support and an election, the son will always be in search of a popular art form—while, as Life put it, "Still at War with Bores and Boobs."
Benton never stopped fighting the war. It makes the paintings worth knowing, for all their eagerness to connect and their refusal to please. They fly in all directions, as if Americans could not master their own impulses. They veer between the frontier and the metropolis, with the same clouds and fires at the center of both. Almost every composition centers on smoke and flames—from railroads, steamships, factories, fighter planes, and lynchings. Almost every one, too, forms two legs of a triangle, but as a confrontation about to begin.
A mural for Truman retains that confrontation, though in the late style that strains way too hard for cold tones, sharp edges, and significance. For Independence and the Opening of the West, the Native Americans stand at left, the settlers at right—only this time armed settlers and a Conestoga wagon get the triangle's peak and the last word. Blacks and women are conspicuously in the minority. Predella panels set the towns at an uncanny distance, as if deserted. A long hallway, through the door piercing the center of the wall, makes them seem that much emptier. When Truman climbed the scaffolding to inspect it, he must have asked for a drink.
Justin Wolff's Thomas Hart Benton: A Life was published in 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I had an inquiry in with AXA Equitable, which stated that it does not own the building and is not responsible for the decision to renovate the lobby. I wrote this early in 2012, and as of summer the Whitney believed that the murals would quickly reappear in the company's own tower across Sixth Avenue by Edward Larrabee Barnes. In December, however, AXA Equitable announced that it was donating the work to the Met, for display in the Whitney Museum's present Madison Avenue building starting in 2015, after the Whitney moves to the Meatpacking District. You never know, and exactly where remains to be seen.