The principle of Six Degrees of Separation doesn’t apply in my story because the subjects are naturally much closer than that. Creativity has a tendency to intertwine upon itself and when one studies the human factor in the history of arts, the truth that all creators really are related some how, some way, is easily discovered.
There hasn’t been much talk linking the artists in my story and that bothers me a bit. Both played a vital role in American Art. One is nearly forgotten, the other has become a major figure in a relatively short lived art movement. One was a reputable painter who was considered the future of American art by critics in his heyday; his works were highly regarded while his opinions were always noted. He became an influential teacher that would help shape potential up-and-coming-would-be-masters. The other was a student who was emotionally out of balance, rebellious as the day is long, and drank alcohol until it killed him. He was a shy Wyoming son who spoke very little, to the point of eventually abandoning the practice of titling his paintings with words. He numbered his them, instead.
One was in the forefront of the Regionalist art movement in the United States. His fluid and sculptural paintings represented everyday life in America and are mostly associated with the Midwest (notably his mural in the Missouri State Capitol). He did create scores of New York paintings and lived in Martha’s Vineyard for years, but most don’t think of him as the East Coast fellow that he really was. Artistically, he declared himself an “enemy of modernism” and, in 1941, he was dismissed from his teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute for saying that the typical art museum was, “a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait." He was a very opinionated man who liked to talk.
In 1930, the other followed his older brother east and enrolled with him in the Art Students League of New York, where the one mentioned above became this student’s mentor and teacher. Only fleetingly did the teacher’s rural American subject matter influence him, though surely a rhythmic sense of composition and fierce independence became the more lasting guides for this shy Wyoming son. Once he found his way in the American art scene, he often would say that his teacher’s traditional lessons gave him something to rebel against. It sounded like something his teacher would have said.
The one who was the teacher was a traditionalist who helped shape several notable art movements: Regionalism, Social Realism, American modernism, American realism, and Synchromism. His natural and representational works showcased everyday people and he did not sugarcoat the past or the present for the sake of a pretty picture. Controversy and criticism followed most public works he created. Folks weren’t comfortable with the teacher's including things like Ku Klux Klan members in full costume, the depiction of slavery, and inclusion of unsavory subjects like the outlaw Jesse James, immorally loose women, and political ‘boss’ Tom Pendergast. His sympathy was consistently directed toward the working class and even when Regionalism fell from favour he remained an active painter for another thirty years.
When the other left his teacher and set out to find his own place in the American art scene, he was influenced by the avant-garde in New York. In 1936 he was introduced to the use of liquid paint and experimentation eventually lead to what he called his ‘drip’ technique. His process moved away from that which was expected and traditionally taught but, more importantly, his purpose of creation shifted to a place never before seen. He was the founder of the Abstract Expressionist movement. And, though this movement varied wildly from the representational realism taught by his teacher, one must recognize that his organizational principles continued to follow the teacher’s method with forms composed around a central vertical pole, counterbalanced by an equal and opposite form. It is ironic that what pushed Regionalism away from favour was Abstract Expressionism. The student out-did the teacher.
The story of these two painters have been decently told in both film and book. I would like to introduce you to those, and encourage you to study beyond what I’ve brought you here. These men were truly Americans who followed, in their own way, the American dream and influenced our culture immeasurably.
In 1988, Ken Burns profiled the teacher in his American Stories Series. The episode is called Thomas Hart Benton and it is available on DVD today. I saw this film on it’s original air date and was stunned to learn about a painter I’d I had never heard of before. I would later ask my Art History professor about Benton and was not happy when I was told both he and his movement were insignificant and not worth considering ... just study Grant Wood and call it good. What? Over the years I’ve made a point to learn all I can about Benton’s contributions and influences, and still try to introduce him to anyone interested in the human side of American painting.
The Burns film is phenomenally well made and informative. In it, the viewer gets to know the person behind the paintings by listening to patrons and family members remember him and his work. Old interview footage from the 1950s shows Benton explaining why traditionalism will one day be important again as he encourages young artists to remember fundimentals and principles behind well made works. Throughout the film, a good evaluation of his painting style and technique is presented. His process of building plasticine sculptures and painting by those is well explained and would be useful for any painter wanting to learn that technique. For me, I loved learning that he died in his studio, just as he signed his last painting. He left this world with no creation un-done ... what painter could ask for more? This DVD holds a thorough telling of the artist's life and career and I recommend it as a documentary worth owning.
One = Teacher:
Thomas Hart Benton
April 15, 1889 - January 19, 1975 (aged 86)
In 2000, Ed Harris starred in a movie about life and art. It was called Pollock. Pollock is our student and this film begins the story with a flashback to 1941. The early life of the artist was not told in the film, but the discoveries, achievements, sorrows, loves, and tragedy were so well played that I BELIEVED I was voyeuristically peeking in on the painter’s world. This was not a happy movie, by any means. I did not come away from it inspired to paint at all. It was kind of embarrassing, in a way, like the dirtiest part of the creative self was showcased. What needs to be remembered when watching this film is that art is secondary to the story of mental illness and alcoholism, or it may be the therapeutic by-product of those conditions and that is worth exploring. Self destruction is often associated with creative people, probably because we are always looking for a way to express and release our inner-most turmoils and demons. As hard as this movie is to watch, it’s important to face the story and understand what drove one of the most influential American painters of our time.
If you rent or buy this DVD, do make sure you have one with Special Features. Ed Harris plays the artist so superbly that you forget it’s not actually Pollock in the movie, and there are special features that show how that came to be. That in itself is interesting. One snippet shows original footage of Pollock painting on a large canvas; dancing around it, challenging the tradition of using easel and brush by instead flipping a paint-dripping stick in eloquent motion. It is Jack the Dripper at his best. Interspersed with that is footage of Harris from the film. It is very hard to tell which is which and I found myself nearly believing in the practice of channeling a troubled soul. I have to say, I found myself enthralled with the skill of Harris the actor.
Other = Student:
January 28, 1912 - August 11, 1956 (aged 44)
To bring all this together, I highly recommend a book that is described as
“ A groundbreaking portrait of the intense personal and artistic relationship between Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, revealing how their friendship changed American art.”
This book is poignant and provides personal insights into two of the greatest painters of the twentieth century. When I finished reading mine, I sat back and simply said, “Wow.” Then I turned back to the beginning and started to read it again. I savored words that did not scoff at Benton; no racist baiting, or hill-billy jabs. In the past I’d read dribble like this: “His work, to me, is a sort of corpse that’s been disinterred … To me it doesn’t really exist as an aesthetic object” Written by Hilton Kramer, an influential former New York Times art critic. For so many years Benton has been ignored and it is marvelous to see a modern scholar take him seriously. The two men are finally on equal ground in this book, and that is how it should be.
Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock
by Henry Adams
available on Kindle
There you have it. Two painters, two art movements, two movies, and a wonderfully good book. That ought to keep you busy for a while ....