The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Paintings, Movies, and a Book

Two painters, two art movements, two movies, and a really good book.

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)

"Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley" by Thomas Hart Benton. Painted in 1934, collection of the Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas.


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:
Jackson Pollock
January 28, 1912 - August 11, 1956 (aged 44)

"Convergence" by Jackson Pollock. Painted in 1952, collection of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


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.

The Book:
Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock
by Henry Adams
published 2009
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 ....


Rubber Duck Artworks said...

Que dramatic music.... duh duh DUUUHHHH. Okay, I' probably only have snarky and sarcastic things to say, but really this is a great story to unravel. And Ed Harris did such a good job, I was creeped out for weeks.

savagegoldie said...

ah yes, I'm surprised you didn't start with this one! You've always been vocal about Thomas Hart Benton. and that was a very good movie :-)

Irelock said...

I couldn't start too big ... it takes a while to write this stuff!

denise said...

Wow, I just learned more in a few minutes than I have in weeks!

At the risk of showing my ignorance when it comes to art--and probably being off topic--what is up with the ground being an arc in the Benton painting? That is driving me crazy!

Irelock said...

That is typical in a Regionalist painting. It's simply a way a group of artist agreed to represent space. Silly, I know, but a great way to give what we call 'fluid' motion to a work.

denise said...

Makes me dizzy : ) Thanks for the info. I posted a link to your blog on my FB page. Hopefully a few folks will check it out.

smkaufman said...

Thought this was fascinating. I'm with Denise! It's interesting, my brother-in-law recently sent me a bunch of pictures of paintings that he has been doing, of the paint spattered design variety. I doubt that he knows anything about Pollock, but he's on the same track. Wonderful color and design - not my usual fare, but I like them.

Irelock said...

Thanks for promoting this on your FB page, Denise. The more who check this out the better! I do hope to concentrate on learning about things in a critical sense and I sure appreciate your thoughts about feeling dizzy from the imagery. As I said, fluid motion within a stagnant space! If nothing else, it's a effective technique, eh?

Irelock said...

SMKAUFMAN - Sounds like the arching ground makes you dizzy, too? For sure, when you read about Benton being representational the brain jumps to an even more real place than he was. It's important to add Regionalist to the representational tag to get his work. And, your Bro-in-law should absolutely know who Pollock is when he's working in Abstract Expressionist creations! Pollock is the father of that philosophy! The point with that school of thought is to have nothing of reality there. Just pure emotion brought by colour, texture, based on a solid design. Solid design is usually missed by people who don't study the true philosophy of the movement.

rogle_99 said...

That was great - you had me guessing....Edward Hopper?! The Ken Burns film you cited included interviews with former TH Benton students - one was Roger Medearis.


I knew Roger back in SoCal - he loved working with specialized mechanical pencils. He had a cozy little guest house in his backyard set up as a studio. He showed me lots of his work - detailed, rounded forms that clearly indicate the THB influence - along with Americana subject matter.

Irelock said...

rogle - this is great to read! You really know Roger Medearis? Do you guys ever talk about Thomas? Man, if I had the opportunity I'd yack his ears off.

rogle_99 said...

Yes - we talked about Thomas and J Pollack. I got the feeling THB's students felt a bit 'betrayed' by Pollack - but came to realize his contribution - at least Roger did.

After he studied with THB, Roger continued to paint Americana realism. Then he pretty much stopped - went to work in the work-a-day world - packaging I think.

One day he got a call from an art dealer back east. The dealer had just sold a 'Roger Medearis' painting - he was trying to find the artist. Well he found him - and asked for more paintings, which Roger sent, and the dealer sold....fast. That's how Roger got back into it - the fickle finger of fate found him. His used to say, "if you've got something, it will eventually bubble to the surface". Gosh...which I had something...

Irelock said...

Wow ... this is such cool addition to the information I know. I love the personal stuff - hearing what I suspected his students felt about Jackson. I've heard from others that Jackson wasn't a real good student, But Tom and he sure did get into some intense conversation. That has always been hard for me to imagine ... Jackson was notorious for his reclusive disposition. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during those moments when his artistic passions where aroused.

rogle_99 said...

Roger indicated that THB would use, what I call, artist dolls - he liked to paint from models, if he could. So, I guess he was pretty disciplined and followed a routine to execute paintings. Pollack was pretty much the opposite - letting the painting 'happen', as he dropped/flung paint. His eye for color and design is obvious - and a pretty gutsy approach for the time.

Yrs later, artists were using everything from paint balloons to jet engines to apply pigment-to-surface in new, energetic ways. Seems like Jackson started the 'thrown-paint' approach, in terms of the whole surface(?)

Irelock said...

Tom actually sculpted the 'dolls' in Plasticine ... which is a greenish gray non-hardening clay. Once he sculpted all the figures for his painting, he'd set the lighting to his satisfaction and paint from life. The green clay is the same colour as verdaccio (italian mixture of ocher, white, ivory black) so form was very easy for him to achieve. Very early Renaissance approach that does take much discipline.

There is a rhythm to Pollocks drips that is very mathematical and impossible to mimic, did you know that? Computers can identify, but our normal human brains are incapable of imitating it. Fakes of his work have never been successful and that cracks me up! Most people thing his style would be the easiest to copy, but no. He's the only artist none to art forgery experts who CANNOT be forged.

Yes, Jackson was the first expressionist to utilize the entire canvas with nothing but colour, texture, and design. In my estimation, he did pull that off better than any one. I never look at his drip work and think, wow, that looks like a cow - or whatever. When I see his work in person, I stare for half our or more ... they are so beautiful n person.

Irene Lucier said...

The undulating forms in his work, it seems melodic and the context always brings to mind folk music. You get the idea that THB had a deep sense of compassion for people.

Irelock said...

Oh, he did have deep compassion for the working class and that shows in just about every painting he made. He was a political 'leftest' and that bothered many people, some say it's one element that brought about the demise of his art movement. It's always dangerous getting political!

Your comparison to music is a wonderful catch. Did you know the painting I posted here was based on a popular folk song?

Relevant stanzas:

Down in the lone green valley,
where the violets used to bloom
There sleeps one gentle Lemo
Now silent in the tomb…

‘Oh, Edward, I am tired,
I do not wish to roam;
For roaming is so dreary.
I pray you, take me home."

Up stepped this jealous lover
And made one solemn vow:
‘No hand on earth can save you,
For I shall slay you now.’

Down on her knees before him
She humbly begged for life
But into her snowy bosom
He plunged the fatal knife.

"Oh, Edward, I forgive you,
Although this be my last breath.
For I never have deceived you,"
Then she closed her eyes in death.

That kind of helps understand the movement and such, eh?

rogle_99 said...

Seems like THB was deeply connected to the American landscape, and culture - he must have had compassion for working folks. But there's something written between the lines, imho - deeper down, and its dark. Times were tough, in the 1930's. Did he ever do any murals? - his paintings look like some murals of that day.

Irelock said...

Tom was knocked as a hill-billy by later critics (he was brilliant before that, go figure). As for the dark under-pinning, I think a lot of that emotion came from his general disposition. He was passionate and opinionated; Like, during WWII he created a far reaching series titled The Year of Peril, where he brought attention to the fascism/Naziasm threats to the American ideal. By then he was considered unenlightened by the eastern elites. To this day, you talk to anyone in the midwest and know Tom's work and know it well. Easters? Most still don't even know his name.

Oh, yes. He's done very notable mural work. Look those up on line and you'll see American before, and during, the industrial revolution. His murals are treasures, I think.

Just Me said...

I must remember to watch this. Harris really is a fabulous actor. Back in the 60s or 70s the Australian Art Gallery (main one) bought a Pollock. It cost a few million at the time. "Blue Poles". The public scoffed at it. Through that I learnt about art as an investment. This buy is now applauded as it has probably gone up in value almost by 100 times.

Irelock said...

Harris is so fabulous in this moving you really forget it is him. When you watch the special features you will learn that the actor learned how to paint just for this role ... not just paint, but paint like Pollock ... not just drip paint around, but hold the stick/brush just so, feet go this way, hands do that kind of stuff. Pollock did more than just 'drips' ... his earlier work is presented just as well and Harris pulls off the techniques of art that evolve and grow. It is amazing to watch, just from the artist side of creation along.

That is cool that Australia has a little piece of America. That was a good buy for them ...

Hap Murphy said...

I watched the life of Pollock the painter tonight, thank you and artist Jillian for that.
I remember seeing the pictures of both mens work as a child and the things said about Jackson's work. I remember the movie made in black and white and wondered how anyone could speak to me in this way, how the prints in magazines that showed his color combinations stirred me and how it so much looked like a universe I remembered in some distant past.
It's funny the comments I hear about my own way of expression, how I see the world and interpret it with the tools at hand, the modern brush, a camera or computer. I wonder if there is another way to let others see through my eyes things they would never see on their own. I wonder that people do not understand it is not me they see in my work but a reflection of themselves.

Life is not always art but art is always life in my opinion.

Irelock said...

Aww ... spoken like a true artist. Pollock has a way of causing a bit of self-reflection and evaluation, and that's probably a good thing. Of the two films, I find Benton's more inspiring ... though both are thought provoking. Thanks for the comments!