WHAT RELATIONSHIP TO the impossibly capacious idea of America could any one artist, or any one locale, have? Part, miniature, fragment, fractal?
Walt Whitman audaciously asserted that "the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," and his poetry swings between macrocosmic nation and microscopic enumeration of particularities: people, bodies, places, and regions. And so some artists appear to walk the tightrope called America with ease. Whitman was certain he could "contain multitudes."
Not so for the father of American Regionalist art. Justin Wolff’s insightful Thomas Hart Benton: A Life paints a portrait of Benton as a man riven by the contradictions that made regionalism rise and fall, as a rage for the purported authenticities of place was quickened, sated, and then surfeited in the middle decades of twentieth century America.
Early on Wolff describes Benton's contradictory drives:
Over the years [Benton] opposed abstract art, curators, homosexuals, intellectuals, Harvard, New York City, Kansas City, women, and old friends like Stieglitz and Mumford, to name a few. An atavistic drive compelled him to measure each person he met, each painting or idea he made or encountered, against a dogged ethos distilled from egomania, pragmatism, and populism. Despite his modest midwestern fashion — his denim, gingham, and flannel — and his 'realism,' Benton was not simple.
Nor were his canvases and murals as simple as they might seem, and their combative contradictions no doubt help explain why Benton had such a knack for getting under the skin of viewers of nearly every type and persuasion. Tellingly, Benton's artistic crucible was as much Manhattan and Martha's Vineyard as it was his birthplace, Neosho, Missouri. Wolff structures his narrative of Benton's life as before, during, and after the New York years.
Artists can escape neither where they are nor where they’re from, and in Benton's case this includes a predictably rivalrous relationship with his father, M.E. Benton, known as "the Colonel," who carried on the Benton family's political legacy. Benton and the Colonel disagreed violently about art, but both attempted to perfect a brand of populism and agrarian idealism: the son in art, the father in politics.
Both encountered the significant contradictions of populism. "Regardless of what he said," Wolff points out, “the Colonel was no farmer, and neither was his son. […] Populist dogmas have always been hard to perfect, especially for those who deem themselves better than the average man." How true this was, also, for Benton's mother Lizzie, whose social aspirations triggered conflict again and again, especially during the family's Washington, D.C. period, when Benton's father represented Missouri in Congress.
The rural Midwest may have lent Benton subject matter, but in DC Benton must have seen in high relief the contradictions of populism. It was also where he began to acquire the elements of a style. "One can infer from Benton's [early] drawings," Wolff argues, "two types of training — the lessons in geometry at the Corcoran and the idealized sketches of popular subjects — and find in them the foundations of his artistic principles." These principles included "a technique whereby exaggerated convexities and concavities were pulsing dynamically" and "his encounter with the tremendous paintings de...read more