Chilmark Pond, c. 1950
Benton at Menemsha Pond
If you notice: The careers of abstract artists so often end in a kind of bitter emptiness. It's the emptiness of a person looking into himself all the time. But the objective world is always rich. There is always something round the next bend of the river. ~ Thomas Hart Benton
This morning I completed reading Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, Henry Adams' excellent story and exhaustive study of the complex relationship between these two powerhouses of American art. Benton was Pollock's mentor and teacher - a potent father figure to the mentally ill young man. I would have never guessed that Pollock's drip painting had its roots in Benton's teaching and methodology. Reading about Benton has made me want to see more of his work - he's an artist I had known about only marginally (being a figurative artist myself, you'd think I would have been more familiar with his oeuvre. Whenever I thought of Thomas Hart Benton, I only conjured up rubbery figures that seemed to have no bones....). It's been fascinating to learn about his process and his connection to Synchromism (yes, I've taken my art history classes, and for the life of me, I did not remember this term...) and how, like certain Renaissance artists, he would make clay models of his figures for his compositions before creating his paintings and murals.
Posted here are some lesser known works by Benton, paintings done on Martha's Vineyard, where he spent his summers from 1920 until the end of his life. The young Jackson Pollock spent many of these early summers on Martha's Vineyard with Benton and his wife Rita, and their son T.P. An excerpt from Tom and Jack states:
Benton later wrote that the happiest times of Pollock's life were the stays on Martha's Vineyard:
It is quite possible that the only really happy times of his life were had there, taking his end of a two-handled tree saw, swimming in the surf, gathering clams for chowder or wild berries for pies - times when alcoholic stimulation was unnecessary.
(wow, reading this makes me feel less guilty that I've been picking berries and swimming lately, and making jam, not art...)
I scanned these images of Benton's island paintings from a book I found recently at the Joanne Waxman library at MECA - it's a catalog of the 2008 exhibition, Benton on the Vineyard, which focuses on the paintings Benton did during his summers on Martha's Vineyard. I think they are magical - so rhythmic, pulsating, and alive! And what color!
Henry Adams writes in his opening essay in the catalog:
This gathering of Benton's paintings from Martha's Vineyard provides an occasion to see a Benton who stands outside the usual stereotypes of his personality and art - to take a fresh view of his inventiveness as an organizer of visual forms; to look anew at his intense engagement with the world around him; and to appreciate more fully his uncanny skill for zeroing in on the essential essence, the inner soul of things.