Magazine article Artforum International

Studio Practice: J. Hoberman on Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Magazine article Artforum International

Studio Practice: J. Hoberman on Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Article excerpt

WALT WHITMAN heard America singing; Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) heard the nation shouting, snapping its suspenders, slapping itself on the back, and dancing a buck-and-wing.

That's entertainment! And so it's the not-illogical and even downright innerestin' premise of "American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood"--the first major exhibition of the artist's work since his centennial Whitney retrospective in 1989--that our corn-fed, self-appointed Tintoretto should be seen in the context of those celluloid mythmakers who, like him, brought Renaissance production values into the twentieth century.

Benton did, in fact, have an early involvement with the motion-picture industry. Returning to America in 1911 after three years soaking up Cubism in Paris, he settled in New York City and found odd jobs with the movie studios still located in Brooklyn and Fort Lee, New Jersey. Benton designed sets, painted backdrops, and provided PR portraits of the stars. For a time, he shared space with Rex Ingram, the Irish-born, Yale-trained sculptor who broke into movies and is best remembered for directing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the 1921 movie that introduced Rudolph Valentino.

Ingram provided contacts as well as a useful analogy, writing that "the same laws apply to the production of a film play which has artistic merit, and to the making of a fine piece of sculpture or a masterly painting." It was a formula that Benton was able to flip with the added fillip that the performance was his. To judge from the artist's bare-chested Self-Portrait with Rita, ca. 1924, he regarded himself as something of a Douglas Fairbanks type and his wife as a slightly more exotic Mary Pickford.

It is this painting of the Bentons sur la plage at Martha's Vineyard that greets visitors to "American Epics" (which originated at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and opens this month at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City), and it serves as reminder that Benton, the great-great-nephew of Missouri's first senator and the son of a four-term Missouri congressman, was a master of political rhetoric, a star-spangled showman, and, before Jackson Pollock (his prize student) or Andy Warhol, the original American art star.

"A bush-league ball player never gets beyond the Three Eye League, but a bush-league painter can be known from coast to coast, especially if he has the marvelous flair for publicity that is Benton's," Manny Farber wrote in the New Republic in 1942. "When Mr. B. paints a picture, almost like magic the presses start rolling, cameras clicking, and before you know it everyone in East Orange is talking about Tom's latest painting."

Outspoken, pugnacious, and newsworthy, Benton was the first painter deemed worthy of a Time magazine cover. He wrote a best-selling memoir and, a "hard drinking tough guy who happened to be an artist," served as a posthumous subject for documentarian Ken Burns. Benton not only made public art, sometimes in public, but was also a harmonica virtuoso who put out an album (Saturday Night at Tom Benton's [1942]). His last commission was a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

Benton "wanted people who read the funny papers to like his pictures," his sister, quoted in the Burns documentary, recalled. A Kerouac avant la lettre, he regularly took to the road in search of material. His prurient Ozark, faux-Renaissance, mythological Persephone, 1938-39--a model for John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage--enjoyed its opening run in Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in Times Square. Benton anticipated Pop art in his parodies (a 1945 send-up of the mass-produced saloon lithograph of Cassilly Adams's 1884 painting Custer's Last Fight) as well as in his use of cartoon characters--although the muscular, encephalitic Mohawks and Bojangly African Americans who populate his murals are his own invention.

A prescient postmodernist, Benton assimilated circus-poster art and pulp-magazine covers as well as old masters: The apish brutes who rape and pillage in the paintings of his "Year of Peril" series, produced as war propaganda in 1942, nominally Japanese but readable as any alien race, might have inspired Groot, Fin Fang Foom, and other sluglike behemoths drawn by Jack Kirby for Atlas Comics. …

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