On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

RECONSTRUCTING BENTON 1992

In 1972 the eighty-three-year-old Thomas Hart Benton proclaimed, "Old age is a wonderful thing. You outlive your enemies." Of enemies, he had plenty. For a good half-century, he offended in words and in pictorial deeds the majority of that fervent minority of Americans who believed in the religion of modern art and who hoped to intermarry Europe and the United States in this common faith. In the 1920s and 1930s, when the latest works of Picasso or Mondrian were still talismans of mystery and modernity and needed the enormous efforts of such temples of learning as the Museum of Modern Art to make them comprehensible, Benton was hell-bent on rooting his painting in the common soil of America. He documented everything from cotton fields in Georgia to boomtowns in Texas and, moving to more exalted levels of narrative sweep, envisioned an epic series of canvases that would trace the patriotic pageant of American history, from the earliest cultural dramas of Jesuit missionaries confronting native Indians to the up-to-date thrills of bootlegging in the prohibition era. In the 1940s, when American painters had finally absorbed so fully the lessons of European modernism that they could begin to make contributions of international stature, Benton still clung to his grass-roots vision. While artists like Newman and Rothko were grappling with the apocalypse of the Second World War by taking refuge in a private universe of timeless mythologies and cosmologies, Benton, in a series called The Year of Peril, allegorized the American response to Hitler and Pearl Harbor in paintings whose macho brutality bizarrely echoed the science-fiction violence of contemporary comic strips that, decades later, Lichtenstein would parody. And in the 1950s and 1960s, when a whole younger generation of American artists rediscovered the American scene after its seeming eclipse by the Abstract Expressionist world of prehistoric time and space, Benton was still irritatingly out of sync. At a time when the Pop artists' recycled inventory of Americana, from cartoon characters and barnyards to George Washington and the armed forces, was being translated into artfully mechanized ironies of style and attitude, Benton maintained an ingenuous, uninterrupted faith that Arcadia could be found in a picnic on Martha's Vineyard and that serious artists looked like his own late selfportrait of 1970 in which a tough old plaid-shirted survivor seems to defend with brush and canvas his old-fashioned art and beliefs.

As for those beliefs, they were always against the grain of enlightened modernity. In a period when artists were considered to be intrepid explorers of strange new paths where only the indoctrinated few could follow, he was the very model of a populist who had no qualms

-37-

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