PRINT October 2015


Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood, 1937–38, tempera and oil on canvas mounted on board, 56 × 84". © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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. More than anything else, the paintings resemble a suite of bubble-gum cards devoted to the horrors of war. “There is so little emotional truth,” Farber wrote of the theatrically anguished canvas The Harvest, that “you expect a curtain to go down and the figures to get up and walk off the stage.”

“American Epics,” as mounted at PEM, devoted a room to “Year of Peril” along with the newsreel stories it inspired, but this series is hardly Benton at his best: That would most likely be the America Today murals created for the board room of the New School for Social Research in 1930–31; having served a stint in the lobby of the Equitable Building, they are now permanently installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In a splendid, perhaps unintentional, pun, the New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell reported in 1930 that “in viewing these murals one feels that at last Thomas Benton is really speaking out with the full force of his spiritual bellows.”

A resounding barbaric yawp, at once satiric and celebratory, modernist and old-fashioned, America Today is the masterpiece of Benton’s yippee-ki-yay mannerism—an intricately choreographed, claustrophobic yet freewheeling, crypto-Futurist immersion in national iconography that in its allover busyness anticipates both Pollock (an assistant on the job) and Mad’s maestro of the splash panel, Will Elder. Robust, dynamic, machine-driven, and madly inclusive, Benton’s walls are the visual equivalent of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, published between 1930 and 1936 and later illustrated by Reginald Marsh (a Benton pal who posed for America Today). One can only imagine how the room impacted the board meetings held within.

Unable to include America Today or Benton’s other site-specific masterpiece, A Social History of the State of Missouri, 1936, painted for the Missouri State Capitol with a Ragtime cast of historical and fictional figures like Jesse James and Huck Finn, “American Epics” is stuck with American Historical Epic, a would-be magnum opus painted on spec between 1920 and 1928.

The show includes most of the piece’s fourteen existing panels (Benton had intended to make fifty or, by some accounts, even more). Less overwrought than under-conceptualized and more histrionic than historic, American Historical Epic is, with its preening glossy surfaces and garishly supersaturated colors, the exact opposite of the self-effacing modesty and pared-down abstraction that characterizes Jacob Lawrence’s serial historical narrative “The Migration Series,” 1940–41.

Although only a single canvas, Hollywood, 1937–38, commissioned but never published by Life magazine, is more successful. A statuesque burlesque queen centers a panorama of concentrated activities in which on-camera merges with offscreen, the filmmaking machine is everywhere apparent, and three or four movies are in simultaneous production. One, Henry King’s 1937 disaster film In Old Chicago, is excerpted in the exhibition and projected on the wall, unavoidably upstaging Benton’s sketches with Alice Faye’s strenuous cancan number.

If Benton is an analogue to Hollywood, it may be in the sense that he functioned as his own production studio—casting his paintings, building models, courting controversy, and manufacturing press. Along with John Ford, Henry Fonda, and Woody Guthrie, he was a key component of the cultural juggernaut that was John Steinbeck’s multimedia triumph, The Grapes of Wrath. A giant blowup of Benton’s 1939 lithograph Departure of the Joads fronted the Rivoli Theatre for the film’s 1940 New York premiere. Other lithographs were used in the movie’s posters and illustrated a limited edition of the book; one also emblazoned the cover of the Modern Library edition. (Would that Warren Beatty had secured old Tom’s involvement in his 1967 Pop art–inflected anti–Grapes of Wrath, Bonnie and Clyde.)

Benton also provided promotional material for an additional literary movie, The Long Voyage Home (1940), directed by Ford and fashioned from several Eugene O’Neill plays. Benton was involved in two other movies, Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water (1941) and Burt Lancaster’s self-directed frontier-adventure vehicle, The Kentuckian (1955).

In his 1948 Poker Night (from “A Streetcar Named Desire”), Benton painted Jessica Tandy, the original Blanche DuBois in the Broadway production, swanning before a mirror. David O. Selznick commissioned the work as a gift for the show’s producer, his wife, Irene. Supplanting the published play’s original stark modernist cover art to grace multiple printings of the 1951 Signet paperback, the painting assimilates Tennessee Williams into the American pantheon.

Benton’s canvases can be so robustly simpleminded as to make Norman Rockwell seem like a Conceptual artist; yet, no less than his murals, his illustrations for Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail, and Leo Huberman’s echt–Popular Front children’s history book We, the People buttress the show’s presentation of him as a quasi-cinematic interpreter of American history. (Nor is he irrelevant to contemporary movies. Their lines suggesting the swirl of a soft-serve ice-cream cone, Benton’s luridly colored, near-psychedelic late landscapes Trail Riders, 1964–65, and Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967, anticipate the CGI-sweetened vistas of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.)

John Ford may have been Benton’s Hollywood soul mate, but “American Epics” also juxtaposes the artist’s work with that of D. W. Griffith, Maurice Tourneur, and Raoul Walsh. The missing filmmaker is, of course, Benton’s fellow Midwesterner and pre-Pop art star Walt Disney.

If Disney’s wartime feature animation Victory Through Air Power (1943) is analogous to, albeit milder than, Benton’s “Year of Peril,” Uncle Walt’s postwar historical animated featurettes The Legend of Johnny Appleseed (1948) and Ben and Me (1953), and similarly educational live-action dramas Johnny Tremain (1957) and Westward Ho, the Wagons! (1956), not to mention the entire Disneyland realm known as Frontierland, may be seen as further popularizations of Bentonism.

Disney was surely aware of this. In 1946, he attempted to get Benton’s collaboration on a Davy Crockett project. Benton turned down the offer, although in 1954, the year before the epochal Crockett craze began, he accepted a commission to portray Lancaster as the Kentuckian—in a sycophantic Boys’ Life–style pinup the actor accepted as a trophy; aside from the odious Negro and Alligator, 1927, a shuffling gavotte once owned by King Vidor, this work may well mark the exhibition’s nadir.

At his best, Benton—like Disney and Hollywood—had the power to bring icons to life. And at his worst—again like Disney and Hollywood—he had the power to give kitsch a bad name.

“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” travels to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, Oct. 10, 2015–Jan. 3, 2016; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Feb. 6–May 1, 2016; Milwaukee Art Museum, June 9–Sept. 4, 2016.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.