San Francisco

Fletcher Benton

Studio Exhibition

This exhibition of Fletcher Benton’s new work was seen briefly at Gump’s Gallery on April 1, 1964. Like some mad April Fool’s game, the exhibition was summarily taken down, to vanish into the artist’s studio as if it never existed, within four hours after the announced month-long show opened. As yet, the gallery has given no official explanation for its actions. The unofficial one—that the exhibition somehow did not come up to the “tone” of the Gump’s establishment—is simply too fantastic for belief. While the position of the artist in San Francisco may not be what it should be, the city has given some evidence that it has passed the point where the artist is expected to take his tone from a department store.

The public is the poorer for not having seen the show. A nostalgia, evidently, for a segment of a vanishing American experience—the old-fashioned circus—provided Benton with a theme for a marvelous series of paintings depicting circus people in the act of performing all their various feats of daredeviltry and skill. The conscious choice of new thematic material forced Benton to adapt new technical means for the series; white lead combined with a sign-writer’s silver gilding create a wide range of metallic greys which Benton invents freely as backdrops for his trapeze performers, bareback riders, jugglers, etc. These colors combine with the fleshy pinks of the nude female performers in a brilliant expression of circus tinsel and glare.

The exhibition is garnished ’round with polychromed constructions of almost maniacal hilarity. They include a World War I bi-plane with a silvered fuselage and wings, overpainted in red and white checks, and flown by a nude circus damsel, while her partner stunts on the upper wing. Planned for the exhibition, and installed in the artist’s studio, is a high-wire act construction, complete with wire, lady acrobats and balancing paraphernalia, all strung from wall to wall over a fifteen-foot area. The painted wooden figures used in the constructions mirror the cartoon-like figures in the paintings.

Benton’s zany, light-hearted circus is really only a kind of lyrical extension of the preoccupation with the figure that has been seen in his past work; the figures are, peculiarly, more cartoon-like and more sexless than they have been in the past, but at the same time, forced by the theme into bursting motion. The exhibition is, in general, part of a kind of spring fever that has swept through the ranks of Bay Area artists this year. The mood of light-hearted, goofy hilarity is seen in the sculpture showing at the San Francisco Annual and in many of the paintings and drawings seen throughout the area recently. It is a pity Gump’s is immune to it.

––James Monte