New York

Thomas Hart Benton

James Graham And Sons

The drawings by Thomas Hart Benton were interesting on more than one count. Part of their interest—at least for those, like myself, who think that Benton is generally a good painter—is in the puzzle that they are not better than they are: usually, in this show, the presentation is as commonplace as the subject, and often the drawings are more like cartoons, or illustrations of some other kind, than they are like art.

It would seem that one reason for this involves Benton’s notion of style: for him, style appears to have been only high style, echoes of Roman or Venetian mannerism, and he was evidently uncertain that drawing was a serious enough medium to act as the vehicle for such an ambitious style. But it was the only style he had; and so, often, all one finds are scratchy, straight lines—the lines in his paintings are nearly always serpentine in the manner of Veronese or the later stanze of Raphael—suggesting objects that are not defined in either volume or contour.

Or concept. The absence of a pictorial concept is remarkable, and it suggests another reason for the failure of most of these drawings. Benton’s is a very ideological kind of art. His style and his subjects are both parts of it, but if one had to choose one would say that for him the subject is more important: the connotations of the style are ancillary, in that they are intended to indicate the nobility inherent in the subject. In other words, Benton thought that basically subject was enough, and in his drawings he was all the more inclined to do this since, as I said, style—his idea of style—did not seem to him entirely appropriate in drawings. The result is that in these drawings the subject or motif is just set down anyhow. To suggest how remarkably strong Benton’s interest in ideology—in what the subject stood for—was, I note that even the anecdotalism of nearly all American genre is lacking in these drawings. So Benton drew subjects without stories and without style: one has to believe in their intrinsic value a great deal to create art of that kind.

––Jerrold Lanes