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Having inadvertently entered “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered” through the exhibition’s exit, I was surprised to see Jackson Pollock’s Pasiphaë (1943), a pre-drip accumulation of hurried pictographs, on prominent display. Actually, I wasn’t that surprised, given that Benton (1889–1975) is probably best known by contemporary audiences as Pollock’s mentor. After studying under Benton at The Art Students League, Pollock became a lifelong friend, though the older artist stated, “the only thing I taught him was how to drink a fifth a day.” The relationship between the archetypal American Regionalist and “Jack the Dripper” has often been remarked upon, largely because of the disparity between the former’s homespun mannerism and the latter’s radical embrace of abstraction. But the commonalities between the two are, in pictorial terms, structural and real. The headlong rhythms of Pasiphaë are identical to those coursing through America Today (1930–31), albeit stripped of Yankee Doodle finery. Turns out “a fifth a day” was only part of the equation.
The Met has done handsomely by Benton, giving America Today—a sprawling, almost Homeric state of the union diorama—ample berth in its American Wing. The Pollock canvas is included as an addendum to the Benton mural, ensconced as it is in a side gallery with works by Stuart Davis, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, and others. These pieces provide cultural context, just as a gallery featuring studies for America Today offers insight into Benton’s working methods. The main event is squirreled away in a cloistered space redolent of its original site: a boardroom at The New School. The Art Deco leanings of the New School architect Joseph Urban are evident in aluminum-leaf wood moldings that simultaneously frame and snake through the mural. They’re a curious fillip: Urban’s sleek, rectilinear surfaces stand in contrast to Benton’s knotted, organic stylizations. Though both men worked in happy conjunction on the commission, all but irreconcilable strains of Modernism are evident in their respective visions.
Thomas Hart Benton, Instruments of Power (1930-31), oil on canvas; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Benton’s relationship to Modernism was complicated. Regionalism was as much anti-European (and anti-urban) as it was pro-American or, perhaps it is better said, pro-midwest American; its best known practitioners were based in Missouri (Benton), Kansas (Curry), and Iowa (Grant Wood). Boosters of the style viewed it as a bulwark against the oncoming tide of abstraction from across the Atlantic. It was no small irony that Regionalism was eventually ousted from the limelight by The New York School, a movement for which Benton’s former student was poster boy. Still, Benton was no bumpkin. Though he claimed himself “an enemy of Modernism,” his formative years were spent in Paris palling around with Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Diego Rivera. The influence of Cubism, Futurism, and Surrealism is evident in even his most doctrinaire slices of Americana. Instruments of Power, the center panel of America Today, is a collage-like amalgam of veering industrial forms. Francis Picabia would’ve approved of Benton’s paean to the machine; it is, after all, close kin to I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914), the Dadaist gadfly’s masterwork.
America Today consists of ten panels, the majority of them measuring close to eight feet high, and each focusing on a specific theme: among them, the coal and steel industries, the “changing West,” the “deep South,” and “city activities,” both on the subway and in the dance hall. The compositions are kaleidoscopic in effect, and their torsions supple and transitions fluid, notwithstanding abrupt disjunctions in scale, setting, and anecdote. Race relations are touched upon, as are disparities in wealth and moral stricture. In one panel, a burlesque show coexists with a revival meeting, a boxing match and a couple kissing passionately on a park bench. Benton’s symbolism is ham-handed, but his juxtapositions of imagery can be droll. Note, for instance, how the postures of hoochie-coochie girls, a woman in prayer and a fashionable strap-hanger rhyme even as their curvilinearity becomes less pronounced as the composition moves toward the picture’s edge. Benton’s knack for caricature is too hospitable to melodrama and invariably emits a whiff of hoke. America Today doesn’t quite escape period-piece status.
Thomas Hart Benton, City Activities with Subway (1930-31), oil on canvas; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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In an accompanying video, happily sequestered in a separate room, Thomas P.Campbell, the museum’s Director and CEO, makes a case for Benton’s relevance—the inequity of capital, the shifting landscape, sexual mores, that kind of thing. The aesthetic relevance of America Today is, however, more problematic, if only because (as a painter friend has it) “there is something to Benton after all, godammit.” Undeniable sophistication doesn’t altogether redeem florid, willful, and—let’s just say it— silly theatricality. Benton is hard to take seriously even as we have to grant him a degree of seriousness. The most damning moment at the Met comes in the aforementioned exit gallery. Down the wall from Pasiphaë is a painting by the sixteenth-century Netherlandish artist Abraham Bloemaert. Moses Striking the Rock (1596) is the chronological odd canvas out, but its mannerisms are as extravagant, stilted, and cornpone as Benton’s. Point taken: the reach of art traverses centuries. Still, dragging a not-so-good painting out of storage is an odd way to bolster the star attraction. Benton, ever ornery, doesn’t need help in thwarting his own gifts.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the November 2014 edition of The New Criterion.