Thomas Hart Benton: A Life is a new biography of the American Regionalist artist by Justin Wolff (reviewed in the NY Times 7-1-12.) Reading about Benton reminded me of my scorn for this reactionary, xenophobic, homophobe back when I was in art school in the 1970’s. His life’s arc is summed up by the fact that this popular and successful Social Realist artist was eclipsed by his former student, Jackson Pollock. Benton’s stylized realism and nostalgic view of a simpler America was like Andy Griffith at a Lady Gaga concert.
My personal view of Benton evolved as I outgrew the need to square off against ideologies in art, in order to form my own identity. In other words, I put aside my own prejudices against Benton’s prejudices, and took a fresh look at his work. In the mid 80’s, I happened upon a trove of Benton lithographs in an exhibit at R. S. Johnson Fine Art in Chicago. I was struck by the sinuous beauty and powerfully expressive line in Benton’s graphic work.
Reading about Benton today, I thought about ways his influence pervaded American art. One of my favorite films is Night Of The Hunter, by Charles Laughton. Looking at film stills, it is clear that Laughton had a painter’s sense of expressionist drama. Perhaps his stylized view was influenced by Benton’s view of silhouettes of the human drama, played out against the gentle swell of Midwestern plains and river valleys.
Grant Wood, despite the iconic status of American Gothic, also has been marginalized. Until I saw the fine collection of his work at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa, I thought of him as a one-hit-wonder. Like Benton, his work has a lyrical, stylized approach to American landscape that is as distinctive as it is beautiful. It is well worth a second look.