Judgmental biography of the controversial American painter.
Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) was controversial because he was a realist in an age when artists and curators, though not necessarily the general public, considered abstraction the most advanced, exciting form of art. He also vigorously defended himself and fellow regionalists like his friend Grant Wood by attacking the elitist art world in terms that even at the time were judged homophobic and jingoistic. Yet, as Wolff (Art History/Univ. of Maine; Richard Caton Woodville, 2002) demonstrates, Benton was no ignorant philistine. Born into a prominent Missouri political family, he studied in Paris, was affiliated (albeit uneasily) with Alfred Stieglitz’s circle in New York and grappled for many years with abstraction before turning to the muscular, writhing figures that impart dynamism—and occasionally stereotypes—to such famous murals as The Arts of Life in America and A Social History of the State of Missouri. Benton’s best work did not airbrush American history; he had read Marx in his youth and remained influenced by Marxist analysis long after he turned to the right politically. In the 1930s, when he was at the height of his fame, his art and opinions fit comfortably under the umbrella of New Deal liberalism. Wolff does a decent job of explicating Benton’s belief that art had a public purpose and should be accessible to the common people, but his distaste for the vast majority of the artist’s work is so plain that readers may wonder why he chose to write this biography—particularly after reading the final chapter’s closing lines, in which the author speculates on what this convinced realist might have achieved as an abstract painter. It’s jarring, as is Wolff’s habit of jumping decades ahead in chronology within a single paragraph.
Even those who don’t especially care for Benton’s work might agree that an artist whose work is so enduringly popular merits a more sympathetic assessment.