I have a special fondness for the works of Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curr because they were the first famous artists I ever met. I saw them together many years ago at an exhibition of rural Wisconsin art Curry had judged and, being full of the brashness of youth -- I was all of 15 -- I walked over to them and introduced myself.
A few days later, having decided that their polite treatment of me constituted proof of their willingness to help, I wrote asking their advice on starting a career in art.
Curry responded with a nice but formal note advising me to study under a certain teacher at a certain school and, in answer to my request for a small drawing, enclosed a rough sketch of one of his landscapes. Benton, on the other hand, included no sketch but scrawled in pencil at the bottom of my letter, "After you've studied ten years write me again."
Now, to understand what Benton and Curry represented in 1941, one must go back to a time when American Regionalism was still in full force and when a large proportion of the artists throughout this country were much more interested in painting local scenery, everyday events, and popular myths than in producing abstractions or other formalistic exercises. And this notion of art as primarily a grassroots affair was particularly popular in the Midwest where Benton and Curry -- together with Grant Wood -- were its leading exponents.
Benton especially seemed singled out for greatness. It was hard for me to believe that this ordinary-looking man was the person responsible for what seemed like miles of huge colorful murals and hundreds of powerful and dramatic paintings and prints. And not only that, because he was highly articulate and combative and was always blasting away at modern art or the corruption of New York dealers, his name was continually appearing in the papers and being mentioned on the radio. He was a celebrity and he enjoyed being one.
So it was only natural that I should be disappointed when he made it clear that he wouldn't discuss anything further with me until I had spent what seemed like an eternity studying my craft. But I felt that his suggestion made sense and so, upon completion of High School, I entered the school Curry had recommended.
When I saw Benton again eight years later his entire world had changed.Not only had there been a world war, but a great shift in emphasis had taken place in American art with abstract-expressionism -- dominated at the moment by his ex-pupil Jackson Pollock -- pushing aside all previous notions about how americans should paint. Although he was painting as much as ever, his reputation had dipped considerably. After dominating much of American painting for over a decade, he had become an isolated figure; even his two old colleagues , Curry and Wood, were no longer around to join forces with him.
And my world had changed along with his. Two years spent overseas in the Army and six years in school had altered my point of view considerably. My new heroes in American art were those same painters who had bumped Benton and the other heroes of my teens. And, while I was still impressed by the purely physical and technical accomplishments of the Regionalsits, I now found their work embarrasingly provincial and naive.
So I was a little taken aback one evening while cleaning up after a printmaking class to find Benton in the corridor of the art school studying some student work. I hesitated for a moment and then walked over to him. Now, I don't know what I expected -- possibly a subdued and humbled man -- but whatever it was, I was not prepared for the self-assured and dynamic man who shook my hand and said no, he didn't remember me but let's go for a walk and talk over old times.
We walked a bit and then sat for a couple of hours on the terrace of the Student Union. He was in high good spirits and full of stories of his old friends and enemies, and about his recent work. He took it for granted that I agreed with him that it was the art world which was wrong and that his loss of reputation was mainly due to one of its periodic fits of madness. He made it clear that he knew who he was and why he painted as he did, and so he saw no reason to change course just because a bunch of lunatics in New York had decided that he was out of it.
I never did find out what he was doing so far from home, nor where he was going, for I was too caught up in his passions and enthusiasms to ask. The hours spent with him seemed to exist without past or future for me, although I do remember the fleeting thought that this man was indeed Thomas Hart Benton, hero of my youth and champion of the American Dream. I was deeply moved and, caught up in the force of his personality, quite forgot my more recent objections to his art.
I never saw him again although I though of him often. Every once in a while he made the papers: a mural here, a portrait there, or he was quoted once again as holding little hope for american painting unless it changed its ways. He become friendly with Harry Truman and painted his portrait as well as a mural for the Truman Library in Independence. His last painting, a huge canvas executed in 1975 and devoted to country music, was as vital and alive as any he had ever done.
His passing occasioned numerous articles recounting his life and art. By and large these were either uncritically sentimental or snide. No one really seemed to know what to make of him. To some, the fact that Pollock had been hsi pupil at one time was Benton's one claim to fame. Others detailed his weaknesses: his manneristic tendencies, his harsh color, blatant hero-worship, and simplistic view of American culture. All seemed a bit bewildered by this man who had willed a style of painting into existence and had then stuck by it through thick and thin.
The fact of the matter is that Benton was no fool. He knew exactly what he was doing as anyone who takes the time to study his very early paintings will discover. He studied and wrestled with European modernism and finally turned from it not because he couldn't do it, but because he saw himself as an American painter in need of creating an indigenous american art. He made mistakes -- in many ways he was overly idiosyncratic -- but he also represented an ideal, a force, and a period of our history which believed that eerything was possible if we put our minds to it. I doubt that history will say that he was a great artist, but he was a very good one, and I am proud to have spent an evening with him.