Imagine my delight, then, when an abstract artist – Francine Tint – who lives a lot closer to Chelsea than I do -- recommended two shows on the Upper East Side, so convenient to my own pad…not that either show has much in the way of new art, but they do have art worth looking at, and (being a modernist, not a postmodernist) I don’t place any particular premium on the new.
NATURE AT HOLLIS TAGGART
“Why Nature? Hofmann / Mitchell / Pousette-Dart / Stamos” is the title of the show at Hollis Taggart (through December 6). Although this show comes perilously close to the “gallery selections” that I have sometimes noted at Hollis Taggart in the past, its lavishly-illustrated catalog, with a scholarly essay by Robert S. Mattison, lends an air of permanence to the proceedings – one can feel reasonably sure that the 19 pictures illustrated in color will remain on view for the duration of the show.
All are abstracts of one kind or another, despite the title of the show and the essay by Mattison, which valiantly attempts to situate all the work on view in a landscape context. It’s true that all four artists spent a lot of time in the country, as opposed to the city, and that Hofmann was famous for having exhorted students to “paint from nature,” but in actual, visual terms, only five, maybe six out of the 19 paintings contain recognizable images—all of which are semi-abstract, and only four of which occupy most of the picture plane.
In the semi-abstract category, I’d first list the three early, palely-colored works on paper by Stamos, all done in 1946 and all centering on images vaguely suggestive of underwater growths. This imagery is not a problem with me—I think Stamos was at his best during this period, and the pictures are charming (though hung in a narrow hallway where they’re difficult to see).
Also the left-hand side of the smallest & earliest Pousette-Dart, “Sea Forms” (1937-38) suggests the brightly-colored but stylized head of a fish, perhaps as done in Native American beadwork. The next and most impressive Pousette-Dart is “Palimpsest” (1944). It’s a good-sized, dark, richly-overpainted composition on a cubist grid that even Mattison has to concede is distinguished by its “deliberately ambiguous signs” -- what I would call multireferential imagery.
“Byzantine Night” (1964-65) is a strong representative of Pousette-Dart’s later, pointillist and completely abstract style. In this case, it’s a dark field completely covered with colorful little dots, whose title is its only tie to “nature.”
The one Joan Mitchell that is pretty good (for a Mitchell) is the medium-sized, untitled abstract from 1957 done mostly with whiplash strokes of brown and black on a white field. The best that Mattison can do here is to write about Mitchell’s sensitivity to hurricanes and suggest that her brush strokes suggest the “turbulence” of wind-swept trees, but it’s a reach.
The core of this show is the five paintings by Hofmann on view. All were apparently chosen because they have landscape allusions in their titles, and, although the two latest were done in the 1960s, all are characteristic of Hofmann’s style in the 40s and early 50s (before he adopted the rectangles that lend so much structure to the work of his final years).
This earlier style often tends to leave me in the dark about the artist’s intentions and/or decisions. Dare I say that such canvases often strike me as confused? Certainly not as confused as the handiwork I have lately been exposed to in Chelsea, but not crystal clear either.
On the other hand, they’re usually identifiable as Hofmann, and very likeable, too, both for the robust vitality and energy they convey, and for the cheerful colors. This, for example, is what makes “First Sprouting” (1961) so appealing, with its vertical white scrape marks, suggestive of “growing things,” and smears of red to decorate a field of juicy green.
The biggest – and most vibrant – of the five Hofmanns is “Aquatic Garden” (1960). Measuring eight feet high & four feet wide, it’s an exuberant sprouting of dozens of big and little forms, with many kinds of red in the field and a couple of long, baby blue splatted streaks on top to pull it together. Does it work? Does it not work? It’s worth a trip to gallery to try and figure that out for yourself.
ART SCHOOLS AT FREEDMAN ART
The second show on the UES that Tint pointed me in the direction of is “Art in the Making” at Freedman Art (through January 31). I was dragging my feet about seeing this show because I was turned off by the title. It sounded like yet another show devoted to “process,” but it seems that the common denominator here is not process, but art schools as exemplified both by teachers (past and present) and former students.
Specifically, it’s devoted to three local art schools that are or have recently been celebrating anniversaries. The oldest is the Art Students League of New York, currently celebrating its 140th anniversary. The youngest is the New York School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture, now in its 50th year. In between comes the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, which in 2012 had its 125th birthday.
All of the 24 artists in this show have either taught or studied at one (or more) of these three schools. They are represented by small to medium-sized works, in the kind of presentation that used to be known (and for all I know, still is) as targeted toward “young collectors.” The result, on the whole, is an interesting & stimulating show, though with considerable variations in quality.
The oldest artist in it is John Marin (1870-1953), who contributes a nifty little penciled abstract street scene, “New York City, Movement No. 2,” (1932). Marin spent a few weeks at the Art Students League in 1905, after a full course at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and before taking off for Paris.
The youngest artist in the show is Kit White (b. 1951), a native of West Virginia with a Harvard education. He teaches at Pratt and has published articles on everybody from Matthew Barney to Willard Boepple. In this show, he gets a whole wall to display 35 very cunning small ink and/or graphite drawings on paper. All but four are replications of works by other artists.
First comes “’After’ Caravaggio, ‘The Martyrdom of St. Matthew’ (detail), 1599-1600” (2011); last comes “’After’ Jenny Holzer, projection on St. Matthew’s Church, Berlin, 2001” (2011). In between comes a catholic selection of artworks by everybody from Manet & Bonnard to Matisse & Picasso but not neglecting Morris Louis & Rothko in the rush to cram in Warhol, Lichtenstein, Twombly, Koons & Johns.
As displayed at Freedman Art, these drawings take on the quality of “appropriations.” I believe, though, that they were originally created to illustrate a book of art education by White that MIT published in 2011. It’s entitled “101 Things to Learn in Art School.”
The first thing to learn, according to the literature on this book, is that “art can be anything.” This lesson No. 1 is illustrated (inevitably) by Duchamp’s “Fountain.” The second lesson is “learn to draw,” a lesson that the author has clearly learned well.
In turning out this book, his skilled draftsmanship must have saved him a peck of time and money, as he presumably didn’t have to ask permission to reproduce the art works he sketched, or pay the fees that normal reproduction (by photograph) usually entails.
Between these two extremes, there are a lot of other attractive and/or interesting exhibits. Among those I particularly liked are a sweet little pair of landscapes, done in 1922 on both sides of a tin box top by Thomas Hart Benton, who (as all the world knows) taught Jackson Pollock at the Art Students League (both Jackson & his older brother Charles, who introduced Jackson to Benton, are represented here, too, but with works of more documentary than esthetic interest).
Also attractive are a tall, palely-colored mixed-media Larry Poons, “Meadow” (1986); an unexpectedly likeable “Untitled (GLI)” abstract watercolor (1977) by Nancy Graves, and a colorful Adolph Gottlieb “burst” painting entitled “Multiple” (1967).
Other standouts include a blessedly non-objective Hofmann “White Relief” (1952) and a seascape, “Maine Beach” (2001), by Alex Katz, which is equally blessedly free from any of his cartoony people.
Offbeat choices include a late and reasonably decent abstraction by Stephen Greene, “1 + 1 = 3” (1998). Greene (1917-1999) taught at Princeton before (and/or after) he taught at all three of the schools honored in this exhibition. At Princeton, he is said to have been an influence on Frank Stella, Class of ’58, but actually, according to an interview with Stella in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “Greene taught in the traditional method. You brought in a model, you draw the model, and after you do it for a while you can paint. But I was kind of an annoying student. I didn’t want to paint from the model. I just wanted to make paintings. So after a while [Greene] gave up and said, ‘You’re incorrigible. Just go ahead and make the paintings and forget about an art class.’”
This didn’t surprise me too much, as I knew from my dissertation that during the 1940s, Greene was quite well known for representational paintings of religious subjects in the style of the Old Masters. Then around 1957, according to his obituary in the NY Times by Roberta Smith on November 29, 1999, he underwent a conversion himself --- from representational to abstract---after hearing Clement Greenberg give a talk. If this was in fact the case, one can’t help wondering whether it was Greene who influenced Stella, or vice versa.
Another offbeat choice is William Scharf (b. 1927 and now in his late 80s but apparently still teaching at the Art Students League). The backstory here is that he was apprenticed to Rothko and acquired some of Rothko’s feel for color-field, but as this exhibition makes clear, Sharf was also influenced by Gorky and is, if anything, more of a latter-day surrealist than a latter-day color-field painter, with a mix of biomorphic and geometric forms (and despite the brightness of his super-bright colors). I thought his single oil, “Golden Rain, Finds Ice” (2013), was amiable enough, but did we really need the seven additional smaller & paler acrylics on paper?
There are a number of other less distinguished works on view here, too, most of whose creators I shall tactfully decline to cite by name. These exhibits do bring me to what might have been included in place of such work. I don’t normally go to bat for feminist causes, but since this show is supposed to be all about art schools, wouldn’t it be nice if it could have reflected the real situation at art schools with regard to the sexes?
I mean to say, there are 24 artists listed on the title page of the checklist to this show. Of them, only three are women (Graves, Frankenthaler & Lee Bontecou). This is just not the way it is in the art schools that this show purports to represent. I checked with all three of them, and the consensus was clear: among their student bodies, the ratio is more like 50:50 (though varying somewhat from year to year).
From what I’ve heard, there may have been even more women in the art schools back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, studying art was the sort of thing young ladies did while waiting to get married off and have babies. It didn’t matter that the adult art world took a dim view of their work after they graduated, as most of them weren’t prepared to set their careers before their private lives anyway, but times have changed.
A lot more women take their art more seriously these days, and much, maybe even most of the art world reciprocates. A study of the websites of all three art schools indicates women on their faculties, too.
So—instead of those 7 extra small acrylics by Scharf, couldn’t we have had one or two works by women who teach at the Art Students League? I understand that Paula De Luccia has helped Poons with some of his classes.
Some years ago, she even curated a not-bad exhibition of women students from those classes (it was held under the auspices of the Asian-American Women Artists’ Alliance, at their space in Brooklyn).
How about Pat Lipsky? I hear from one of her current students at the Art Students League that she’s doing a very good job, and, although I haven’t seen any of her recent paintings, I’ve seen a lot of earlier ones that I admired.
Then there’s Pratt, where Francine Tint studied (along with the Brooklyn Museum school). If you google Tint’s name, up comes a picture of her, with the information about her artistic education right under it. You don’t even have to call her up and ask.
As for the New York Studio School, it’s very agreeable to see two super-sweet little watercolors of sunsets over mountains by Graham Nickson in “Art in the Making,” and I know he’s the dean of the school – but what about Mercedes Matter (1913-2001)? She founded the school, back in 1964, and, although her own work varied widely in quality, some of it is quite presentable (see below). Graham Nickson wouldn’t have his job without her. How soon they forget.
Also on the faculty of the New York Studio School is Jilaine Jones, a younger artist whose sculpture I have admired in the past. In the current show at Freedman Art is a very routine work on paper by David Smith. I sometimes wonder whether anybody would pay much attention to Smith’s drawings if he hadn’t been such a great sculptor, and also wonder if a small work on paper by Jones might not have been more exciting.
QUICK LOOK AT AINSLIE
In October, I was invited to a show by Sholto Ainslie at Mark Borghi, scheduled to open in the last week of that month. I couldn’t get to the opening, but I went to the gallery in the first week of November – only to find that the show had only been up for three days and was now down.
I was able to see some of what had been in it. Everything was abstract, and in three sizes: medium-sized, small and very small. The two medium-sized ones were both a monochromatic deep blue-green, with paint applied over what looked like rumpled pieces of paper. This technique was very similar in that of the Poons I’d seen at Freedman Art, but looked dull and dried-out by comparison.
The two or three very small pictures that I was able to see featured small areas of very bright colors. Although the edges of these areas were more apt to be straight than curved, I was still reminded of Hofmann. These were adequate but not knockouts.
The three or four small pictures – in between these two extremes – were made with lots of palely colored and sometimes iridescent little points of paint, swirling into all-over patterns that resembled patterned fabrics or reptilian skins. I liked them.
Two other minor points: 1) officially, the gallery is run by brothers, Dean Borghi and Mark Borghi, and 2) one painting they had hanging was a good-sized Mercedes Matter. A large, simple, abstract form made of light lines on a white field, it was more successful than the dark, cubist-inspired paintings of still lifes or maybe interiors that I recall seeing at her house in Springs when I visited there, back in the 1990s. Anybody who wanted to include work by Matter in a show like “Art in the Making” would have to be very selective, but it could be done.
AND, AT THE MET, CORN AS HIGH AS AN ELEPHANT’S EYE (BUT ENJOYABLE)
Well, the schedule of coming attractions at the Met that I offered my readers earlier this fall turns out to have losers as well as winners. As of this writing, I can’t imagine how anything could ruin “Madame Cézanne” for me, and the Lauder collection of cubists, while not perfect, has so many virtues that I plan to discuss it in a separate posting.
But “Assyria to Iberia: at the Dawn of the Classical Age” turns out (with a few notable exceptions) to be of greater archaeological than esthetic interest, and “Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry” merely served to convince me that, to the extent that I do like tapestry, I like medieval tapestry better than Renaissance.
One show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that I didn’t list but that I did enjoy is “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered” (through April 19). It’s kitsch, but very likeable kitsch, a holdover from the decade of Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde & Kitsch,” which defined “kitsch” as art that took the conventions and techniques of high art and used them to appeal to the semi-educated masses.
The irony is that Benton’s patrons were anything but semi-educated. Rather, they were the sophisticated scholars with progressive political, social and educational agendas who had founded The New School for Social Research (now known simply as The New School) in Greenwich Village in 1919.
Under the leadership of Alvin Johnson, these sophisticated scholars had by 1930 built themselves a handsome new building at 66 West 12th Street. It was designed by Joseph Urban (1872-1933), an early modernist Viennese architect and set designer very much in the tradition of the Weiner Werkstätte and himself a major figure in the founding of American Art Deco.
In 1930, Johnson and his colleagues invited two well-known artists to decorate their premises with socially-conscious murals (or what looked like socially-conscious murals).
One artist was the Regionalist or American Scene painter, Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). The son of a Missouri congressman, he had studied art in Paris as well as Chicago, and by 1930 had been teaching at the Art Students League in New York for some years.
His prewar experience of modernism had led him to experiment with the type of cubist color abstraction that was known as “Synchromism,“ and had been founded by two young Americans, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald Wright.
During World War I, Benton worked for the U. S. Navy, making realistic drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life, documentary work which (he later said) influenced his mature style. By the early 1920s, he had declared himself “an enemy to modernism,” and was directing his students to model themselves on the Old Masters, especially Michelangelo.
One of his students, Jackson Pollock, took this advice very much to heart, making drawings in the 1930s after Michelangelo and echoing in his mature paintings of the 40s and later those twisting, turning compositional elements of Michelangelo’s sculpture that Benton had incorporated into his own representational work. (Also reflected in Pollock's famed "all-overness" is Benton's horror vacui--his habit of filling every segment of his canvases with figures or other pictorial elements.)
Interestingly enough, though, even Benton’s commitment to Michelangelo seems to have had its roots in modernism. Morgan Russell’s best-known Synchromist painting, "Synchromie en bleu violacé," is based upon Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Dying Slave—and (as Gail Levin has shown) Benton was already sketching that sculpture during his Synchromist period.
Benton’s ten murals, collectively entitled “America Today,” were completed in 1931, and decorated the board room of The New School. The Met, which received them as a gift from the AXA Life Insurance Company in December 2012, and is displaying them in a room the same size of the boardroom, as the centerpiece to the current show, calls them portrayals of the “heroic proletariat.”
I have problems right away with this phrase. "Proletariat" is a Marxist term, and Marxism implies a critique of capitalism, but these handsome paintings are anything but a critique. Rather, they are an endorsement and a celebration of the status quo during the Roaring Twenties, a period of prosperity and domination by the Republican Party when capitalism looked (to many if not all observers) like the best of all possible worlds. The people in these murals – with few exceptions--look more happy than heroic.
All of which is not to say that these paintings aren’t worth contemplating, just that their cozy satisfaction with the ways things were (or were supposed to be) seems to have attracted fewer high-minded admirers over the decades than social critiques do.
Maybe Benton’s sentimental view of life in America is at last coming into its own during an era when conservatism and xenophobia -- as represented by the Republican Party -- seem again to be cresting, at least as indicated by the voting on November 6.
SIDE DISCUSSION: OROZCO
The other major artist from this period with murals at The New School is José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). With Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, he was one of three leaders of Mexico’s vigorous muralist movement.
This style of art combined modernist-type of cubism with native Mexican art, past and present. In terms of its subject matter, it was much more politically radical than Benton’s regionalism.
Orozco’s cycle of five murals at The New School was likewise completed in 1930-31, and displayed in what was then the cafeteria and an adjoining student lounge.
Among other things, the murals depict the Mexican revolution, with one of its martyred heroes, Carrillo Puerto; the Russian Revolution, with Lenin & Stalin, and Mohandas K. Gandhi standing proudly up to British imperialist forces.
This was heady stuff in the 1930s, when a mural that Rivera was painting in Rockefeller Center (then a-building) had to be painted over because it included only Lenin.
Such controversy was still heady stuff in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when a yellow curtain was hung over the New School’s mural of Lenin and Stalin.
On the other hand, it had always enjoyed more prestige in the art world than American Scene painting. Even in the 1930s, the Mexican muralists had been taken to the bosom of the internationalist-minded Museum of Modern Art, while the American Scene painters -- led by Grant Wood & John Steuart Curry, as well as Benton -- had found their principal museum support only in the lowlier & artistically more conservative Whitney Museum of American Art.
And, by the early 1980s, with the art world (and the world of education) still aglow with the leftist prop wash of the 1960s, all this vintage radicalism rendered the murals doubly precious.
Over the years, both the Benton and the Orozco murals had deteriorated, although Benton had twice, in 1956 and again in 1968, returned to restore his work, prior to his death in 1975. He had also "restored" the Orozcos by shellacking them. This was definitely counterproductive, but the New School decided to keep them nonetheless & sell off the Bentons.
THE BENTONS FIND A SAVIOR
The Bentons were ignominiously consigned to a dealer, together with the pious hope that they wouldn’t be sold off individually, or leave New York. But Mayor Edward I. Koch -- who seems to have had an interest in art that I, for one, never suspected – decided to see what he could do to make that hope into a reality.
As nearly as I can tell from stories in the NY Times by David W. Dunlap for February 14, 1984, and William H. Honan for March 26, 1988, Koch’s office was advised by the dealer when it couldn’t unload the property.
Taking a personal interest in this information was Herbert P. Rickman, an aide to the mayor who had written his college thesis on the Mexican muralists.
Largely due to Rickman’s efforts, the mayor’s office decided to scout around and see what large buildings were currently being built in Manhattan and would like an attractive decoration for their lobbies.
This was how they hit upon the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States (now AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company). Equitable was just building a new, very modern, 54-story headquarters, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, on Seventh Avenue between 51st and 52nd Street, to replace its then headquarters building at 1285 Avenue of Americas (also between 51st and 52nd).
Equitable, according to Dunlap, purchased the murals for a reported $3.1 million, of which The New School got a reported $2 million (presumably after the dealer had taken its cut).
And, according to Honan, Equitable in 1988 came up with an additional $100,000 or so to clean off Benton's shellac and more truly restore the Orozco murals—after The New School had ingenuously notified Rickman that it was negotiating with the Mexican government, who wanted to take the murals back to Mexico in exchange for scholarship aid to Mexican students.
At present, these murals are a popular attraction at The New School, though the room which was once the cafeteria is now primarily used for meetings, seminars and special events. Visitors who wish to see the murals need to make an appointment through the Provost’s Office.
However popular they may be, though, I would imagine that Benton’s murals at the Met are now attracting considerably larger crowds. The room in which the ten murals themselves are displayed is only part of the show.
In addition, there is an introductory gallery, with more than 40 related works by Benton, and a supplementary gallery, with nearly 30 related works by other artists. One third of these are paintings & drawings and two thirds, photographs by Lewis Hine, James Van Der Zee, Walker Evans and others, to provide a “historical context" for the Benton murals.
In the introductory gallery, a few of the Benton works on view are paintings, but most are drawings (and most loaned by Equitable). Some are sketches of factories, logging and other subjects that Benton had been inspired by on his travels, and that he would incorporate into the murals.
Some are studies of faces, figures and body details directly related to figures in the murals, and some are preparatory drawings for the murals themselves—all of which are complicated compositions.
The “historical context” gallery is presided over by Curry's well-known 1939 painting of John Brown, the abolitionist. The few other paintings on view include a semi-abstract Stuart Davis of the Jefferson Market (1930), a 1920 Synchromist painting by Stanton Macdonald Wright (again, semi-abstract), and the semi-abstract 1943 Pollock that is today known as “Pasiphaë” but that was originally named “Moby Dick.”
James Johnson Sweeney, then a curator at MoMA and author of the catalog essay for Pollock’s 1943 show at Art of This Century, in which this painting was included, was responsible for renaming it with a classy classical tag.
More to the point here, one can definitely see the swooping, swirling shapes in this painting that indicate Pollock’s indebtedness to Benton (with Michelangelo in the background, too).
Still, although these two supplementary galleries add breadth to this show, the highlight is definitely the ten murals in “America Today” that occupy the reconstructed board room.
This 30-by-22-foot space is big enough to accommodate benches and the large number of viewers it is currently attracting, but nine of the ten paintings themselves loom 7½ feet high, and they range in width from 9 to 13 feet, with very little space between.
Together with all this proximity is the fact that all the murals are filled to overflowing with so many bright colors, and so many twisting and turning forms, that they tend to create a somewhat oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere.
(Leaving this display space, one also encounters a movie about it all, which adds further motion and on top of it, noise. Then, after exiting the show altogether, one encounters the Frank Lloyd Wright room, originally created between 1912 and 1914 for the summer home of Francis W. Little in Wayzata, Minnesota. What a soothing oasis of big, open space, long, relaxed horizontal rows of uninflected brick and the simple, restrained decorations that betoken true modernism! But I digress.)
CENTERPIECE: THE BOARD ROOM
The boardroom, with its ten murals, does make entertaining viewing. I also found the extended labels helpful, as they detail the features of each mural with little reproductions, identifying each feature with its place in the overall composition.
First come the regions of the U.S., beginning with the Deep South and dealing mainly with the cotton industry. Both whites and African Americans are pictured, and although the label would have you believe that Benton was setting up “racial tensions” between them, to me they look companionable enough.
Following the Deep South comes the Midwest, a painting divided between the growing of corn and pigs, and lumbering (then still big in Middle Western states like Wisconsin & Minnesota). There’s a cute little Model T here amid the corn and an equally cute little locomotive amidst the lumberjacks.
Once again, the label would have you believe that Benton created an “ominous” landscape in the lumbering part. I fail to see it, and the happy, cheerful corny part is as corny as Kansas in August (to quote the song sung by that cockeyed optimist, Nellie Forbush, in “South Pacific”).
(This blithe mood is surprising when you bear in mind that by 1930, Iowa and the rest of the Middle West had been suffering from desperately depressed farm prices for nearly a decade – anticipating the Great Depression that was to overtake the rest of the country in the 1930s. The sole sign of evil in Benton's bucolic Garden of Eden is a rattlesnake, coiled ominously in his own little corner area near the sow and her angular brood.)
Next comes “the changing West,” where oil is king. Its takeover of the landscape is heralded by a huge oil derrick, humming machinery and haphazard boom towns – all combined with a couple of cowboys
These regional murals are followed by four devoted to big industries, the largest devoted to modern sources of power (steam, water, electricity, etc.) We get the coal industry (the only one where the workers, according to the label, are unhappy), the steel industry, and city building. Everywhere we have a frenzy of activity. (According to legend, Pollock posed for one of the figures in the panel on the steel industry.)
The two penultimate panels are devoted to sinful but colorful city pleasures (really New York pleasures, though not so designated by name). In one is a cameo of Benton’s wife Rita with their infant son, taking instruction from Caroline Pratt, a progressive educator who had founded the City and Country School in Greenwich Village, but this is a minor element in the scenes, which are otherwise dominated by dancing (from taxi dancing to burlesque), drinking (illegal during Prohibition, but widely done), boxing, a movie house and a circus.
There is also a vignette with a friend of Benton’s named Max Eastman seated in a subway. The label at the Met, again attempting to locate Benton in a “progressive” context, identifies Eastman as the former editor of the Marxist “Masses” magazine. That, unfortunately for whoever wrote this label, is only part of the story.
By 1930, Eastman had left The Masses, gone to visit the Soviet Union, and decided he didn’t like what he saw. He had therefore turned into one of the earliest neo-cons – anticipating the likes of Irving Kristol & Daniel Bell by decades.
If Eastman was friends with Benton, it was more likely because Benton, who himself had declared war on artistic modernism, found Eastman’s new conservative stance congenial.
The concluding panel, a long narrow one that went over the door of the boardroom (and is over the entrance of the current installation), consists of four pairs of hands reaching desperately up, as though to save themselves from drowning.
One set of hands is pouring coffee out of a pot, and seems to be dispensing it to two other pairs of hands, while the fourth pair is accompanied by a top hat and is holding some money.
The label here says that this was completed after Benton, at long last, was beginning to realize that the happy days of the Jazz Age were a thing of the past, and that the depression which had begun with the stock market crash of 1929 was going to be deeper and last longer than anybody had originally thought.
The label also says that the top hat and hands with money “mark Benton’s most overt indictment of capitalist greed and corruption, which he and many others believed caused the stock market crash of 1929….” But you know, I wonder.
To me, it looks as though the top-hatted capitalist is also drowning in the seas of depression, just like the other pairs of hands (except for the one with the coffee pot).
I mean, I don’t want to make Benton out to be a down-and-dirty reactionary, but isn’t it just possible that, as an artist, he took a more philosophic view? After all, stockbrokers had been throwing themselves out of windows in 1929.
Benton prided himself on being a realist, and depicting life as he saw it. The year after he completed the New School murals, he was invited by the state of Indiana to contribute murals to the state pavilion at a Chicago fair.
He chose to depict some Indianans in the racist costumes of the Ku Klux Klan, because during the 20s, a very large percentage of the population in Indiana been members of the KKK, and a KKK governor had even been elected. This did not make him popular among Indianans, as by the more liberally-minded 30s, they wanted to put that all behind them.
In 1935, Benton left New York to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute. It fired him in 1941 after he’d made a homophobic remark about museum curators so offensive that the Met, in its current presentation, can’t bring itself to quote it.
Instead, it prefers to blame the decline in Benton’s reputation to the rise of that popular pomonian whipping boy, abstract expressionism. But there's more to it than that. For one thing, Benton's histrionic 1942 exhibition in New York, "The Year in Peril," reduced patriotic "war art" to comic-strip status. This was not necessarily a virtue in the 1940s.
Although a few reviews of "The Year in Peril" were favorable, more were negative. The internationally-minded Alfred Frankfurter, editor of Art News, panned the show vehemently, arguing that Bent0n so overplayed his themes of "blood, thunder and destruction" that the end result looked like "the silliest scene in Donald Duck's mixups with jam and fly-paper."
Frankfurter spoke for a growing segment of critical opinion in dismissing the chauvinistic "all-American" scene painting that had been so popular in the 20s and 30s & favoring an increased respect for modernism and European painting in general.
As I indicated in my dissertation, public opinion shifted as a whole away from isolationism during World War II, and -- especially given Hitler's virulent attacks on "degenerate" modern art -- it became part of one's patriotic duty to find new virtues in international -- i.e. modern -- art.
This changed climate helped to make it possible for abstract expressionism to win approval in the 1950s. Nor did all representational painters go out of business in the 1950s, either. Quite a a few – including Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, & Andrew Wyeth, among others – continued to do very nicely, thank you.
I’m not enthusiastic about every Benton I’ve ever seen (the nudes from his later years are particularly sappy, and, from what I've seen of "The Year in Peril," it's terrible, too). But if you don’t mind representational art on principle, and above all, don’t mind mannerisms or the overly crowded, you too might find this show a nostalgic barrel of fun.