Benton, Pollock, and, um, Underwood

As I explored in previous posts (here, here, and here), I’m continuing my quest for compositional methods and ways of seeing that can give me a framework for my mostly intuitive working.

Thomas Hart Benton and scholars discussing his work have dissected his use of vertical spirals, collage-like murals, and falling-into-your-lap figuration.

Thomas Hart Benton, The Arts of the West, 94 x 159″  1932

Jackson Pollock, a younger follower,  friend and admirer of Benton’s, used Benton’s compositional techniques to achieve very different effects:

Jackson Pollock, Number 31, 1950

Pollock, when asked why he didn’t go to France to learn how to make great art, replied, “It’s here. It’s not in Paris. It used to be with Benton but now it’s with me.” (as quoted in Henry Adams, Tom and Jack, the Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benson and Jackson Pollock, Kindle edition, location 2509)

While the connections seem strained at first glance, other art scholars also note continuities between Pollock and Jackson:  Jonathan Fineberg, in Art since 1940, says,

Benton’s adulation of ‘American’ frontier masculinity must have appealed to Pollock.  Benton’s work, reinforced by the example of the Mexican muralists, sowed the seeds for the emergence of a grand scale and an epic quality in Pollock’s painting of the forties.

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

And to quote from Adams again,

All-encompassing principles of design are what make [Benton’s] painting work, and once we recognize this fact it also becomes not too difficult to grasp that what we see in [Pollock’s Mural]… are qualities that go back to what Pollock had learned from Thomas Hart Benton. The basic compositional system of the painting — vertical poles, arranged in a lateral sequence, which serve as the locus of spiraling rhythms — derives from the methods that Benton laid out in his articles in the series [entitled] “The Mechanics of Form: Organization in Painting.”  … For years, Pollock had been slowly drifting away from Benton’s influence. In Mural he returned to the principles of his master, if not in terms of surface imagey, in terms of format, and compositional structure and fundamental expressive purpose.

[Adams quotes painter/sculptor Harry Jackson]: He [Pollock] admired Tom Benton and he wanted to be able to do what Tom dreamed of doing, that is, to make Great and Heroic paintings for America. He was painfully aware of not being able to do it the way he wished and he was determined to do it the way he could.”

And then Adams says what we are all thinking:

Of course, one would never confuse Pollock’s final product with a Benton. The brushwork is too wild, the drawing too strange, the figures (if they are figures) too difficult to make out. But given these elements, which had also appeared in Pollock’s earlier work, it is evident that Pollock was now starting to organize them in a different way…. The discipline is in the composition, which is now unified, so that everything forms part of a web of visual movement…. By going back to Benton’s principles he had found a way to be even wilder than before and yet to make paintings that held together.

So what does this have to do with JOU/June O. Underwood’s paintings (and the ostensible reason for this blog). Well, here’s one way it worked for me.

Recently, for a number of reasons, I have been painting barns, plein air. I have discovered a rather methodical way to get to my studio-painted, larger, and for me most exciting works; I do a bunch of plein air studies, meant to be rather mundane but decent paintings which can hold their own over the couch, and then, in the studio, try to transform them into larger, more complex composites of the plein air experience, vision, and memories. In the last post, many of those studies along with the composite versions, were reviewed by Sam Underwood.

My barns, unlike bridges and city-scapes,  have their origins in the horizontal high desert of eastern Oregon. Barns as structures, may obtrude into the landscape but they are shapes rather than lines, and so their verticality translates into paintings less like poles and more like hulking forms:

JOU, Buckhorn Ranch Barn, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2011

Even when placed at a distance, they are still shapes, not transparent or spiralling verticals:

JOU, Grain Silos, Eastern Oregon, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2011

Shapes are nice but they don’t provide the vertical spirals around which a canvas can be organized. They tend to be solid, often stolid, while my painting pushes toward movement and a tension of swirls — more Benton and Pollock than Morandi.

In light of my thinking about Benton and Pollock, however, in the studio work on barns, I found a solution which came out of rational thinking and then extended itself intuitively.

JOU, Barn Memories, 34 x 36″, Oil on canvas, 2011


JOU, Barn Interior, 9 x 22″”, Oil on masonite, 2011

Barn Memories was the result of intentionally working the struts, beams and supports of a barn interior across the face of underlying barn scenes from the high desert. Of course, ultimately I had to go to memories and personal experiences to choose visual and emotive materials (see the process on my personal blog, southeastmain), but the recognition that a barn interior with its exposed structure and porous, unfinished exterior through which light and scenery could enter, was a direct result of consciously seeking a compositional structure like Benton’s and Pollocks.

Barn Interior was done after Memories, using the same elements with different emotive qualities. The proportions of the support are also different, providing a very different dynamic of horizontals and verticals.

These two paintings provide the first conscious pushes in my studio painting to integrate a reasoned approach with an intuitive one. And the cerebral knowledge comes directly from research on Benton’s compositional theories. –June

Below, in the continuum, are a sampling of my paintings, from 2007 through 2011, which intuitively worked toward the vertical, in your face, spiraling movement and sprawl of the Benton/Pollock concepts. For me, they provide concrete evidence that this process integrates my spontaneous painting processes with my more “thinky” approach.

JOU, The Artists Refuge, Basin, Montana, about 6′ x 9′ for full set, 9 paintings, Oil on canvas, mounted on board, 2007-08

JOU, Circling: SE Alder and 6th, Portland Oregon,  30 x 40, oil on canvas, 2008

JOU,  St. Johns Bridge and Cathedral Park, 36 x 48″, oil on canvas, 2011





9 thoughts on “Benton, Pollock, and, um, Underwood

  1. Ah, here we are. I was Googling Benton’s “Mechanics” for just about the same reason you were looking into it, and up popped your blog. There are things that I can’t do in my work (mostly having to do with having multiple things in a composition) that Benton does brilliantly, and which I have always admired.
    Your circling and bridges paintings are REALLY dynamic, and interesting to look at. Every part of them has something interesting, and the movement around them is wonderful.

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  4. June, The “Barn Memories” piece is killer! It pushes right out of the frame and the spaces inside warp and woof like a Venetian painting on acid. These posts on composition are a true tour de force. Good Work!

    • Hey, Mark, thank you.

      I was happy to see Henri crank up again today and of course was very pleased to be part of it. ( )

      In particular I chuckled over your comment — “Painters looking for new spaces, new visual spaces in the most unlikely of places!” Definitely flattering — but in an “unlikely place”? Well, depends on what you think of as likely, doesn’t it –snort–

      Thanks again for the laying on of hands.

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  6. Birgit — seeing your latest work, I can see that you not only _prefer_ the Buckhorn Ranch piece to the others, but you _work_ that way as well. I love a lot of pieces that I see where painters work shape and color, but I myself find that I’m never satisfied with my own art attempts along those lines. Like Sandy, I like the complexity and what I hope is a visual interest that differs from surface and medium manipulation.

    And Sandy, you are right about the (lack of) spirals — that’s another aspect I’m studying up on. In some ways, the spirals of Benton add movement and in the big barn piece (Memories), the outward thrust of the interior structure of the barn, I think, gives movement.

    Movement, of whatever sort, echoes a kind of twitter/twitch/excitement/chatter that I feel my paintings need to evoke. I love the meditative moodiness of Morandi, but I’m neither moody nor meditative when I’m in the groove. So however ungraceful and inelegant my work turns out to be, it is, in the end, my work, my twitch, my chatter.

  7. June, I think you are onto something by consosidering the Pollock/Benton design relationship! What this has done is to add complexity to your composition, and with that you have gained so much visual interest! I love seeing the different versions of the same subject layered and juxtaposed and interacting with each other. I don’t see the spiraled verticality but that’s OK (it shouldn’t be what grabs, it is just a method) because your results are so compelling now! Keep up the quest- ‘thinky’ is good! Sandy

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