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.

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Thomas Hart Benton: Vertical Composition, Energy Fields, and Space through Size

Thomas Hart Benton  seems to hold one or more of the keys to my attempts to consciously understand my own painting processes.

Thomas Hart Benton, Boomtown, 1927 –1928*

As I noted here and here, I am concerned to find that sweet spot, the riparian zone of visual art, where space becomes place, but is not yet the allotted, monocular camera’s eye view.¬† I like painting things that are complex, without central focus, un-scenic, if you will. I am interested in multiple viewpoints, in putting more rather than less into my plein air work and studio paintings, and to find a way to incorporate depth that doesn’t depend upon linear perspective. I want a material space that is representational but not¬† realistic.

All grand abstractions and perhaps easier to say than to understand and certainly easier to understand than to achieve on a regular basis.

Enter Thomas Hart Benton. Benton hove into my sights through a Ken Burns documentary on Netflix, after which I ordered his two autobiographies from the library and found some other images as well as critical writings that I read. I thought (and still think) of him as a social realist; the New York critics saw him as a “regionalist” (and they did not mean that as a compliment); all agree that his greatest achievement was in his murals.

Benton’s murals are massive — they adorn the walls of state capitols and public buildings and tell of historical events and legends of the people that commissioned them. They are collages on a grand scale. They are probably most striking in their depiction of human figures and actions. Benton uses a cubistic style to depict humans engaged in all kinds of activities. He derived his figure making from clay friezes that he made and then painted from. He composed his largest works in clay before he painted them.

And it’s his compositions, not his human figures, that grabbed me. Benton makes enormous collages out of historical events, collages which indicate space and place as well as human activity. His chief problem, as he tells it in his autobiography, was one of composition. His achievement was to compose scenes that are always energetic, moving,¬† surfaces that are readable, lively, representational and yet not anything like photo-realism.

Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood, 1937

It is the amount of material and the energy in Benton’s compositions that intrigue me. He claimed to have acquired some of it from studying Tintoretto and El Greco. He says he learned to compose his scenes around vertical “poles” pushing up through his picture space. Those “spaces” aren’t simply large canvases — they are murals that are often interrupted by doorways or arches or go around corners.¬† The vertical “poles,” however, provide basic compositional structures for forms that swirl and connect themselves to other verticalities, many of which are clearly part of the middle or background.

Although Benton often seems to be giving us a view from above, we are also below the scene, some of which falls into our laps. To achieve a sense of space and perspective, he uses size changes and stacks his middle and background figures and scenes up to the top of the picture plane; he can’t depend on linear perspective to indicate space because he’s including too many varied, disconnected scenes, and he needs the entire space to be filled for maximum impact for the murals on which he’s working. He stacks his figures but they are not all on the same plane. They recede in our view, as they get smaller, while the foreground figures tend thrust themselves into our faces. The foregrounds come spilling off the wall while the middle ground, which can contain the primary scene, recedes through size changes.

Thomas Hart Benton, Arts of the West, 1932

So Benton composes in vertical swirls, with lines of energy that connect his visual elements, but retains the sense of space by thrusting his foreground figuration almost out of the lower “canvas” while pushing the middle and background back by stacking and sizing. His motion is circular but expands and contracts to pull in various different times and scenes.

JOU, The Fremont Bridge Addresses the Land, 12 x 24″, 2008 (?)

I can already see how some of this will be useful as I work with my wonky city-scapes. However, I haven’t the foggiest how this analysis can be useful in painting landscapes of the desert, where horizontality reigns. But certainly some of the scenes from the Petrified Forest might be made stronger through such compositional strategies, particularly when aligned with processes used by Jackson Pollock, Benton’s student and friend. But that’s for another post.


*[A great description of Benton’s work, and Boomtown in particular, can be found in The Modern West: American Landscapes 1890 –1950 by Emily Ballew Neff:¬† Neff describes the composition of Boomtown this way: “These colorful characters inhabit a remarkable landscape, the crossroad at Main, which is localized into a pie-shaped wedge, spreading into the distance. By employing a bird’s eye perspective, Benton looks down and across the vast landscape, following the Earth’s curve. This effect makes the foreground slip down from the picture plane and fall into the viewer’s lap, and the background appears to stretch endlessly, punctuated by telephone poles, enclosed oil well, and derricks.”]

A Breakthrough — Murals, Collages, and My Art

“Murals are nothing more than Big Collages with a bit of history/story tossed in.” That’s what entered my brain this afternoon.

That’s my insight for the day (week, month, year?).

Hence, Thomas Hart Benton:

Thomas Hart Benton, City Activities with Subway, 1930, from his  mural at the New School for Social Research, now in the lobby of the AXA building at 1290 Sixth Ave in NYC  (from and from Wikipedia.)

I have actually done this kind of “collaging/mural) in a textile landscape:

JOU, Goose Rock Composite, 22 x 29″, printed silk, machine stitched, 2007

Goose Rock is a landmark in the John Day Fossil Beds area, rising along the John Day River. The collage was painted and printed from photos which present a variety of perspectives. The history here is geological rather than cultural, but I intended for the “story” to be present in my presentation.

“Circling”, the oil painting in the last post, is also a collage with a story of an in-between street, neither residential nor commercial, a street in which vehicle traffic ignores everything but itself.

Neither of these is a Big Collage, but the principles of composition are the same. Benton has a highly sophisticated understanding of the “mural” process — how it works to achieve a sense of representation and complication, while containing the materials in a unified composition. I’ve been taking notes from his autobiographies over the last few days and woke this afternoon with the insight that started this post.

Forgive my excitement, but this feels like a breakthrough insight for my own working processes. It might give me the insight into the elements of the art that I like making as well as how to achieve some things I’ve previously achieved mostly by accident. It may strike some of you as a “duh” moment (“I always knew that”) but for me, it’s definitely a breakthrough.

I suppose I could call this a “mash-up” and really feel like I’ve reinvented the wheel!