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.”]

Space and Place, the Tangle and the Wonkiness

To continue my thoughts on space and place:

I have been working on textiles, which means 10% design and 90% execution.

Execution always gives me lots of time to think. So I am pondering, still, on my own art making — what I make, and why it’s not necessarily what I generally like in art. And how I can improve what I make, something can’t be done by analyzing what I am attracted to.

What I “like”¬† often is graphic, tidy, clean, spare. It’s¬† how I attempt to arrange my domestic space (when I’m not in the midst of a painting or sewing frenzy). It’s¬† Modern.¬† It’s calm. It’s decorative (although Rothko, Newman, and company just rolled over in their graves to hear me say this.) What I like is often serene — or at least not jittery. It’s rooted in some of the abstract expressionists’ work and continued by more graphic designs:

Mark Rothko, White Center

Helen Frankenthaler, Contentment

Terry Grant, Rice Bowl and Bird

However, in my own work, it turns out that I like to make “messy,” “wonky,” tangled images and processes:

JOU Block (work in progress), raw, hand-painted batting, commercial fabric, sheer overlay

This piece of hand-painted, raw batting topped with a commercial fabric,  cut through and overlaid with a sheer was too regular for my taste; I had to muck things up further:

JOU,  Red 1, 2 (working title) Details.  Hand-dyed and painted raw batting, commercial and hand-dyed fabric, sheer overlays

My love of dealing with unorthodox (or unquilterly, in the traditional sense) stems partly from my lack of methodical training in orthodox sewing methods. It’s easier to work with stuff that shouldn’t work if you don’t know it shouldn’t work. But it also speaks to my artistic desire (which differs from my desire to live with a certain kind of environment) to find that spot somewhere between the comfort of well-known paths, like smoothly pieced¬† and calming quilted blocks¬† and the chaotic mystery of¬† heaps of undifferentiated fabrics.

With my painting, and my painted, stitched textiles,¬† I’m drawn to making work which has little or no focus, which goes¬† over the entire fabric or board and doesn’t rely on color or texture to convey meaning. I’m always thinking about meaning, but one which is complex and goes beyond the framing of the frame.

JOU, Circling, 35 x 36″, oil on canvas, 2008

Of course, color, line, shape, light and texture are important elements of my art — any painter/quilting artist has to deal with these. But they aren’t the reason I make art. I am not essentially interested in light — certainly not as the Impressionists were, nor as the Neo-Impressionists still are.¬† I find the shapes on canvases of others¬† fascinating, and am involved with a crit group whose work is heavily dependent upon a sophisticated searching out of shape. But as is obvious above, shape isn’t my strength. The same is true of line and texture and color. These artistic issues don’t drive what I see; they are ways to depict meaning, not ways of meaning in themselves.

Please note that I am not saying that all art should work toward some inchoate sense of meaning in the way I do, nor that those whose primary interest is in shapes on canvas aren’t making great art. This is about my artistic journey, not a manifesto on what an art journey should involve.

I make art to make sense out of what I see, and what I see seems to be complex, unfocused, unscenic in some ways. Some wag said (about California) that there was too much landscape and no scenery (or was it the reverse?) At any rate, I don’t see “landscape;” I scarcely see “scenery” or, heaven forfend, I can’t depict “scenic viewpoints.” I see too much to give what I see that kind of nomination.¬† For me, the “scenic viewpoint” includes the graffitied sign discussing why this “view” is scenic.¬† I want to include in my recordings of that scenic viewpoint the geology of the rocks and old cars that jut so unpicturesquely at an awkward spot in the landscape. I don’t delete as much from my view as most people unconsciously edit out; I tend to think in multiple viewpoints rather than the singular one of the camera; and I have a desire to encompass more rather than less when I “record” (paint or piece) the landscape.

I can trace some of my art preferences from my personal history, tramping around second and third growth, brushy forests, with roads that meandered without clear direction, living in a tiny community with all the complexities that a somewhat isolated group of humans can present. As a child I had an eager roving eye that had a visual, historical and narrative greed. I wanted to take in everything¬† — visual, historical, personal– that the scene involved. I knew my home landscape: Pine Mountain, Pine Station, Pine Run, Pine Creek, Mrs. Piney, pine trees, as well as tea berries, birch trees, skunk cabbage, shacks, outhouses,¬† barns,¬† Susquehanna River muck, and the inhabitants’ names and most of the interiors of the frame houses in the hamlet of 67 people in which I lived. I always wanted more of that place.¬† And so I learned early on to look in an encompassing manner, to find pleasure in an immersion in space and place, everywhere I’ve resided, worked,¬† and made art.

But that immersion comes at the cost of clarity, of focus. It doesn’t result in spareness that concentrates on simple clean imagery.

Photo, view to the west, from SE Main Front Porch, 2011.

JOU Cool Landscape, Sample. approx. 12 x 16 Oil on board, 2010

I think what I seek is to portray depth, but depth that isn’t linear; I seek a depth of material space that is visual and emotional and cerebral. The material can be dendritic and rhythmic but seldom repetitious. The illusion of space can’t be, for me, the expected illusions, the monocular perspective, the retreating road into the “Z” shape with traditional illusionistic softening of hues in the distance. I have done these kinds of illusions in paintings, but I always want to do something else with them, to push them into something different and more. It’s my greediness that makes me want to record the complex visual that drives me.

So, my concern encompasses space and place, and the point in-between, where space nudges place and all kinds of complex interactions occur — something like a riparian zone where¬† eco-systems interact, where histories bump into each other, where geography becomes geology.

The problem I find myself coming back to in my art processes is to find examples of other visual artists intent upon the pursuit of the complex, yet representational. I need to know more about how others pursued similar courses (I almost wrote “curses.”)¬† Right now, my search has honed in to Thomas Hart Benton, and Jackson Pollock.¬† About whom I will undoubtedly meander as well as maunder, soon.