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Benton and Pollock: The Rhythm Kings

By Dave McQuitty

Published in the July/August 2005 Edition of Kansas City Art

Kansas City Art

Two American painters have been profound stimuli to my continued interest in art for nearly six decades: Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. Benton inspired me as a kid with what I later concluded to be a distinctive use of "line continuity" (my term), which manifested a unique effect of rhythm in his work. My first sighting of a Pollock piece stirred an untapped reservoir of emotion that overwhelmed me. Like with Benton's paintings, a powerful sense of rhythm radiated through to me when I first saw Pollock's Lavender Mist. The exhibit currently showing at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, "Bingham to Benton: The Midwest as Muse," while highlighting Benton as a native son of Missouri, made me think about the similarity and connections between the two artists—and about Benton's relative international obscurity in comparison to the world- renowned Pollock.

There is little question in my mind that Benton's interest in movement in his paintings, (or what's sometimes referred to as "rhythm") had a significant influence on Pollock's pioneering work in the new genre of Abstract Expressionism. A lot of art criticism has been ambivalent, if not jaded and mean-spirited, with regard to Benton having any influence on Pollock's work, especially with respect to Pollock's Abstract Expressionist work. Critics often portrayed Benton as a hick and Pollock as a genius. Benton himself probably added to the Benton-Pollock disconnect when he commented that the only influence he had on Jackson Pollock "was teaching him how to drink a fifth a day." That statement was simply very Benton and added to his self-created down-to-earth and homespun persona.

The emotionally disturbed Pollock moved from California to New York in 1930 specifically to study under Benton at the Art Student League. Teacher and student became close friends. The bond was effortless. Together the painters shared many personality traits; both were hard drinkers and exuded masculine bravado. Similarly, both were brusque and had little time for the peripheral world of art politics.

Benton left New York in the midst of controversy (he was feuding with artists of the Social Realism movement, among others) and moved to Kansas City in 1935 to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute but stayed in contact with Pollock. Michael St. Clair, a student of Benton's in Kansas City and later of Pollock's in New York, recounts in a 1994 audio interview with the Smithsonian that by the time he arrived to study under Pollock around 1938, Pollock wasn't much help as a teacher. St. Clair attributed this to the fact that he was doing little imitations of Thomas Hart Benton, and they weren't very intriguing.

It was around this time that Pollock started seeing a therapist, and in therapy Pollock's reality was changing. In 1939 he was being introduced to Jungian theories in psychoanalysis with Dr. Joseph Henderson. Henderson, a former student of Carl Jung in Zuric, Switzerland, later founded the C.G. Jung Institute in San Francisco. Jung's theories placed emphasis on the collective subconscious as the primary force in individuals. It was also Jung who alluded that the "conscious/cognitive mind is but a cork floating in the ocean of the subconscious." Jung, an artist himself, also believed that great art evolved from the subconscious.

Pollock's therapy sessions with Henderson consisted of analyzing Pollock's contemporary work, and Pollock prepared pieces for review each week. Although Pollock's work during the sessions was becoming more open and less literal, the rhythmic influence of Benton is still recognizable, transmuting in and out of the work, to the trained eye.

Through the 1940s in Kansas City, Benton stayed grounded in his regionalist themes and successful style while Pollock's emotional problems began to play more of a role in all aspects of his life. Intermittent rages fueled by intoxicants were offset with periods of sobriety. It was during this time, and into the early 1950s, that he produced his most renowned work, all paintings alive with rhythm.

Although Pollock's cutting-edge Abstract Expressionist art abandoned objectivity, it amplified rhythm and movement. When I look at these paintings, I see stylistic DNA of Thomas Hart Benton in the images. Would Benton have painted these paintings? No. Did he play a hand in Pollock's genius breakthrough because of his mentorship in New York in the '30s? Absolutely. Does he get the credit that he deserves in Pollock's iconic style? Not at all.

The Benton exhibit showing at the Nelson (through July 31) is a must-see. His contribution to forging a style of Regionalism is undisputed. His rhythmic style is unique and infectious. A docent friend of mine at the Nelson suggests you have your children close one eye and follow the lines of Benton characters, follow their movement. It could be their first venture into the magnificent drama of the art of the rhythm kings, Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock.