September 27, 2009
It’s next time again.
True to the title of this Blog I am beginning a new project and I can’t wait to tell you about it. In an exciting collaboration with the Art Historian, Henry Adams, we are about to produce some films to promote his new book on Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton. The book is called: Tom & Jack – the Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. This project, I am happy to say, is headed for greatness and you, dear reader, are about to get an exclusive preview.
This project has it all. It is filled with provocative ideas and I can’t wait to hear your reactions and insights. Let me give you some background.
Jackson Pollock needs no introduction. He is such a larger than life American icon. In fact, one of the reasons he became larger than life is because of LIFE – the magazine. In 1949 there was a big spread on JP and this pop culture exposure coupled with his unique slapdash style and his tragic drunken high-speed death made him an American icon. We know why Jackson Pollock crashed and burned but I’d like to know what the hell ever happened to LIFE magazine? It was great! Some of the world’s best photographers. Stories told largely through pictures. Why do you think it is not on your coffee table any more? What changed?
Thomas Hart Benton you know as well. You know his style and his work but he remains sort of like one of those great character actors whom you love but you can never remember his name. This is a great example of a picture being worth a thousand words. What you might not know, I sure didn’t, is that Benton was Pollock’s teacher. Henry’s story of their relationship reads like a thriller. Without giving too much away here is Henry’s description of the plot:
“The drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, trailblazing Abstract Expressionist, appear to be the polar opposite of Thomas Hart Benton’s highly figurative Americana. Yet the two men had a close and charged relationship dating from Pollock’s days as a student under Benton. Pollock’s first and only formal training came from Benton, and the older man soon became a surrogate father to Pollock. In true Oepidal fashion, Pollock even fell in love with Benton’s wife. Pollock later broke away artistically, rocketing to superstardom behind his stunning drip compositions. But he never lost touch with Benton or his ideas—in fact, his breakthrough abstractions reveal a strong debt to Benton’s teachings.”
Henry Adams, shown here, looking young handsome and frisky on an Italian street someplace, is one of the foremost Benton scholars in the world. In fact, he appears in a wonderful Ken Burns movie about Benton. I am really excited to work with Henry. His book on the American painter Thomas Eakins, Eakins Revealed got rave reviews. Andrew Wyeth called this book “The most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist.” Booklist called it, “Cogent, Exhaustive, Incendiary and Daring.” Henry and I collaborated on the film about the artist Christopher Pekoc, with the great title conceived by Henry, The Beauty of Damage and we are working together on the Extreme Visions documentary – a film about architecture, patronage and creativity at Princeton.
This past week both Art News and Smithsonian did stories about Tom & Jack on the web. Check out the Smithsonian article – Decoding Jackson Pollock. This may be the spark that ignites a national news story. The enthusiastic comments there (some pro and some con) indicate Henry has touched a raw nerve. Many of the opinions there are not new but it is great to read people thinking and feeling so passionately about art. These articles do great job of explaining “the name in the painting controversy.” Henry’s Smithsonian article tells the story of how his beguilingly beautiful wife Marianne Berardi (who is also a distinguished Art Historian) discovered hidden treasure in a fifty year old 140 million dollar masterpiece. As if that weren’t enough, consider this provocation that directly relates to the discussions here on music.
Old Art = Literature? New Art = Music?
Henry’s brilliant book shines fresh perspective on some classic arguments. One of these was put forth by the journalistic art historian Clement Greenburg in a breakout essay published in 1940. Henry explains,
“Greenburg’s idea was that certain art forms become particularly popular in a period and then set the pattern for other arts. For example, he felt that nineteenth century painting and sculpture imitated literature because it told a story. Greenburg was interested in the idea that modern art had moved away from literature and instead was working in abstract terms more similar to music. He proposed that shifts of this sort were due to the imperatives of history, that in the modern age it was impossible to make representational art without making a “surrender to images from a stale past.” With abstract art, “there is nothing to identify, connect, or think about, but everything to feel.”
The analogy is fascinating. The spectrum of old and new literature and old and new music fits in here as well. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on all of this. The short films we are about to create will explore many of these topics and, as always, your insights will help enormously. Stay tuned.
Until next time with much love I remain your,