I met Kansas City Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton once back in 1995, and I didn’t like him very much. Of course, he had been dead for 20 years at that time and had already been reduced to mere bones. That’s not why I didn’t like him, though. I spent a couple of evenings with him, reading texts about his work and studying some of his paintings. I found him to be a bore and a thief of my time. I was cramming in preparation for the big day when the docents from the local art museum came to the bank where I worked. Benton was a marquee name in the bank’s art collection and I was assigned to introduce the docents to his paintings. When they came, my tour was awkward. I mean, I barely knew the man. Yes, I learned something of his history and the titles of his paintings, but I knew nothing of his technique, or media, or inspiration. I didn’t fully understand his subjects and couldn’t articulate his world view. The docents could, though. They knew all about Benton and were eager to see pieces in person that they had only previously seen in reprints or as thumbnails in exhibit catalogs. The imbalance of knowledge was obvious and excruciating. When I couldn’t answer basic questions we slipped clumsily into new roles; the tourists became the guide, and I became wallpaper.
I remember staring at a Benton piece that had been printed in a brochure. It was his City Activities with Dance Hall (1930). I resented that painting as if it had struck me. I gave up my Saturday for this guy . What’s more, I just didn’t get him. It looked to me like the physiology of the women in his paintings were all wrong; the musculature of their arms was over-amplified. And the light—the light in his paintings seemed implausible, as if harsh spotlights were trained on every subject. We just didn’t click, Benton and I. There was no chemistry there. So when the tours were over, I went home, vowed never to let myself get pulled into a project like that again, and bumped into Benton rarely over the ensuing years.
Is it fair to dislike a painter because he was part of a disagreeable assignment I was given more than 20 years ago? I suppose not. So now, in 2017, I study Dance Hall with a fresh eye and find that, despite its Jazz-agey feel, I still don’t love it. I’m not an artist, and my assessments of a piece like this are strictly amateur. But when I look at a painting or a sculpture, I have to believe it in order to like it, and I don’t believe Dance Hall. In it, a series of lively scenes are depicted—an evening at the movies, a dance at the hall, a drink at a bar—and yet, each is peopled with characters that seem completely disengaged. The dancers are stiff, like robots holding each other up as their processing systems are shutting down. The cold figures at the movie theater are cadaverous. The woman at the bar seems to have left her own body. She’s the feature of this painting that drew my focus twenty years ago and draws it now. What is she looking at? Her position at the bar and the tilt of her head suggest she’s gazing at the bartender—but is she? Her sight line appears to just graze his shoulder. There’s a strange disconnect there that I simply can’t live with.
But who am I?
Thomas Hart Benton has been called a genius by many, including his long-suffering wife who, according to a tour guide at the Thomas Hart Benton Home & Studio State Historic Site, described him as a terrible husband and absentee father. Her reverence for his gift, though, sustained her resolve to bear the lion’s share of the responsibilities in the Benton home. Dance Hall is one of 10 panels in Benton’s America Today, which presents a panoramic vignette of American life throughout the 1920s. America Today is now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Benton’s work can be seen in the Missouri capital, the Smithsonian, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and other notable collections. I don’t think the fact that his work doesn’t resonate with me would hurt his feelings very much at all. And besides, he still has an ardent fan base though he’s been dead for decades. When I recently toured his home and studio my fellow visitors “ooohhed” and “ahhhhed” each time we rounded a corner and spotted another of his pieces on the wall.
OK, so I’m not the president of the Thomas Hart Benton fan club. But I do like some of his still lifes, and I appreciate his creative spirit. He created things that didn’t exist before, and I respect any artist’s ability to realize, on canvas, a vision formed first in his or her head. That’s something I can’t do. I’m always curious about artists’ interior lives; what do they see when they gaze out the window? In what order do their synapses fire? In what do they place their faith? Of course, you can’t peer into the mind of a person, but you can get awfully close when you peer into the places where they’ve slept, lived, and worked. That’s why I wanted to visit his studio. It’s one of the few artist’s studios that’s opened to the public, and it’s extremely well preserved. He actually died in his studio—presumably a happy death, doing what he loved to do, where he loved to do it—in 1975 at the age of 85. Anyway, Benton and I share a hometown—Kansas City, Missouri—so I thought I would drop in…
The house itself was built in 1903, and it’s crying out for full-scale restoration. The floor plan is spectacular, and its beautiful windows, lovely built-in china cabinets and book cases, unique staircase, open landing, and screened-in sun room off the master bedroom could make this home a showplace. As it is, the need for repairs and general upkeep are obvious; places in the ceiling appear to be severely water damaged. I asked the tour guide about this, and she said the funding they receive as a state park is very limited. I contrasted this with Vaile Mansion, which I have profiled elsewhere on this blog. That home is much grander, much older, and positively sparkling. It, however, is not a state park.
My interest in visiting the Benton home was not as much the house as it was the places in which the artist did his work. His studio was a converted carriage house at the back of the property. Interestingly, the larger house next door was also for sale when the Bentons were in the market for a new home. However, its carriage house faced the wrong direction, not admitting the optimal northern light Benton wanted to direct to his workspace. They bought the smaller home instead.
Check out this space. This is where art happened. Imagine the thoughts of the artist as he sat here, alone, listening to his music and populating his canvases with people living lives that he dreamed up. I guess you could say he lived many lives right here in this space among these things. He died here, too, working on a painting that had been commissioned for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.
Thomas Hart Benton is one of Kansas City’s favorite sons, right up there with Walt Disney (yes! He had a studio here when he was just starting out), Buck O’Neil, and George Brett. What can I say? Even I’m a little proud of him. Benton studied in New York and in Paris, but he chose Kansas City as his font of inspiration. Pretty cool, really, when you think about it.
Until next time…