January 05, 2010

The Story of Two Great American Painters, "Tom and Jack"

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In his new book, "Tom and Jack," Case Western Reserve University American art historian Henry Adams tells the dramatic stories of legendary American painters Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock.

"These artists are two amazing and larger-than-life characters," Adams says.

"Tom and Jack" is composed of many stories, encompassing the development of Benton as an artist to his later influence on Pollock, whose work has set at a record-breaking sale price of $140 million, and the subsequent places both artists fill in American modern art history.

Adams writes how a little known and basically untrained Pollock arrived in New York at the age of 18 and encountered Benton, the famed figurative muralist of working-class America.

What followed for the iconic drip-and-splatter painter was a "complex, often stormy relationship with his teacher and mentor." This relationship lasted until Pollock's untimely death in a 1956 car accident.

"Benton served as a sort of surrogate father for Pollock, and in true Oedipal fashion, Pollock even fell in love with Benton's wife, Rita," Adams said.

He found a prescient statement Benton made about how seemingly formless color splashing calls into play very special forms of knowledge. The author says this statement anticipated Pollock's future career.

"Benton was the first individual to recognize Pollock's peculiar gift and to describe him as a genius," Adams said.

The two painters' styles—Benton's figurative style and Pollock's drips and splatters—appear quite different. But Adams disagrees.

He traces Benton's early history, linking his encounters in Paris and New York with artists in the Synchronistic movement (an organized flow of colors based on the color wheel) and then incorporating the style in his work. Later he would pass along to Pollock techniques of organizing visual rhythms "in the hollows and bumps" learned from French artists Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin.

Close examinations of Pollock's splattering visual rhythms resulted in a discovery that Adams credits to his wife, Marianne Berardi, also an art historian. She found letters of Jackson Pollock's name emerging from "Mural," a monumental 8x12 –foot painting done for Peggy Guggenheim in 1943. This sprawling work launched Pollock's career.

Adams has ignited interest with this discovery and research, but an online article posted by the Smithsonian has received over a million hits and hundreds of comments from viewers with a spectrum of opinions.

A starred review of "Tom and Jack" by the American Library Associations' magazine, Booklist, said "Adams practices art history with a novelist's narrative skills and psychological acuity, a sleuth's instincts, a passion for aesthetics and technical explication…Utterly absorbing, carefully reasoned."

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, January 5, 2010 01:24 PM | News Topics: College of Arts and Sciences, Faculty, Research, features

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