Paint It Black

Absence/Presence searches for the aesthetics of genocide; Thomas Hart Benton hits the road

Eventually, Benton became so fed up with the New York art scene of the time that he moved to Kansas City in the 1930s; in that decade, he began to travel, painting what he saw, until his death in the 1970s. Most of the work in On the Road was created during the later years of Benton's career and is not as familiar as his early large, heroic murals and paintings. Assembled from the artist's estate by the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga., the exhibit shows that Benton was a consummate observer in his travels, and perhaps one of the great documentarians of this century. At a time when every individual began to have access to cameras, and artists were tossing the idea of representation out the proverbial window, Benton recorded images of American life in all its splendor and squalor.

In "Sugar Cane" (1943), for instance, Benton depicts in oil-on-canvas the toil of workers as they dance and cut through the towering, sun-baked canebrakes of Florida. No figure, indeed no single stalk of cane, is static in the image, and we can sense the artist's familiarity with the heat of the labor. Meanwhile, across the gallery in "Chain Gang" (no date), Benton depicts a glum image of ragged prisoners in the South as they strain to work under the watchful eyes of ominous, shotgun-wielding guards. His use of an ice-cold color palette of gray, steel blue, and red ochre, gives the scene a foreboding quality--proof that Benton could capture emotion when he chose to.

True to himself in style and vision, Thomas Hart Benton did not shy away from the heavy issues of his time. He recorded Midwest flood victims and poor rural African-American workers of the South alongside the wide-open ranges and purple mountains' majesty. In the end, we might well agree with his claim that in his art he aspired to show "the rush and energy and confusion of American life."


Absence/Presence runs at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota through February 25; (612) 624-6518. On the Road with Thomas Hart Benton runs at the Minnesota Museum of American Art through February 14; (651) 292-4380.

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