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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Justin Wolff

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Thomas Hart Benton embodied the New Deal aesthetic as solidly as any painter. A public-minded artist who found high ideals in the everyday life of America, his most characteristic works were the murals he painted in public libraries and statehouses to inspire wide audiences rather than the elites he always fulminated against. Although a lifelong Democrat, Benton punched wildly at many targets and courted controversy. Justin Wolff shows in his carefully researched biography that this most American artist brought most of his ideas home from a youthful sojourn in Paris, where encountering the works of El Greco and Goya in museums struck him for their stylization (the former) and subjects (the latter). Wolff discovers many surprises, including Jackson Pollock's ongoing and professed debt to Benton for showing how a modern painter can “harness the power of myth.”