Thomas Hart Benton in Kansas City

A Revealing Look at Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton Portrait“, Alfred Eisenstaedt1938

Continuing its lineup of jaw dropping shows, the Kansas City Central Library is now exhibiting ‘An Artist At Home in America: Michael Mardikes’ Photographs of Thomas Hart Benton. Lara Kuykendall writings accompany the exhibition. The show is up until May 15, 2022, so find some time to pay a visit!

Continuing its lineup of jaw dropping art exhibits, the Kansas City Central Library is now exhibiting ‘An Artist At Home in America: Michael Mardikes’ Photographs of Thomas Hart Benton. The show is up until May 15, 2022, so find some time to pay a visit!

Michael Mardikes’ Photography

“It was the type of relationship he liked – he did the talking, I did the listening”

Michael Mardikes

The show features thirty photographs of Thomas Hart Benton in his Kansas City studio taken by Michael Mardikes. Mardikes was an aspiring photographer with friends from the Kansas City Art Institute. Through mutual friends, Mardikes convinced Benton to allow him to photograph his processes in his studio.

Thomas Hart Benton in his home in a photo by Michael Mardike

The black and white photographs are wonderfully shot and Mardikes’ eye for composition is evident throughout. He shoots with an eye carefully centered on documentation. While he does have a curious moment of shooting through Benton’s shrinking lens, his photographs capture much more than Benton’s paintings and maquettes. Mardikes captures the environs and the aura of the man. 

One of the portraits that stands out is Benton sitting on his couch, underneath a self portrait hanging above two smaller paintings. The show is framed by two windows, with the younger self sitting upright behind his easel and staring out from the painted canvas. The older Benton is slightly hunched over, smiling, perhaps to himself, more likely about to spin a tale with a matchbox preparing for action in his aged fingers. It’s a wonderful study of time and a glimpse into his personality.

“Consistent with Benton’s efforts to create art for and about ordinary Americans, the artist maintained a studio practice as regular as a factory worker. Benton’s day often started early in the morning and lasted until it was time to break for dinner and drinks.”

Lara Kuykendall

Rita Benton

Benton’s wife Rita appears in plenty of the photographs. Rita was not a secondary figure in their relationship. She ran the business side of Benton’s career. Having an impromptu business manager allowed him to eschew the gallery system. She sold works and commissions straight out of his studio. It’s hard to gauge the warmth of the relationship between Rita and Thomas. She appears in charge and dominant, Thomas aloof and in his own thoughts.

Rita Benton in Michael Mardike's Photograph with Thomas Hart Benton and the (now Nelson-Atkin Museum's) unsold Persiphone in the background

In one photo, she is just left of center of the composition, standing in front of Benton’s ‘Persephone’ painting that now hangs in the Nelson-Atkins Museum. She smiles warmly as a potential client in a suit stands leaning back, comfortable and gesturing to punctuate a moment in a story. A disengaged Benton reads from a notebook, one hand reaching for some matches, the other lying dormant on his knees. There’s a clear parallel in the poses between Benton and his double in the Persephone painting.

One glorious photograph captures a wide view of Benton’s studio. A range of dark values hovers in the air and the only light is what enters the room from the window on the left. Benton is alone, just off center, in front of a large canvas. a radiator, fans, sketches and framed paintings flesh out the room. 

THomas Hart Benton in his studio

Thomas Hart Benton the Man

“Benton cultivated a ruggedly masculine and ornery persona. He smoked, drank, and embraced vulgarity as  evidence of his own machismo. Sometimes this served to ingratiate him to those who valued a straight-talking populist. In other instances, it alienated Benton from the art circles to which he tried to belong, particularly in Kansas City” – LK

There’s also a wonderful fairness to presenting Benton as a raw figure. Lara Kuykendall researched and wrote the notes for this exhibition. Kuykendall doesn’t shy away from the Trumpian qualities of Kansas City’s homegrown painter. When I was an undergrad at KCAI in the 90s, the shadow of Benton still loomed over the painting department. A little statue of Benton, hunched over, trudging with a sketchbook and walking stick, stood outside the painting department.

This legend of the man loomed large. Benton trained Jackson Pollack, his paintings dominated the Nelson Atkins’ American section of the 90’s. He was a larger than life connection to the art world outside KCAI. It was a fact he was fired from the department, although it was never readily discussed. There were non-specific rumors, but they always came down along the lines of ‘he was an asshole’. This exhibition ripped the band-aid off with full force, explaining the reasons for his firing:

“His homophobic statements about Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art staff cost him his teaching position at KCAI in 1941.”

“He also cultivated a notoriously cantankerous personality, and his desire to ‘be able to sound off’ and ‘keep [his] tongue wagging’ led to a fitful relationship with local arts professionals and the American art world at large.”

Lara Kuykendall

The River City Commission

Thomas Hart Benton pretending he's Donald Trump in Kansas City

The show also helps document Benton’s work on ‘Trading at Westport Landing’. It was a commission for the all white men’s River City Club in Kansas City. Mardike captured quiet Benton painting and gregarious Benton delivering the painting, and so much more.

In a photograph taken at the unveiling of his commission at the all white men’s River City club in Kansas CIty. The painting centered around the Natives trading with Settlers on the banks of the Missouri. This painting is a document not only to the birth of what would become Kansas City but also the birth of capitalism and commerce in the Show Me State. Obviously this imagery is well suited for a private, elite group of used car salesmen and bank managers who believed their own self made mythologies.  

Mardike’s photograph captures Benton center stage, speaking contemporaneously in a tuxedo, in front of an entertained group of socialites similarly tailored for the evening. His painting hanging above the marble fireplace behind him. Benton’s shadow dominates the wall behind him, blurring out a woman in a dress and leading the viewer’s eye to a couple in the corner of the composition. The man has his head down, the woman looking on with a serious expression. Even in a crowd of his imagined peers, a demagogue’s speech can only go so far in pleasing all the masses. 

Mardike’s Beautiful Family Portrait

Benton paid Mardike for a particularly beautiful portrait. A family portrait, the photograph is much more than that. Benton is behind his easel, an uncommon smile sheepishly painted across his face. His child is modeling in the chair in front of him, back turned to the camera. Behind Benton in the corner of the room is Rita. She is watching over the proceedings with a finger pressed into her chin, glasses laid out on her lap. Behind her is a mirror, with the scene played out in reverse. The child has a big grin on his face, Benton’s back reflected towards the viewer. 

There is more than a whiff of Velasquez’ Las Meninas in the photograph. It’s a descriptive portrait with a wonderful play of light and dark throughout the composition. A warm glow emanated from the central participants, who seem unfazed by the presence of the camera.  

In the video accompanying the photographs in the gallery, Mardikes simply stated, “She wanted a portrait of him. He wanted his $25 worth, I just wanted a photo I could live with.”

Thomas Hart Benton and family portrait by Michael Mardikes

Mardikes captured so much more with his photographs. On the surface, the work habits of a diligent and hard working artist are on display. Benton spent his career capturing so many different aspects of America and its history. Painting racism, violence and corruption, Benton’s regionalist progressive ideals turned commercial and towards the establishment over time. This exhibition of photos captures that and the man behind it as well, warts and all. The unspoken truth on display in these wonderful photographs by Michael Mardikes is the true art.