From Benton to Vytlacil at the Granary Gallery

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Recently folks have been making a pilgrimage to the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury specifically to view a single painting — “Going West,” by Thomas Hart Benton. The 50-inch by 28-inch oil painting, done in 1926, depicts a locomotive hurtling across a bridge. The almost tangible sense of motion and the landscape executed with a somewhat skewed perspective and a focus on undulating hills — all hallmarks of the Benton’s work — are in clear evidence. The work is considered to be one of the famed artist and muralist’s finest paintings, and the first to focus on a subject that would prove to be a lifelong obsession with Benton.

In a letter, available for perusal at the Granary, art historian and Benton expert Henry Adams writes, “Few paintings in the history of American art are so American. If you hung it beside Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ it would hold its own. It would be hard to tell which is the greater picture.”

Adams also notes that, “In my judgement, ‘Going West’ is surely by a long shot the most important painting by Benton that’s been on the market in the last 30 years. Indeed, it may well be the best easel painting that Benton ever made.”

Aside from a Christie’s auction in 1982, “Going West” has only been publicly displayed once before, in a gallery in 1927.

While a glimpse of the painting alone may be worth the trip to West Tisbury, it’s just the centerpiece of a spectacular show that is currently hanging at the Granary. Along with “Going West,” the gallery is also exhibiting three other Benton paintings, three works done in pen and ink with watercolor wash, and around 25 lithographs. The lithographs cover a variety of subjects, from farm life to domestic scenes to portraits.

Benton, one of the foremost American Regionalist painters, spent 50 years summering on the Vineyard, and a number of the lithographs, as well as two of the paintings on display at the gallery, depict Island scenes.

The Benton collection is enough to justify a visit — but there’s more. Occupying the majority of one of the gallery’s rooms is a large selection of works by Vaclav Vytlacil, a mid–20th century artist who has been ranked alongside top modernist painters including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque. Like Benton’s, Vytlacil’s work can be found among the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Smithsonian.

Vytlacil’s paintings are full of color and quick brushstrokes. One of the most striking of the 30 or so examples of the artist’s work at the Granary is a large image of a sailboat done in bright oranges and yellows. Other standouts include an almost cubist portrait of fisherman Donald Poole and a topsy-turvy depiction of Menemsha Harbor. Vytlacil spent a good deal of time on the Vineyard, and was one of the earliest members of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association.

Completing the exhibit is a selection of work by two contemporary local artists — Mary Sipp Green and Terry Crimmen. Green, who has been represented by the Granary for

More than 30 years, is a color field artist whose work might be compared with that of Wolf Kahn. For her most recent pieces she has pared down her already spare perspective to eliminate any details — leaving just pure color to represent land and seascapes. Luminosity is achieved beautifully through multiple layers, creating a moody almost transcendent effect.

Terry Crimmen, a relative newcomer to the Vineyard arts scene, has two favorite subjects — farm animals and beach scenes. In both cases Crimmen has an unique perspective and a contemporary touch.

The Granary has a long history of showing important 20th century artists alongside work by contemporary artists — both local and from off-Island. On any given visit, one can always find a number of works by legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt and at least a couple of Bentons. Currently hanging around a corner from the wall of Vytlacils is a painting by Roy Lichtenstein.

Gallery owner Chris Morse is also a champion of young local artists, many of whom he represents at one or more of his three Island galleries — the Granary, the Field Gallery, and North Water Street Gallery. “The Vineyard has quite a history of inspiring and supporting artists,” says Morse. “That’s still true today.”