Benton, Pollock, and their Martha’s Vineyard connection


“Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock” by Henry Adams, Bloomsbury, 2009, 390 pp., $35.

Most Islanders recognize the late Thomas Hart Benton as the famous American Regionalist painter who summered with his wife Rita and family in Aquinnah. Less well-known is the fact that Benton brought with him for many years his student Jackson Pollock, the legendary abstract expressionist. Henry Adams’s “Tom and Jack” describes in detail the father-son relationship between the two artists and the role the Island played in their lives and art.

This fascinating account of the artistic and personal relationship between Benton and Pollock may have slipped under the radar of many Vineyard art lovers. Published last winter by prominent art historian Henry Adams of Case Western Reserve University, “Tom and Jack” offers a wide-ranging, insightful analysis of two apparently very different painters and their impact on modern American art.

One of the interesting threads for Islanders is the relationship between Benton and the late art critic and historian Thomas Craven, his New York roommate and supporter. Craven, who summered in West Tisbury and then moved there permanently in 1949, is the father-in-law of West Tisbury gallery owner Carol Craven. Acquiring a large collection of Benton paintings and letters through her late father-in-law, Ms. Craven specializes in Benton’s work.

“It was a very sweet connection for my gallery,” says Ms. Craven, who summers in her late father-in-law’s Music Street home. Her late husband Richard Craven grew up playing with Benton’s son T.P. during their summers on the Vineyard.

“All I taught Jack was how to drink a fifth a day,” Benton once claimed, but “Tom and Jack” demonstrates how inaccurate that claim was. Although Benton liked to promote himself as a simple man of the people and country bumpkin, he came from a cultured background, studied art in Europe, and was influenced by French currents in modern art. Professor Adams demonstrates how Benton passed on these influences to his student.

Benton left Paris just before the advent of Synchromism, the 1912 art movement that stressed connections between color and sound. But Professor Adams traces at length how he was influenced by it and worked to Americanize some of its precepts in New York with his “hollow and bump” and compositional ideas.

Pollock’s only formal artistic training came from the classes he took in New York with Benton. Benton virtually adopted Pollock as a member of his family, serving as the troubled painter’s surrogate father. Despite his desire to be an artist, Pollock initially seemed untalented.

Professor Adams points out that Benton was one of the few in the 20th century New York art world who sensed Pollock’s potential. Benton took Pollock under his wing, giving him private lessons to overcome his inability to draw. The author suggests that as a child from a poor working-class family, Pollock was the kind of person Benton pretended to be.

The Benton connection with Martha’s Vineyard began in the 1920s, when Rita Benton encouraged her husband to accompany his friend Thomas Craven and her friend Lillian Hoffman there, even though they had no phone, no electricity, and no car. They returned every summer, according to Mr. Adams, who says the Vineyard had a profound effect on Benton.

“The relaxing sea air, the hot sand on the beaches where we loafed, the great and continuous drone of the surf, broke down most of the tenseness which life in the cities had given me,” Benton wrote. “Rita and I lived in the Vineyard like a couple of savages.”

Summering with the Bentons in 1934, 1936, and 1938, Pollock set up shop in a chicken coop dubbed “Jack’s Shack.” Pollock idolized Benton’s wife Rita, and when he stayed with the Bentons on the Vineyard, he often babysat for the Benton’s son T.P. Beginning his day at 4 am, Pollock did chores for an hour or two, including house-painting, woodcutting, and gardening. After picnicking on the beach, swimming nude and sunbathing, he would dig clams, pick blueberries, take walks, decorate ceramics, and paint. Eight-year-old T.P. taught him how to sail.

Benton first recognized his student’s drinking problem on the Vineyard when Pollock arrived on the ferry, bought a bottle of gin for his mentor, but drank it instead. Drunk, Pollock fell off his bicycle en route to the Benton’s and was jailed overnight.

Pollock worked with Rita Benton on ceramics, and Professor Adams suggests his dripping and spattering glaze on ceramics represents the first use of a technique that he became famous for in his paintings. He also speculates that Pollock picked the Long Island farmhouse where he lived with artist Lee Krasner until his death because of his experiences on the Vineyard.

Although many art historians have pegged Benton as a conservative, even reactionary, artist whom Pollock broke with once the Bentons left New York, the author shows how Pollock continued to call Benton and rely on his support, reminiscing about the early days on the Vineyard. Publicly, Pollock claimed Benton served as someone to react against, but Adams compiles evidence suggesting otherwise. En route to the Vineyard from Kansas City, Benton stopped to visit his former student.

Professor Adams illustrates how Pollock returned to the methods he learned from Benton, once he began making drip paintings. Benton and Pollock had a special bond, and the author argues that the most original and significant aspects of Pollock’s work came from Benton.

When Pollock died in a 1956 car accident, painters Willem de Kooning and Herman Cherry brought the news to Benton on the Vineyard.

“You know, Jack never made a painting that wasn’t beautiful,” he told them. It was the only time Benton talked to de Kooning.

Brooks Robards, a frequent contributor to The Times, divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Northampton.