Jackson Pollock, Cathedral (1947), enamel and aluminum paint on canvas, 71 1/2 x 35 1/16 in., Dallas Museum of Art
The first time I remember abstract art making an impression on me was when I was an undergrad in college. It was a Jackson Pollock drip painting at the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s been so long I can’t be sure now which one it was or what drew me to it. It was so unlike everything I had been taught to appreciate—the sentimental realism of Norman Rockwell, the soft impressionism of Monet, the lofty romanticism of J.M.W. Turner. So I stood there confused and mesmerized by the Pollock canvas. What struck me most about the painting was the fact that despite the crazy busyness of it, there seemed to be some kind of underlying symmetry. There was order beneath the chaos.
Last year my oldest daughter Natalie and I watched the Ed Harris movie Pollock. One thing I learned that I didn’t realize before was that Pollock studied with the famous regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton whose work I knew from his colorful illustrations in Francis Parkman’s frontier classic The Oregon Trail. Could there be any two artists more different from each other than Pollock and his teacher?
Thomas Hart Benton, The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley (1934), oil and tempera on canvas, 104.8 x 133.4 cm., Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas
Benton is more accessible and orderly than Pollock and Benton’s paintings tell a story. You don’t even need to know the backstory to get an idea of what’s going on. Take, for example, Benton’s The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley. You don’t need to know the folk song that inspired the painting to realize it’s about a lovers’ quarrel turned violent. Margaret Kaufman wrote a delightful short story called “Life Saving Lessons” in which two preteen girls interpret the painting. Even young people can get it. But there’s messiness in Benton too. His rubbery figures undulate unnaturally and appear almost grotesque at times. His themes can be disturbing and ambiguous.
What strikes me about Pollock and his teacher are the parallel tensions in the two men’s art. There’s order in Pollock’s chaos and chaos in Benton’s order.