Sunday, September 5, 2010

Synchromism by Henry Adams

While art historians have often treated them slightingly, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright achieved quite a number of notable firsts. They were the first American painters to create a new modern artistic movement of any sort; they were the only Americans to contribute to the development of modern art in Paris; they were the first artists of any nationality to exhibit truly abstract paintings, in which clear references to a particular subject disappeared. Moreover, although this has not yet been fully recognized, the work of the Synchromists was not a dead end but a beginning – for their originality was not simply on the surface but in the intelligence with which they addressed fundamental questions of art-making and visual expression.

The movement was a hybrid. Sychromism used Cubist techniques of faceting forms to analyze the rhythmic formal sequences of old masters such as Michelangelo and developed the working sculptural methods of Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse for painting. It also employed prismatic sequences of color to articulate and dramatize these formal techniques. Synchromist painting could be either abstract or fairly realistic. It ranged from purely abstract color spirals to figure paintings in which representational shapes were only thinly disguised by veils of luminous color. The alteration of the sculptural 'hollow and bump', the muscular rhythm of the figures ( whether human or abstract), and color tone-sequencing were used to project a compositional unity- symmetrical and dynamic - which seemed to reach out for some larger truth associated with the cosmos as a whole.

Thomas Hart Benton's viewpoint on modern art was largely shaped by his close friendship with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who was his best friend in Paris. Benton helped promote Wright's first Synchromist show in New York at the Carroll Galleries in March 1914, and in 1916 Benton himself showed brightly colored Synchromist paintings – including both figure paintings and pure abstractions at the Forum Exhibition, the first comprehensive group exhibition ever staged by modernist American artists. Equally significant, Benton shared an apartment with both Stanton Macdonald Wright and his brother, Willard Wright, during the period when Willard wrote his book Modern Painting, published in 1915, which was based largely on Stan's ideas. Thus, Benton actively participated in the heated arguments between the two brothers that shaped the book – arguments about the meaning and direction of modern art. Tom Benton passed these ideas on to his student and life-long friend, Jackson Pollock.

And one more thing – something that can by no means be overlooked, at least as regards their influence on Benton and Pollack – Russell and Macdonald-Wright were the first American artists to rewrite art history by composing a manifesto. They showed that being a great artist was not simply a matter of making pretty paintings but of seizing a place in history, and of staging a grand performance that confronted and challenged the assumptions of the audience.

Today we are accustomed to the notion that painting needs to be buttressed by art history and art criticism; that great painting plays a role in history and should represent some sort of creative new idea. In 1913, however, this notion was very new. While a few French artists such as Rodin or Picasso had gathered a circle of friendly writers – Rodin's secretary was the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and most of Picasso's closest friends were poets and critics, such as Guillaume Apollinaire – no American painter had ever really grasped the close relationship between artistic innovation and artistic criticism. They might be friendly with a writer or critic, but in a casual social way. It never occurred to them to form a working alliance and to create an advertising and publicity department, like those used to sell other products. Macdonald-Wright demonstrated that becoming a great artist depended not only on visual achievement but on generating publicity through outrageous statements and manifestos and rewriting art history to spotlight the originality of one's work. The techniques he introduced – though largely unsuccessful in the early 1900s when no Museum in America would consider hanging the work of a living artist- [pre MOMA and Peggy Guggenheim)- changed the whole game of achieving success as an artist in America.

Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock both benefited from such critical publicity. Benton through the work of Thomas Craven and Maynard Walker by which he became the first artist ever featured on the cover of Time magazine on December 24, 1934. The work of Clement Greenberg secured Pollock a feature in the August 8, 1949 edition of Life magazine, titled “Is he the greatest painter in the United States?

The irony is, as is common in the great American P.R. Machine, the lives and works of these artists were seriously misrepresented in these broadsheets: Benton as a “Regionalist”, Pollock as someone entirely divergent from the movement which Benton helped create, though the image of 'The All American Anti-Hero” the article helped create increased the values of the paintings, for which Pollock while he was alive never received much more than $4,000, right into the stratosphere. ( $142 million for Number 5, 1948, for example)


  1. Henry Adams is a professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

    Painting by Morgan Russell

  2. In some ways Benton contributed to his characterization as a 'regionalist', specifically the bluff front of hicksterism he maintained in relation to the public, which belied his cosmopolitan experience, knowledge of many languages and classical education. But what critics often failed to notice was the proportionality of urban-industrial and pastoral subject matter in his paintings and the wide-ranging character types portrayed therein. In characterizing his work as 'representational' in the traditional sense they overlooked the sychromist 'distortions', or modernist rhythmic unities he achieved through his innovating compositional, sculptural and coloring techniques.

    To deny that Jackson Pollack represented “The All-American Anti-Hero” is a bit more problematic, since the definition of such can be so wide-ranging and self-contradicting, especially in popular culture.
    If you look at some of more formal definitions of the Anti-Hero, however, it becomes difficult to fit Pollock into that niche:

  3. “A protagonist who is a non-hero or the antithesis of a traditional hero. While the traditional hero may be dashing, strong, brave, resourceful, or handsome, the antihero may be incompetent, unlucky, clumsy, dumb, ugly, or clownish. Examples here might include the senile protagonist of Cervantes' Don Quixote or the girlish knight Sir Thopas from Chaucer's "Sir Thopas." In the case of the Byronic and Miltonic antihero, the antihero is a romanticized but wicked character who defies authority, and becomes paradoxically ennobled by his peculiar rejection of virtue. In this sense, Milton presents Satan in Paradise Lost as an antihero in a sympathetic manner. The same is true of Heathcliffe in Emily Bronté's Wuthering Heights”


    or this synopsis of Colin Wilson's Outsider:

    “The Outsider is an individual engaged in an intense self-exploration - a person who lives at the edge, challenges cultural values, and "stands for Truth." Born into a world without perspective, where others simply drift through life, the Outsider creates his own set of rules and lives them in an unsympathetic environment.”

  4. Like Keroauc, Jackson seemed to have deep-seated, unresolved psychological problems, was inflicted with a seriously damaging alcoholism ; a drifter , in many respect extraordinarily inarticulate, who had a lot of difficulties establishing a set of rules for himself except within the daily support system provided by Benton family ( as was the case with regard to Keroauc and his own mother). Furthermore, the author identifies 'representational' features in his paintings which, he seems to suggest, were either intentionally obscured, or 'blown away' by Pollock's incapacity to bring them out in a self-satisfying way, even after many years of trying to master the drawing techniques he tried to learn in classes with Benton.

    The circumstance's of Jackson Pollock's death certainly point to a degree of incoherent irrationality in his character to which it is hard to assign any sort of nobility from whatever 'side-of-the tracks' you want to look at it.

  5. The author communicates such conclusions in very subtle ways- obviously not wishing to try to de-throne 'the greatest American painter of his time' to any exaggerated extent. He uses a lot of rather vague arguments about 'spirituality' and 'cosmic realities' to glorify Pollock's work and perhaps avoid the sort of sociological analysis which would be outside the field of his expertise but his appreciation of the over-all visual impact of Pollock's greatest works especially, for instance, upon his own nine-year old son, is genuine. As far as American 'abstract expressionism' goes, Pollock certainly represents one of the 'highest achievements' so far, not the least because of the profound impact Thomas Hart Benton, and sychromism ( a long neglected 'school' in art criticism) on his life and work.

    Curiously, after reading this book, I came away with a much greater appreciation for what another 'pop idol'- Andy Warhol,-was able to achieve in terms of the constructive role modern art can play in the evolution of American society and culture.

  6. ...Warhol, seems to me, was absorbed by his own art and its milieu...the real, became invisible in inverse proportion to his visibility as an 'artist'...perhaps one of the best expressions of an artist who has attempted to 'remove' his personality from his work (and has failed, since the invisible persona he created is as much a part of the art as anything else) is Buckethead...