The building of an exhibition is by nature a rich and immersive, labor-intensive, lengthy endeavor. As is often the case with any creative process, the element of serendipity may come into play, impacting the outcome in ways that are unable to be foreseen with even the most diligent planning. Connections, cross-connections and intertwined threads can reveal themselves in unexpected discoveries.
Beginning with the preparation of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant application in June 2013 for American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, I became immersed in the works, and world, of Thomas Hart Benton. Starting last May and running concurrent with the design of the Benton exhibition, I began to explore the works, and world of the photographer Duane Michals, while also designing Duane Michals: Storyteller.
What I discovered was that the paths of both these artists converged in a curious way. In the art world, Duane Michals originally became well known for his narrative sequences with themes about dreams, desire, loss and the spirit. Less well known is that Michals is also widely respected as a commercial photographer whose work has appeared in major national publications. In the course of reviewing a selection of commercial portraits taken by Michals for use in Duane Michals: Storyteller, I was surprised to come across a portrait he took of Thomas Hart Benton at his Kansas City home.
I shared this fortuitous discovery with the Benton project team during a regular design meeting and presented it as an opportunity to incorporate the Michals portrait into the Benton exhibition and enrich its content as well as to draw a connection back to the photographer’s work, which would still be on view when the Benton exhibition opened. Our lead curator for the Benton project hadn’t known this portrait existed and a moment of excitement ensued when I revealed this connection.
In its obituary for Benton on January 21, 1975, The New York Times described Benton’s work as “Boldly colored, stylized, direct, reflecting homespun American scenes. Mr. Benton’s paintings were, like the man, to be savored rather than criticized harshly. There was little subtlety in these works, and that was the essence of their appeal. Nor was there much guile in their creator. A cocksure, crusty, craggy, tobacco-chewing, whiskey- drinking, profane, pugnacious product of the Middle West.”
These are the very qualities that present themselves in the portrait of Benton taken by Duane Michals. The photographer identifies himself as a storyteller and through his work explores universal life experiences such dreams, desire, aging and death. Set in a corner of his Kansas City home, the portrait captures Benton later in life, whiskey bottle at his side. Sitting back, low in an armchair, staring directly ahead to the camera, Benton appears simultaneously both defiant and accessible.
A framed landscape painting of Martha’s Vineyard with family members is propped against his knee, leading the viewer’s eye up toward the window over his shoulder, and away. Reproduced in the exhibition as a life-size large format photomural, the Michals portrait of Benton anchors the center of a “chat and relax” area inspired by Benton’s Kansas City home. We’ve furnished this space with armchairs and casework housing Benton’s illustrated classics of American history and literature. The portrait in this context personalizes the man whose gifts for recording character and dramatic incident are matched with illustrations for works by Mark Twain (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), Lynn Riggs (Green Grow the Lilacs) and Francis Parkman (The Oregon Trail). His drawings demonstrate the artist’s intuitive grasp of and fascination with comedies, dramas and American sagas.
Duane Michals’ photograph captures and presents the inherent qualities of Benton so perceptively that he seems to blur the lines between reality and fiction; it is as if Benton himself were a character out of one of his own works.