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Around 1990 Barbara Streisand was interested in buying a painting by Thomas Hart Benton and called me to ask for information and advice. I sent her a long letter listing Bentons that were on the market at the time and enclosed my two books on Benton and a copy of the Ken Burns film. She replied with this nice note. I’m a huge admirer of her, both as a singer and performer, and as someone who has been active in worthy political causes.
In 1994, the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, where I was director, received a Museum Service Award from the Institute for Museum Services for being the museum that had done most over a three-year period to improve its outreach to the community. I went to Washington to pick up the award from Hillary Clinton, in a White House ceremony, and the event coincided with the awards of the Presidential Medal of Arts. At a party at the Canadian embassy I had a long talk with Pete Seeger, one of those being honored, who had known Thomas Hart Benton as a young man and learned some folk songs from him. Afterwards I sent him my Benton book and he sent back this nice note, which includes a real leaf and a little sketch of a banjo.
Starred review for TOM AND JACK in the November 1st, 2009 Booklist.
"Adams practices art history with a novelist's narrative skills and psychological acuity, a sleuth's instincts, a passion for aesthetic and technical explications, and a gift for sea change interpretations. Utterly absorbing, carefully reasoned...Adams offers arresting insights into Pollock's life and work. Encompassing a stunning discovery by his art-historian wife, Adams' commanding, corrective double portrait reveals myriad camouflaged truths."
Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock.
Adams, Henry (Author), Dec 2009. 416 p. Bloomsbury, hardcover, $35.00. (9781596914209). 759.13.
Adams, author of Eakins Revealed (2005), practices art history with a novelist's narrative skills and psychological acuity, a sleuth's instincts, a passion for aesthetic and technical explications, and a gift for sea change interpretations. In this utterly absorbing, carefully reasoned inquiry into the profound relationship between two painters, one reviled, the other worshiped, Adams reclaims the wrongfully maligned Thomas Hart Benton and recalibrates our perception of Jackson Pollock and his masterpieces. Benton hid his true cultured self behind the mask of a "semi-literate hillbilly," just as his "technical virtuosity" is concealed within his controversial murals. An exemplary teacher as well as a trailblazing artist, Benton was mentor and father figure to Pollock. "It is no exaggeration," writes Adams, "to say that Benton created Pollock as an artist." Adams cracks the secret of Benton's "rhythmic flow" approach to composition, tracing its roots to the forgotten Synchromism movement and its colorful creators. Adams then offers arresting insights into Pollock's life and work, from his utter dependence on Benton and problematic adoration for Benton's wife to the harrowing consequences of his bipolar disorder and his complex inspirations, from Jungian analysis to Asian mysticism. Encompassing a stunning discovery by his art-historian wife, Adams' commanding, corrective double portrait reveals myriad camouflaged truths. - Donna Seaman
Carrie M. Majer, Publicist
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New York, NY 10010
Great review in Kirkus:
“[Adams] makes the cogent argument that each painter’s artistic viewpoint, and creative technique, stemmed from the same series of influences that include Rodin, Matisse, Russell and MacDonald-Wright… An interesting story rife with personal drama and satisfying artistic detail.”—Kirkus Reviews
Examination of two brilliant painters whose personal and professional relationship affected the rise of American art in the first half of the 20th century.
Adams (American Art/Case Western Reserve Univ.; Eakins Revealed, 2005, etc.) captures the story of the strange symbiosis between Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), a regionalist and realist painter, and Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), a trailblazer in early Abstract Expressionism who became world-renowned for the drip-painting technique he used in his later works. On the surface, the two men’s creative approach was wholly disparate. Benton favored Americana murals that evoked the working class, creating paintings that made a sharp social statement with vivid color and dynamic movement. Pollock’s works suggest universalism within their chaotic sweeps and layers of paint; each seemingly undefined canvas invites the viewer to contemplate both the immensity of imagination as well as the smallness of self. However, the author makes the cogent argument that each painter’s artistic viewpoint, and creative technique, stemmed from the same series of influences that include Rodin, Matisse, Russell and MacDonald-Wright, as well as rhythmic and structural components first used by those involved in the Synchromist movement (circa 1912). Pollock absorbed these aesthetic principles as Benton’s student, and then executed paintings in an entirely innovative way. This allowed Pollock, a man whose adulthood was marred with what later scholars suspect was bipolar disorder (accompanied by bouts of alcoholism) to position himself as unique in an emerging modern-art scene. The potent combination of timing and talent provided Pollock with an opportunity to expand his creative reach, and he studied the works of other artists while approaching the most productive period of his life—but he never abandoned those techniques that were instilled in him as an inchoate artist under Benton’s tutelage. Though Adams’s prose could use some polish, his portrayal of Benton’s impact on Pollock’s formative thinking brings new light to Pollock’s murky process.
An interesting story rife with personal drama and satisfying artistic detail.
48 art & antiques January 2010
AXA Financial, Inc .
A conve rsation with author Henry Adams about Jackson Pollock ,
fami ly ti e s and the nature of inf luence . By Jonathan Lopez
Sons, Fathers and Forefathers
In terms o f style , what did
Pollock get from Benton?
ADAMS : What Pollock got was an underlying
visual rhythm. When you see him
absorbing modernist influences—Orozco,
Picasso, the Surrealists—he has a way of
taking these influences and “Bentonizing”
them, introducing the Benton rhythm.
What is that rhythm?
ADAMS : It has different aspects. One Benton
idea is that of leading the eye all the way
through the composition, so that you can
basically pick it up anywhere. You’re led in
a continual visual arc that circles around and
eventually brings you through the whole.
Benton was leading the viewer
through a deep space—a space drawn
in perspective—but Pollock’s work,
of course, is flat.
ADAMS : People always say his work is flat,
but I think there’s a kind of semantic confusion
there. If you read books like Rudolf
Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception, the
fundamental way of representing depth is
to show one object on top of another, and
that’s what Pollock does with his complex
interweaving in the drip paintings.
There’s a sense of circular motion that’s
not only sinuous on the surface, but also
sinuous in depth.
During the late 1940s, when he
was working on his major drip
paintings, Pollock was no longer
studying with Benton, who had left
New York to move back west. Was
there any continuing contact
between the two?
ADAMS : Recently, Benton’s daughter, Jessie,
was talking with T. P. Benton, her brother,
who was the one who really knew Pollock
well; Pollock was his babysitter and
so forth. Apparently, T. P. came out of the
army sometime in 1947, and this was just
when Benton was trying to get the Harzfeld
Thomas Hart Benton, Steel, from the America Today series, 1930,
distemper and egg tempera with oil glaze on gessoed linen.
In his new book, Tom and Jack: The
Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton
and Jackson Pollock (Bloomsbury, $35),
Henry Adams, a professor of art history
at Case Western Reserve University, challenges
the received wisdom about these
two great 20th-century painters—one, the
foremost exponent of American Regionalism;
the other, the mysterious genius of
that Pollock, Benton’s favorite student, did
not abandon the master’s teachings to reinvent
American art but rather built subtly
on Benton’s example. In conversation with
Art & Antiques, Adams explains that Pollock
continued to draw strength from the
relationship even during his peak years of
creativity as “Jack the Dripper.”
50 art & antiques January 2010
University of Iowa Museum of Art , Gift of Peggy Guggenheim , 1959
mural, a commission in Kansas City. Benton
was having this big dinner party for
all these Kansas City businessmen; they
sat down to eat, and at that moment the
phone rang. Benton’s wife, Rita, got up to
get it. She was gone for quite a while, and
when she came back to the table, she said,
“Tom, it’s Jack. He’s drunk.” And so Benton
got up and talked on the phone with
him for a long time. Everyone wanted to
know who Jack was, and of course it was
Jackson Pollock, who had already been
written up as the most controversial figure
in the New York art world.
Di d Pollock call frequently?
ADAMS : It seems that he was calling Kansas
City regularly throughout the 1940s.
And in that period, long distance phone
calls were terribly expensive. If you were
going to talk for half an hour or an hour on
the phone with Kansas City, you were paying
50, 60, a hundred dollars. It was a big
investment to maintain that contact.
So there was no rift. Pollock didn’t
just forget about Benton and move
on to new things.
ADAMS : There wasn’t a rift. There were
periods where they would denounce each
other, but then Pollock would call Benton
up and they would talk. And I think that
the father-son metaphor is useful here,
because there’s some level at which, even
when Benton was angry at Pollock, Pollock
was also like a son to him, and he
couldn’t repudiate him.
You’ve been working on Thomas
Hart Benton for more than 20
years, writing books and articles,
organizing exhibi tions and
collaborating with Ken Burns on a
documentary. But it seems odd that
Benton’s great uncle, a United States
senator from Mi ssouri, was a
political antagonist of one of your
ancestors, John Quincy Adams. Was
that a point of departure for you?
ADAMS : A point of humor. For me, learning
about Benton has been a life-expanding
experience. He’s made me see that parts of
the United States that seemed utterly without
culture actually have a lot of culture.
In your book you make passing
references to figures such as John
Adams and your namesake, the
historian and memoirist Henry
Adams. As a scholar of American art,
do you think a lot about the genetic
thread that leads back from you,
personally, through the entire
history of the country?
ADAMS : I think that there’s an analogy with
Benton, who, in his Missouri mural, put
his own family into the painting. If you
figure out how many genes I’ve inherited
from John Adams, it’s probably one percent
at this point. But there is some level
at which, if someone is part of your family,
you feel a connection to them, and it gives
that moment in history an immediacy that
it might not otherwise have.
Benton also included Pollock
in one of his murals, perhaps
symbolically adopting him, or
bringing him into the family.
ADAMS : Yes, if you look at human history,
great breakthroughs often come from the
places that you would least expect. I’m not
a believer in inherited privilege. And this
is part of what I admire in Benton. You
never know whether he befriended Pollock
because he was sorry for him or because
he identified with him. But there’s no question
that very early on Benton saw there
was something quite remarkable about
Dear Mr. Adams—Your article about my drawing in the American Artist Spring 2004 was deeply moving to me. Bless you always for your interest in my work
In 2004, when I wrote an article on Andrew Wyeth’s drawings for American Artist, I was startled and pleased to receive this note. I later wrote a catalogue on his drawings for the Brandywine Museum and he was an generous and enthusiastic supporter of my book on Thomas Eakins, which stirred up controversy in many quarters. I regret that it never occurred to me to get a snapshot of the two of us together. The one memento of our contact is a toy soldier that he gave to my son Tommy when we visited him in Chadds Ford.
Books & Arts
Dec 10th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. By Henry Adams. Bloomsbury; 390 pages; $35 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
FOR all the books written about artists’ muses and patrons, relatively few explore the role of mentors, perhaps because the presence of a teacher threatens to deprive the artist of his or her status as a self-made genius. In “Tom and Jack”, Henry Adams, a professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University, looks resolutely at the art of Jackson Pollock through the work and life of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton. In so doing, he casts new light on the legendary abstract expressionist.
Benton’s influence on Pollock has been treated by other scholars, Mr Adams writes, like the “art historical equivalent of a youthful sexual indiscretion—as something that happened but is best forgotten.” Mr Adams takes a different view. Although the surface traits of Pollock’s abstract art diverged greatly from Benton’s representational work, he explores the similarities of their underlying principles.
During the Depression, Benton was one of the most famous artists in America. In 1934 his self-portrait even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Benton was a popular mural painter until a change in political climate led his paintings to fall into disfavour. One of his most famous murals, “America Today”, for example, was condemned as tasteless because its working-class characters were not depicted in an idealised way. Benton’s irreverence led to accusations of bigotry and racism from the East Coast establishment. Now, however, affluent African-Americans avidly collect Benton’s paintings. Oprah Winfrey apparently owns two.
Benton was also a charismatic teacher who treated his students as equals and, in the case of Pollock, as a member of the family. Pollock was the child of poor drifters, but his elder brother, Charles, had a talent for calligraphy. By the time Jackson was in secondary school, he had “taken on the persona of an artist”, Mr Adams writes, even though he rarely made art. For a young man who was “appallingly non- verbal” and probably bipolar, art appeared as an escape.
Once in New York, Pollock integrated into the Benton family, baby-sitting and doing odd jobs in return for meals. He attended drawing classes and started building his repertoire of artistic skills. Benton had lived in Paris and taught a version of abstract design that grew out of the school of Henri Matisse, which concentrated on rhythmic relationships that he called “the hollow and the bump”. Rhythm would be a strength of Pollock’s work.
Benton’s compositions consisted of muscular gestures arranged evenly across large surfaces. In his drip paintings Pollock would emulate these all-over compositions. When he decided to lay out his canvasses on the floor (because they were so big), he was able to work the paintings from all sides. The result was not flat, but rather full of movement and depth. Unlike Cubism, Mr Pollock’s drip paintings offer a relatively coherent, three-dimensional space that is at once both “expansive and cosmic”, Mr Adams says.
Benton taught Pollock artistic discipline and also provided a model of “how to behave like a bad boy”. Benton had developed an ultra-American outcast persona and liked constantly to use four-letter words with the press. Benton knew that the media needed “not just art but a story about art”—a concept that Pollock, too, had mastered by the time he was featured in Life magazine in 1949 and depicted in Hans Namuth’s films and photos in 1950.
Mr Adams writes about the influences of others, particularly Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, who studied with Hans Hofman, and his Jungian analysts for whom the artist made drawings that distilled his feelings. But his real mission is to put Benton back on the map. Mr Adams has a tendency to over-argue, and his passion for Benton sometimes beggars belief. It is unlikely that Benton’s mastery of abstract form was “more complete, more inventive, more varied, and more exciting than that of any abstract painter of the period”.
Yet “Tom and Jack” usefully demystifies Pollock without stripping the artist bare. As Mr Adams explains, Pollock forgeries are easy to spot. Even if they seem to contain all the stylistic ingredients, they never hold up to prolonged viewing; a real Pollock is riveting because it teems with inner life.
Case Western Reserve Website, December 15, 2009
Book review: Man and master
The Economist, Dec. 10, 2009
For all the books written about artists' muses and patrons, relatively few explore the role of mentors, perhaps because the presence of a teacher threatens to deprive the artist of his or her status as a self-made genius. In "Tom and Jack," Henry Adams, professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University, looks resolutely at the art of Jackson Pollock through the work and life of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton. In so doing, he casts new light on the legendary abstract expressionist master.
Case Western Reserve Website, January 5, 2010
January 05, 2010
The Story of Two Great American Painters, "Tom and Jack"
In his new book, "Tom and Jack," Case Western Reserve University American art historian Henry Adams tells the dramatic stories of legendary American painters Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock.
"These artists are two amazing and larger-than-life characters," Adams says.
"Tom and Jack" is composed of many stories, encompassing the development of Benton as an artist to his later influence on Pollock, whose work has set at a record-breaking sale price of $140 million, and the subsequent places both artists fill in American modern art history.
Adams writes how a little known and basically untrained Pollock arrived in New York at the age of 18 and encountered Benton, the famed figurative muralist of working-class America.
What followed for the iconic drip-and-splatter painter was a "complex, often stormy relationship with his teacher and mentor." This relationship lasted until Pollock's untimely death in a 1956 car accident.
"Benton served as a sort of surrogate father for Pollock, and in true Oedipal fashion, Pollock even fell in love with Benton's wife, Rita," Adams said.
He found a prescient statement Benton made about how seemingly formless color splashing calls into play very special forms of knowledge. The author says this statement anticipated Pollock's future career.
"Benton was the first individual to recognize Pollock's peculiar gift and to describe him as a genius," Adams said.
The two painters' styles—Benton's figurative style and Pollock's drips and splatters—appear quite different. But Adams disagrees.
He traces Benton's early history, linking his encounters in Paris and New York with artists in the Synchronistic movement (an organized flow of colors based on the color wheel) and then incorporating the style in his work. Later he would pass along to Pollock techniques of organizing visual rhythms "in the hollows and bumps" learned from French artists Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin.
Close examinations of Pollock's splattering visual rhythms resulted in a discovery that Adams credits to his wife, Marianne Berardi, also an art historian. She found letters of Jackson Pollock's name emerging from "Mural," a monumental 8x12 –foot painting done for Peggy Guggenheim in 1943. This sprawling work launched Pollock's career.
Adams has ignited interest with this discovery and research, but an online article posted by the Smithsonian has received over a million hits and hundreds of comments from viewers with a spectrum of opinions.
A starred review of "Tom and Jack" by the American Library Associations' magazine, Booklist, said "Adams practices art history with a novelist's narrative skills and psychological acuity, a sleuth's instincts, a passion for aesthetics and technical explication…Utterly absorbing, carefully reasoned."
For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.
Posted by: Kimyette Finley, January 5, 2010 01:24 PM | News Topics: Authors, College of Arts and Sciences, Faculty, Research, features
Case Western Reserve University is committed to the free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and intellectual dialogue. Speakers and scholars with a diversity of opinions and perspectives are invited to the campus to provide the community with important points of view, some of which may be deemed controversial. The views and opinions of those invited to speak on the campus do not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration or any other segment of the university community.
The Week’s Hot Reads—The Daily Beast
Dec 21, 2009 ... Tom and Jack book cover Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollack. By Henry Adams. 416 pages. ...
One of the great artistic friendships in American history is explored this new dual bio.
Painters Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock had an intense, almost father-son like friendship, despite having seemingly wildly different styles. “On the surface, the two men's creative approach was wholly disparate,” Kirkus Reviews writes in a review of Henry Adams’ account of their relationship, Tom and Jack. “Benton favored Americana murals that evoked the working class… Pollock's works suggest universalism within their chaotic sweeps and layers of paint... However, the author makes the cogent argument that each painter's artistic viewpoint, and creative technique, stemmed from the same series of influences.” The Kansas City Star named Tom and Jack to its list of best 100 books of 2009.
An upcoming book makes the provocative claim that Jackson Pollock spelled out his name in giant letters in his iconic Mural—but not all scholars agree
by Kate Taylor
Among the reasons that people continue to be fascinated by Jackson Pollock’s paintings is their Rorschach quality. Viewers have perceived many things in them, from scenes out of classical mythology to Jungian symbols. In Tom and Jack, an upcoming book about the relationship between Pollock and his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, art historian Henry Adams finds a very surprising image hidden in Pollock’s 1943–44 Mural: the artist’s own signature.
That Pollock would insert his signature into the painting makes sense in terms of Mural’s meaning for Pollock, argues Adams, a professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The whole point of Mural was to declare that Jackson Pollock was a great painter,” he writes in Tom and Jack, which is being published in December by Bloomsbury Press. “The painting is essentially a big billboard for Jackson Pollock.”
Several scholars praise aspects of Adams’s book, but they express skepticism about the idea that Mural contains a hidden signature. Pollock biographer Steven Naifeh, who read the chapter on Mural at the request of ARTnews, notes in an e-mail: “A hundred people might find 50 different words—and hundreds of different images—in this or any of Pollock’s later work.”
Adams says it was actually his wife who first noticed the letters spelling out “Jackson Pollock” among the dark lines in Mural.
“I was just looking at it with my wife—I think it was over breakfast on a Saturday morning,” he recalls. “I was convinced that there was some kind of imagery in the painting, and no one had written about that very clearly. And then at some point she started to see letters in it. Oddly, she was looking at it upside down” at the time, he adds.
Mural, almost 13 feet long and 8 feet high, was painted for the entry hall of Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment. It is generally considered to have been a turning point in Pollock’s career. The critic Clement Greenberg would later claim that he took one look at it and knew that Pollock was “the greatest painter this country had produced.” In 1951 Guggenheim donated the painting to the University of Iowa, where it was at the center of a minor firestorm last year, when a member of the Iowa Board of Regents proposed selling the painting to pay for flood-damage repairs at the university. The painting’s value at the time was estimated to be $140 million.
Adams concedes that the buried signature doesn’t have much importance to the larger argument of his book, which disputes the long-held assumption that Pollock rejected all of Benton’s teachings before making his major works. But Adams says he thought the idea was “provocative,” and he was surprised no one had suggested it before.
“I seem to have a gift for coming up with things that are controversial,” he says, referring to his 2005 book on Thomas Eakins, Eakins Revealed, which explores rumors that the painter molested his niece.
“I’ve been sort of blacklisted in some quarters of the American field” because of that book, Adams says.
The idea that Pollock rejected all of Benton’s teachings came from the Abstract Expressionist himself. In 1951, in his narration for Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg’s documentary, Pollock described Benton, with whom he studied at the Art Students League of New York in the late ’20s, as “a strong personality to react against.”
But Adams, who has also written a biography of Benton, says that, in fact, Pollock remained in close touch with his former teacher until the end of his life, and that he was strongly influenced by Benton’s ideas about composition.
Adams partly relies on the work of Stephen Polcari, who noticed 30 years ago that the compositions of Pollock’s major drip paintings correspond with the recommendations Benton laid out in a series of articles in Arts magazine in 1927. But Adams adds a new angle, stressing Benton’s modernist bona fides: he was influenced, Adams writes, by a group of American modernists called the Synchromists, who combined the formal language of Cubism with the vivid colors of Matisse, arranged according to an arcane theory of color harmonization.
“Benton has always been sort of the bogeyman, the person who was the evil reactionary figure,” Adams says, but in fact “much of his art and his strategies of self-promotion were based on European modernists.” Benton’s influence on Pollock was multilayered, having to do “not only with how you make art but with how you promote yourself as an artist: this willingness to stand out as different and to sort of say outrageous things—basically this whole modernist strategy.”
Mural has long been a subject of great interest to art historians. Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, maintained that he painted it in one night, around January 1, 1944, after several months of procrastination. The Pollock scholar Francis O’Connor, however, has adduced photographs and correspondence to dispute that claim, and Adams adopts his view.
Pepe Karmel, a professor of art history at New York University who, with the late Kirk Varnedoe, curated the Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, also read the chapter on Mural at the request of ARTnews. In an e-mail, he calls Adams “a delightful writer,” but adds that he is “way off-base” in his analysis of Mural.
“It’s a Rorschach-blob situation,” Karmel writes. “There are a lot of loops, curves, and lines in Mural. Evidently, by picking and choosing among them, you can spell out the words ‘Jackson Pollock,’ but that doesn’t mean the words are there.”
Karmel adds that Adams’s reading of Mural “seems as if it were inspired by” a 2001 painting by the artist Sean Landers, in which Landers inscribed his signature in a field of wavy colored lines.
“Landers’ painting equates the interlacing lines of all-over painting with wavering lines of script, which is funny because it connects the heroic self-expression of Pollock with the shameless self-promotion of Andy Warhol,” Karmel observes. “To imagine Pollock himself doing this in 1943 makes him into an American equivalent of Francis Picabia, with his Dada assaults on the pompous self-righteousness of the avant-garde.
“That would be an interesting interpretation,” he continues, “but not very convincing.”
Helen Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in the Hamptons, says that Adams “has done a remarkable job of making connections that nobody had really bothered to trace before.” But, as to the purported letters in Mural, she says, “I never saw them until they were pointed out to me.”
Adams notes that he considers the signature a “unique discovery, in that I don’t think you can go around to Jackson Pollock paintings and try to find writing in all of them. I think this is the one time he did that.”
Kate Taylor is a freelance journalist living in New York.
Blog of Mark Murphy: Murphy Design
Regionalist American painters: Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton captured everyday American life, painting its cities, small towns and rural landscapes. Their realistic painting style, (realism), heightened the viewer’s political and social consciousness while conveying a sense of nationalism and romanticism. (If you’re interested in actual accounts that took place in art history, check out the latest book “Tom and Jack/The intertwined lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock” by art historian Henry Adams. Really a wonderful read, as it features the main characters and all of the lives they touched along the way).
Review (by Joan Baum) of the book Tom and Jack on "The Eclectic Cafe," a radio program on WLIU 88.3 FM, tomorrow (Monday) some time between 10 a.m and noon. You should be able to get it on line: http://wliu.publicbroadcasting.net/WLIU_listenlive.html
In 'Tom and Jack,' biographer Henry Adams gives the complex dance between Jackson Pollock and his teacher Thomas Hart Benton full measure
By Plain Dealer guest writer
February 02, 2010, 1:30PM
Bloomsbury, 405 pp., $35 By Marc Vincent. Special to The Plain Dealer.
More than 50 years after his death, the work of Jackson Pollock continues to intrigue and baffle. The authenticity of 24 paintings, discovered in 2003, is still debated. And among the works known to be genuine, his drip paintings are as puzzling and remote as the artist himself.
Henry Adams' new book, "Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock," unravels some of the complexity by focusing on the turbulent relationship between Pollock and his mentor, the American painter Benton.
With this engaging, accessible book, Adams, a specialist in American art at Case Western Reserve University, untangles the ropey strands of Pollock's personality and technique, set within the larger story of the emergence of modern art.
In 1930, at the age of 18, Pollock followed his brother Charles to New York to study with Benton at the Arts Student League. For five years, until Benton moved back to Missouri, Pollock became a quasi member of his teacher's family. Their bond, Adams writes, was a "turbulent, oedipal affair, filled with anger, rebellion, and misunderstanding -- a relationship between a loving but difficult father and his rebellious son."
Adams tracks how Cubism, Surrealism and Jungian theories of the collective unconscious influence Pollock. He also emphasizes the importance of Synchromism, a short-lived but vital avant-garde movement of the 1910s created in Paris by Morgan Russell and Stanton McDonald Wright.
Their abstract, multicolored, Cubist works pulled together various modernist skeins: the exaggerated, sinuous forms of Matisse; the constructive colors of Cezanne; the Cubist vocabulary of Picasso; and the dynamic machine aesthetic of the Futurists. Russell and Wright were friends of Benton, who introduced Synchromist concepts to Pollock.
By the spring of 1947, Pollock was painting on the floor and dripping paint onto his canvases, working at a great remove from the figurative style of Benton. But Adams argues that Pollack reached back to Synchromist methods to give structure to his works.
Arguing that Pollock's works can be read only if we grasp how he painted them, Adams investigates the "brush strokes," some thin and linear, achieved by deliberately controlling his arm movements; others more blotchy and drippy. The results were paintings of astonishing richness and complexity, never before seen in art.
Adams challenges two widely-held assumptions: that drip paintings are flat, and that they are inherently metaphysical. Adams proposes that they move and surge in chaotic but controlled choreography, even respecting Renaissance principles of perspective. And they have an unmistakable physicality, composed of swirling forms stitched together by real or imaginary poles or nexuses, a technique learned from Benton and Synchromism.
The book seamlessly alternates between such insightful art history and intriguing accounts of private lives. So we join Benton and Pollock on road trips in the American West, and socialize in Paris with Gertrude Stein, "fat, Jewish and lesbian [who] achieved a Buddha-like serenity and became an iconic figure of the modern age."
We also witness Pollock's violence, now recognized as linked to bipolar disorder exacerbated by alcoholism. The story is both lively and gripping, enriched with dialogue from primary sources.
Henry Adams in Florence, Italy, seated in front of a poster advertising non-alcoholic lemonaid, which, Adams said, "I thought was appropriate for a scholar of two hard-drinking fellows like Pollock and Benton."
This is also an intensely personal narrative, free of art-history jargon, in which Adams describes how his own 3-year-old son helped him discover how to see a Pollock. It includes few footnotes but offers a detailed, annotated bibliography.
This month, the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown announced its acquisition of Pollock's Silver and Black (1950). Along with the Cleveland Museum of Art's Number 5 (1950) and the seminal Convergence (1952) at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, we in Northeast Ohio are within a day's drive of three paintings created at the peak of Pollock's career.
"Tom and Jack" may well inspire readers to see them in person.
Marc Vincent is a professor of art history at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding guide highly recommended as a solid introduction to American art culture and masterpieces, June 16, 2009
By Midwest Book Review (Oregon, WI USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: What's American About American Art? (Paperback)
Some 60 important works of art from the collection of a major American museum are considered in this review by a prominent art historian who finds diversity and history in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. From Winslow Homer to Georgia O'Keeffe, full-page art reproductions are accompanied by extensive, in-depth text commentary to make for an outstanding guide highly recommended as a solid introduction to American art culture and masterpieces.
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding guide highly recommended as a solid introduction to American art culture and masterpieces, June 16, 2009
By Midwest Book Review (Oregon, WI USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: What's American About American Art? (Paperback)
Some 60 important works of art from the collection of a major American museum are considered in this review by a prominent art historian who finds diversity and history in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. From Winslow Homer to Georgia O'Keeffe, full-page art reproductions are accompanied by extensive, in-depth text commentary to make for an outstanding guide highly recommended as a solid introduction to American art culture and masterpieces.
by Midwest Book Review (Oregon, WI USA) - See all my reviews
Fine artist, sculptor, and ceramicist Viktor Schreckengost has had an enormous impact of popular culture through his Limoges dinnerware designs, his work as a graphic artist, theater and costume designer, as well as his industrial designs which ranged from Murray bicycles, pedal cars, planes and boats, to Steelcraft toy buses and trucks, commercial printing presses, the first riding lawn mower, General Electric lighting fixtures and appliances, the Sear's Beverly Hills lawn chair, and that classic icon of American childhood -- the little red wagon. Profusely illustrated in full color and enhanced with the addition of an Index and Image Catalogue, and with expert commentary by former museum curator Henry Adams, "Viktor Schreckengost: American Da Vinci" is a superbly presented and informative introduction to the life, work, and artistry of a remarkably talent who dedicated himself to the esthetic improvement of American popular culture. Highly recommended for personal, professional, and academic library American Art History reference collections and supplemental reading lists.
“ Eakins Revealed by Henry Adams is, without doubt, the most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist. It was like following Eakins’s footprints in the snow as he walked down a back street in Philadelphia. Sometimes I fell down but got right up again to keep on following him to the end. It was worth every step of the way.”
“With a wealth of fresh documentation and the page-turning momentum of a detective story, Henry Adams had uncovered the Gothic world of Eakins’s private and public biography, a scandalous mixture of insanity, incest, suicide and exhibitionism. But more important, he has woven this sinister story into new and deeper readings of Eakins’s work, creating a seamless interpretation of how is life is transformed into art.”
“At last a biography that brings fully to life the creator of American art’s most astonishing works. Until this point the Thomas Eakins iconography has been staid and housebroken. Henry Adams’s book breaks from that
ARTnews, May 2005, p. 100
A Scandalous Life
This new biography of Thomas Eakins may impact our understanding of the artist the way Fawn Brodie's biography of Thomas Jefferson changed our view of the author of the Declaration of Independence. It's no longer possible to see Eakins as a simple American hero or to ignore the dark shadows that shaped his life.
Eakins (1844-1916) has been regarded as an artist of uncompromising integrity. Although his life was plagued by scandal and conflict, he is usually portrayed as a victim of Victorian morality, a champion of the nude body, and an advocate of sportsmanship and science. His works are acclaimed as forthright portrayals of American life and achievement, founded on an exacting artistic technique.
Mining new information on Eakins's persona/history and searching his paintings for fresh meaning, Henry Adams, chair of the art-history department at Case Wastem Reserve University, presents a very different vision of the artist's life and work that is certain to generate controversy. His research is hased on two relatively new sources. The first is the Bregler CoUecfon, a trove of documents from Eakins's studio saved from the trash heap by a former student, Charles Bregler, after the death of Ealkind's widow in 1938 and rediscovered in 1984. The second key source consists of the unpublished notes of Lloyd Goodrich, Eakins's primary biographer, which were made available only after the scholar's death in 1987.
The Bregler Collection, published by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in I989, has provided scholars with the numerous nude photographs the artist took of himself as well as his students and models, often in relation to his paintings but also for apparently personal reasons. Goodrich's notes from interviews in the 1930s with people involved in Eakins's life have been less noticed until now. Together, these two sources flesh out a dramatic and surprising picture of a man who pressured students and models to undress; who exposed himself to them and to family members and visitors to his house; a man who was accused more than once ofincast and whose family life was continually troubled by insanity, violence, and conflict.
The pivotal scandal of Eakins's life was his dismissal from the fac~ nlty of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1886, after he removed a loincloth from a male model in a class that included female students. According to the traditional account, the dismissal was an overreaction by socially conscious school director to complaints from a handful of prudish students and their parents. In fact, Adams finds, the directors took action only after extensive testimony was given against Eakins by the entire teaching staff, the school's most talented students, and members of the artist's own family.
Adams probes other scandals that are rarely discussed, including the insanity and incarceration of Lillian Hammitt, a former student of Eakins, who claimed that he had intended to marry her, and the charges of incest with his niece, Ella Crowell, whose accusations were upheld by her parents and who later committed suicide. Seeking a coherent framework for the discontinuities in Eakins's life and art, Adams probes the artist's relationship with his mother, a manic-depressive who died insane two years after her son's return from study in France. Eakins was his mother's principal caretaker throughout that time. Adams argues that the relationship shaped much of Eakins's art and prefigured his dysfunctional family relations.
Moving beyond the documentary evidence, Adams closely considers Eakins's greatest works, seeking a deeper understanding of the straggle and turmoil involved in these achievements. He is not alone among contemporary historians and critics who believe that Eakins's works require more profound attention. But Adams has probed more deeply than anyone thus far. One need not agree with all his conclusions to recognize that he has made Eakins a far more provocative and compelling artist than we knew before. ·
Bonnie Barrett Stretch is a contributing editor of ARTnews
The New York Times
Forum: Artists and Exhibitions
Eakins the Tormented? A Biographer's Dark View Ruffles the Field
By DINITIA SMITH
Published: May 21, 2005
"People always seemed to be avoiding the most obvious qualities in the paintings - that the people looked unhappy," the art historian and biographer Henry Adams said, explaining his revisionist view of the painter.
Who was Thomas Eakins? Was he a heroic figure, a paragon of artistic integrity whose paintings of oarsmen, swimmers, family members and the distinguished citizens of Philadelphia expressed America's emerging power in the 19th century? Or was he, as the art historian Henry Adams depicts him in a new biography, a tormented soul, afraid of going insane like his mother, sexually ambivalent, a bully, an exhibitionist, a voyeur who was possibly guilty of bestiality and of incest with female relatives?
"Eakins Revealed" (Oxford University Press), by Mr. Adams, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, is roiling art historians. One of those Mr. Adams criticizes is Elizabeth Johns, author of "Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life" and an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania, for "maintaining a hard-line defense of Eakins's motives." Ms. Johns said she had not read Mr. Adams's book. But she added, "It seems to be a pathography."
"Eakins is an artist and person entirely too complex to be reduced to his sexual dimensions," she said.
However, Eakins's major living biographer, William Innes Homer, author of
"Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art," has read the book and praised it as "extremely perceptive and bold and courageous." Though he said: "It goes too far. It goes off into the wilderness when it comes to the ultimate interpretation of Eakins's pictures."
Mr. Adams has pulled together recent revisionist scholarship, some of it based on thousands of documents, along with nude photographs of the artist and other men. These pictures were taken by Eakins and saved by his student Charles Bregler, then rediscovered in the mid-1980's. Mr. Adams has also examined unpublished notes by Eakins's first biographer, Lloyd Goodrich, whose idealized Eakins influenced generations of scholars.
Mr. Adams, 56, has degrees from Harvard and Yale and is a descendant of the Adams presidential family. He is named for the writer Henry Adams ("The Education of Henry Adams" and "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres") and wrote "Eakins Revealed" on his namesake's Louis XIV-style desk.
"There was a way that Eakins's life and key episodes in it were presented that seemed just not true," Mr. Adams said in a telephone interview. "People always seemed to be avoiding the most obvious qualities in the paintings - that the people looked unhappy." He pointed to Eakins's portraits of his wife, Susan. In one, with a dog at her feet, Susan looks "emaciated and helpless and depressed," he said. In another, "Mrs. Thomas Eakins," she seems "sort of catatonic."
In the famous work "The Swimming Hole," Eakins presents "the sexy and attractive qualities of young men, at just the time when he is painting his wife as dejected and ugly," Mr. Adams said. "Previous writers have most often imagined Eakins as a sexually potent figure, but he had deep sexual repressions." For instance, in "The Swimming Hole," Eakins paints himself in the water, not as "a participant but a voyeur."
Mr. Adams tried to understand the roots of these ambiguities. For instance, he said, Eakins did not have an idyllic childhood, as has been said. His father, Benjamin, a writing master and slumlord, was severe. His mother, Caroline, was manic-depressive. Mr. Adams speculates that she was sexually inappropriate with Thomas.
Eakins (1844-1916) studied art in Paris. When he returned, in 1884, he married his student Susan Macdowell. He made her give up painting to care for him. "He sort of killed his wife as a personality," Mr. Adams said. They had no children, and Mr. Adams said, "based on contemporary descriptions, their relationship was clearly not sexually passionate." Later, they were rumored to live in a ménage à trois with Susan's friend Addie Williams.
Mr. Adams examines the incident in 1886 when Eakins was asked to resign from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, supposedly for stripping a loincloth from a male model. Eakins has since been seen as a victim of proper Philadelphia society. "But the entire teaching academy turned against him," Mr. Adams said. He said the Bregler papers revealed that Eakins might have pressured students to undress, undressed in front of them himself and used foul language.
Shortly after Eakins resigned, Mr. Adams said, Eakins's sister Caroline and her husband, Frank Stephens, campaigned to have him dismissed from the Philadelphia Sketch Club and the Philadelphia Art Club as well, accusing him of "bestiality," though what that meant is unclear. They also accused him of incest with his favorite sister, Margaret, by then dead. Will Crowell, married to another sister, Frances, reported that Eakins walked around the house and in front of his sisters without his pants on.
The Crowells later accused Eakins of incest with their daughter, Ella. "She begins to be emotionally distraught," Mr. Adams said. "She says Eakins spanked her to make her undress and complained about his 'degrading touch.' " In 1897, Ella shot herself. The Crowells never spoke to Eakins again.
Was Eakins guilty? Kathleen Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and one of those Mr. Adams says protects Eakins's image, said she had not read the book but called Mr. Adams's conclusions "speculative." "He has tried to press the documents into a darker shape," she said.
Eakins's largest and most contentious work was "The Gross Clinic" (1875). It shows the prominent Philadelphia surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross operating on a figure lying with buttocks toward the viewer while doctors and students watch. The patient's mother gestures hysterically. It was rejected from several exhibitions and "has always played a central part in his mystique as an unjustly persecuted figure," Mr. Adams said.
Ms. Johns has argued that the work is a celebration of a heroic figure, Dr. Gross. But Mr. Adams said he was sympathetic to the art historian Michael Fried's darker interpretation. Mr. Adams sees it as a kind of family romance, with Dr. Gross, wielding his bloody scalpel over the androgynous figure, as a stand-in for Eakins's father, and the hysterical woman as his mother. For Mr. Adams, the painting's true theme is "savage penetration."
Eakins, Mr. Adams said, "is bringing us into a psychological arena that we are somewhat familiar with, but also stranger than we are familiar with."
"He's showing it to us so we can enter it," he said. "But we don't need to live in that world all the time."
"The Swimming Hole" by Eakins.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
A large detail from "The Artist's Wife and His Setter Dog" by Eakins.
From: DeJesu, Betsy [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Monday, June 13, 2005 3:40 PM
To: NY-Publicity Update
Subject: Eakins Revealed update
is reviewed in the Sun Herald
in Biloxi, MS for June 12, 2005 --
this review also was picked up by the Newhouse News Service!
Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Realist Eakins revealed; Author documents a great painter's twisted psyche
By STEVEN LITT
12 June 2005
The Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS)
(c) Copyright 2005, The Sun Herald. All Rights Reserved.
c.2005 NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Thomas Eakins has long been considered the greatest American painter of the 19th century - a realist who peeled the veneer from Victorian-era Philadelphia.
But Henry Adams, an art historian at Case Western Reserve University, has a darker view. In "Eakins Revealed," a new biography, Adams presents evidence that Eakins was an exhibitionist and a voyeur, that he was obsessed with fears of castration, that he was accused by relatives of committing incest and bestiality, that he manipulated men and women into posing for him in the nude.
The record includes the story of Ella Crowell, Eakins' niece, who committed suicide at age 24 with a shotgun blast to the head after claiming that her uncle had molested her. Eakins also may have contributed to the insanity of Lillian Hammitt, who spent her life in an asylum after studying with the artist.
"This is a tragedy that doesn't have a happy ending," Adams said in his office at Case, in Cleveland. "I think it's a genuinely scary book."
Adams, a direct descendant of two presidents and a long line of famous authors, blended Freudian psychoanalysis, investigative reporting and art history to examine Eakins.
Much of the unsettling documentation in the book comes from the Bregler Papers, a collection of letters, photographs and other materials saved from a trash heap by a former student, Charles Bregler, in 1938, after the death of Eakins' widow. The papers disappeared for many years, only to surface in 1984.
Other scholars have examined the papers, but Adams believes he's the first to look at accusations against the artist from the viewpoint of the accusers, rather than to let Eakins off the hook because he was a great artist.
"It makes you squirm inside," Adams said of the details revealed in the papers. "Rather than closely consider it, people have moved on to other subjects."
Reading "Eakins Revealed" is like turning a doorknob to enter a Victorian mansion filled with shadowy secrets. Adams makes the metaphor explicit in his opening chapter by taking readers on a virtual tour of the three-story Eakins townhouse in Philadelphia, where Eakins spent most of his adult life.
Adams goes on to chart Eakins' twisted psyche and to re-examine the artist's work. For instance, he finds copious evidence of Eakins' fears of castration in "The Gross Clinic," 1875, the artist's greatest masterpiece. Adams also finds signs of voyeurism and suppressed homosexuality in "The Swimming Hole," a painting of five nude men posing on a rocky bank.
Adams connects these and other interpretations to the 1886 episode in which Eakins removed a loincloth from a male model in a class of male and female students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Eakins famously lost his teaching job as a result.
Not surprisingly, Adams is taking hits from other scholars who feel his book is unnecessarily dark.
Kathleen Foster, curator of the large Eakins retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2001, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Adams' arguments are nothing more than "speculation," and that the book will be dismissed by other scholars.
The New York Times reported she had not read the book. Foster did not return a call to her office.
Adams isn't surprised by the harsh reception. "I'm already accused of putting a scalpel to Eakins," he said. "Should I pose as the doctor in the Gross Clinic, stabbing at Eakins?"
On the other hand, the book has been warmly received by artists Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie. Both allowed their comments to be circulated by Oxford, the book's publisher.
Andrew Wyeth wrote that reading the book "was like following Eakins' footprints in the snow as he walked down a back street in Philadelphia."
The controversy over the book stems in part from the way Adams shows how previous art historians downplayed the strangeness of Eakins to advance their own careers. These included Lloyd Goodrich, a giant of the field, whose 1933 biography of Eakins set a respectful tone.
Publicist, Trade Division
Oxford University Press
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New York, NY 10016
For generations, Thomas Eakins--whose famous paintings include "The Gross Clinic" and "The Champion Single Sculls"--has been regarded as a 19th-century American hero. In Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist, art historian Henry Adams offers a radically different view that allows us to better understand "the intensity and emotional desperation of Eakins' art." Eakins' brush with scandal--he was dismissed from his teaching post at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1886 for removing the loincloth from a male model posing for a class of women students--is generally described by admiring art historians as a brave attempt to modernize stuffy old rules. Adams reveals that the artist was a life-long exhibitionist who appears to have preyed on vulnerable young women. Drawing on the Bregler papers, a cache of revealing documents from Eakins' studio that surfaced in the mid-1980s, Adams describes a man whose sense of masculine identity was thwarted by a deep identification with his mentally ill mother and an inability to please his father. Reviewing the major Eakins studies, beginning with the landmark monograph by Lloyd Goodrich, Adams finds that many aspects of the artist's life were suppressed to establish him as an all-American hero.
Adams presents his case with the mesmerizing power of a star attorney-at-law, painting a detailed picture of the artist's troubled personal life before launching into correspondences between the life and the art. Although readers may question some of Adams' interpretations--whether of Freudian theory or the emotional effect of a specific painting--the author's direct, probing style makes Eakins Revealed as riveting as a courtroom drama. In his concluding arguments, Adams proposes that the subjects of Eakins' late portraits, almost uniformly pensive and hollow-eyed, are in fact multiple versions of the brooding artist himself. Ultimately, the author's new assessments endow Eakins' work with an anxiety about the body and gender roles--issues that preoccupy many artists of our own time. Readers new to Eakins may be disappointed to find only small, black-and-white reproductions of the works in this book, and a few of the works discussed (such as "Crucifixion") are not illustrated at all. But skeptical specialists will be pleased to see that Adams includes copious (and often fascinating) notes and a full bibliography. -Cathy Curtis
*Starred Review* Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is revered as a great American painter, a technically gifted realist who defied hypocritical Victorian conventions in his frank depiction of the body. Eakins defied convention, all right, but according to art historian Adams, the power of Eakins' paintings resides not in a healthy embrace of life but, rather, in a "profoundly tragic vision" rooted in a legacy of mental illness. In this cogent, exhaustive, and daring reconsideration, a galvanizing work inspired by his immersion in a long-lost, still little-studied cache of Eakins' papers, Adams portrays the painter as a man grievously damaged by childhood traumas, and presents explicit evidence of Eakins' exhibitionism, voyeurism, and underdeveloped sexuality. Adams also fearlessly dissects Eakins' misogyny and penchant for painting deliberately unflattering portraits. Far worse are accusations of incest, culminating in the suicide of his niece. This all makes for grim if morbidly fascinating reading. Adams' meticulous, frequently audacious arguments and bold, if occasionally forced, psychological interpretations of Eakins' arresting and enigmatic paintings and photographs are as well crafted as they are incendiary, and this no-holds-barred deconstruction of an American icon will both outrage and intrigue readers as it sparks debate not only about Eakins but also about the symbiosis between art and life. Donna Seaman
Copyright ) American Library Association. All rights reserved
Posted on Tue, May. 03, 2005
A dark picture of Eakins
Revered here in his hometown, the 19th-century artist actually had a twisted psycho-sexual history, according to a controversial new book.
By Karen Heller
Inquirer Staff Writer
A massive new study of Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins, 14 years in the writing, nearly 600 pages in length, is deemed "provocative" and "controversial" by its publisher - which may, for once, be an understatement in marketing.
Henry Adams' Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (Oxford University Press) accuses the painter of incest, bestiality, flagrant exhibitionism, sadism, molestation and sexual opportunism, contributing to the suicide of his disturbed niece. The portrait presented by Adams, a Case Western Reserve University professor of art history, is of a severely troubled individual with a catalog of psychoses, including a castration complex, sexual inadequacy and trauma, and a propensity to drink more milk than perhaps is healthy.
Eakins lived from 1844 to 1916, and is widely regarded not only as Philadelphia's finest artist but as America's greatest. A graduate of Central High, who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Eakins spent most of his life in a rowhouse at 1729 Mount Vernon St. in the Fairmount neighborhood, now home to the city's Mural Arts Program.
"I had always felt some kind of block on Eakins, something disturbing in the work. I could never get into this exaggerated reverence," Adams said last week prior to speaking at the shrine of Eakins reverence, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the painter was notoriously dismissed in 1886 for removing the loincloth of a male model in front of female students.
During the lecture, Adams attacked the shibboleths of Eakins scholarship in front of a packed auditorium of doubting heads, many shaking in disbelief.
No one can accuse Adams of timidity.
"The entire Eakins industry is about all these people making a living about what a noble and interesting person Eakins was," said Adams, 55, who holds a doctoral degree from Yale. "To ignore his very strongly expressed beliefs, his painting being not just about painting but his life and values, seems very hypocritical, but this is what many art historians have done."
He equates Eakins to a troubled celebrity of today. "Reading about Michael Jackson, I think you see many of the same issues of someone who is clearly very disturbed."
Adams examines Eakins' paintings through the distillation of psychoanalysis, viewing the male portraits as a celebration of male beauty, yet also sexual frustration, voyeurism, and a willingness to shock, especially his landmark The Swimming Hole, featuring five Adonis-like nude students, as well as himself, at Mill Creek near Bryn Mawr.
The female portraits are judged a continuous canvas of misery and despair, including the portrait of his wife Susan, "a study in ugliness and weakness." Where other historians have considered the marriage strong and supportive, Adams sees her as an indentured servant and Eakins as an oppressor and opportunist.
Eakins' masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, depicting surgery at what was then the Jefferson Medical College, contains "assaults on manhood," "a fantasy of castration," and "a classic statement of the Oedipal drama" and, yet again, a pronounced intention to shock.
By all accounts, Eakins was an emotionally intense and psychologically complex individual who created a sizable contingent of devoted enemies.
Depression and mental illness riddled the family. Eakins' mother, Caroline, died of what was medically diagnosed as "exhaustion from mania." Eakins was emotionally felled by the loss and never fully recovered, Adams argues, later suffering from "nervousness" requiring "a camp cure" out West. Niece Ella Crowell complained of her uncle's "degrading touch," one of the gravest charges lodged against the painter. Her emotional comportment grew increasingly deranged, culminating in a gruesome suicide.
Several psychiatrists and medical texts were consulted for Eakins Revealed, an increasingly popular though contested methodology in contemporary scholarship. The book presents a number of possible diagnoses, including biopolar illness.
Adams understands that his book, much like C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, with its speculations of bisexuality, will invite criticism. "I assume some people will be picking it apart for the next 20 years."
Adams' argument stems, in large part, from the Bregler papers, a large cache of the artist's documents hoarded by a former Eakins student, and unavailable until 1985. The collection includes numerous photographs taken by the artist, many of them nude studies. There are hundreds of nude images of the painter, although who took those pictures remains in doubt.
As a subject of psychological study, Eakins presents a challenging enigma: He leaves behind perhaps more nude photographs of himself than any American artist, and not a single confirmed record of an intimate liaison, including his marriage, which was childless.
"Henry's taken the same sources as I did and read them very darkly with the worst-case possibilities," said Kathleen Foster, Philadelphia Museum of Art curator of American art, whose writing in the 2001 Eakins retrospective companion catalog gets a drubbing in the Adams book. "When it comes to Eakins, there's a lot of smoke. Henry's style is to press through the smoke and push out phantoms."
Foster deems Adams' arguments as "speculation," and has no doubt as to how colleagues will regard Eakins Revealed: "It will be dismissed."
Williams College art historian Michael J. Lewis called the book "ambitious, maddening, and ultimately very misguided." The author of Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind, now at work on a history of American art, Lewis said he was "very skeptical of this whole laundry list of Eakins' problems.
"Any discerning reader will see too much zeal in Adams proving his case," Lewis said. "Strangely, for an art history, the art is not there."
Adams - of those Adamses, owner of the Louis XIV desk where an earlier Henry Adams wrote Mont Saint Michel and Chartres - remains sanguine, soft-spoken and congenial in scuffed boots, black jeans and tousled hair. "I'm indifferent to criticism. If people throw stones, that will be gratifying, and if they applaud, that will be gratifying, too."
When Adams came to the end of his 14-year investigation, "I became sympathetic to Eakins, a complicated man who had to overcome a lot," he said. "It will be interesting to see what the book does to Eakins' reputation. I think he comes across as more extraordinary."
Adams is comfortable with the book's bold conclusions, salvos really, lobbed into what Adams views as the overly genteel world of Eakins scholarship, in which critics "have steered away from the troubling new discoveries about his private life, as if they had no bearing on his life," he writes, or what he sees as disturbing themes in the paintings.
"It's like the meteor in Siberia," he said, alluding to the 1908 incident in Tanguska. "You don't have to see the meteor to know it's there. There's too much circumstantial evidence."
With Eakins Revealed, Adams believes the reconsideration of the painter has only begun.
"One of my hopes is that people studying the artist and work will go further than I have," he said. "A psychologist who has dealt with troubled people would have some perspective out there. Here, in Philadelphia, there are people whose grandparents might have known Eakins and have more information. I think there's even more evidence out there."
BIOGRAPHY REVEALS THE NAKED TRUTH ABOUT THOMAS EAKINS
Forsberg - NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
3 April 2005
Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.
Thomas Eakins was an American painter at a time when the term was still considered an oxymoron.
Since his death in 1916, scholars of Eakins' work have gone to great lengths of biographical spin (I'll stop short of calling it an organized conspiracy) in attempts to compensate for the third-world status of 19th century American painters. They championed his work as "masculine," "authentic," and "more than real," echoing the rugged individualism and manifest destiny of the fledgling American identity.
Henry Adams' new study of the artist, "Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist," supposes that there is something fundamentally disturbing about Eakins' paintings -- a disease of imagery, Adams asserts, that must stem from the artist's stormy, stained biography.
With the "American Century" in art (the 20th) already under our cultural belt, Adams, unlike his earlier colleagues, is confident in stepping back to reexamine Eakins' work through a new lens: one that probes the dark shadows and harsh highlights of the artist's life and brings them to bear on his deceptively "realistic" work.
From the outset of this biography, we are confronted with the dark side of Victorian American life: a vision of the dingy, depressing, "claustrophobic" nature of Eakins' environs and family life more sordid than any pulp Gothic romance. Adams may not intend for the tone of his book to be so luridly sensational, but the dryly academic nature of the study that follows is somewhat disappointing in contrast to the macabre intrigue of the introduction.
We soon find that "Eakins Revealed" is a central metaphor and overarching allusion to the artists' obsession with disrobing, and Adams' work reveals a man known for his unusual interest in nakedness -- well beyond that expected of a painter who routinely works with nude models. This behavior trumped any Bohemian lifestyle expected of an artist (especially in Europe at the time) to include alleged instances of sodomy, bestiality, incest, and crass misconduct with students, models and portrait subjects. Adams' inquiry into this morass of behavioral disorder and professional scandal begins to gel around one central aspect of Eakins' behavior: his obsession with undressing himself and forcing others to do so. This results in the later assertion that Eakins was a chronic exhibitionist, determined to display his penis to unsuspecting individuals at every opportunity.
Ever since the French Realist Edouard Manet unveiled his incendiary nude, "Olympia," in 1863, viewers and critics of Western art have been forced to contemplate the distinction between "the nude" and the naked body. In our age of sex-saturated media, this distinction may be all but eclipsed in daily life. Yet, in 19th century art, it was -- and to historians still is -- as glaring an issue as Janet Jackson's televised "wardrobe malfunction."
Eakins' major works, such as "The Gross Clinic" (1875) and "Swimming" (1885) demand a consideration of nakedness and all its inherent vulnerability and erotic subtext. Like Manet's recumbent prostitute of Olympia, Eakins' figures have shed the cultural coverings of the classical nude in favor of a more stark presentation of the naked human form.
This fixation with nakedness -- especially of male figures -- was precipitated, Adams asserts, by Eakins' own phobias regarding gender identification and castration anxiety. The plot thickens as we see all this bare flesh in a new light.
The argument of "Eakins Revealed" also leads -- perhaps inevitably -- to the Freudian couch of psychoanalysis and, not surprisingly in this regard, to the discovery that Eakins' bizarre behavior may have been a reaction to his mother and her own struggle with bipolar personality disorder. At this point, one can hardly help but see Eakins' story as the "Psycho" of the art world, and the analogy is distracting, to say the least.
Throughout the book, Adams deals with a question ubiquitous for artists' biographers: how the circumstances of an individual's personal life affect his or her professional output and, indeed, the contemporary (or retrospective) interpretation of his or her work.
Do we think any less of Picasso for his epic womanizing, of Pollock for his self-destructive drinking, of Basquiat for his lethal drug habit? Or do all such "tragic" artist's stories simply uphold the aphorism that there's no such thing as bad publicity?
For the reader who wants to cut to the chase in this analysis, Part III, "The Case of Thomas Eakins" recounts most of the major points explored and offers conclusions that admittedly point to even more doors unopened (and skeletons in the closets, no doubt).
Here, we are asked to relate to a deeply disturbed, likely depressed individual, victim of the childhood trauma of living with his mentally ill mother. But we are also asked to consider the fact that Eakins' disorder may have been essentially chemical, and thus he may have benefited from certain serotonin-regulating drugs of today.
Eakins on Zoloft, anyone? The absurdity of such possibilities tends to overshadow their usefulness in reinterpreting Eakins' pictures.
Adams' study is certainly rigorous and probing, and it demands a brutally honest consideration of a beloved American artist whose work has been largely sublimated into a genius beyond morality. However, "Eakins Revealed" demands that we sort out a confusing, convoluted array of diagnoses, and potential remedies, for our misunderstanding of Eakins' life and work.
The challenge in Adams' book lies in what to make of the staggering load of dirty laundry hung out on the line.
Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of An American Artist
By Henry Adams
Oxford University Press
288 pages, $40
Eric Jackson-Forsberg is the Associate Curator of the Martin House Restoration Corp.
Caption: A fully-clothed Thomas Eakins in a self-portrait from 1902.
A superior painter, but strange and troubled
Joseph Phelan, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
1 May 2005
Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.
Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is celebrated as one of American's greatest realist painters as well as a model of uncompromising artistic and moral integrity. Yet in his time Eakins' contemporaries thought he was psychologically disturbed and viewed him as a pariah, even a criminal. His portraits, now seen as "honest and probing," were judged "slanderous and untrue" with many sitters refusing to purchase the finished paintings or purchasing them just to ensure that they were destroyed.
Henry Adams, an art historian at Case Western University and the author of books on Thomas Hart Benton and John La Farge, following an old adage that "where there's smoke there must be fire," has reexamined the evidence of the artist's life and art and found a hidden world of insanity, incest, suicide, and exhibitionism. In "Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist," he challenges the work of nearly every previous writer on Eakins and tells an enthralling, though one-sided and highly speculative, tale of how life is transformed into art.
Mr. Adams examines the Eakins' life and artistic accomplishment decade by decade probing to see how his work can be understood as reflecting what was happening in his life. In the opening section, "The Eakins Legacy," he lays out the major controversies of Eakins' career beginning with the most notorious episode when the artist removed a loin cloth from one of the models in his classroom at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. We learn that Eakins insisted on pressuring other people, both women and men, to disrobe in front of him, and also that he enjoyed displaying his own naked body to others.
Very often he did this with a clear intent to shock, often using crude language, dirty jokes, or verbal insinuations for a similar effect. Mr. Adams speculates that Eakins was involved with several of his female students especially with Lillian Hammitt who went insane after claiming she was "married" to Eakins. At the end of the day not only did all the members of the teaching faculty side against Eakins in the controversy but members of his own family did as well.
Eakins' relationships with his siblings and close relatives were seriously troubled. Two accusations of unnaturally close family contact - incest - were made against him. His niece committed suicide after complaining to her parents of her uncle's "degrading touch." By the end of his life, Eakins had completely severed relations with all surviving members of his immediate family.
The early stages of Eakins' life make for riveting reading as Mr. Adams unpacks the first paintings done on his return from Europe. These are of family members and they are striking for their power to unsettle and disturb. But there was one family member that Eakins never put on canvas in her lifetime (he did paint her once after her
death) and that was his mother even though he was his mother's primary care giver. In fact Eakins never made a single recorded statement about his mother, perhaps because of her slide into mental illness and insanity.
For his part Mr. Adams concludes that Eakins was deeply scared by her illness and death and this is the key to understanding his tortured art. Mr. Adams has fascinating things to say about the two of Eakins' singular paintings of the mid-1870s, "The Gross Clinic" and "The Swimming Hole." These works puzzled or angered Eakins' contemporaries but are now recognized as masterpieces. For one thing "The Gross Clinic" is the painter's only work in which a mother and son appear together and in it the mother is hysterical. For another, the focal point of the painting is the exposed buttock of the patient with a vagina like gash on his leg. The exposed male buttock is central to "The Swimming Hole" as well. This painting's arcadian celebration of male friendship has long been assumed to point to Eakins' homosexuality and Mr. Adams admits there is ample evidence for this being Eakins' sexual orientation. But his line of inquiry pursues Eakins for possible incestuous relations and illicit affairs with women. But for all that he is compelled to note that most of the women with whom Eakins became involved, including his wife, were boyish and rather homely.
Mr. Adams shows that while Eakins' work has been praised for its "perfect honesty and absolute realism," it retains nevertheless a strangeness which is unmistakable. Many of Eakins' late portraits are "expressively distorted," so much so that they bring to mind Picasso or Balthus. Still more peculiar is that critical descriptions of Eakins' painting frequently avoid mentioning their most obvious visual
characteristic: The subjects portrayed seem profoundly depressed and exhausted.
Mr. Adams shows that the common assumption that Eakins' likenesses were truthful depends on the assumption that his motives were straightforward. We generally assume that a portraitist sets out to flatter his sitters and only brings out their negative qualities if they are forced on him. We do not expect an artist to present his sitters as flushed, fatigued, ugly, unhappy or depressed unless they actually are. To think otherwise is to conclude that the artist was harboring some malicious intention towards his subject. Thus the unflattering aspects of Eakins' portraits are taken as proof of his honesty and authenticity, yet as Mr. Adams documents in one of the strongest chapters in the book "Inflicting Pain," the very process of making the portraits caused considerable unhappiness and disruption both for the sitter and the artist.
Nothing about his working methods followed normal procedure. Everything from first pose to the final product was calculated to cause the subject distress. His treatment of them when posing seems to have been calculated to bring out qualities of unhappiness and annoyance. Eakins' portraits of women often seem to be studies in the outward aspects of manic depressive illness. Oscar Wilde said that "A man's face is his autobiography, just as a woman's is her work of fiction" and Eakins seems to have known this and made a role for himself as an "annihilator of vanity," as one critic commented.
All of this adds up to a critical bull's eye for the author. Mr. Adams begins by saying that his book is an attempt to explore the complex relationship between one artist's life and his work and what it is that makes them both so troubling. He seeks to foster a new realization of the "intensity and emotional desperation" at the heart of Eakins' art, and with it a recognition of how hard won were this man's achievements.
But Mr. Adams has limited success in one important respect. While stating in the preface that it is his intention to elaborate the "profoundly tragic vision" of Eakins, he ends up focusing on the artist's exhibitionist and voyeuristic tendencies and their likely cause in his traumatic experience with his mother. He insists that we should look in Eakins' paintings for deeper psychological forces and suggests that one can see in Eakins' art certain emotional undercurrents "so unusual that they almost suggest a letter written in a secret code."
At one point he argues that we cannot fully understand the paintings unless we have the same experiences as Eakins. But the whole notion of a study of an artist's work via psychoanalysis is problematic to begin with. After all it is evident that neither Oedipus nor Hamlet could have written the plays in which they figure as outstanding characters. If Eakins was as unconscious of the emotional undercurrents and inner forces that drove him as Mr. Adams suggests, it is hardly possible to believe that he could directly convert them into the conscious creations that emerged from his art.
Joseph Phelan is the editor of the fine art website artcyclopedia.com and teaches aesthetics at the Catholic University of America.
Harvard Magazine, September-October 2005, p. 24.
Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist, by Henry Adams ’71 (Oxford University Press, $40). “The traditional literature on [Thomas] Eakins has pushed forward an obvious falsehood, that he was an individual of almost unparalleled honesty and virtue and that his art directly reflected the perfections of his character,” writes Adams, professor of American art at Case Western Reserve. Instead, the man behind his brutal and harsh paintings wrestled with exhibitionism, obsessive compulsive syndrome, misogyny, castration anxiety, sexual abuse, incest, and manic depression.
Photo caption: Eakins was rarely caught smiling.
Secrets and Lies: Gossip and Art’s
Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist. By Henry Adams.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 608 pages. $40.00 (cloth).
Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World,
1948–1963. By Gavin Butt. Durham, N. C.: Duke University, 2006. 232
pages. $74.95 (cloth). $21.95 (paper).
Half the pleasure of reading Henry Adams’s biography Eakins Revealed: The
Secret Life of an American Artist lies in absorbing the weird but juicy bits of
information that make for fun gossip. The Philadelphia artist dressed like a
slob, drank a quart of milk a day, and threatened people occasionally with his
revolver. His mother gave him an intestinal purge to cure him of “outbursts
of sentimental poetry in grammar school.” He preferred sitting on the floor to
sitting in a chair, and walked around the house in his underwear, even in the
presence of company. Other information expands on the rumors and scandals
that shaped the artist’s career, and is more weighty and difficult to absorb.
As we look at the development of Eakins’s biography, and explore how
generations of scholars have revised gossip on the artist, we learn at least as
much about the practice of American art history—about its needs and anxieties—
as we do about Eakins himself. Gossip—the stories we tell and how
they circulate—often tells us more about the groups of people who produce it
than it does about the subjects of the gossip itself. This insight is at the heart
of the story that Gavin Butt tells in his study of discourse on sexuality and
the artist, Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World,
1948–1963. This book tracks major shifts in the disciplinary narratives about
the artist as a social type, via his reading of the gossip about New York artists
such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Larry Rivers—gossip that (as is the
case with Eakins) invariably centers on the artists’ sexuality.
Pulling together the full range of available material on Eakins (including
stories suppressed but preserved in the papers of Lloyd Goodrich, one of the
512 | American Quarterly
artist’s early biographers), Henry Adams approaches the artist’s oeuvre as a
psychological mystery. Drawing links between Eakins’s relationships, his idiosyncratic
behavior, and the persistence of certain themes in his art, Adams
hypothesizes that Eakins was a deeply troubled man, wracked with anxiety
about sexual difference. He also describes a complex social network held together
by a fierce sense of bohemian independence and loyalty, by a shared
sense of melancholy, and by the dysfunctional forms of attachment that take
shape around charismatic but abusive figures.
Eakins is a particularly rewarding subject for gossipy art history—an ideal
combination of the lofty and the low. Biographies traditionally represent him
as a maverick who bucked convention, shunning bourgeois and Victorian
artifice to paint life “as it is.” This story works particularly well because his
professional life was shaped by scandal caused by his insistence on using nudity
in art instruction (with male and female students present), and by the nature
of his work. Haunting Eakins lore are rumors about him carrying on with
female relatives “in the manner of Oscar Wilde” and of causing the crisis that
led to the suicide of his niece. Eakins gossip took a new turn in the 1980s as
scholars began to look more closely at the question of Eakins’s sexuality. The
obvious homoeroticism of some of his most well known paintings (especially
Swimming), when combined with photographs of nude men, and his longterm
friendships with younger men (one of whom, Samuel Murray, was at
his bedside when he died) suggest that Eakins may have been gay. Eakins
scholarship has been divided by this topic in particular. Adams represents the
tensions in the field as an ongoing debate between the “traditionalists” (openly
invested in reproducing Eakins’s stature in art history), and the “revisionists”
(who are more likely to read Eakins’s paintings as texts, using the methods of
American/cultural studies, psychoanalytic theory, or queer theory).
We see the breadth of Adams’s awareness of scholarship on Eakins in his
overview of how critics have written about Eakins’s sexuality. It turns out that
biographers and critics have explicitly asked and answered this question since
at least the mid-1970s—and nearly everyone has answered the question differently.
Gordon Hendrick, in 1974, saw Eakins’s sexuality as “ambiguous”
and suggested that his relationship with Murray might have been homosexual.
Lloyd Goodrich in 1983, working with an assumed (and deeply mistaken)
identification of homosexuality with femininity, thought Eakins and his work
too masculine to be gay. In 1992 William Innes Homer also felt compelled to
write out a denial of the possibility that Eakins might have been gay. Whitney
Davis writes that Eakins was “not not homosexual.” Other critics have rephrased
the question by exploring the homoeroticism of his art and thereby circumSecrets
and Lies | 513
venting the biographical question. Michael Fried touches on the dynamics of
homosexual panic in The Gross Clinic (1987). Michael Hatt begins his 1993
treatment of Eakins’s work with its homoeroticism. Martin Berger prefers to
think of Eakins as deeply engaged with the dynamics of the homosocial. Elizabeth
Johns and Kathleen Foster try to keep one foot grounded in the historical
and point both to the absence of direct evidence of Eakins’s homosexuality and
to the unlikelihood that such evidence would exist. Adams, however, complicates
this last point: in Lloyd Goodrich’s interview notes we find that James L.
Wood, the son of Eakins’s physician, thought Eakins was “queer”—even his
contemporaries, it seems, were prone to gossip about the artist on this point.
Queer scholarship is rarely acknowledged in official discourse on the artist
(the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2000 catalog, for example, excludes much
work in this area from its bibliography), and Adams’s attention to this critical
field is much needed. Adams aligns himself closer to the revisionists. However,
although he draws from queer scholarship in his readings of Eakins’s work, he
is unwilling to go so far as to identify Eakins as gay.
Interestingly, the “worst” gossip about Eakins—the stories about his abusive
behavior toward female relatives, recorded in nearly every biography on the
artist—has never been much underground. But how these stories are interpreted
says a lot about the author’s investments in the artist. To date, almost
every biographer has used the gossip about Eakins’s “troubles” to animate a
narrative about the development of the artist’s heroism.
The traditional literature on Eakins,” Adams asserts, “has pushed forward an obvious falsehood,
that he was an individual of almost unparalleled honesty and virtue and that his art
directly reflected the perfections of his character. While this was surely done to uplift Eakins’s
art, in the end it only undercuts its real significance. Eakins paintings affect us as they do
because they deal with powerful, tragic themes—depression, defeat, mental illness, loneliness,
and anxieties of a truly horrible sort, such as castration and sexual assault. . . . To conceal all
this with sugary language, is to rob Eakins’s paintings of their real meaning (468).
Adams follows a path almost no one has dared to follow, even as nearly
every Eakins scholar has gestured in its direction. Taking especially the rumors
about his abusive relationships with women as seriously as he takes the artist’s
works and words themselves, Adams unpacks Eakins’s complex and disturbing
story to reveal, as promised by the title of his book, more than you ever
wanted to know.
One learns that Eakins’s mother died of “mania,” and that during her illness
the artist was her primary caretaker, held hostage by her disease. The painter
was deeply anxious about his own mental health, and consulted the (in)famous
514 | American Quarterly
Silas Weir Mitchell about his nervous breakdown. All that milk he drank was
in keeping with Mitchell’s recommendation of milk to fend off a loss of fat,
which the doctor believed was one cause of nervous disorder. Adams wonders
too if Eakins didn’t also follow some of Mitchell’s other recommendations—he
prescribed opium, morphine, and cannabis to his patients. “[Eakins’s] glazed
eyes, his slow speech, his shuffling gait, and even some of his strange behavior,
such as his waddling after women at parties and staring at them intently,”
Adams speculates, “all fit with supposition of this sort” (461). If some scholars
find his speculations on points like this “too much,” they are likely to be even
more disturbed by his demonstration that Eakins probably did molest Ella
Crowell, the niece he was suspected of abusing. Her suicide—she shot herself
with a gun Eakins gave her—was, in all likelihood, caused by the depression
and isolation brought on by his behavior toward her. Adams also rescues Lillian
Hammet from the dustbin of art history. Hammett was a former student who
appears as a hysterical stalker in Eakins literature (she had delusional fantasies
about the artist leaving his wife for her). Hammet, Adams argues, was driven
to the brink by Eakins’s confusing behavior toward women students, which
alternated between seduction and bullying. The artist was, in Adams’s words,
“a master of psychological control and masculine domination” who pushed
students and portrait subjects well past their comfort zones in his zeal to make
them pose nude for him and for each other.
Adams pushes well past art history’s comfort zone. In fact, there are moments
when he appears uncomfortable himself, as when he speculates—in
language that verges on the clinical—about exactly how and where Eakins
may have touched his niece. Adams forces us to confront our unease with the
biographical and its place in art criticism, and, more important, he asks us
to take a cold look at the political framework by which some stories appear
as malicious gossip, as baseless rumor, and others appear as evidence of the
artist’s genius. The resistance to taking the scandals as evidence of more than
just Eakins’s allergy to social convention, as more than simply campaigns led
by jealous and uptight colleagues, is anchored in a refusal to take the women in
his life seriously, and that resistance continues in even the most recent writing
about the artist. In other words, the true scandal of Eakins’s biography is the
persistence of art history’s sexism. Eakins Revealed is, in fact, the first feminist
biography of the artist—though the author himself seems only marginally
aware of the distinctly feminist implications of his intervention.
It has been easier for us to see the women in Eakins’s life as hysterics, to read
the world around him as prudish, and to dismiss both topics as ancillary to
the greater question of Eakins’s accomplishments as an artist, than it has been
Secrets and Lies | 515
to take our cue from the rumors, and consider how Eakins’s work is deeply
structured by painful conflicts about sex, power, and desire. Even weirder is that
fact that we have, on some level, needed to construct Eakins as a victim of the
women in his life in order to present his work as a visual antidote to what Ann
Douglas described famously as the feminization of American culture. Those
two narratives about Eakins’ relationships to femininity (one about the women
in his life, and the other about the feminizing effects of popular culture) have
been collapsed, as if they were one and the same thing. The most disturbing
incidents in Eakins’s biography are usually put in the service of Eakins’s canonization
as a hypermasculine, paternal figure anchoring American art history.
This is the attitude struck by Sydney Kirkpatrick in The Revenge of Thomas
Eakins (2006), which defends Eakins’s legend against the “lurid suppositions”
of people like Adams (whom Kirkpatrick explicitly attacks). The Eakins persona
of Kirkpatrick’s book is in step with tradition—the artist is represented as a
hard-working and rational master of “technical truth” (13), a well-intentioned
if somewhat troubled genius rejected by contemporaries who misunderstand
the value of his stance against Victorian prudery. Eakins takes his “revenge” in
both the irony of his transformation from a scandal prone, slovenly, and boorish
social outcast into the definitive American artist, and in the transcendence
of the importance of his work over what Kirkpatrick dismisses as the “agendas
of mannered theories” (9). And so Kirkpatrick surveys the gossip about Eakins
to demonstrate how the artist continues to be persecuted for his refusal
to conform to Victorian codes of conduct, now imaginatively extended into
contemporary critical treatment of Eakins via the word “mannered” (which I
read as an oblique reference to Eakins’s importance to queer studies in art history,
a body of scholarship Kirkpatrick, however, ignores except as channeled
through references to Adams’s work). We see the limits of Kirkpatrick’s take
on things, however, when he points to Eakins’s close relationships with many
of the women he is suspected of having bullied or abused as evidence of the
unlikelihood that these women were actually bothered by Eakins’s behavior.
The fact that Eakins was “unusually close” with his sister Margaret, with his
nieces, and his students, and that his wife stood by his side through the worst
of the accusations, is evidence, in Kirkpatrick’s view, of Eakins’s innocence. This
also implicitly casts Ella Crowell as a hysteric and a troublemaker. Similarly,
Kirkpatrick asserts that the nude photographs of Eakins’s friends, family, and
students—which lie at the heart of queer readings of the artist’s work—are not
“overtly erotic,” largely because Eakins’s intentions were, again, innocent: “If
Eakins made a mistake in judgment by taking the photographs, it could have
been more a result of his unstinting commitment to the study of the human
516 | American Quarterly
body, his passion for beauty in all its forms, and his means of choice for stripping
his students of what he believed to be prudish inhibition and shame. To
Eakins’s way of thinking, he committed no crime” (12).
Kirkpatrick has a point. Correspondence shows that this was exactly how
Eakins thought of his practices (an innocent pursuit of technical knowledge),
and how he thought of his contemporaries (uptight and hysterical). Adams’s
biography (which works much closer to the ground than Kirkpatrick’s in his use
of archival material) supports this portrait of Eakins as more or less innocent
of the effects of his behavior. But that innocence of intention, Adams argues,
ought not prevent us from recognizing the devastating effects of his behavior,
nor should it dictate the critical line on Eakins’s work. Adams, for example, sees
“good reasons for believing that Ella’s accusations against her uncle were accurate.
. . . Ella did not claim that she was raped, that Eakins engaged in a sexual
act with her, or that he was sexually aroused. She did state that he touched her
genitals, that he forced her to touch his, and that he spanked her to make her
undress for him” (450–51). He unflinchingly reviews the implications of this
information to conclude that its trauma lay not only in the violation of Ella’s
trust and dignity, but in the disturbingly clinical attitude Eakins displayed—in
the very posture of innocence that Kirkpatrick invokes in Eakins’s defense, and
that, for nearly all who write about Eakins, structures his vision as a painter.
The shame of the incident, Adams speculates, was aggravated by this divorce
of sexual aggression from even the faintest expression of desire. Adams’s discussion
of these biographical events are all the more interesting for the intensity
of the association of the “unstinting commitment to the study of the human
body” with sexualizing violence in both The Gross Clinic (which visually links
anal eroticism with castration) and in The Agnew Clinic (in which the female
nude is exposed in a bloody encounter with the surgeon’s scalpel).
To return to Kirkpatrick’s assertion of the “innocence” of Eakins’s images
of nude men—none of these photographs is overtly sexual (if by that we mean
the explicit representation of sex acts), but they are all erotic (if by that we
mean the representation of a sexual presence). They in fact look a lot like male
physique photography gathered in magazines in the mid-twentieth century for
gay men. (Emmanuel Cooper and Thomas Waugh both begin their histories
of photographs of the male nude with Eakins.) In the difference between
Kirkpatrick’s quick dismissal of the eroticism of Eakins’s photography (and
scholarship exploring the topic as so much “mannered” theory), and Adams’s
comprehensive review of the different ways we might read the relationship
between Eakins’s sexuality and the homoeroticism of his work, we have the
full measure of the difference in the value of the two books.
Secrets and Lies | 517
Eakins Revealed, in spite of Adams’s deferral to psychiatry and psychoanalysis
in reading Eakins and his work, in spite of his interest in diagnosing the painter
as a means for discovering the truth of his paintings, offers no easy answers. The
artist emerges as neither a hero nor villain. He is, more nearly, a complicated
and tragic figure—lonely, sad, more misunderstood than misdiagnosed. And
if some readers feel that Adams tells us too much, that he goes too far, in that
complaint I think we see a stereophonic echo of the complaints provoked by
both the artist and by the men and women in his life who bore the brunt of
In Between You and Me, Gavin Butt explores how artists responded to shifts
in the landscape of American cultural politics produced by the wake of the
publication of the Kinsey Report, which made male sexuality in particular a
subject of national gossip. Crucial to Butt’s narrative is the emergence of a
new discursive formation around the body of the male artist—the “Artist”
emerges during the 1950s as a paradoxical figure at the center of discourse on
homosexuality and masculinity, a queer figure who nevertheless is able to hold
off diagnostic rhetoric in favor of a more fluid and ambiguous relationship
to identity. How artists like Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, and Andy Warhol all
responded to both popular and local gossip about sexuality (their own, and the
sexuality of others in their circles), and how they all associated being an artist
with being the object of speculative gossip, makes an interesting contrast with
Thomas Eakins’s story. Early biographies of Eakins aggressively positioned the
artist against more decadent, effeminate, “European” figures such as John Singer
Sargent. If Eakins was to embody the prototypical American artist, he needed
to be produced as masculine, independent, and, perhaps above all, straight. In
the generation studied in Between You and Me, we witness the self-conscious
deployment of gossip by queer male artists who were marginalized by this
same masculinist ethos. These artists, Butt demonstrates, find themselves in
gossip—they, in a way, identify with it—adopting hints, ambiguity, and the
undecidable in their work, and in their self-fashioning as artists. In doing so
they reverse the effects of such gossip—transforming themselves from abjected
outsiders to the ultimate insiders.
Butt’s work on this subject marks an important contribution to queer studies
in art history. Those who work in the field know well how art history and
museum culture manage the sexuality of these queer artists—by saying nothing.
Rather than respond to such institutional censorship by filling in the gaps,
by limning all the ways that Warhol was gay, Butt starts over—and asks how
this person, one of the most famous gay men in history, managed to produce
a persona that, while recognizably queer, facilitates silence around this fact.
518 | American Quarterly
In particular, he teases out how Warhol himself facilitated his own “inning.”
He wants, in fact, to “reverse the narrative flow of the customary coming-out
story” (110) to sketch for us Warhol’s passive participation in the discursive
environment that imagines him (most improbably) as, for example, having
no sexuality at all. He does this by looking into
the exact conditions which gave rise to this discursive closet in the first place; to ask how it
becomes possible for critics to so easily disavow a knowledge of the artist’s queerness which
has hitherto been so aggressively asserted by cruel social parlance and, in remaining faithful
to the Warholian line on gossip, to explore what such critical approaches betray, not
only of Warhol but also of those who were speaking and writing about him in the early to
Butt’s approach to Warhol is particularly counterintuitive, and intellectually
productive. Bucking the common sense about Warhol during this period—in
which his entry to the art world is secured only by a complex closeting or
displacement of his queerness (as he moved from fey drawings of beautiful
boys to the flat affect of his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, celebrities,
and disasters), Butt identifies this shift in Warhol’s self-fashioning as itself a
queer performance. This chapter is grounded in a layered reading of one of
the most well known anecdotes in Warhol lore—a conversation between the
documentary filmmaker Emile De Antonio and Warhol, recorded in Popism,
about why other painters appeared not to like him. DeAntonio explained,
“You’re too swish and that upsets them.” He went on to say that although there
were plenty of gay painters (e.g., Rauschenberg, Johns), and there “are others
who are more swish—and less talented—and still others who are less swish
and just as talented . . . the major painters try to look straight: you play up the
swish—it’s like an armor with you.” Warhol immediately saw the truth of this.
From this anecdote, Butt traces a shift in Warhol’s self-presentation by which
the artist held onto his “swish” and responded to the derision and shame associated
with effeminacy by “playing dumb.” He writes that “[Warhol’s] reticence
to speak about himself, his mumbling, often incoherent replies to questions,
effectively forces his critics to reassess their perhaps more customary reflexes to
his performance of homosexual swish” (129), if only because Warhol forces
his interlocutors to name it themselves—and most would rather not. “Thus
Warhol serves to shift attention away from his body, and its hitherto undeniable
suggestion of homosexuality, to the hermeneutic deliberations of those
who would claim to know him” (129). That deflection synchronizes with the
“emergence of degayed constructions of dandyism [in the 1960s] and furnishes
art criticism with a means of addressing Warhol’s effete persona without having
to construe it as an abject marker of his homosexuality” (134).
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The project of Between You and Me is at base Foucaultian—its line of
questioning is organized by the certainty that it is not enough to track how
artists resist dominant discourse on sexuality, but how they are produced in
and through that discourse. This is particularly relevant for Butt’s discussion
of the work of Johns and Rivers. In the wandering composition of the latter’s
paintings, for example, Butt finds a visual analogue to “camp talk,” a feminine
mode of discourse that meanders from the high to the low, and draws its
participants into a circle of those “in the know.” In translating this linguistic
mode into a visual one, Rivers provides an antidote to the tortured masculinist
ethos of the New York School artists, whose paintings seem to stand as indices
of their metaphysical struggles. For Rivers, there is no “inside” to the painting
itself—if spectators are invited to feel part of an “inside,” it is the inside of
an inner circle—it is the inside of a social space (felt more as an in between),
rather than a psychological one.
As a writer, Butt takes the most risks in his chapter on Johns, in which he
indulges a “lip-smacking embrace of the conjectural” as he meditates on the
controversy provoked by the inclusion of a plaster cast of a penis in Target
with Plaster Casts (1955). This chapter centers on the story of Johns’s first
one-person show at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, in 1958. Alfred H. Barr,
director of collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, visited the
gallery and made recommendations for purchases of Johns’s work; eventually
three of the works from this show were bought by the museum—Green Target,
White Numbers, and Target with Four Faces. Butt explains that Barr wanted the
museum to buy two others, Flag and Target with Plaster Casts. The museum’s
trustees thought Flag might pose a problem to some with “patriotic sensibilities”
(136). Barr persuaded Philip Johnson, who was on the board of trustees, to buy
the painting and it later entered the museum’s collection via a donation. But
Target with Plaster Casts posed a bigger problem. Suspended over a painting of
a target was a row of small boxes. Each box had a little door. When the work
was displayed at the gallery, the doors were left open, revealing a plaster cast
of a body part in all but one box. One of those plaster casts is of a penis. Barr
really wanted to buy this work for the museum but knew that the penis was a
problem, and so he asked the gallerist if the work might be displayed with the
door to that box closed. Castelli asked Johns, who was in a back room in the
gallery. “Johns came out, listened to Barr’s request, and said that it would be
all right to keep the lid closed some of the time but not all of the time” (137).
Barr bought a different work instead. Incredibly, given its importance—which
was recognized by reviews of the exhibition even then—this work was one of
two that remained unsold at the end of the show.
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In examining this event, Butt takes “on a fairly straightforward art historical
enterprise to trace the possible meanings and affects which may have accrued
to the painting in the cultural contexts of the late 1950s” (138). At the same
time, however, he also brings to light how “the archival procedures of art history,
dependent as they are upon marshaling certain forms of evidence in reading
iconographic meaning, are brought sharply to their limits as we come to speculate
about Target’s queer meanings and affects.” Butt continues, “This is because
the queerness that I am at pains to explore here resides in a set of meanings and
identifications which circulate around, but fail to stabilize as, the interpretive
‘truth’ of Target’s peculiar visuality” (138). He reads the controversy alongside
the obscenity debates provoked by the legal fight over Allen Ginsberg’s Howl,
which centered on “whether or not particular references to body parts could be
taken as obscene in and of themselves” (143). The Howl ruling, which found
that the poem was not obscene, because the work’s primary aim was not erotic,
had the effect of “overturning the idea that the representation of homosexuality
was necessarily obscene in and of itself ” (143). In other words, Johns exhibited
Target in the middle of a sea change regarding the representation of sex—the
work may, in fact, be read as being about the struggle to represent prohibited
desire, to make sex visible. To round out the story, Butt steps out of academic
discourse to give us a portrait of what Barr thought when he saw this work
and decided not to purchase it, what Andy Warhol thought when he saw it,
and what Johns thought when he was asked if that little door in front of the
penis might be closed. On Warhol, for example, Butt writes:
Andy loved the idea of a cock in a work of art. After all, it was his favorite subject. He really
loved the thrill he got when looking at the men in the physique magazines. Imagining what
was underneath those posing pouches just turned him wild with desire. . . .
But Jasper had gone further even than these magazines. He’d done exactly what Andy
dreamed of. Not only had he made it as an artist, and made it big, he had also managed to
make a stir with a work including a life size, 3D cock in it! Not only was Jasper stunningly
handsome, but there was his cock, completely unveiled for all to see! Andy just knew it was
his. How about that for a daring self-exposure! He couldn’t believe that the best Jasper’s critics
could come up with was to call him unpatriotic because of his painting of the American
“Gee,” he thought, “why was nobody saying anything about the cock in his work?”
For some critics, I suppose this sort of conjuncture will be just too much. It
is hard to imagine fans of these artists, however, resisting the pleasure of such
speculations, which mirror the pleasures of the works themselves. Butt asserts
the importance—indeed the necessity—of the deeply conjectural, of the kind
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of work performed by Adams in his biography of Eakins. Between You and Me
is a brilliant defense against the critique of work like Adams’s as “mere gossip”—
which demonstrates that some important information arrives only via
the grapevine. If I want more from this book, I want more gossip, especially
about the women in the circles he describes—such as Nell Blaine, the lesbian
painter who introduced Larry Rivers to queer bohemia, and whose parties,
Butt writes, defined this New York world of “avant-garde sex.” Although that
project is beyond the scope of Between You and Me, Butt indicates the direction
in which we need to move to account for the experiences of lesbian artists in
this period when he provocatively suggests that the masculinity of the New
York art world may have provided shelter, in a sense, for the mannish lesbians
who moved within these circles. Women like Blaine, therefore, may have had
radically different relationship to the codes of masculinity against which their
male counterparts were reacting.
Between You and Me is a nimble book—balancing a self-consciousness about
what it means to work on the most ephemeral of subjects, what it means to
deploy gossip as a critical strategy, and how gossip figures in both the content
and the form of art from this period. The result is a portrait of the evolution
of new kinds of artistic personas, and a map for producing new methodologies
for writing about them.