The Intriguing Relationship of Thomas Hart Benton & Jackson Pollock

Originally Posted on GovLoop

There has been a book on my reading list for the past few months – Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. For a variety of reasons, I have always been fascinated by these two American artists. Benton symbolizes the American regionalist movement. Pollock abstract art. Benton was Pollock’s mentor – and Pollock ultimately fell in love with Benton’s wife, the drama! Even after Pollock rocketed to stardom and Benton fell off out of the art scene, they stayed in touch, and Benton ultimately became like a father to Pollock.

It’s interesting to take a brief look at these two artists upbringing. Benton’s upbringing is one of privilege and rebellion. His family was deeply rooted into politics, and Benton was being groomed to continue the family tradition. His father was a congressman, and Thomas Hart Benton was named after his uncle, who served as one of the first Senators from Missouri. With his pedigree and path defined before he could walk, Benton still rebelled, and through the unwavering support of his mother, he would pursue his passion to be an artist by studying in Paris, and then work and live in New York.

While living and working in New York, Benton would meet his protege, Jackson Pollock. Benton, to me, represents the quintessential American of his time. He was a pioneer, a rebellion, and paradoxically, through his art, he would ultimately attempt to preserve the American regionalist artistic tradition. As a nation was going through radical changes and reform during his time, his art would remind and depict American’s of everyday life. It’s an interesting study at how art is influenced by society, and vice versa. Above all, his life and the time he lived in fascinates me.

For all of Benton’s privilege, Jackson came from humble beginnings. His family moved often due to financial problems. Ultimately, Jackson found his way to New York City to study art, and built a rapport with Benton after studying under him for three years. In many regards, Pollock idolized Benton and treated him as a father figure. Under Benton’s influence, he would try and connect Pollock’s upbringing of growing up in the western United States to his art (regionalism!), check out the painting below, now quite the style you think of when you think of Jackson Pollock, also take a look at the citation and the name of the donor.

Jackson Pollock, Going West, c.1934-1935, oil on fiberboard. National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Thomas Hart Benton

Benton provided Pollock the discipline and focus to hone in on his craft and God given talents. Jackson had a history of severe alcohol abuse, which turned into a life long struggle that led to his untimely death in car accident in 1956, just as his career was hitting a creative peak.

I have often thought about these two men and their careers in fascination. My mother is an art teacher, and sadly I inherited absolutely none of her artistic gifts. But most importantly, my mother taught me to appreciate the arts, think critically about my surroundings, and always look at art and life through new perspectives. In essence, the lessons of Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton can be applied to how we view mentorship, leadership and how we shape view and/or shape our networks.

There are a lot of angels to take and look to understand their relationship in a context applicable to the workplace. In their own right, both men were extremely similar, but channeled their creative energies in different artistic forms. For Benton and Pollock, the ultimate goal was to create meaningful art that they were passionate about. For Benton, this meant being at the forefront of the regionalist art movement, highlighting the power, might and everyday life of Americans through his murals.

For Jackson, this meant coming into his own and rebelling against traditional forms through his abstract art. In both worlds, the goal and essence of their work was to create meaningful, passionate, and engaging art. Their art called for a higher meaning, and required complete and utter dedication to meet their goal. When you look at either a piece of art by Jackson Pollock or Thomas Hart Benton, you see a passion and dedication to their art, with a certain kind of discipline and even a pain in their work. It’s the unwavering dedication to their craft that tied both men together, the product and the way their art looks, is only a fraction of what ties the two men together.

What we can learn from their relationship is that personal attainment and ambition is different for everyone. People are motivated for a variety of reasons and in a variety of different ways, at the workplace this is critical to understand. As long as a group is aligned to common goals, a common vision, and aligned strategically, everyone in an department, organization can lift everyone else up. For instance, Jackson Pollock would not have been Jackson Pollock that we know without Thomas Hart Benton. Their objectives and art differed, but they shared a deeply rooted passion for creating meaningful art in their own eyes.

The second lesson is the importance of providing avenues for growth. Growth is one of the most important areas for a manager and organization to provide. Identifying spots where employees can excel, and putting them into the positions, on the right projects and keeping employees engaged in their work is at the heart of management. Although their styles drastically differ, Benton provide Pollock with a certain kind of discipline, structure and attitude that Pollock needed to excel as an artist.

The last lesson to touch upon is how important it is to expand horizons, engage with differing thoughts and to always stay challenged. Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton eventually created remarkable pieces of art, classified in very, very different genres. For me, this is a reminder of how important it is to associate with people of different backgrounds, different life experiences, and learn anything you can from them, and above all, not to be afraid to share your story.

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