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TV Reviews : Muralist Thomas Hart Benton Challenges the Medium

Television is at once the best and worst venue for Thomas Hart Benton.

It’s the best because it achieves what he always said he wanted to do: make his art available to “ordinary people.” It’s the worst because Benton was essentially a muralist whose figures are too large and whose canvasses of rural America too vast and busy--almost communities unto themselves--to be contained on the small screen, even with the most adroit camera work.

What does come through in “Thomas Hart Benton,” Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the famed contemporary Missouri artist (airing at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15, at 8 on Channel 24, and at 10 on Channel 50) are the controversies and complexities of his life and the motion and energy of his work.

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Burns has become one of our foremost documentarians, a historian whose medium happens to be film. And this program, although less stunning than the best of his earlier efforts--on the Brooklyn Bridge, Huey Long, the Statue of Liberty and Congress--is evidence anew of his rich storytelling ability.

This is an admiring biography without being uncritical. Through home movies, Jason Robards’ narration, recollections of friends and family, and the observations of critics and Benton himself, Burns captures the creative turbulence and dualities in the artist’s life. Like many of his contemporaries, Benton went through periods of being in and out of favor. He was a representational artist whose work was publicly scorned by his most famous student, abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Yet Benton at times also offended the Establishment, and it was his famous 1939 nude, “Persephone,” that horrified his detractors and cost him his teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute.

In a sense, Benton was a social historian with a paint brush. “Here’s a man who took the whole face of America and tried to make art out of it,” one art historian says about Benton, who died in 1975 at 85.

The good thing about old age, Benton had said, was that “you outlive your enemies.” Not entirely--witness the brutally caustic assessments of Benton on tonight’s program by art critic Hilton Kramer. The public can judge for itself when a traveling retrospective of Benton’s work arrives April 29 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


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