ART NOTES : Muralist Refurbishes His Getty Creations

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' arts writer.

The murals on the J. Paul Getty Museum's garden walls have been seen by millions of visitors since the Malibu institution opened 20 years ago. But who knew that the artist who painted--and is now restoring--the realistic likenesses of columns, garlands and still-life arrangements is Garth Benton, a third cousin of Thomas Hart Benton? The 53-year-old artist never met his famous relative, an American regionalist painter who rejected modern abstraction and championed a muscular style of realism until his death in 1975. But the younger Benton was turned on to art at the age of 8 when he saw a book of his relative's paintings, and he occasionally corresponded with the late artist, who spent much of his life in his home state of Missouri.

Garth Benton, a Los Angeles native who moved to Carmel in 1981, studied art at UCLA and Art Center College of Design. He found his artistic niche when he saw an 18th-Century-style mural at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

"I was 22 at the time, and I knew that was what I wanted to do," he says. "I've always loved art history, so it was perfect."

Rather than pursue a trademark look of his own, he learned to emulate art of many different periods. "My style is not to have my own style. Instead, I assimilate characteristics of the period I'm depicting," he says. "Here at the Getty, the murals are part of the ambience. Nobody is supposed to say they are better than the art in the museum."

The Getty murals are re-creations of paintings discovered in a country house near Pompeii and now in the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Norman Neuerberg, a scholar of Greek and Roman antiquities, researched the motifs, which Benton executed in acrylic paint on the plaster walls.

Water damage, concrete shrinkage and seismic movement have caused cracks and flaking in the murals over the past two decades. Returning to the Getty this past summer, Benton has filled fissures and repainted damaged areas of the most elaborately decorated garden wall. During the coming year he will refurbish remaining sections.

Repair work might seem to be a bit of a bore, but Benton is delighted with the project. "This is like going home," he says.

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NEW YORKERS IN PARIS: The new American Center in Paris, which opened in June with a show of work by young Los Angeles artists, will feature two New York veterans in its second major exhibition. "Leon Golub and Nancy Spero: War and Memory," scheduled for Sept. 30-Jan. 15, is a dual retrospective of works by a couple who have been artistic and marital partners for more than 40 years. Drawing and painting in a figurative, Expressionist mode, Golub and Spero have created separate, distinctively styled bodies of work. Their joint exhibition will feature pieces from the 1950s to 1994 that deal with issues of war and conflict.

Katy Kline, director of the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and List Center curator Helaine Posner have organized the show, which will be on view at the Cambridge institution from April 15 to June 25.

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ON THE MOVE: Susan Mullin Vogel, founding director of the Museum of African Art in New York, has been named director of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn. She succeeds Mary Gardner Neill, who left Yale in May to direct the Seattle Museum of Art.

Noriko Gamblin, curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art since 1990, will become director of exhibitions at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, starting Sept. 19. Praising Gamblin's curatorial acumen, SMMA director Thomas Rhoads said her exhibition record is "one of the most distinguished in the region."

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