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    Description

    Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975)
    Fantasy, 1946
    Oil on canvas laid on panel
    26-1/2 x 19 inches (67.3 x 48.3 cm)
    Signed and dated lower right: Benton '46
    Signed, dated, titled, and inscribed indistinctly on an artist label affixed to the reverse: "Fantasy" (Abstraction) / 1946 /.../ Thomas Hart Benton

    PROVENANCE:
    The artist;
    Estate of the above, Kansas City, Missouri;
    Graham Gallery, New York;
    John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, California;
    Sotheby's, New York, December 5, 1985, lot 245;
    Private collection, acquired from the above;
    Sotheby's, New York, May 21, 2009, lot 46;
    Acquired by the present owner from the above.

    EXHIBITED:
    Galleries of Associated American Artist, New York, n.d.

    We would like to thank Dr. Henry Adams for providing the following essay:

    "While Benton is best known as a realist who focused on the American scene, in fact, throughout his career he produced purely abstract paintings, such as this one. As a young man, when he studied painting in France, Benton's closest friend was the California modernist Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and during this period he and Wright worked their way through the latest modern styles, starting with impressionism and moving on to pointillism, Cezannism, and Fauvism. Benton had left France by the time Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell developed Synchromism, but he reconnected with Wright in New York in 1914, and mastered Synchromist techniques at that time. Notably, the Synchromists produced both figure paintings, inspired by the sculpture of Michelangelo, and purely abstract compositions. Macdonald-Wright taught Benton how to create both. One of Benton's pure Synchromists abstractions from this period, Bubbles, is now in the Baltimore Museum of Art, the gift of H.L. Mencken.

    "In the period 1917-18, Benton began making abstract paintings in an unusual manner, first creating abstract constructions and then recording them from different sides. As he later recalled of these works:

    'I also experimented with "abstract" constructions made of wire, strips of wood, brightly colored paper, and cloth. These constructions were not set up permanently, as are so many similar ones today, but served only as motifs for painting. Studies of them were made from several sides. The purpose of this procedure was to provide references for the painting of "abstract" forms, something to work from, which might give such forms the same kind of "reality" obtainable in still-life or other paintings from nature.'¹

    "A striking example of a painting based on this procedure is Rhythmic Construction of 1919 in the Benton Trust. Quite a number of abstract paintings of this type, survive, many in the Benton Trust, although many of them are undated. In 1982 a group of about fifty abstract or semi-abstract paintings by Benton, the so-called 'Suitcase Bentons,' from the collection of Jackson Pollock's brother Charles, were exhibited at the Salander O'Reilly Gallery in New York. At the time Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Times described them as 'totally fascinating,' and declared that they established Benton as 'an enthusiastic and accomplished modernist.' Since a number of the painting portrayed landscapes of Martha's Vineyard, which Benton did not visit until the 1920s, it seems likely that they all date from the early 1920s.² In 1926-27, Benton wrote a series of articles on abstract composition for Arts magazine, which, as had often been noted, provided the compositional basis for the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.³

    "The present painting, Fantasy, builds from these early abstract experiments, and very likely was based on a physical model/sculpture that Benton constructed, but as noted, it is somewhat later: it is dated 1946. It is also a good deal larger than most of Benton's abstract studies 25 ½ x 19 inches: clearly it is not merely a study but a finished composition. The swirling design of Fantasy closely relates to another abstraction of the 1940s, Organization, oil on metal panel, 1944, 6 ¾ x 4 ½, in the Benton Trust.

    "It's interesting to speculate on why Benton returned to abstraction at this time, when he was focusing mainly on realistic Midwestern scenes. A possible explanation is that in early June, 1944, while visiting New York, Benton stopped by to visit his former pupil, Jackson Pollock, and also visit Pollock's first show at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery. This contained a number of swirling compositions, such as Moon Woman Cuts the Circle, 1944, now in the Tate Gallery, London. These may well have inspired Benton to briefly return to the abstract painting, both to push his earlier experiments one more step forward, and perhaps also to affirm the significance of his teachings about composition to Jackson Pollock's development.4

    "There's also surely another inspiration for Benton's swirling compositions of this sort. As a child Benton was fascinated by trains, which epitomized speed, power, and the lure of travel. His earliest surviving drawing, made when he was just nine years old, portrays a locomotive with stunning accuracy, and the breakthrough painting of his career, the mural America Today of 1930, contains no less than nine trains. In his writings, Benton noted that modern streamlined trains were considerably less interesting to watch than the old-fashioned steam locomotives, since they largely concealed the process by which the up-down motion of the piston was transferred, through rods and linkages, into the circular motion of the wheels. This painting, Fantasy, is essentially a translation of this sort of rotary motion into an abstract visual statement.

    "Interestingly, while it's essentially 'abstract,' some of the forms in Fantasy have a biomorphic quality. For example the pale shape just below the green circle generically resembles the lower half of a human figure. Such ambiguity between the 'abstract' and the 'biomorphic,' was a major theme in the work of modernists of the mid-twentieth century, such as Jean Arp, and was a major theme of Jackson Pollock's work.

    "This is surely one of Benton's most remarkable abstract paintings, and it establishes his importance not only as a major figure in the Regionalist movement of the 1930s, but as a significant abstract painter, who profoundly influenced the development of Jackson Pollock, and indeed, the whole evolution of modern art."

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ¹Thomas Hart Benton, An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography, University Press of Kansas, 1969, pp. 42-43.
    ²See Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989, pp.121, 132-33.
    ³See Henry Adams, "Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock," in Thomas Hart Benton: Discoveries and Interpretations, University of Missouri Press, 2015, pp. 163-189. An exhibition of Benton's abstract paintings, accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, Thomas Hart Benton: Mechanics of Form, with essays by Andrew Thompson and Henry Adams, was staged in 2019 at the Surovek Gallery, West Palm Beach, and the Lester-Thompson Fine Art, New York.
    4Henry Adams, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, Bloomsbury, New York, 2009, pp. 278-79 and color plate section illustrating these works between pp. 184-5.


    More information about Thomas Hart Benton, also known as Benton, Thomas Hart, Thomas Hart Benton.



    Condition Report*: Minor edge wear, noticeable on extreme bottom edge; Under UV exam, inpaint along extreme bottom edge; Few minor dots of inpaint scattered throughout.
    Framed Dimensions 33.5 X 25.5 Inches
    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Some condition issues may not be noted in the condition report but are apparent in the provided photos which are considered part of the condition report. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. Heritage does not guarantee the condition of frames and shall not be liable for any damage/scratches to frames, glass/acrylic coverings, original boxes, display accessories, or art that has slipped in frames. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

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    Auction Dates
    December, 2020
    3rd Thursday
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