Thomas Hart Benton

by Henry Adams. Knopf, $60.00. Benton (1889-1975), whose murals of American life caused him to be considered a leader of the Regionalist School, probably never foresaw such a position. When certain art gurus looked about for a new school, he happened to be there. He had worked as a newspaper cartoonist, studied in Paris, tried several styles of painting, and taught painting to Jackson Pollock, among others, before becoming established as a man who could cover large stretches of wall with highly colored and exuberantly active representations of steelworkers, rodeos, railroad trains, nightclubs, or frontier history. As a descendant of Missouri politicians (Democratic with Populist leanings), he simply liked Americana and he liked to paint it big, often with a satirical undertone and a tilt toward caricature. As he was outspoken and argumentative, he was often embroiled in profane controversy with rightists, leftists, realists, nonobjectivists, and the unco guid. An artist who can infuriate opposing factions simultaneously and with the same picture has to be an interesting man. Benton was, and his biographer has made good use of the crotchety material at his disposal. The illustrations are plentiful and well chosen, although they cannot be expected to survive the unavoidable reduction in scale without some loss of effect.