THOMAS HART BENTON’S AMERICA TODAY © THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art commissioned pianist/bandleader Orrin Evans to put together an evening of music to celebrate its exhibition of the beautifully restored 10-panel panoramic America Today by Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton. Benton — a musician himself, and a denizen of the culture that thrived on bistro jazz — would have approved of the pulsing rhythms of a big band animating the agitated flow of this restless work.
On Thursday, Feb. 4, at the Missouri Theatre, the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series will present for only the second time in concert Orrin Evan’s Captain Black Big Band performing “A Musical Tribute to Thomas Hart Benton — the Harlem Suite Commission.” (Watch a preview below.) This University of Missouri College of Arts & Science signature concert will cap three days of panel discussions and film screenings that explore the swooping rhythm of Benton’s art and legacy. Called “In Sync With Thomas Hart Benton,” this three-day event is offered in association with The State Historical Society of Missouri, where one of the largest collections of Benton’s work resides.
Most people don’t associate Benton or his work with music, although the artist played the harmonica. But when you look at the undulating forms and ragged movement in his artwork, you see a rhythm and syncopated confidence in his thrillingly decisive lines. This is what Benton taught his lifelong student, Jackson Pollack — the loping, sometimes contrapuntal curves confidently and spontaneously drawn.
Several free events precede the concert. On Tuesday, Feb. 2, two Benton documentaries will screen at Fisher Auditorium on the MU campus. “Ken Burns America: Thomas Hart Benton” is an essential, if flawed, analysis of Benton’s work. Benton scholar (and Burns’ talking head) Henry Adams will be on hand to discuss the project and what it reveals and obscures about the Benton legacy. Adams was curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City for the staggering 1989 Benton retrospective. Adam’s monograph for that exhibit is still the best book out there on Benton.
The other film is the rarely shown “Tom Benton’s Missouri,” directed by “Fearless” Frank Fillo and Jim Bogan, with music by the late Bob Dyer — a historian and genius of the Missouri vernacular. This moving study is of another Benton masterpiece: the recently restored Capitol mural in Jefferson City, A Social History of the State of Missouri. The film — narrated by historian Bob Priddy, the former voice of Missourinet — is an intimate study of the restlessly figurative style of a Benton masterpiece and of the artist’s distinctive muralistic process.
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, two panels will convene in Fisher Auditorium to discuss Benton and his work. Joan Stack, SHS curator of art, will moderate “In Sync With Thomas Hart Benton” at 6 p.m. This panel includes Steve Sitton (site administrator of the Benton Home in Kansas City) and Benton scholars Adams, now at Case Western University, and Leo Mazow, an art historian who specializes in artistic depictions of music, especially musical instruments. Mazow recently published Thomas Hart Benton and the American Sound. A second panel discussion, “Harlem Suite Commission: Behind the Music,” will follow. Participants will include jazz pianist Orrin Evans, composer/trumpeter Josh Lawrence and others.
In conjunction with this celebration, The State Historical Society of Missouri is mounting several exhibitions. A corridor display of American vernacular art features Benton protégées Fred Shane and Ben Messic. In the main gallery, the works of Benton and George Caleb Bingham explore the theme, “Picturing Politics.” A third exhibit will present some of Benton’s overtly musical work, including his notebook of a tablature notation system he devised in the 1930s for the harmonica; the system remains the standard to this day.
In Sync With Thomas Hart Benton
“Tom Benton’s Missouri”
“Ken Burns America: Thomas Hart Benton”
6 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 2
Fisher Auditorium (MU campus)
“In Sync with Thomas Hart Benton”
“Harlem Suite Commission: Behind the Music”
6 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 3
Fisher Auditorium (MU campus)
Concert: “A Musical Tribute to Thomas Hart Benton”
Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band
7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 4
203 S. Ninth St.
Through June 30
The State Historical Society of Missouri
1020 Lowry St.
Kevin (aka Kelvin) Walsh considers himself a student of music’s effect on people. Since moving to Columbia in 1975, his professional ventures have included music retailer, radio show host and a brief stint as Truman the Tiger. He currently hosts “The (So-Called) Good Life” from 3 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday on KOPN-FM 89.5 and streaming live at www.kopn.org.