An Artist In America

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Pollock was more than just your most famous student. For many years he was practically a member of your family. Did it upset you when he said that your chief value to him as a painter consisted of someone to react against?

Jack never said that to me. I think it was one of the many things that were put in his mouth by the critics. And there was really no occasion for Jack to say anything like that. He had made his own departure as an artist. I haven’t repudiated any of my influences. I admit them all. I don’t give a damn.

Doesn’t it seem ironic that the best-known student of a famous representational painter should acquire his reputation as an abstract expressionist?

It seems like a natural reaction to me. You talk about sons rejecting their fathers. Well, he was practically a son.

Pollock died in 1956. It was the following year that you were first approached about the proposed mural for the Truman Library in Independence. Would you tell me about your relations with the former President?

It was a late acquaintanceship, and there isn’t very much to say, except that I got along with him. I had no adventures with him, no arguments. I have enormous respect for him, of course. But as I told you, after that Pendergast thing with the Missouri mural, he was rather cold to me when I met him in Washington. In fact, Truman was not originally in favor of my doing his mural. I rather suspect that in the beginning he was a little afraid I was going to do something controversial on his library wall.

Did the President go over each detail of the mural with you?

No. We knew from the beginning what the subject matter was to be. The question always was whether Harry would be in the mural. The Washington crowd that raised the money, they wanted him in it. I knew this was going to be a problem, so I was going to treat him as a spectator, much in the way the old paintings used to include the donors, you know. But Harry refused to be in it, and I was very glad of it. I admired him for it, too. He was very cautious at first about giving me control of the subject matter, but he finally gave in, and he said time and again publicly that I did him a great favor. We got to be very great personal friends while I was doing that mural. The day I started painting it I even got him to climb up on the scaffold with me and paint the first strokes of the sky for the news cameras.

I n May, 1962, shortly after the Truman Library mural was unveiled, your hometown of Neosho held a special “homecoming” celebration for you.

President Truman did me the honor of attending that affair, and we all rode down to Neosho from Kansas City on the President’s private railroad car with Harry and his wife, Bess. And when we got there, there were flags and signs and a big cheering crowd, so I turned to the President and, because he was our greatest Missourian, I suggested that he go out first. But he said it was my day, and he pushed me out the door. That was so typical of the President.

That must have been a pretty exciting occasion.

Yeah, I ’ll tell you. I had a hard time taking that.

Benton’s Missouri Mural