The economic crises that brought on the Great Depression of the 1930s had partial origins in the agricultural hardships faced after the end of the First World War, when a surplus of production led to falling prices, and small farmers faced unexpected and unprecedented debt. The stock market crash of 1929, followed by severe dust storms, droughts and wind erosion that ravaged the prairies and Midwest farmland through the 1930s, made it seem as if the defining features of the American experience – abundance and opportunity – were slipping away. Images of life in rural areas and small towns, representing enduring values of hard work, thrift and resilience, came to be known as Regionalism, referring to the vast agricultural belt of the Midwest. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton gained acclaim as a Regionalist, painting a mythic America, an agrarian alternative to the harsh reality of straitened times.
It was a pair of important New York commissions that positioned Benton as a leader in this movement. America Today (1930–31), painted for the boardroom of the progressive New School for Social Research, depicted contemporary labour and leisure, and The Arts of Life in America (1932), painted for a reading room above what was then the home of the Whitney Museum, celebrated musical and craft traditions. Both ensembles sorted subjects by regional divisions, including the South, the Midwest, the West and New York, which represented the city. And both ensembles presented Benton’s distinctive treatment of the figure: muscular yet lithe, and twisting with rhythmic vigour in a pulsating composition, all painted in vibrant hues.
These features comprised Benton’s signature style, whether he worked on an epic or an intimate scale, as seen in Haystack, with its rolling landscape, vivid autumnal palette, and the lean and powerful figures absorbed in their work. As a popular and influential teacher at the Art Students League in New York, Benton disdained a set curriculum. He taught by example, later explaining, “I taught what I was trying to learn.” The League’s freewheeling atmosphere appealed to Pollock, who joined Benton’s studio in 1930. Born in Wyoming, Pollock had experienced an unsettled childhood, with his family on the move as his father searched for work in California. After repeated expulsions from schools in Los Angeles, Pollock followed an older brother to New York. Benton took him under his wing, finding him work, having him model, and welcoming him into his home.
Pollock’s earliest paintings echoed his teacher’s style and subject. But Benton moved from New York to Missouri in 1935, leaving Pollock adrift. He ended his formal training and found fresh inspiration in the complexity and expressive power of Mexican muralists, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, both of whom had recently resided in New York. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), shown in New York in 1939, also made an indelible impression, as seen in Pollock’s Untitled. But while the disembodied limbs, the horse’s head and the fear-frozen face mirror Picasso’s imagery, the tumultuous composition, throbbing with rhythmic energy and glaring colour, reveal the deep impression of Benton’s example.