Henry Adams, Author


Usually it’s a hunch that gets Henry Adam started on a book.

But in the case of the 2009 Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, the inspiration came from his son, Tommy.

The elder Adams was picking up his three-year-old from a class at the Cleveland Museum of Art a few years ago, when the boy offered to give him a tour.

“I had worked there for years as a curator,” Adams says. But he wanted to see the museum through Tommy’s eyes.

The boy walked past everything, looking neither left nor right, and stopped in front of Jackson Pollock’s No. 5. “Dad,” he said, “I like this one.”

While the two admired the painting, Adams thought about how much of what historians had written about Pollock was “quite incorrect,” he says. Tom and Jack was his attempt to dispell some of those misconceptions, and throw new light on the painter’s life and work. His research had uncovered much new information. But this was to be no academic exercise.

“Henry is a deeply engaging writer who has a knack for making sense of ‘difficult’ works of art,” said former Arts Prize-winner Dennis Dooley, in presenting Adams as a candidate for this award. “Adams can spin a narrative as gripping as any novelist’s.”

The painter Andrew Wyeth called Adams’s 2005 book, Thomas Eakins: Eakins Revealed, “the most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist. . . . It was like following Eakins’s footprints in the snow as he walked down a back street in Philadelphia,” wrote Wyeth.

ARTNews predicted the book would “impact our understanding” of this seminal artist “the way Fawn Brodie's biography of Thomas Jefferson changed our view of the author of the Declaration of Independence. It’s no longer possible to see Eakins as a simple American hero, or to ignore the dark shadows that shaped his life.”

In his newest book, Adams probes the improbable relationship between Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton, who became, not only a teacher and mentor, but a surrogate father figure. When the two met, Benton was one of the most famous artists in America. And the last person you would have thought would have an impact on Pollock’s painting.

“Benton’s homespun, highly realistic style,” said Dooley, “couldn't have been further from the ‘stunning explosions of paint’ that rocketed Pollock to superstardom in the late 1940s. But Pollock continued to yearn for his approval—indeed, as Henry Adams shows us, Pollock’s ‘groundbreaking abstractions’ were shaped by Benton’s teachings.”

When he writes about art, Henry Adams makes it come alive. And he has hit it out of the ballpark with this one, his fans agree. Adams is quite pleased with the book too. Ironically, it is based on an article he could not get published because it was “too much against the grain of the field,” he says.

Adams is a bit of a rebel. Many of his writings present provocative new interpretations, which run against the conventional wisdom of the field. But the language he uses to describe works of art is not pretentious. It makes sense to readers who often find art history inaccessible.

Unlike other art historians, Adams has spent years working very intimately with art objects. In fact, because of his work on Thomas Hart Benton, he has become the go-to guy for people considering buying a Benton. Yes, he has met a few celebrities in the process, but he’s not one to brag—much.

These quirks haven’t harmed his ability to get published, even in some of the most exclusive industry publications. Most art historians are lucky if they get published in the Art Bulletin once—Adams has been published seven times.

He earned his Ph.D. in art history at Yale University, but he says years of teaching college students—he teaches American art at Case Western Reserve University—have helped him hone his writing skill.

“When you lecture to undergraduates, you can tell pretty quickly whether they’re bored or falling asleep,” Adams says. “I can be in a lecture hall that is completely black, but you can tell.”

He starts a book with a hunch; he researches as he writes. He doesn’t know what the book is going to say until it is finished. “That makes it more interesting to read,” he says.

He also has a gift for scriptwriting and filmmaking and has worked with filmmakers Ken Burns and Tom Ball. “It makes it possible to communicate in the way I’ve always wanted to,” he says.

Between books, however, he feels adrift. So it’s a good thing he has a story hunch ready for summer.

And if you think you know anything about “American Gothic” artist Grant Wood, Adams is about to prove you wrong.

—Susan Ruiz Patton

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org