The night is like a lovely tune, beware my foolish heart!
Your lips are much too close to mine, beware my foolish heart!
“My Foolish Heart,” music by Victor Young and lyrics by Ned Washington
Inside the back cover of Tony Bennett in the Studio: A Life of Art & Music, written by Tony Bennett with Robert Sullivan, you find a limited edition CD with what the publisher calls “Pop ART Songs” specially selected to accompany the collection of Tony’s paintings inside the book. The connection is dubious for some of the songs listed, but I thought that “My Foolish Heart” was an inspired choice. For most dabblers in art, that “line between love and fascination” poses problems in even the clearest light. Tony Bennett’s love affair with art transcended any mere fascination many years ago, and paintings such as New York Snowstorm (above) prove that it’s not “a dream that will fade and fall apart.” Tony Bennett’s heart may be foolish to pursue excellence in music and painting, but we’re the fools if we dismiss his talents out of hand.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926, the man who became known as Tony Bennett lived a childhood of poverty, playing and drawing on the streets and singing at home with his musical family. In 1938, young Tony was drawing a mural outside his housing project building when a junior high art teacher named James McWhinney stopped to admire his work and offered to teach the 12-year-old to paint. McWhinney introduced Tony to the world of art and culture, taking him to New York’s museums and the opera, setting the stage for a lifetime of artistry. Bennett has studied painting ever since with a series of instructors, including John Barnicoat and Everett Raymond Kinstler, whom Tony calls “the Sargent of today.” Always wanting to give something back, yet never wanting the credit, Bennett founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts to offer kids like himself the same opportunities he was given.
Through interviews with Tony, Robert Sullivan reconstructs his twin passions of art and music, showing how each art form helped shape the other. “I’m on a journey,” Bennett tells Sullivan. “It’s a search for truth and beauty that I’m trying to share. What I try to do is sometimes very abstract and sometimes hits you on the chin. Either way, I want to get through. I’m on a journey to try and communicate how beautiful life is.” In works such as his portrait of fellow Jazz giant Louis Armstrong (above), Bennett shows us his wonderful world of blessings, all with a wonderful artistic feel for texture and line that matches his ever-evolving and unique musical feel for phrasing and rhythm. “I paint what I see and feel,” Tony later says. “Even when I did the paintings in Monet’s gardens, I wasn’t thinking about what Monet saw but what I was seeing.” As you read through Sullivan’s text, you come to fully appreciate just how thirstily Bennett drank in all the influences around him, even from such unlikely experiences as an encounter with poet Allen Ginsberg at an exhibition of Franz Kline’s art where they talked about William Blake. Sullivan calls this the “unexpected Tony.” By the end, we come to expect the unexpected.
Duke Ellington, one of the many great musicians Bennett has worked with (and painted, above), disliked the term “jazz,” believing that his music was “beyond category.” In his approach to painting, Bennett himself goes beyond category, showing a catholic approach to the world of art history. His painting signature “Benedetto” calls to mind a minor Italian Renaissance master. “I like impressionism still,” he says, “but I’m interested in all kinds of painting. I’m very interested in aborigine painting… It’s the only type of painting that looks like music.” Speaking of Jackson Pollock, Bennett tells Sullivan, “I understand him. I think. I see the universe in his paintings.” Bennett appreciates the approach of David Hockney, as well, admiring how “He tries everything and he’s accomplished at everything.” Bennett patterns his own approach after Hockney’s versatility.
Tony Bennett. Photo reprinted with permission of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., © 2007 by Benedetto Arts, LLC
Calling him the wisest man he ever met, Bennett remembers the time that classical cellist Pablo Casals told him “At any given moment you can learn.” Over the 80 years of his life, Tony Bennett has seized every moment as a learning experience, using that enthusiasm to learn in his never-ending evolution as a person and artist. In his forward to the book, Mitch Albom calls the accomplished, yet humble Bennett “a man who is less of everything he is entitled to be, and more than anyone could expect.” Anyone who has fallen in love with the music of Tony Bennett owes it to themself to see this visual side of the artist, who brings all the soul and passion of his songs to the world of painting.
[Many thanks to Sterling Publishing for providing me with a review copy of this book and the images above.]