One Take Tony
Possessing the cultivated chi of a living legend, he is known by most of the world as Tony Bennett, a.k.a. one of the kings of classic American popular song. He quickly envelops the room with the rare self-possessed warmth of a luminary. Behind him, the penumbra of Central Park and fall’s deep russets embellish the scene.
He is a silver-tongued crooner; a singer renamed fifty years ago when Bob Hope rather unexpectedly introduced Anthony Benedetto as Tony Bennett. He is not only the late Frank Sinatra’s favorite singer and best friend, but, more importantly, a man of Depression Era nobility with the painting skills of an Impressionist master and the elegant manners from a time too quickly forgotten.
He paints under the name Anthony Benedetto for one simple reason. It’s his given name. “I was in London doing a TV series and was walking along Bond Street when I stopped to look at a Renoir painting,” Benedetto explains. “A gentleman on the street recognized me and started to speak to me. He was a trapeze artist and worked in the circus. We were just two fellow artists talking to one another. The man said to me, ‘Why don’t you paint under your given name? You know, separate it.’ And that’s what happens when you get around other artists, they give you great ideas,” he smiles.
Outsiders must understand two things about Anthony Dominick Benedetto. One—he’s always dressed for the occasion. Two—he’ll readily punctuate his take on art with a feisty jazz cat snap of his fingers. It’s clear that the smooth utterances of Benedetto reflect not a man concerned with fame or fortune, but a man from another time; a man who values art and love above everything else in life. He feels passionately about the arts, along with the funding that’s necessary to preserve them. Responding to cuts made for wartime expenditures, he references Churchill and the misguided thinking that often accompanies the quest for power or control.
“Winston Churchill’s response to the arts being cut during wartime was this: ‘Then what are we fighting for?’” Benedetto explains. “Art teaches people how to live. It teaches us how to be civilized.” He looks to the view of Central Park and adds, “You know… you can’t have enough culture. It eliminates ignorance, inspires education, and eliminates bigotry. Art comes from every nationality and turns a young person into an educated person.”
And Tony should know. Serving the country in Germany during World War II, he soon found himself dodging bullets and taking cover in the trenches. “I went from painting in the park and seeing the early masters to serving in World War II. While they were shooting bombs in the trenches, a friend asked me what I was doing. I had a pad and paper in my lap,” he admits. “I was sketching. It’s not that I wanted to do it, I had to do it.”
He carries a sketch pad, pen and pencil wherever he goes—in airplanes, limos, and hotel rooms—and his watercolors, oils, and sketches represent a visual autobiography of his travels around the world. Reflecting the pulsing New York City streets, the opulent palms of the Beverly Hills Hotel, or the lush vibrancy of Rio, his vocal range is matched only by his range as a painter. His scenes and subjects are reminiscent of plein air giants like Cezanne and Manet, with occasional hints of a man he likes to call “The First Rock & Roll Painter,” Vincent Van Gogh. With fourteen Grammy’s, over 50 millions records sold, and paintings that sell from $7,500 to $80,000, Benedetto’s talent is ubiquitous.
The Kentucky Derby, The American Cancer Society, and the United Nations have all commissioned his artwork. On December 3rd, 2005, the President of the United States presented him with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. Famous names like Cary Grant, Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, and artist Robert Rauschenberg have called themselves proud owners of his work.
“I like to know who buys my paintings and get to know them,” Benedetto admits. “I do very rare shows, but every time I do a show, all of my paintings sell. It’s encouraging. Recently, I was thrilled when Rauschenberg bought my work.” An offer from the Smithsonian Museum of American Art to include one of his paintings of Central Park in its permanent collection is another imprimatur of a career spanning decades. Always the gentleman, he reveals he never dreamt he’d see that happen.
Like most significant artists, he began his training through rejection. The High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan (now known as the School of Art and Design) accepted him only after he was first rejected from The School of Art in NY. “That experience changed my life because, through that [rejection], I went to a school that taught every kind of commercial art, industrial work, cartooning and photography. The School of Industrial Arts taught me the rules of how to paint properly so that I could eventually paint freely,” he explains.
With early mentors like James MacWhinney, an art teacher who lived in the same Astoria projects where he lived as a child, Benedetto learned to appreciate the masters early in life. “I would sketch or paint every Saturday in the park with James. To this day, when I watercolor, I still think of him. I just watched him. As a child, he and his wife took me to the Museum of Modern Art. They pointed me towards culture.”
Later, it was Kinstler who advised him not to worry about technique, but to “paint what you feel.” It might sound like simple advice from mentor to student, but Kinstler’s words resonated. Once a man who had to fight for the right to sing what he wanted to sing, Benedetto now finds complete freedom on the canvas.
With watercolor, he works light to dark, and with oils he works dark to light. “I paint mainly with watercolors because it’s easier when I travel. If I like something that I painted in watercolor, I might then transfer it to oil.” When asked which medium he prefers and which he finds most difficult, his response is as simple as his first mentor’s advice. “Any medium is hard. It just has to appear easy,” he says.
Echoing the sentiments of influential masters, he continues his art education because he feels it’s crucial for artists to make learning a lifelong practice. “I’m still studying how to draw,” he admits, using the opportunity to share his knowledge. “Japanese master Hokusai and Whistler were revolutionaries. Fragonnard created the height of oils young French artists tried to copy. So it was Fragonnard who taught Pissarro and Sisley. But…I like American painters. I’m not trying to wave the flag or anything. I just like American painters because the concept of the US is different—the religions, the nationality. Somehow there’s an impro- vised zip.” With that, he snaps his fingers, the jazz in the cat still potent and full of passion.
With an enthusiasm for life and a rebelliousness characteristic of favorites like Manet and Cezanne, Benedetto is enamored with “the senses of humor American artists maintain, the humor from cartoons and exaggeration that just works.” And, although singing is his first profession, painting is his first love. His art is palpable, the comeliness of his work harmonious with the innocence of his soul. His cri de couer feels thematically akin to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and, though the pain of loss came early in life with his father’s untimely death, his Italian immigrant family was gentle and encouraging when it came to supporting his artistic endeavors.
“I had a beautiful Italian family,” Benedetto reveals. “We lived in the projects of Astoria. Life was difficult during the Depression, but I was fortunate. I grew up in a very optimistic family and they encouraged us. That helps a lot. We entertained the family every Sunday and I was a gregarious kid. It’s the Italian heritage to make friends, not enemies.”
Life has afforded Bennett the chance that many artists can only dream of—to travel the world and make his artistic journey one of diverse skylines, subjects, and landscapes. “I’m encouraged by other cultures,” he says. “It’s a great joy for me to visit all the museums in the world, but you also see that everything’s been done before, from the cavemen on up. Still, there’s always a person’s signature, their own way of doing things. You don’t have to reach for a certain way or force a certain style. I paint and follow my feelings. It ends up being you. I just love to paint. There’s no other motive outside of that.”
While his subjects and styles vary from the bright yellow cabs of New York City streets to the Golden Pavilion of Toyko, it’s clear that Benedetto’s art is filled with optimism. With art, he says, he prefers “to lift people’s spirits.”
The sky momentarily darkens as autumn’s dappled sky rolls past. Benedetto clears his throat and continues, “Whether I perform or paint, I prefer to make people feel good. I grew up in a different era. Marketing people now want everyone to follow someone else. It’s the Gap Generation. Kids buy something because they’re told to buy something. I grew up in an era when we had to be individuals. It wasn’t a matter of how big you were, but how different you were.”
With that, his eyes look weary and his white fluffy dog, Boo, nuzzles deeper into his lap. “The difference,” he says, “between a big star and a little star didn’t matter. It wasn’t about money back then. People like Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, and Harry James—they were individuals who stayed close to the melody, but invented something new, like Bee Bop. Now everything’s commercialized so it sells. It’s not something made to last.” Boo jumps to the floor as Benedetto finishes his thought, “It’s the same with Broadway–-Cole Porter, Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer-–there would be seven standards that would last for twenty years.”
To stay inspired, he paints in the morning or at sunset and listens to good friends and jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Coltrane. His studio, located several floors below his apartment in the building next door, offers a slightly different view of Central Park, along with lighting Benedetto calls “a blessing,” allowing him to paint impressionistically. To him, proper lighting and constant study is everything. “I like a disciplined life. The repetition of doing something over and over again—that becomes art. To most, it might sound boring, but the more you repeat, the more you hone your art. Matisse and Van Gogh became more simplified. It gets to a point where it becomes easier.”
He finds himself studying masters like Da Vinci, an artist with volumes of work that Benedetto feels is both timeless and ahead of its time. “Drawing is essential for a painter,” he proclaims. “Without it, you don’t have a painting. If you can’t draw well, you’re not going to be able to paint well. That’s what I’ve learned from Rubens, Rembrandt, and Da Vinci, the ultimate genius.”
As we stand in his studio offering a more level view of Central Park, the mottled grey skyline clears. Gold fingers of light peek through the auburn leaves. “Look at this,” he says. He’s pointing to a thick book with the sketches and art of Da Vinci. “Da Vinci painted women better than anyone else. He was a scientist, studying why we die, taking a body, dissecting it, and studying anatomy illegally to understand form. The Sienna painters, from the moment they could walk, painted.” This might explain his love of Italian art and landscape. When he’s not traveling the world singing, he enjoys painting from a villa outside of Florence, gaining inspiration from looking out among the vast bucolic countryside to see the same pastoral magnificence that Michelangelo once painted.
“There’s so much creativeness in Italy. Each city looks different than the next. Whereas Andy Warhol commented on the sameness of certain parts of America, Italy possesses distinctly different styles and colors. In Italy, they don’t touch nature.” He adds with a chuckle, “And, well…I love pasta.”
Benedetto doesn’t think that you have to fight for art, but rather that art has to fight for you. “At the Met, they had to push fifteen thousand people away from the Van Gogh exhibit featuring his drawings for the very first time. Fifteen thousand people!” he snaps. “Fans of art are there. They’re quiet, but they’re there and museums draw crowds like baseball or football games, but there’s never enough attention given to the arts and art appreciators.”
A self-proclaimed museum junkie, he visits museums and exhibitions whenever he tours abroad or stays at his home in his native New York. He takes courses at The Illustrator’s Club, The Art Students League, and has studied throughout the years at private studios with Raymond Kinstler, whom Benedetto calls “one of the best portrait painters in America.” But it is his friend David Hockney who seems to strike a chord with the guru of song and paint.
“Hockney is so prolific and his work changes. He’ll read three Da Vinci books at a time and his mind retains knowledge like I’ve never seen. He doesn’t have one technique and he studies the masters constantly. Years ago, he took the Polaroid and changed the history of photography forever. I walked into his studio in California once and there was an enormous painting of the entire Grand Canyon. He removed a section to show me that it was broken down into twenty-four different paintings, each large section an abstract detail.”
Yet despite his rare ability to transfer a lifetime of learning into an album or a portrait, Benedetto desires not acknowledgement for his art but rather wants to be remembered for something quite different—The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a public high school for gifted children that he founded in remembrance of his best friend.
“I want to be remembered for my school, but not just one school. I hope to have Frank Sinatra Schools scattered throughout the country. So far, we’ve received seventy million dollars and we’ve had two graduating classes. Eighty-five percent of them are going to college. We’ve sent them to Paris to see Da Vinci and they sang for Mandela at the UN. We don’t just have them read books, but we also have them contribute to the community. We try to get these kids used to the real world but, at the end of the day, I think it’s important for artists to remember that the most important thing when creating art is to have fun.”
Benedetto means “The Blessed One,” and the name couldn’t be more fitting for a man whose aura feels marked by a timeless, artistic legacy. “I like that I can paint for four hours and it feels like four minutes. Life is short,” he reveals, in his soft, yet distinctly smooth voice. “Art is long.” For more, visit www.benedettoarts.com.