Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thomas Hart Benton’s "America Today" Mural at the Met

By Charles Kessler

I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection (until February 16th). It consists of a promised gift of eighty-one paintings, collages, drawings and sculpture by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger –  the four seminal Cubist artists. I wasn't disappointed; it's an impressive body of work, and it fills a major hole in the Met's collection. In one stroke, this magnanimous gift elevates the Met to the status of one of the world's major repositories of 20th-century art.

And to Lauder's credit, it comes without restrictions. Curators can display the work any way they want, or not display it at all, and it can be loaned to other institutions. Lauder didn't even require a wing be named for him, unlike almost every other philanthropist (e.g., see below).
The new plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It inexplicably seemed to take forever to complete – inexplicable since it's not all that different from the original.
But I don't want to write about that show; Cubism isn't really my thing. If you're interested, there's a pretty good article by Julian Bell in the New York Review of Books.

The big surprise for me this time at the Met, and a delightful one, was the exhibition Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered (until April 19th).
View into the re-creation of the New School for Social Research's boardroom that originally housed Benton's ten-panel mural.
I always had a hard time with Benton. I loved Abstract Expressionism and, as if I couldn't like them both, I considered Benton's work to be hokey and aesthetically retrograde. Well this exhibition turned me around. These murals are bold, passionate, often funny and downright beautiful.
Detail, Instruments of Power panel of Thomas Hart Benton's America Today Mural, 1930–31, egg tempera with oil glazing over Permalba on a gesso ground on linen mounted to wood panels.
In 1930,  the New School for Social Research (now simply called "The New School"), the then progressive college on West 12th Street, commissioned the mural for it's boardroom which after a few years was converted into a classroom.

In 1982, the New School decided to sell it, and, sparked by a campaign to keep the mural in New York, AXA Equitable insurance company bought it for the lobby of its new headquarters on Seventh Avenue. In 2012, AXA donated it to the Metropolitan Museum where it's now installed in a re-creation of its original boardroom setting. 

Benton was a passionate socialist, and the mural is a broad panorama of 1920s America as Benton saw it.  I managed to take some good detailed close-ups that show Benton's passion, humor and masterful painting.

When it came to depicting workers, Benton was serious, and he portrayed them as heroic and hard-working.
Steel worker from the panel entitled Steel.
The panel titled City Activities with Subway has many good examples of Benton's often biting, and sometimes raucous, humor. 
Burlesque dancers with evangelist preaching.
The heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were wildly popular at this time. Note the expressive, angular figures which look pretty advanced today. Note also the low blow.
Boxers from the panel entitled City Activities with Subway
Benton had some fun with his friend Max Eastman, then editor of the Marxist magazine New Masses. He depicted him seated on a subway staring at the breasts of the famous burlesque star Peggy Reynolds.

In addition to the mural in its re-created original setting, the show includes preparatory drawings and studies for the mural (the guy can draw!); and, from the Met's collection, a selection of work from the circle of artists around Benton, including photographs by Berenice Abbott, an abstract painting by the Synchromist Stanton MacDonald-Wright and, most notably, a painting by one of Benton's students (who posed for some of the figures in this mural), Jackson Pollock.

After the exhibition, the mural will be re-installed in a permanent location, appropriately near the Met's other period rooms. 


Anonymous said...

Heads up: many misspellings of 'Benton' as 'Brenton'

Charles Kessler said...

Thank you. How embarrassing – and I can't even blame it on auto correct.

Robert Kogge said...

I learned, wondered and imagined so much through time spent in the room that housed Benton's mural at the New School. Parsons students took elective courses there.

Charles Kessler said...

At the show I ran into someone who used to work at AXA and was thrilled to see them again.

Kyle Gallup said...

Thanks Charles! Enjoyable read as usual. Looking forward to seeing the mural.

Unknown said...

Wonderful. However, there's no way we can describe Eastman as "ogling." If anything, he looks as if he'd rather be reading a dictionary.