After its acquisition in 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is debuting Thomas Hart Benton’s 1930s “America Today” mural not as a painting, but as a room. The ten-panel piece created between 1930 and 1931 for the New School is installed in its original dimensions for the first time in over three decades in Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered.
The mural accompanied by materials on Benton’s process and examples of art from his contemporaries opened in September, and after the exhibition closes in April “America Today” will relocate to a permanent home in the American Wing as one of the period rooms. Once housed in the Joseph Urban-designed New School building on West 12th Street, the school later sold the mural in 1982 and it was eventually bought by AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company in 1984, which restored and displayed the mural in their headquarters at 787 Seventh Avenue and then from 1996 in the lobby of 1290 Avenue of the Americas. When that building required it moved for renovation in 2012, the complete set of panels was donated to the museum.
With walls painted the original red and black of the New School boardroom where Benton created the epic egg tempera piece, visitors can step right into the tumult of an America that was falling from the Jazz Age into the Great Depression. Benton was a Regionalist wanderer and “America Today” is a frenzy of sinewy figures in motion reflecting what he saw in the life and industry of the United States. The nearly eight-foot tall panels are often overwhelming, but in its chaos is an energy that would be a defining catalyst for murals in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project.
A gasping street preacher leans in contrast to the arched back of the burlesque dancer behind him, while alongside boxers fight above subway riders. A grain elevator rises and trees fall in the Midwest, coal miners stoop with their pick axes, and metal pours in the colors of a molten rainbow from the muscle of steel workers. At the very center a train, plane, zeppelin, and combustion engine charge out in all directions. Breaking into the music, dancing, and rapid development is a premonition of hard times. One of the last panels Benton painted has hands reaching up for bread, juxtaposed against those grasping for bottles of wine in the panel just before.
“The mural depicts the utopian dream of new society, but he doesn’t buy into it entirely, because what you have here is a small warning about the effects of overconsumption, overproduction, some of the things we’re still grappling with today,” Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s Leonard A. Lauder chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art, says in a MetCollects episode on the mural. Benton was notably the early teacher of Jackson Pollock and later scorned for his anti-intellectual embrace of an Americana style that grated against modernism. In “America Today,” a younger artist with contemporary relevance is revived from his older stodgy self, as is an incredible era of mural painting in the country.
Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 19.