Thomas Hart Benton’s Mural: America Today at Home in the Met

In 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, Alvin Johnson, the director of the twelve-year-old New School for Social Research, asked Thomas Hart Benton to paint murals for its boardroom. Murals were in. Just then Alfred Barr and Abby Rockefeller had invited Diego Rivera to exhibit his murals at their brand new Museum of Modern Art. Both artists were radical and their murals depict the transforming effects of industrialization on the world, referring to both its beneficial and detrimental effects.

Benton was a marvelous draftsman. Each one of his ten panels consists of a series of rich cartoon-like images consisting of workers performing their assigned tasks, circus acts, dancing couples, farm animals, boxing matches, or people reading their newspapers on New York’s subway, power plants, locomotives, Zeppelins and the like. Within each mural panel, individual scene are separated by metal strips. It takes many worthwhile hours to decipher it all.

City Activities

City Activities

The cycle starts with the Deep South, with its white tenant sharecroppers, chain gangs and African-American cotton growers. Benton progresses to his own Midwest and Changing West with its industrialized wheat fields, pigs and typically decrepit horses. The next three panels depict Instruments of Power, Coal and Steel. Then it is the turn of the city: City Building, City Activity with Subway, and City Activity with Dance Hall, each with its own intricate imagery. Benton’s wife and child, as well as Alvin Johnson and the painter’s self-portrait, are part of the latter. Outreaching Hands fill a much smaller panel, now surmounting the entrance to the gallery, reminding the viewer that when Benton painted the panel America was in the grips of the Great Depression.

America Today had a checkered history and we are lucky that we can admire it in its entirety, beautifully restored to its original freshness. The New School’s boardroom eventually morphed into an ordinary classroom, where the paintings were at the mercy of busy and bored students. When the school sold it in 1953, the ten-panel mural was in the danger of being split up. Fortunately the AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company bought it for the company’s art collection and eventually exhibited in its lobby on Sixth Avenue. I admired it there regularly and made it a stop in my private tour of New York. In 2012, when the company planned to renovate its lobby, it gave the artwork to the Met, which restored it and gave it its own gallery in the American Wing. The gallery has the exact shape of the original New School boardroom.

Benton did not have much luck with his murals in New York. After he finished for the New School, the Whitney Art Museum commissioned Arts of Life in America to decorate its library. When the Whitney moved to its Breuer Building on Madison Avenue, it sold half of the mural to the New Britain Museum of American Art and the other half to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. It is wonderful that New York now has a complete, restored mural on permanent display at the Metropolitan. A temporary exhibit, featuring sketches, paintings and related material, is in an adjacent gallery.

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