Published  26/02/2015

Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today’ Rediscovered

Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is celebrating the acquisition and installation of Thomas Hart Benton’s 10-panel mural cycle with an exhibition that includes numerous studies the artist prepared for the mural, as well as paintings, drawings and photographs, which ground the imagery of Benton’s masterwork within the context of the visual culture of early modern America

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
30 September 2014 – 19 April 2015


America Today, the wraparound historical mural that Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) painted in New York at the close of the jazz age, has been acquired and conserved by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and its installation in the museum’s American Wing galleries is accompanied by an exhibition, a newly produced documentary video and museum bulletin, and a scholars’ symposium. For more than 50 years, America Today decorated the boardroom walls of the New School for Social Research on West 12th Street in Greenwich Village, where it was originally installed in 1931. The 10 panels, most of which are 7ft 6in (2.29 metres) tall and nearly 10ft to 11ft (2.97 to 3.4 metres) wide, were saved from dispersal and possible removal from New York when the Equitable Life Assurance Society purchased them in 1984 and later conserved and installed them in the street-level lobbies of its midtown headquarters. In 2012, Equitable Life’s parent company, AXA Equitable, donated America Today to the Met. During its nearly seven-month run, the exhibition will provide Benton with newfound global visibility and stimulate critical reappraisal.

Benton considered his historical murals to be the supreme achievements of his career and his primary contributions to a public and democratic art. He was so determined to become America’s leading history painter that, on accepting the commission of America Today in 1930, he charged no fee. Instead, he was paid in eggs, the yolks of which he mixed with dry pigments to constitute the egg tempera that he used to paint the mural.1 The New School commission brought the aspiring muralist out of the wilderness in which he had been wandering. He failed to receive support in 1927 for the large oil sketches on the history of New York that he conceived for four empty, arched spaces he eyed on the third floor McGraw rotunda of the New York Public Library. (Edward Laning won the mural commission a decade later.) And, in 1928, he abandoned the ambitious project he called the American Historical Epic after completing only 14 of a projected 50 to 75 mural panels. The series brought him scant attention and no sales, primarily because its scenes often portrayed frontier violence and racial brutality – distasteful subjects for prospective clientele. To become a more commercially viable artist, Benton shed his skin as a moral polemicist to paint more widely appealing scenes.

America Today thus marks Benton’s coming of age as a popular muralist who breathed new life into history painting. He gave leading roles in his murals to Americans who formerly had been marginalised by the genre – the African American, the day labourer, the sharecropper and the Native American. His newly forged style, a hybrid of high and low, melded mannerism with caricature and type found in comic strips, tabloids and movies. America Today brought Benton national recognition as a painter of vernacular culture and as a mouthpiece for the vice, vulgarity and other guilty pleasures he deemed native to the American character. It also contributed to his reputation of lowering the critical bar as an artist, which would bring him the disdain of such members of the radical intelligentsia as art historian Meyer Schapiro and modernist painter Stuart Davis.2

Benton reinvented himself as a painter of historical murals immediately after the first world war, just when Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros inaugurated the Mexican mural renaissance. Postwar intellectual ferment stimulated reappraisals of colonial rule, national identity and race. America Today is inextricably bound to the newly emerging histories and, in particular, to the 1927 publication of The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard. Alvin Johnson, the founding director of the New School, considered Charles Beard to be “the greatest historian of his time”. The prevailing theme of America Today is one the Beards examined – the American transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Johnson also commissioned Orozco, already a famous muralist, to decorate the walls of a public dining room and adjacent student lounge in the New School. Freighted with provocative political themes derived from the new histories being written, Orozco’s five frescoes pursued themes of social oppression and revolution. Their human struggles resemble those Benton dramatised in his American Historical Epic, but they contrast acutely with the constructive scenes of agricultural and industrial production and depictions of technological progress he now painted in America Today.

Reappraisals of Benton’s interpretive strengths as a history painter and the changing subject matter of his murals are prompted by the Met’s acquisition and installation of America Today. The historical murals of Orozco and Rivera were the subjects of major exhibitions in 2002 at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth, and in 2011 at the Museum of Modern Art, respectively. One looks forward to a similarly comprehensive study of the historical murals Benton conceived, as it would bring an understanding of the underlying premises and pictorial strategies of America Today into sharper focus. Visitors to the current show are not put on notice of the extraordinary investment of time and energy Benton devoted to his historical murals. Other than America Today, none of them is reproduced or discussed to any significant extent in wall text.

During a career that stretched over six decades, Benton created 13 historical murals.3 Perhaps no other modern American painter travelled America as widely, or had amassed as large a trove of drawings that could serve as authentic, raw material for a succession of ambitious historical murals that negotiated myth, legend and fact. Moreover, Benton had been raised in frontier Missouri, and Janus-faced, approached the history of America looking back through time towards both the east and the west. His own deep historical bloodlines extended back to Senator Thomas Hart Benton, his great-great-uncle. His vision of America enriched by his travels and family heritage, Benton ably completed four major mural commissions in five years. America Today was followed by mural installations in the library of the Whitney Museum of American Art (1932), the Indiana Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair (1933), and the House lounge of the Missouri State Capitol (1936). Extensively covered in the national press, these large-scale works with recurring motifs and themes increased Benton’s fame and the popularity of his style in the 30s among artists, many sponsored by New Deal public art programmes, who painted murals in post offices, libraries and other civic spaces throughout America. America Today stimulated dialogue about the multiple histories and identities of Americans, and, on this basis alone, it became one of the most influential documents in the history of modern American art.

America Today also earned a distinguished place in art history for its formal qualities. Most frequently noted are its size and dynamic internal rhythms that invoke the style of Jackson Pollock’s paintings with mythological themes (such as Pasiphae (1943), which is included in the exhibition) and later, his monumental, all-over drip paintings. Pollock studied under Benton at the Art Students League of New York and in Turgenev-style revolt of son against father, he eventually rejected Benton’s obsessive working methodology and insistence on figuration. (The exhibition includes many of the preparatory works on paper and oil studies that Benton conceived for each panel, on loan from the AXA collection.) Benton famously regarded abstraction as “flickers in a social vacuum”, an opinion that exasperated critics because it failed to acknowledge that nonfigurative art could touch the mind and be of social utility. America Today summons up Pollock in other ways: both Jackson and Elizabeth Pollock, the wife of his older brother Charles who also studied with Benton, posed as models for figures Benton incorporated into the mural panels. Jackson evidently posed for the tall, lanky figure labouring in the foreground of Steel, and Elizabeth recalled posing for the female strap-hanger in City Activities with Subway as well as for two women wearing red hats in City Activities with Dance Hall.4

Other notable figures in Benton’s circle modelled for figures in America Today. Reginald Marsh, who shared Benton’s admiration for the Italian mannerist and baroque masters, posed for the Black worker operating a steam-driven pile-driver in the panel City Building. Marsh also painted with tempera, and one of his signature works, The Bowery (1930), is on view in the exhibition. Together with vintage photographs of city scenes taken by Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott and James Van Der Zee that are also included, Marsh’s painting underscores a major collecting focus of the Met that crosses departmental lines: humanistic portrayals of New York. In the same year the Met acquired America Today, it also acquired Street, a transfixing high-definition video shot in New York in 2011 by James Nares, a British-born artist. Nares provided context for the installation of Street in 2013 when, as guest curator, he selected from the Met’s permanent collection dozens of works exploring urban theatre across the centuries.

Further enlivening the exhibition is the imposing and recently conserved masterpiece John Brown, painted by Benton’s contemporary John Steuart Curry. Although Benton, Curry and Grant Wood are invariably designated as exponents of “regionalism”, the curators exercise judicious restraint by using the word only once in the exhibition, when noting its journalistic origins in copy accompanying Benton’s self-portrait on the cover of Time magazine in December 1934. Benton recognised the parochial and marginalising effects of the word regionalism, fought a noble battle against its use, and eventually grew weary of the fight in his later years when he realised that critical attention, however misguided, was better than its absence.

In the Met’s American Wing galleries, the recreated New School boardroom showcasing America Today becomes a jazz age period room. Impeccable care was taken to reassemble the 10 mural panels as they were originally installed on the four walls of the boardroom of the New School – at eye level and with two portions of a wall recreated to appear as windows with daylight breaking through.5 The panels are illumined from above by recessed lights, and a suspended ceiling of matte brick-red hue provides an elegant foil for the mural’s high-keyed palette and the gleaming aluminium-leaf moulding and moulding elements that divide the compositions. The proximity of America Today to the ever-popular Frank Lloyd Wright period room makes for inspired staging.6 A generation apart, Benton and Wright became iconic figures of the American heartland. Harry Truman dubbed Missouri’s Benton “the best damned painter in America” and the American Institute of Architects called Wisconsin’s Wright “the greatest American architect of all time”. But two more contrasting exemplars of the modern American spirit would be hard to find. Wright’s Prairie-style living room invites the natural world in and quiets the spirit with glass, wood and tones of earthly serenity. Benton’s room closes off and replaces the natural world with a convulsive and dynamic figural composition. The two outsized and cantankerous egos famously clashed not long after America Today attracted national attention. On 11 November 1932, during a public conference at Brown University, Benton challenged Wright’s notion of an artistic hierarchy that placed architecture, as the “mother” or dominant art, atop mural painting, its decorative handmaiden.

Benton collaborated on America Today with Wright’s architectural rival, Joseph Urban (1872-1933). The professional association no doubt antagonised Wright because it was Urban who beat Wright to win the coveted commission to design the New School. A Viennese-born artist, stage designer and architect, Urban was a paramount force shaping the visual culture of postwar New York. He was appointed head designer of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1915 to 1932, chief designer of the Metropolitan Opera Company from 1917 to 1933, and set designer for dozens of films produced by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Picture Studio in the 1920s. The international-style building that Urban designed for the New School is considered by many to be his late-career masterpiece. The innovative, tiered ceiling and geometric elegance of its elliptical auditorium convey his passionate embrace of the theatrical arts.

Urban’s architectural rendering for the New School boardroom, drafted by JJ Mauro, is on view in a vitrine in the exhibition. By including this key document from the New School Archives and Special Collections, the curators draw attention to Urban’s grand design for America Today. The scaled plan, dated 25 June 1930, delineates the angled and curvy areas in each of the mural panels that will be reserved for overlaid aluminium-leaf mouldings. Benton creatively incorporated these designs into his studies as blank spaces, and ultimately into his final paintings, but he never credited Urban as the visionary who originally conceived the daring art-deco framing devices animating America Today.7 Art historian Emily Braun has argued persuasively that the addition of aluminium-leaf moulding was likely an Urban touch” given his penchant for “jazzy ornamental style” and “sleek art deco interiors”.8 Reinforcing this argument is the observation that no superimposed mouldings or complex divisional devices are found in Benton’s oeuvre leading up to America Today. Nevertheless, without definitive evidence of their creative origin, the mouldings Benton incorporated into the compositions of his panels will continue to be described, as they are in the exhibition, as a “fruitful collaboration between architect and painter”. The aluminium-leaf mouldings harmoniously unify and syncopate the panels of America Today and Benton spent six months incorporating them into his designs. The musicality of a complex mural, such as America Today, was likened to a four-movement symphony by the US artist Barnett Newman, who drew the comparison after interviewing Benton in 1938.9 Similarly, the art historian Matthew Baigell observed that the orchestral conductor and Benton share practice routines: Benton’s working methodology of preparing multiple studies before commencing the final painting resembles a conductor’s multiple rehearsals in advance of the opening night performance.10

The theatrical impulse of stage and film coursing through America Today was something Benton and Urban shared. Urban considered motion pictures to be “the art of the 20th century, and perhaps the greatest art of modern times”.11 Benton also recognised the revolutionary force cinema was having on popular visual culture as he worked for several years painting backdrops and designing sets for motion picture studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The influential silent-film director Rex Ingram, who secured jobs for Benton, considered moviemaking to be a high art form and wrote about the conceptual strategies pursued by painters, sculptors and movie directors alike.12 To heighten the three-dimensionality of his paintings, Benton modelled small clay sculptures of his forms and figures, choreographed and cast light on them in dioramas, and then proceeded to observe them while painting. And to communicate drama and emotion in America Today, Benton engaged in an expressive style of elongated torsos, necks, limbs, fingers and accentuated joints, particularly elbows. The style, which characterised his postwar panels for the American Historical Epic, offered Benton precisely what directors of silent films looked for from their actors: body language and gesture evoking intention and mood to compensate for the absence of dialogue or voiceover. The theatrical style of Benton’s paintings harked back to the mannerism of Jacopo Tintoretto, El Greco and Abraham Bloemaert. As a touchstone of mannerist painting, Bloemaert’s Moses Striking the Rock (1596) is included in the exhibition.

America Today glows with renewed vitality after its extensive expert conservation at the Met.13 Giving rise to the luminosity are the natural qualities of egg tempera – a popular Renaissance medium Benton helped to revive after the war – overlaid by oil glaze. The dramatic play of colour and light pulls viewers into the gallery and, coupled with the three-dimensionality of Benton’s modelled figures, elicits comparison to the projection of film stills on a silver screen. (One visitor put into words what many instinctually sense when viewing this epic picture show: “Wow – it’s like a video or film.”) Visitors are invited to relax and take in the immersive experience by sitting on one of two benches thoughtfully situated in the centre of the room that becomes Benton’s theatre at the Met. The show emits both light and sound, if one takes the synesthete’s expansive point of view that colours have aural equivalents. Synesthesia motivated the two Americans who originated synchromism in 1913, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. They “adopted colour scales that mirrored musical scales” and introduced Benton to the explosive force of colour.14 America Today pulsates with high-keyed colours in orchestrated combinations evocative of synchromist musicality. As an historical point of reference, the exhibition includes Airplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange (1920), an early modernist painting by Macdonald-Wright. Stylistic elements of this work dovetail with synchromism, as well as cubism and futurism, and with the aeroplane with whirling propellers Benton features in Instruments of Power, the largest of the America Today panels.

In a kindred cinematic spirit, the Met has produced a video introducing America Today. It is projected on a wall just outside the first room of the exhibition, where visitors can sit and watch. The eight-minute film with evocative soundtrack provides an overview of the artist and the mural, with candid interviews of the Met’s curatorial team and director, who welcome the addition of Benton’s masterwork to the museum’s permanent collection.15 Each registers admiration for America Today, as well as fascination with having been struck unexpectedly by its dynamism and beauty. The video subtitle asks whether a work of art can have a second life, and, with respect to America Today, their collective response is a resounding “yes”. Canonical in Benton’s prodigious career, America Today enhances the museum’s encyclopaedic collection, which continues to grow at breakneck speed. Its acquisition represents a transformative event for the artist and for the city and state of New York.

Jake Milgram Wien is an independent curator and historian, and co-curator of American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, an exhibition that opens at the Peabody Essex Museum on 6 June 2015, and travels to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

1. The anecdote of how the “dozens and dozens of eggs” Benton used when mixing his tempera paint nearly bankrupted Alvin Johnson, the New School founding director, is humorously told in Thomas Hart Benton: A Life by Justin Wolff, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, page 202.
2. See, for example, Populist Realism by Meyer Schapiro, in Partisan Review 4, No 2 (January 1938), pages 53-57, and Rejoinder to Thomas Hart Benton by Stuart Davis in Art Digest 9 (1 April 1935), pages 12-13.
3. Three mural projects Benton commenced were not fully realised: American Historical Epic (1920-28), A History of New York (1926-27), and A History of Postal Transportation (1935). Hollywood, one of the 13 completed murals, remained in the artist’s estate and is now, like many of the panels for the American Historical Epic, in the permanent collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
4. Benton modelled the strap-hanger’s face after burlesque star Peggy Reynolds and his preparatory graphite sketch of her is included in the exhibition. Elizabeth Pollock was 28 when she modelled for Benton and was a freelance writer and reviewer, as well as a reader of Hollywood screenplays. See Elizabeth Pollock to Henry Adams, letter dated 27 May 1990. Benton files, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
5. To be technically precise, Outreaching Hands, the smallest of the 10 panels, was painted later and installed over the entrance to the room, perhaps in 1932, to acknowledge the gravity of the economic depression not fully manifest in 1931.
6. When the acquisition of America Today was publicly announced in December 2012, its placement in the Marcel Breuer-designed building of the Whitney Museum of American Art, to be leased to the Met as a satellite space, was contemplated and indeed confirmed. New York Times, 12 December 2012.
7. Nearly 40 years after the debut of America Today, Benton reflected on the design imperatives of the mural. He recalled knowing about and using the “decorative lines or bands” art directors used in 19th-century magazines, newspapers and books “to separate illustrations whose subjects were unrelated or difficult to relate pictorially”. Thomas Hart Benton to Matthew Baigell, letter 22 November 1967, Matthew Baigell Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Benton adopted the strategies of art directors by painting thin, angled or curvy lines to achieve the multiple internal pictorial divisions of the America Today panels. However, after responding to Baigell’s query, he seemed to take credit for the moulding devices themselves and wrote: “In some areas of the mural where these differences were so great that peripheral jointures were too difficult to make, sections of the moulding that framed the mural were injected into the mural design itself.” An American in Art: a Professional and Technical Autobiography by Thomas Hart Benton, published by University Press of Kansas, 1969, page 64.
8. Thomas Hart Benton and Progressive Liberalism: An Interpretation of the New School Murals by Emily Braun, in: Thomas Hart Benton: The America Today Murals by Emily Braun and Thomas Branchick, published by Williams College Museum of Art, 1985, page 17.
9. Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by John P O’Neill, published by Alfred A Knopf 1990, pages 14-18.
10. Matthew Baigell conversation with Jake Milgram Wien, circa 1995.
11. Marietta Serves Coffee: Anti-postum with Joseph Urban by Julian Johnson. Photoplay 18, No 5 (October 1920), page 33.
12. The Motion Picture as an Art by Rex Ingram, Art Review 1, No 5 (February 1922), pages 12 and 27.
13. The paint film of America Today is unstable and prone to deterioration. Benton returned to New York on several occasions to conserve the panels, and prior to its extensive conservation at the Met, America Today underwent major conservation at the Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory in 1984 after its acquisition by Equitable. Masterful essays about the mural, its history and its conservation are included in a publication accompanying an exhibition presented by the Williams College Museum of Art from 2 February to 25 August 1985. Thomas Hart Benton: The America Today Murals by Emily Braun and Thomas Branchick, published by Williams College Museum of Art, 1985.
14. Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) by Will South, in: Cézanne and American Modernism by Gail Stavitsky, Katherine Rothkopf, et al, published by Yale University Press, 2009, page 232.
15. See episode 9 of the series “MetCollects”: Interviewed in the America Today video are Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art; Randall Griffey, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art; and Elizabeth Kornhauser, Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture.


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