Thomas Hart Benton’s (1889–1975) epic10-panel mural cycle America Today, painted by the Missouri-born artist in 1930–31 for the boardroom of the New School for Social Research in New York, will be the subject of a fall exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum received the piece as a gift from AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company (which is sponsoring the exhibition and has owned the paintings since 1984) in December 2012.
The murals were Benton’s first major mural commission, and his most ambitious project in New York. Depicting urban and rural life across the country as it hung on the precipice of the Great Depression, the artist’s paintings captured changing social values and tense race relations while celebrating a wide range of Americans, including flappers, farmers, steel workers, and stock market tycoons. Significantly, the murals helped pave the wave for the many murals commissioned under the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project in the 1930s. America Today was also a turning point in Benton’s career, bridging the gap between his earlier abstract works and what became his signature figurative style.
“Commissioned in 1930 for the board room of the New School International Style building on West 12th Street, America Today was Benton’s first major mural commission, and remains his best-known work,” Met director and CEO (and new US citizen) Thomas P. Campbell wrote at the time of the AXA gift. “The 10-panel mural is imbued with the spirit of the Machine Age, and offers us a great opportunity to enrich our narrative of twentieth-century American art. It arrives at an optimal moment as we begin to consider new ideas for our galleries of modern art.”
The painting will appear in the American Wing, where “the artist’s expansive vision of life in the United States will resonate deeply with John Vanderlyn’s grand panorama, 19th-century genre painting, and Thomas Cole’s philosophical landscapes, among other treasures,” said Sheena Wagstaff, the museum’s chairman of modern and Contemporary art, in a press release. Visitors to the exhibition will notice that the piece’s key themes of American progress, “the heroic proletariat, and modern industry were greatly significant for artists in a contemporary international context, not only in the United States, but also in Mexico, and in France between the world wars.” (Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco painted a mural for the New School at the same time that Benton was creating America Today.)
The murals, most of which measure a massive seven-and-a-half feet tall, will be displayed in a faithful replica of the 30-by-22-foot boardroom for which the piece was originally created. Designed by architect Joseph Urban in a modernist style, the room had a red and black color scheme and Art Deco detailing such as aluminum-leaf wooden moldings that framed each painted panel. The finished piece will be accompanied by a number of the artist’s studies for the ambitious work, as well as related artworks from the museum’s collection by other artists, including an artwork by Jackson Pollock, a student of Benton’s who served as a model for America Today.
“Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered” will be on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art September 20, 2014–April 19, 2015. From artnet News