The “today” of Thomas Hart Benton’s 10-panel mural painting is pre-FDR, early Great Depression America of 1930-’31, a kaleidoscopic portrait of working people and their entertainments; their Moloch-like machines of production; the land’s bountiful crops and natural resources. It is peopled by New York City subway straphangers, cowboys in the West, steel-mill and coal workers in the industrial Northeast, cotton balers in the Deep South, and corn farmers in the Midwest (whence came Benton, an artist born in the heartland town of Neosho, Mo.) The mural is also a catalog of heroic portraits limning the post-World War I rising might of the United States, even as its promise hovered over the precipice of economic crisis.
America Today was commissioned by Alvin Johnson, director of The New School, for the school’s Joseph Urban-designed modernist building on West 12th Street in New York. Benton executed it in egg tempera with an oil glaze on linen mounted on wood panels.
The murals were painted by Benton in a nearby loft and installed on the four walls of the school’s intimate third floor boardroom, a companion art piece to the recently completed dining-room mural by the Mexican artist Clemente Orozco. Orozco was offered no money for his commission and was compensated only for “expenses of execution.” Benton was offered the same “generous” terms, but because he employed the medium of tempura, he was given lots of free eggs. Two decades earlier, as a student in Paris in 1909, Benton had met the most influential of the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera. He became a staunch supporter of these Mexican artists and later wrote:
I had looked with much interest on the rise of the Mexican school during the mid-Twenties. In spite of the Marxist dogmas, to the propagation of which so much of its work was devoted, I saw in the Mexican effort a profound and much needed redirection of art towards its ancient humanistic functions.
In Paris, Benton also came under the influence of Stanton McDonald Wright and briefly adopted Wright’s abstractionist style of swirling geometric forms, which was labeled Synchronism. After serving in the military in World War I, Benton traveled throughout the United States during the 1920s, filling sketchbooks with photos and ideas that he was soon to draw upon for his mural commissions.
These travels in working-class America gave him a leftist perspective on man and society:
While during the early and middle Twenties I had cultivated a Marxist viewpoint toward capitalist society and had tried to apply it to that of the United States, my growing experience in the field of actual American life and politics had changed my attitudes. The evolution of revolutionary Russia into Stalin’s totalitarian and dictatorial society had produced a complete disillusionment in that quarter. What I wanted now was to see clearly the nature of American life as it unrolled before me and to paint it without my vision being distorted by any generalities of social theory. The exposition of this change of mind caused my radical friends to see me with a jaundiced eye. I became for most of them a ‘reactionary’ and a ‘chauvinist.’
When he wasn’t traveling Benton lived in New York City, where he painted and taught for almost 20 years, much of it at the Art Students League, where his most famous student was the young Jackson Pollock. The personal rather than purely artistic relationship between Benton, his wife, Rita, and Pollock remains one of those speculative mysteries of the art world.
In 1930, Pollock was unknown, whereas Benton was emerging into prominence as a leader of the so-called “Regionalists,” a group that included Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, painters who eschewed the urban themes of mainstream American art and the growing fascination with European art movements. Twenty years later, Pollock was the artist of the hour, featured in Life magazine, while Benton had no gallery representation and was virtually dismissed by New York’s reigning art critics, including Clement Greenberg. It’s an attitude that survived even after Benton’s death in 1975, as articulated by critic Earle Davis:
Trying to define his kind of realism, we call him a ‘regionalist.’ Professional art critics seem to find something limiting or even derogatory in the term itself, as if concentration on the life, land and social behavior … was somehow an inferior condition of creative composition.
The late art critic Robert Hughes has long been one of my heroes for his incisive opinions on artists and the art world. Australian born and Jesuit educated, he brought an outsider’s and an iconoclast’s perspective to the often inbred world of high-stakes art, especially after he moved to New York in the early 1970s. Hughes is seen at full career-wrecking throttle in a documentary on American art that he made for BBC and PBS, American Visions. Here is an excerpt in which Hughes excoriates a movement and its artists for whom he clearly has little empathy — or even understanding. It provides clear context for understanding how Benton has long fallen from critical grace.
Hughes does reach quite high to stigmatize Benton for his nativism and homophobia — easy targets from the perspective of our own time. But times and tastes do change, and there is no better evidence of this than the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current installation in the American Wing of Benton’s America Today. (It will remain on view through April 19.) In a special gallery, the exact dimensions and placement of the New School boardroom have been recreated, and adjacent galleries show drawings and preparatory sketches that illuminate the evolution of the mural.
Here is a brief 360-degree visualization of how the mural appeared on site.
This idealized depiction is far from the reality, as the mural (like Benton’s reputation) at first garnered praise, then fell into neglect in the ensuing decades. Benton writes in his autobiography, An Artist in America, about his ongoing efforts to protect the work:
Some twenty-five years later, when on a trip to New York I visited the New School, I found, because of the pressure of students in the constantly growing school, that the boardroom had been turned into a classroom, and that folding chairs and blackboards were stacked against the surface of the mural. This treatment evidently had been going on for a long time because very marked lines of abrasion had developed over the mural surface. [Alvin Johnson] was shocked … confessing that he had not looked at the mural for years. He said that the professors who used the room for their classes were naturally more interested in their subjects than the mural and had probably not even noticed the growth of the abrasions, either.
So, in the autumn of 1956, and then again in September of 1968, Benton and three women artists cleaned and repaired the mural, this time using an acrylic polymer emulsion paint instead of egg tempera.
A video by the Met curators describes how America Today came to the museum. It also offers a cautionary tale on the ever-shifting vicissitudes of public taste in the arts, asking rhetorically, “Can a work of art have a second life?”
Looking at the panels being lifted onto the walls, you can clearly see the aluminum-colored borders that separate themed sections of the mural even within a single panel.
Benton also wrote about this:
The representation of such a theme would necessitate the amalgamation of many subjects having little or no relationship to one another, certainly no pictorial relationship. The problem was to get them together in such a way that they would function as parts of an overall pictorial form. This was solved by composing each subject unit so that some parts on the periphery of its design were left open. Or to put it another way, some forms on the edges of each pictorial unit were so arranged that they could be connected with the forms on the edge of the adjoining units—locked into them, that is. The bas-reliefs of Hellenistic, Etruscan, and Roman sarcophagi provide many examples of such interlocking.
As this quote illustrates, Benton was no “hayseed”; in fact, you may surmise that his rhetorical flourishes against East Coast urban tastemakers was as postured as that of his iconic subjects.
In a wonderful archive shot in the video of Benton fuming against New York, he says:
I think that the intellectual world of New York is even worse than the Congress of the United States, if you’re dealing with ideas.
Given the universal opprobrium Americans seem to have of Congress today, Benton sounds very spot-on.
Benton was a complicated man, as attested to by his daughter Jessie, whom Hughes invites to explain and defend her father’s fanatical commitment to realistic American themes, even if it presents itself in what we today find racist, or at least jingoistic, terms. However, as I’ve spent time reading Benton’s writings, I’ve begun to think that many of his fulminations were not much more than signs of that maverick streak that is so deeply endemic to the American character.
I first saw America Today in the mid-1980s, after it had been installed in the lobby of the AXA Equitable Life Insurance building on Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan. AXA had recently opened a pocket museum in a corner of its spacious atrium, and it was an art exhibition that had drawn me into this corporate headquarters. Every time I returned to the AXA museum, I would walk over to Benton’s mural and spend serious time with it. This was difficult to do, as many of the paintings were not only placed high on the lobby walls, well above the intended viewing angle, but also directly above the elevators. Thousands of people passed them every day with scarcely a glance upwards. Still, were it not for the acquisition of the complete mural by AXA and the support of unlikely critics like Brendan Gill and John Russell, this extraordinary work documenting a crucial piece of 20th century American life might have been scattered piecemeal into disparate collections.
A final perspective on the Met video: I find it fascinating that most of the curator interviews are focused on the urban portions of the mural, and the many sections devoted to the rest of America are somewhat glazed over in a panning shot with just a few cutaway images. New Yorkers’ self-absorption is a never-ending source of wonder to Carol and me, as we live and work in Manhattan and in Los Angeles (another navel-gazing enclave). Or, as Spaulding Gray wonderfully put it in Swimming to Cambodia:
Every time I try to think of the United States of America, I get the cold sweats. I can’t even look at a weather map anymore; it’s too big. That’s part of why I moved to Manhattan. I wanted to move to an island off the coast of America.
Most of America Today depicts what some New Yorkers and Angelenos call “flyover states.” America’s heartland has been given short shrift in the annals of most canonic American art.
The Regionalists, along with their non-urban brothers, deserve better. Perhaps the Whitney Museum of American Art, soon to relocate to new quarters in downtown Manhattan, will open its larger galleries to an expanded vision of the pageant of American art, one that reaches beyond the “offshore” island of Manhattan and the hip denizens of Brooklyn.