This weekend, we’re checking out Thomas Hart Benton's America Today murals at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First, we’ll stop by the Balcony Bar above the Met’s famous Great Hall for a drink and some music while we wait for the museum crowds to die down. Update: this exhibition closed in April 2015. To stay updated what's going on right now, sign up for our #YourArtWeekend newsletter here.
WHAT TO DO BEFORE /
The Great Hall Balcony Bar is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 4:00 until 8:30, and it’s a great place to relax and have a drink while most of the crowds head out of the museum. Try some schnapps-filled peppermint hot chocolate or stick with a martini, and be sure to snag a table near ETHEL and Friends or whatever incredible group of musicians is playing that weekend. Around 7:30 or so, it’ll be time to head down to the American Wing and check out the Benton murals without having to feel like you’re on a rush-hour 6 train.
THE ART /
On the wall opposite the entrance to the room housing Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today” murals at the Met, there is a quote from the artist: The United States is loud and not in good taste. Some people have probably said similar things about the Benton himself over the years, but this new exhibition, which brings all the mural panels together for the first time in thirty years, offers an impressive and prophetic vision of American life.
The gallery housing “America Today” was built as a replica of the boardroom at the New School for which Benton originally made the paintings. Spending time in the square room, with the ten panels filling all four walls, becomes a sort of anthropological experience. What was America like in 1930, and how was that life distinctly American? What about it is still true today?
The paintings are dense with people and action and together become a sincere, passionate celebration of American life as Benton saw it in 1930 and ‘31. There are scenes set in New York that evoke both the Jazz Age of the Twenties and hint at the Depression that followed: boxers in the ring, lovers at Coney Island, commuters on a crowded subway, neon signs and newspapers and skyscrapers and a fiery preacher. Other panels feature Bruegel-esque glimpses into the lives of American laborers from outside the city: coal miners, a sharecropper, workers at a steel factory. The prominence of these labor-centric scenes illustrate Benton’s admiration for the common man, and their exaggerated muscles and outsized bodies bring physicality and tension to every panel.
In addition to the main mural room, the Met’s exhibition also includes a room of Benton’s studies for the murals and another highlighting art from its permanent collection that relates to Benton and his “America Today.” The studies are impressive and well-researched and offer a strong argument against the claim that Benton’s figures are merely exaggerated stereotypes. The related works, including the Mannerist painter Abraham Bloemaert’s “Moses Striking the Rock” from 1596 and Benton’s pupil Jackson Pollock’s more-figurative-than-usual “Pasiphaë,” are particularly exciting.
One major takeaway of these murals is their ambivalent attitude towards the modern world. Some panels feature a Futurist-like celebration of technological progress: fast-moving trains, a spinning airplane propeller, the construction of modern cities. Others, such as the outstretched hands and top hats that sit above the doorway, point to the dark side of industrial capitalism and urban poverty that was never more obvious than when these were produced in 1931. With these murals, Benton was able to capture a moment in the history of this country, full of contradictions and full of life, and his vision remains just as relevant today.
Photo credits: Bowen Dunnan (Coal Miner); Anna-Maire Kellen for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (all others).