Sunday, October 26, 2014

Thomas Hart Benton

--> Sometime in the 1970’s I was asked to teach a course at the New School in New York.  It was to be about Collecting but otherwise I had no parameters and no one told me anything of what was expected.  I was surprised but pleased and thought about what one would need to know about collecting and decided I would bring in pertinent people such as our insurance broker to speak to the class and I would fill in the gaps.

What I was not told until the day of the first class, after arranging it all, was that if I had less than10 students, the class would be cancelled.   Of course, for the next half hour I was sure that no one would show up.  As we neared the appointed hour, however, people of all ages began to trickle in until there was a rush and there were no more seats in the room.  Some sat a on the edges of desks and others just stood for the period.

I remember starting out by asking if anyone already collected and having most hands shoot up.  I began by asking around the room expecting to hear photographs, drawings, paintings etc.  Instead, I was hearing all kinds of things that people collected that I did not expect such as matchbook covers, comic books, baseball cards and I stopped with the fellow who collected barbed wire.  I had not traveled in the West at that, time except Los Angeles and San Francisco, so I did not realize how many different types of barbed wire there were.

The following week when I arrived at the New School I was told they had given me a new larger classroom.  So off I went to arrive in the most amazing space that anyone has ever taught in.  It was a normal large size classroom but all four walls were covered by a mural by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975).  It was called “America Today” painted 1930-31.  It’s 10 panels show life in this country in the 1920’s.  It had been painted originally for the Board Room of the New School for Social Research and later transferred to what became my classroom!

In 1984 the mural was bought by Axa Equitable, the insurance Company and eventually installed in the lobby of their Manhattan headquarters.  When they were asked to take the mural down for a renovation of the lobby in 2012 AXA decided to give it to the Metropolitan Museum. 

The Museum has installed the mural in a separate room with two large window spaces and a large doorway so they do not have quite the impact as they did when they were immediately next to each other in the classroom, but still you do get the idea.  A small exhibition in the adjacent galleries shows preparatory drawings that remain the property of AXA along with pictures by artists who influenced Benton and even one by his pupil Jackson Pollock.  That was a shocker to me!  I wonder whether Pollock showed up for his classes .

In this panorama of American life there is just one Native American and he is shown in a saloon with a cowboy and bargirls.  See bottom of the left middle of this image for relative scale and then the detail.

Indian Panel

Indian Panel detail

Black men work alongside white men doing hard labor in construction or on an oil rig.

The murals on either side of the doorway feature women from the realism of a straphanger going to work on the subway to the glamor of dancers in a nightclub.

Go see the exhibition on view until April but afterwards the mural will remain installed with the other period rooms in the American wing at the Met.

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