Experiencing Thomas Hart Benton's America Today
By Kathleen Murphy Skolnik
Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today is a panorama of American life in the 1920s, a visual record of its rural, urban, and industrial landscapes and the impact of modern technology on its people. Thanks to AXA Equitable’s generous gift of the murals to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012, visitors to the museum can now experience this monumental mural cycle in a context similar to its original setting in the Board of Directors’ room at Manhattan’s progressive New School for Social Research.
In 1930, New School Director Alvin S. Johnson commissioned Benton to paint murals for the third-floor boardroom in the school’s new Joseph Urban-designed headquarters at 66 West 12th Street, a striking Modernist building wrapped in glass and horizontal bands of black and cream brick. Johnson had no interest in traditional historical and mythological themes but asked instead for contemporary images reflecting modern life.
Working in a loft not far from the New School, Benton painted the original nine panels in egg tempera on gessoed linen. He received no compensation other than the cost of materials, primarily eggs. When the panels were completed, they were transported to the site and hoisted through a third-floor window.
The murals covered almost the entire wall space of the 30-square foot boardroom. The largest panel, Instruments of Power, was installed on the wall opposite the entrance. Unlike the other panels, this one contains no figures but focuses instead on symbols of the machine age—an airplane, a dirigible, a turbine, a dam, and an internal combustion engine.
Three panels originally located to the right of the entrance—Deep South, Midwest, and Changing West—represent three rural regions of the country being transformed by industrialization. Sketches made by Benton during his travels throughout the United States in the late 1920s served as sources for these compositions. In Deep South, traditional methods of cotton production and harvesting are combined with images of a rice thresher and steam tractor, signs of increasing mechanization of agricultural processes. Sawmills, combines, and grain elevators appear in Midwest, and symbols of the Old West—a cowboy, a windmill—are juxtaposed with images of oil derricks and a gas cracking plant in Changing West.
The panels that were placed to the left of the entrance focus on single industries—Coal, Steel, and City Building. Miners extract coal for transport to an electrical power plant; steel workers attend to the blast furnaces and Bessemer converters that process iron ore into steel; and construction workers erect the steel frames that support soaring skyscrapers, such as 40 Wall Street, seen in the background.
Benton devoted the two panels flanking the boardroom entrance to urban life in New York City. Taxi dancers, moviegoers, and circus performers are among the figures populating City Activities with Dance Hall. Benton’s wife and son appear in a family scene, and the artist himself toasts Johnson in the lower right hand corner. City Activities with Subway celebrates such urban pleasures as prizefights, burlesque shows, amusement parks, and soda fountains, not all of which would meet the approval of those attending the revival meeting or listening to the Salvation Army band shown at the center of the mural.
When the economic crisis that began with the October 1929 stock market crash deepened, Benton decided to add a tenth mural, Outreaching Hands, to America Today. Placed above the sliding doors leading to the boardroom, this small, narrow panel showing hands desperately reaching for coffee and bread epitomizes the bleakness of the Great Depression.
In the late 1940s, the boardroom was converted to a lecture hall to accommodate the postwar increase in enrollment at the New School. This change increased the vulnerability of the mural to damage, and Benton returned in 1956 and again in 1968 to clean and restore his work. In the early 1980s, the school began searching for a new owner with the resources to properly maintain the mural. It was purchased in 1984 by Equitable Life, now AXA, cleaned and restored, and installed in 1986 in the firm’s corporate offices at 787 Seventh Avenue. America Today moved to the lobby of 1290 Avenue of the Americas in 1996 when Equitable relocated there.
City Activities with Dance Hall
Instruments of Power
City Activities with Subway
When renovation of the building’s lobby necessitated the removal of the mural, AXA gifted it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today, the panels can be found in the first-floor gallery, 909, positioned in the same configuration as in the New School boardroom. An adjacent gallery contains preparatory studies and a video explaining the mural’s content and history.
About the Author:
Kathleen Murphy Skolnik teaches art and architectural history at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and has led seminars on Art Deco at Chicago's Newberry Library. She is a member of ADSNY's Advisory Board. She lectures extensively on Art Deco topics and is the co-author of The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meiere and the editor of the English translation of Havana Art Deco: Architectural Guide by Maria Elena Martin Zequeira.
All images: Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975) from America Today, 1930–31, mural cycle consisting of ten panels, egg tempera with oil glazing over Permalba on a gesso ground on linen mounted to wood panels with a honeycomb interior. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of AXA Equitable, 2012.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.