The acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Thomas Hart Benton’s groundbreaking mural America Today has aroused new interest in Benton’s murals. America Today was commissioned by the New School for Social Research in 1930. Two years later, Gertrude Vanderbilt, who had seen America Today commissioned Benton to create a similar mural for the Whitney Museum titled The Arts of Life in America.
The tale of those two murals offers a tragi-comic history of benign neglect and changes in critical perception that would affect the prestige and desirability of Benton’s work. Both works passed from fame to disregard and back to fame.
Mural # 1. America Today was sold by the New School for Social Research to AXA Equitable, an insurance company in 1982 for $3.1 million and in 1996 was moved to storage where it currently resides but with expectations of reemerging.
Mural #2. The Arts of Life in America was dismantled by the Whitney Museum in 1953 and sold for $500 to The New Britain Museum of American Art where it is prominently on display.
Ironically when America Today is taken out of storage, it will be transferred to the Whitney, or at least to the building that the Whitney currently occupies. By then, the Whitney building, a landmark designed by Marcel Brewer, will have become a satellite space for the Met. The Whitney will move to the meatpacking district. Back in 2005-2006, New Britain’s The Arts of Life in America had a cameo appearance at the Whitney, as a loan during the NBMAA’s construction for its addition. It could be said that the two murals have had some intimacy with the Whitney but not a lasting commitment.
Why did both murals have such a rollercoaster ride? For one thing there is the imagery itself. In both murals, Benton painted situations and people that surprised and often offended his patrons. A street gunman is controlled by a mob boss who is in turn controlled by a wealthy pillar of the community. That striking image in The Arts of Life in America would not seem particularly germane to the arts nor likely to appeal to the benefactors of the Whitney. Flamboyant, mostly naked dancers seen from below are an attention grabbing scene in America Today and would probably also raise some eyebrows in a college boardroom. Even today, some viewers find Benton’s caricatures of ethnic figures repellent. One reason why Benton is an important artist is that he is unfiltered. He seems unconcerned with the effect his candid observations might have on his audience. As in his art, so also in his life, Benton created conflicts. Later in his career some outspoken remarks about homosexuals resulted in his being fired from a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Another problem was the setting of the murals. Benton uses primary colors, possibly a reference to his brief period as member of the Synchronist movement. He was also influenced by the twisted and distorted figures of Michelangelo and even pushed those distortions to extremes. The result was dramatic but unnerving to some in a confined space. The Arts of Life in America was intended for a library in the Whitney. In New Britain Museum of American art, Highlights of the Collection I, there is a telling quote from a critic of the time, Paul Rosenfeld who described the viewers experience as a confrontation with: “…super-lifesize Michelangelesque figures…squirming forward and up and making as if to spring out and land full force upon him.” Another item from the Highlights of the Collection I shows the mind set of the times: “In the trial over the custody of ten-year old Gloria Vanderbilt, the Vanderbilt lawyer sought to establish that Gertrude Whitney was unsuited to act as guardian for Gloria because her museum housed immoral art. His central example was Benson’s mural with its cast of gamblers, bootleggers, gangsters, chorus girls and prostitutes. The Whitney museum at that time consisted of four town houses linked together at 8-12 West Eight Street. When the Whitney moved to larger quarters, the mural was considered expendable.
Similarly, for America Today, the room was clearly unsuitable at the New School for Social Research. As described in the New York Times article,: “…the space whose walls it covered was converted from a boardroom to a classroom and then a seminar room; crowds, smoke and an unstable climate all took their toll. Benton restored the work twice, first in 1956 and again 12 years later.” Eventually the school decided to sell the mural to raise money. It dominated the lobby of AXA Equitable for fourteen years but when they moved, their new landlord wanted a “different look.”
The most interesting problem that the murals faced was what director Douglas Hyland has called “…the ever changing tides of taste.” How could the Whitney have parted with such a major work for $500? How could a college let such a major work languish in a smoky classroom? Postwar art criticism had a mission. It was not enough to ignore American Scene Painting and realism in general, it was necessary to destroy it. The critical support for Abstract Expressionism was defiant. The realist art that it was supplanting was not only irrelevant, according to its detractors, it was not even art. Benton in particular was dismissed as a mere illustrator outside the mainstream.
Fortunately, The New Britain Museum of American Art did not join the popular wisdom and supported Benton. He was deeply appreciative of that support and considered our museum his favorite of all the museums in the country.
The story arcs of artists’ lives are always interesting. Can you think of an artist with as much conflict as Benton?
When it comes to irony, the relationship of Benton and Pollock is fruitful. How is Jackson Pollock a contributing factor in the tale of the two murals?
Was the Whitney Museum ill-advised to give up the Benton? What is the counter argument?
Read more about Thomas Hart Benton’s works at the NBMAA here: The Arts of Life in America