It immerses the visitor in a profoundly transitional period in American history, the cultural rupture between the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression...
My first curatorial position out of graduate school was at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. In addition to holding treasures in Asian art and masterworks by Caravaggio and Monet, the Nelson-Atkins is the institutional torchbearer for Thomas Hart Benton, who settled in Kansas City in 1935 after leaving New York in quite a public—and not completely unwarranted—huff. In eight years at the museum, hardly a week went by when I didn't think about his work, his strong personality, and his artistic legacy.
Imagine my surprise, then, that Benton was waiting for me on a very large scale—both literally and figuratively—when I began my position at the Metropolitan. Benton's great mural America Today, originally installed at the New School for Social Research, had recently come to the Museum as a gift from AXA, the company that purchased the mural in 1984. This transformative gift rested on the efforts of many individuals, including Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, H. Barbara Weinberg, Curator Emerita of The American Wing, and Pari Stave, Senior Administrator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.
America Today is more than a traditional mural, it is a space, an environment that Benton designed in collaboration with the New School's architect, Joseph Urban. It immerses the visitor in a profoundly transitional period in American history, the cultural rupture between the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. Furthermore, the mural commission marked not only a turning point in Benton's career, catapulting him to a new level of fame and influence; it also constituted a critical connection between American and Mexican modernism, as the great muralist José Clemente Orozco had been likewise commissioned by the school to decorate a space two stories up from Benton's room (Orozco's mural is still in place). The fact that Benton's most famous student, Jackson Pollock, served as a model for America Today secures the mural's status as a landmark of American art from the early twentieth century. Indeed, many scholars have rightly traced Pollock's groundbreaking monumental drip paintings back to his knowledge of Benton's dynamic and swirling mural compositions.
Department of Modern and Contemporary Art