America Today (and The New School) at the Met

The New School has its well-known triumphs, from the rescue of persecuted scholars that formed the University in Exile to its groundbreaking courses in film, psychoanalysis, and urban studies. But, as with most institutions, there is little attention to more controversial decisions. Starting September 30, 2014, there is a grand display of one of them.

America Today, a ten-panel mural by Thomas Hart Benton, is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Originally painted for the New School’s new building at 66 W. 12th Street, which was designed by Joseph Urban, the school sold the murals to AXA Equitable Life Insurance in the early 1980s to pay the bills. AXA recently donated them to the Metropolitan. After restoration and research, the museum has recreated the room at the New School in which the murals originally appeared. Set in walls painted deep ruby, as Urban prescribed, the murals cover the four walls, reaching from the ceiling to a foot off the ground, with only the break of two windows on one wall and the doorway on the opposite side. The paintings burst with action, people, labor, and story. They envelop you.

The exhibition extends outside the room as well, with rich archival and contextual information about Benton, New York artists of the period (from Benton’s New School colleague Berenice Abbott to his most famous student, Jackson Pollock), and studies for the mural that lend practiced lines to Benton’s swirling figures and scenes.

Perhaps most revelatory is the architectural plan for the building from June 1930. Here you see Joseph Urban’s plan for the room before Benton began his work. Urban designed not only the size of the panels but also one of their most distinctive features – mouldings on the canvases that shape the composition by their angle, curve, and relief. Benton’s full narratives work within the shapes created by the moulding. These decorative outlines separate the highly detailed scenes, giving a bit of order to what could be sensory overload. There is little documentation of what kind of collaboration – if any – occurred between Urban and Benton. Here, then, is another indication of the minute-level of Urban’s vision, from the modernist façade to the multi-colored classrooms and a moulding-framed mural.

Only a few years ago these architectural plans were rolled up in a corner, ready for the trashbin. Silvia Rocciolo, curator of the university’s art collection, and Wendy Scheir, the first archivist at the school (just recently hired at that point), moved the plans from corner to archive. But the plight of architectural plans hint at the fate of the murals. The Benton room served as a boardroom but quickly became a classroom. As Tennessee Williams taught playwriting and Count Basie played jazz, students smoked and leaned their chairs against the paintings. As Urban designed, the school dwelled within art.

But that design had consequences, most especially for the art. Benton repaired the murals twice and still they were torn and used. Despite their state, they were the school’s most valuable asset, easy to sell quickly. We lost the painterly real estate on the walls but not on the ground.

The university sold one of its treasures – nostalgia beckons, sadness lingers – but might their own period room at the Metropolitan be the best outcome?