In the early decades of the last century America was a young nation, restless, bold, and eager to capitalize on all that providence had bestowed upon her. And, like the train and the automobile, modern industry was the engine and wheels that would deliver the young republic to its bright and promising future.
This spirit is given full applause in "America Today," Thomas Hart Benton's grand panoramic hymn of the American experience. Created in the early 1930s for the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, it is one of the highest achievements of American painting of the first half of the 20th century.
These 10 panels, measuring over 7 feet in height, are reassembled as closely as possible to their original configuration. In them, Benton made use of the architectural wooden moldings, covered in aluminum leaf, and which are here preserved.
Benton's forms and colors can possess a coarseness but which seems inseparable from their energy - loud and pumping - like the pulse of blood, of urban heat and steam, of chatter and speed, of commuters swarming and lurching.
The humanity of Benton's scenes maintains a tension with this coarseness, and his refined technical skill and complex, high-keyed palette keeps his scenes from devolving to the level of pulp comics, but they sometimes veer a little close. In "City Activities with Subway," the views are burlesque and claustrophobic, but also alluring and alive, like the city itself.
"Instruments of Power" is void of human figures. The entire composition is filled with only the weight and power of metal and machinery. Everything is speed, forward motion, and reliability. Industrialization and automation are alive, serving mankind and not enslaving him.
"Midwest" highlights American agriculture and the clearing of the land. One laborer turns aside from a felled tree, saw in hand, as another looks like he just knocked it down with a punch. Logs seem to fly end over end, dragged by horses and loaded onto train beds. Farmers reap a season's harvest as a factory in the distance awaits the land's bounty.
A sweep of activities, from welding to ranching, are shown in "Changing West," as black smoke billows up to divide the composition vertically, confusing the flight of biplanes. Factories contrast with open ranges and distant mountains. Beneath a section of aluminum-leafed moulding, figures talk quietly in what seems a sort of sink hole at the bottom of the composition.
Benton's scenes are filled with the "grand divine, the expansiveness, the go that electrifies existence," words he used to describe his own father in his autobiography. His pencil sketches have an earnest physicality and posture, from the insistent, outstretched arms of a street preacher, to the strong profile and tilt of a woman's head in "Peggy Reynolds."
Along with works by Reginald Marsh, Berenice Abbot, Walker Evans, Jackson Pollock and others, are Benton's own preparatory works. "City Building," one of two with the same title, has a lively, colorful palette, and the simplicity and directness of a trumpet’s clear notes.
Described by Matthew Baigell as "less a nationalist than an irretrievably out-of-date Jeffersonian adrift in the twentieth century," Benton was an immensely popular artist who enjoyed wide success in the 1920s and 1930s before falling dramatically out of favor with the rise of Abstract art after the Second World War. As the appreciation of figurative art has been reestablished, Benton's own reputation has strengthened.
There is in these images a sense of everything rushing forward, the speed of modern living continually overwhelming and erasing what one tries to hold on to. For Benton, the 20th century is both marvelous and disorienting. The contradictions inherent in his work say much of the artist and also of the mixture of optimism and unease in America the first decades of the 20th century.
“Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered” is on view through Sunday April 19, 2015, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028. 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org
More information about Robert Edward Bullock's work can be found at bullockonline.com