America Today

A few weeks ago I was up in New York for a friend’s wedding. Fairly recently we found out that we are going to be leaving the East Coast and moving out to Colorado. These two sentences may seem somewhat unrelated, but there’s a logic here.

Due to our impending move, any chance to visit New York has become a mad dash to see and absorb all the art I’m afraid I’ll never see again. I’m sure we’ll be back sometime, I still have friends and family there, but it might be years out. On this last visit we hit up the Met, the Cloisters (still technically the Met), and the Morgan Library. This post is about the Met and the wonderful exhibition “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered“.

I’ve worked on a lot on murals that I haven’t ever seen. Some are destroyed, most are in Mexico. Any chance I get to actually view a mural series I’ve studied makes me giddy. Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today is a series of 10 mural panels depicting “ modern America”. The series was originally painted for the New School for Social Research (which also features an excellent series by Orozco) and is filled with all the American “socialist” iconography that I love. We’ve got manufacturing, construction, transportation, the modern city etc… There are angles! So many wonderful angles. In the industry scenes all the men are anonymous extensions of the machines they use. Just another cog! It’s such a great work that really exemplifies the kind of progressive hold over, not quite full communist, public art that I love so much.

A panel from America Today

The mural has been gifted to the Met which I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, it allows people like me to easily view it. On the other, it takes the work out of context and dampens the message. In the Met it serves as an artifact of it’s time. It’s a snapshot of when artists thought art could truly change society rather than a motivating force in a school devoted to progressive ideals. But I got to see it and sit in a room and really take in the work, so… maybe it’s alright where it is.

Seeing a work in person is always so much more gratifying than seeing it in a book or on a website. I often think it’s kind of silly that we modern art historians write extensively about works we’ve never seen, but we do because it’s convenient. When you see a work in person you see so much more. Murals are especially tricky. You can’t ever experience the “monumentality” of a mural when it’s shrunk down to 6×6 inches. The figures in America Today are roughly life size, and the mural is meant to be displayed as a sort of panorama covering all four walls of a room. Viewing it in person you get a much better sense of  Benton’s America. In person movement becomes apparent. Benton’s use of color reinforces the feeling of the vibrant loud city, in a way that’s just not possible unless seen in person.

You also notice more important things that help you read the work more completely. Benton’s America is very gender segregated. I never really read that way before but when viewing the work as a whole it’s incredibly obvious. I knew that men made up the majority of figures in the mural, and that they were the only figures in the scenes of industry, but they are also the only figures who take part in any labor. Women in Benton’s America dance, flirt, and are ogled by men. The only “employed” women are burlesque dancers and the women mother in corner is one of the few not being leered at in some way. Women also only exist in the city. The rest of the country is too rough and tumble, or maybe too mechanically complicated for lady folk. It’s an interesting contrast, one I might write more about some day or might not.

Photographing art, our favorite past time.

The takeaway is that this mural is fantastic, and you should go see it. The exhibit closes in April, though I suspect the mural will be on view much longer than that.

19th Century American Trompe L’oeil II

Notes from Frankenstein, Alfred. The Reality of Appearance: The Trompe L’oeil Tradition in American Painting. Netherlands: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1970.

Catalog for “the first major museum exhibition of American trompe l’oeil.” Organized by the University Art Museum at Berkeley, it traveled to the National Gallery of Art in DC, the Whitney in NYC, the University Art Museum in Berkeley, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in SF, and the Detroit Institute of Arts all in 1970.

The catalog includes two examples of the back of the canvas theme.

John Frederick Peto, Lincoln and the Pfleger Stretcher, 1898.

John Frederick Peto, Lincoln and the Pfleger Stretcher, 1898.

John Frederick Peto’s Lincoln and the Pfleger Stretcher from 1898 (p. 100) and William M. Davis’s A Canvas Back possibly from circa 1870 (p. 54).

It’s not certain who used the idea first or if they came up with it independently.

The Pfleger Patent was a type of stretcher that Peto often used and because it had a distinctive form – beveled and beaded – it was used to differentiate between Peto and William Harnett’s work. The Lincoln portrait was also a common way to distinguish Peto’s work. The Lincoln portrait was based on an engraving based on a photograph by Matthew Brady. (similar to the Galatea engraving) The Lincoln portrait is unfinished around the mouth, according to Frankenstein this was common of Peto in his later years.

Davis_CanvasBack

The second example is William M. Davis’s “A Canvas Back”. This painting features a note identifying the artist and letters hidden in the back of a canvas.