NEW YORK, NY.- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
and the global insurance company AXA announced today the recent gift to the Museum of 29 drawings and studies relating to Thomas Hart Benton's epic mural America Today. This contribution follows AXA's 2012 gift of the mural itself, America Today, which was a transformative addition to the Museum's collection of American modernism. The works are on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 909, adjacent to the installation of the mural.
"We are grateful to AXA for their continuing partnership and generosity, which began in 2012 with the donation of America Today, and continued with their sponsorship of the 2014 exhibition Thomas Hart Benton's America Today Mural Rediscovered," stated Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The gift of these rich and revelatory works enhances our understanding of this important American artist and his contribution to 20th-century art."
"AXA is proud to partner with the MET as we continue to honor Benton's legacy by sharing his drawings and studies related to his celebrated work, America Today," said Mark Pearson, President and CEO of AXA Financial. "We are happy to contribute to the global community that we serve and uphold our promise to preserve his works for future generations."
Benton was a prolific and curious draftsman who recorded the world around him in drawings and sketches from an early age. After the death of his father in 1924, Benton was inspired to explore the United States and created hundreds of drawings of the people and places he saw in the South, the Midwest, and the West. These drawings became the basis for America Today.
In addition to the drawings, AXA's gift includes Benton's painted compositional studies for five of the mural's 10 panels: Instruments of Power, Deep South, City Building, City Activities with Dance Hall, and City Activities with Subway. Notably, the painted studies for Instruments of Power and Deep South, which appear on opposite sides of the same Masonite support, were previously owned by Jackson Pollock, who was Benton's student at the time at the Art Students League and assisted his teacher with America Today by modeling for male figures in the mural and mixing pigments.
America Today was Benton's first commission for a mural, and it served to launch his career as one of the defining figures in American art of his generation. He received the opportunity in 1930 from The New School for Social Research to adorn the boardroom in a new building at 66th West 12th Street design by renowned architect Joseph Urban. Rejecting allegorical and historical subjects traditionally reserved for public murals, Benton audaciously filled the walls of the New School's boardroom with images of modern life and industry.
After more than 50 years in the boardroom of the New School, a space that was subsequently used as a classroom, America Today proved difficult for the school to maintain in perpetuity. In 1982, the school announced the sale of the mural cycle to the Manhattan art dealer Maurice Segoura, with the condition that it would not be re-sold outside the United States or as individual panels. But the work was a great challenge to sell as a whole, increasing the likelihood that the panels would be dispersed.
America Today was acquired by AXA (then Equitable Life) in 1984, in support of efforts on the part of then-Mayor Edward I. Koch and others to keep it intact and in New York City. Two years later, after extensive cleaning and restoration, America Today was unveiled to critical acclaim in AXA's new headquarters at 787 Seventh Avenue. When the company moved its corporate headquarters again in 1996, to 1290 Avenue of the Americas, America Today was put on display in the lobby. There it remained until January 2012, when the company was asked to remove it to make way for a renovation. The removal triggered AXA's decision to place the historic work in a museum collection, and in December 2012, AXA donated the mural to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This transformative gift was facilitated by H. Barbara Weinberg, Curator Emerita, The American Wing, and Pari Stave, Senior Administrator in the Museum's Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.
More information about the 2012 gift and the 2014 exhibition can be found in the Press Room on the Museum's website. The MetCollects episode on the story of the mural's journey to The Met is also available on the Museum's website.
A related Bulletin published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art is available in the Museum's book shop and online ($14.95). The essays and entries in the publication reveal new findings regarding the significance of the murals, as well as the results of an intensive technical examination, including infrared reflectography, exploring Benton's working methods.