Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Picturing The New School

I opened today's session of New School Century with a 1931 snibbet from a newspaper in Danish (or is it Norwegian?). (See leaf 19 of scrapbook 4.) On my first skim of the scrapbooks I exulted in our being important enough to be written about in Europe, but attention to the ads makes clear that this is a New York newspaper (the name is lost), a reminder of what a polyglot city this has always been. It confirms also that The New School was of interest not just to one or two communities in the City.
The list of classes being offered at The New School is pretty awesome too - and this snibbet includes only Torsdag and Fredag! Robert Frost on poetry, Frank Lloyd Wright on architecture, Sidney Hook and Horace Kallen on philosophy, Doris Humphrey and John Martin on dance, among others, and one Thomas H. Benton on "Craftsmanship and Art." That Benton is, of course, the muralist of my favorite lost New School space. Here's the Benton muraled conference room on the 5th floor in 1931.

You've seen the colors of the murals, but I've learned that the overall effect was brighter still, with a varnished walnut floor, black-lacquer furniture and walls, a russet-red ceiling surrounded by subtle lights, and curtains in cerulian blue. In any case, I argued, along with a few other spaces like the Orozco Room two floors up, this room was the most distinctive of The New School and its engaged worldly ethos, and so came to represent the distinctiveness of The New School experience.
It certainly will have produced an enveloping experience whether for discussions or lectures (more so than the Orozco-muraled cafeteria, whose figures are not life-size and in your space, but abstracted and located at eye level and above). It was the ideal setting for showing that the refugee intellectuals of the University in Exile were indeed in America. And in promotional materials for the BA program and the Institute of Retired Professionals from the early 1960s, the Benton Room showed that this was no ordinary school, with ordinary rooms. Later, in the Seminar College and early Eugene Lang College, the Benton Room was where the life- and community-defining orientation (later called "tally") happened - here copies of catalogs from each of them.
When the murals were sold (mainly to raise money, but also for conservationist reasons, as they were suffering from scuffing as people leaned chairs back against them, and suffused with cigarette smoke), part of New School identity went with it.

One of the readings for class was from Berenice Abbott's A Guide to Better Photography, yet another important popularizing book which grew out of a course at The New School. Abbott is, indeed, credited with creating the country's first photography program at The New School, starting in 1935. Abbott is encouraging to her readers - anyone can be a photographer - but doesn't downplay the hard work of taking better photographs. A good photographer works with what she knows, and composes her shot to let the truth of the object show. Abbott illustrated this with two pictures she took of the NY Stock Exchange.
The first was taken on a weekend, since traffic made setting up a tripod hard on a weekday, but the building was in shadow and the street deserted. She returned and returned to the spot until she found out when the light was on the facade just right - just twenty minutes each day! - and when the flag was hoisted - only holidays. In the end she persuaded the president of the Stock Exchange to have it hoisted just for her, since on holidays the street is deserted, too. For the bigger problem was people: when there was too much traffic she couldn't take a picture, but an empty street won't work, for two reasons.

Human activity, flow of crowds in the narrow street, was needed to offset that static neoclassic facade ... Most of all, of course, the Stock Market without feverish human movement is totally uncharacteristic. (25)

The characteristic feverish movement takes place inside the building, but a photo even of the outside has to convey it somehow if it is to be an effective portrait of the Stock Exchange! The resulting image shows a concatenation of light, people, cars, flag which, in fact, never happens, but it became iconic because it shows the true life of the building.

We asked the students what picture they would take to show what's characteristic of The New School... You can see why the Benton Room was so much photographed to represent us: it brought the busy world into the classroom - sort of the obverse of what Abbott did in her Stock Market portrait. I'll let you know what they come up with!


mark said...

Hands-down favorite snapshot of current New School life - students smoking in the courtyard, or on the Parsons steps!

Colleen said...

Hi Mark,
I was searching Thomas Hart Benton and happened to find this post. I was wondering where you found those images of the Benton mural in The New School. Are they all from The New School archives and scrapbooks?

If you could get back to me that would be great!
Thank you,