Monday, September 14, 2015

Holy Grail

One thing I was chagrined to miss during my year away from New York City was the Metropolitan Museum of Art's special exhibition welcoming Thomas Hart Benton's "American Today" murals to their collection. In anticipation of eventual permanent display in the old Whitney building at some point in the future, the Met reconstructed the room at The New School for Social Research for which the murals were created, for over half a century, defining the spirit of the place. I'm going to be ok. The show (very fine, I'm told) is over, but the murals are still on view: they have a room to themselves in the American modernism section - indeed, they're likely to be the first thing visitors see as they enter. They really are a sight to behold, and my pleasure looking at them mixed happily with that of people discovering them for the first time. Maybe this will turn out to be one of the Met's faves! I was not, of course, discovering for the first time, or even seeing them in the flesh (well, tempera) for the first time. I've been on their scent for over five years, convinced they embody a significant part of what The New School was about, almost completely forgotten. I paid many a visit to the lobby of AXA Equitable a few blocks south of MoMA, where they spent much of the last quarter century, albeit high on a big wall rather than enveloping one in a small space. They're part of J's and my New School history course, naturally; I've also used them in my class on lived religion in NYC, and J and I shared them in a presentation on history and community. (We even saw a lousy movie in which the murals had a short cameo.) The murals were the favored backdrop for publicity scenes -
the way The New School communicated its distinctive character. To get a sense of what the room - 510, now very spare - looked like when the murals were there, I even taught myself Google Sketch-Up and made a 3-D model. I confess to being a little obsessed, even possessed...
So what was it like, seeing the murals up close and personal? Almost perfect. I noticed how the pieces fit together, how the amazing aluminum frame-like spurs - like bolts of lightning - animate and unify the work. I discerned that the murals were meant to be seen from
sitting (they were for a conference room, later used for classes and events). I discovered that the woman in the City Scene with the preacher, burlesque, boxers, etc., has her eyes closed - she may be the only figure not in motion. As I sat near the middle of the room, facing the more stylized "Instruments of Power," I suddenly found myself imagining what it was like when the francophone scholars of the Ecole Libre met here - I imagined being just feet from them, just a few feet more from the paintings crowding us with a big American embrace.
In fact, the experience of being in that room must have been heady, more than a little claustrophobic. You don't quite get that in their present display, where the doors and windows open to other galleries. (Also the ceiling is a little too high, and the lighting different from the original - this isn't quite one of the Met's period rooms.) But I found that if I held my two fists up on either side of "Instruments of Power" while standing in the entry the murals swiftly wrapped themselves around me, a quite overpowering experience. You try too: it's room 909.

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