Thursday, September 17, 2015

Spatializing the Benton room

Talking to my friend J today about finally seeing the Thomas Hart Benton murals at the Met on Monday, I was able to complete some thoughts which started forming there... though the complete thoughts take the form of questions. As I mentioned, you don't quite feel the closure of the murals in the current display, which - understandably - lets viewers flow through the room to other galleries. (I'd briefly hoped, when someone in one of their videos reminds us that the Met is a museum full of period rooms, that they might do that here too.)

But still, being able to get close to them and feel their energy, is huge. I felt for the first time how overpowering it must have been to see Benton's figures tensed, stretched, bent, reaching and dancing behind the heads of the people sitting across the original board room table from you! (I recall the effect of seeing people against its companion Orozco murals for reference.) Not to mention all the machines doing their turbocharged thing. Old photos from the day, being black and white,
don't prepare you for the explosive color. These wide-angle shots also don't give you any sense of just how small the room feels, when its walls are aquiver practically floor-to-ceiling with mural with special illumination coming from under a dark red ceiling, the presumably black doors shut. I told you I got the squeeze-like connection of the murals by holding my hands up to block the exits where the windows would have been, but now I wonder what work the windows performed in the
 
original space. We know the curtains were clear blue, but now I want to know what view they let in - or didn't - and so the questions begin. What did one see out the window, by day and - even more, since it was a night school - at night? Could it be one saw the skyline of lower Manhattan by day, its lights by night? If so, the electric charge exploding from the central "Instruments of Power" mural will have claimed that sparkling new landscape as it careened back into the room. And the big
city scenes on the wall facing the window would have been balanced and amplified by the city itself. Yes, amplified is the word. Energy will have been coursing around the room, not just (as in individual panels) up and down, into the depth and back. And those amazing 3-D aluminum lightning spurs, glancing along mural and window frames before shooting into the paintings... which, it turns out, are older than the specific content of Benton's murals! Without the distractions of its new home in the black-floored cloisters of the Met's American modernism galleries (BTW: is the wooden floor of 510 maybe still the original Benton room floor?!), I'm imagining the space in whole new ways. How do you see it?

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