Benton’s extraordinary mural ‘America Today’ (1930-31) is now installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Modern Wing for all to see and enjoy. Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was commissioned to paint the mural for a boardroom on the third floor of The New School of Social Research in New York City. Conceived and executed in nine months, the mural depicts all the dynamism of early 20th Century America and includes images ranging from cotton picking in the rural South to the machinery and workers of urban America and the social life of the city. After several decades at the New School the mural was acquired by AXA (then Equitable Life) in 1984 and in 2012 AXA donated the mural to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
From a frame perspective the mural is of interest for its unique use of frame molding. Benton collaborated on the molding designs with the Austrian-born architect of the New School building Joseph Urban (1872-1933), one of the founders of American Art Deco. The moldings are silver-gilded and of a shape that underscores Urban’s Art Deco aesthetic. In preparatory sketches and drawings by Benton it is clear that the use of the molding was an integral part of the design and installation plan.
The mural is not only enclosed by the molding in the conventional manner: single passages of molding enter from the top and bottom in arcs and angles and terminate within the mural, penetrating areas of the composition and serving as breaks and transitions from one passage to another. It is a fascinating and unique use of the frame.