The Lasting Influence of Mexico’s Great Muralists

Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros created a movement with galvanizing effects north of the border. 

José Clemente Orozco’s “Zapatistas,” from 1931, lyricizes the revolutionary force. Courtesy MOMA / © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The title of a thumpingly great show at the Whitney, “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945,” picks an overdue art-historical fight. The usual story of American art in those two decades revolves around young, often immigrant American aesthetes striving to absorb European modernism. A triumphalist tale composed backward from its climax—the postwar success of Abstract Expressionism—it brushes aside the prevalence, in the Depression thirties, of politically themed figurative art: social realism, more or less, which became ideologically toxic with the onset of the Cold War. What to do with the mighty legacy of the time’s big three Mexican painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros? As little as possible has seemed the rule, despite the seminal influence of Orozco and Siqueiros on the young Jackson Pollock. Granted, there’s the problem of appreciating muralists in the absence of their murals. (A mural is a picture that is identical with a wall, and a wall belongs to a building that, besides not being portable, has meanings of its own.) But, with some two hundred works by sixty artists and abundant documentary material, the Whitney curator Barbara Haskell reweaves the sense and the sensations of an era to bring it alive.


“The Driller (Mural, Rikers Island, New York),” by Harold Lehman, from 1937. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum © Estate of Harold Lehman

Start the story with Emiliano Zapata, the peasant leader from a village in the central state of Morelos, who was tricked into a military ambush and martyred in 1919. This was a year before the decade-long, staggeringly bloody Mexican Revolution, which had begun with an attempt to overthrow the dictatorial and oligarchic President Porfirio Díaz, finally culminated in the election of Álvaro Obregón. (At least a million of the country’s fifteen million citizens lost their lives.) The agrarian rebel Zapata became an iconic figure for a new order that was merging social reform with a celebration of folkways and traditions—in striking contrast to the urban-industrial character of the Russian Revolution. (Shifting views of the Soviet Union regularly roiled the Mexican intelligentsia, many of whom welcomed the exiled Leon Trotsky to the capital, in 1937, before some effectively condoned his murder by a Stalinist agent, in 1940.) Nearly every artist had a go at exalting Zapata for his deep rootedness in native soil as well as for his dashing militance. Orozco’s “Zapatistas” (1931) lyricizes the rural force. A “Zapatistas” made the following year, by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, conveys a lot with witty economy: a packed composition of overlapping sombreros affording incomplete glimpses of peasant faces and rifle barrels. It radiates a sort of ecstatic menace.

Ramos Martínez, who immigrated to Los Angeles in 1930, is one of a number of lesser-known artists who impress in the show’s opening sections. The Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti, who journeyed the opposite way, from Los Angeles to Mexico, in 1923, is represented with crisp images, including a still-life of a sickle, a loaded bandolier, and an ear of corn. But the exhibition centers on the three leaders of the mural movement and their galvanizing effects north of the border. The star, of course, is Rivera, whose panache in an epic style of sophisticated populism won him world fame. In 1931, he was given the newly founded Museum of Modern Art’s second monographic show (the first was devoted to Matisse) and created a remarkable suite of portable frescoes. Among them were a magnificent portrayal of Zapata appropriating the white horse of a slain foe and “The Uprising,” in which a woman with a baby defends a worker from a sword-wielding soldier. I once underrated that work, but this time it affected me with its cinematic immediacy. Rivera keeps looking better in retrospect, after a long period in which his standing declined while that of his wife, Frida Kahlo, soared. I prefer Kahlo myself, though by a narrower margin now. The show includes only two works by her. One jolts. The self-portrait “Me and My Parrots” (1941) communicates a force of personhood beyond that of any of the hundreds of other faces on view here.

“Barricade,” by José Clemente Orozco, from 1931. Courtesy MOMA / © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Rivera notoriously enchanted American financiers and industrialists, engaging in a dizzying dance of co-optation that extended to adulatory coverage in Forbes and peaked with his masterpiece murals, completed in 1933, in the Detroit Institute of Arts, of a Ford plant in full-tilt operation. This celebrity proved tricky for him at home, where Siqueiros, among others, denounced him as a sellout to class enemies. Rivera countered by painting a head of Lenin into his grand mural suite for Rockefeller Center, in 1933. Ordered by Nelson Rockefeller to remove the Bolshevik, Rivera refused. (Light verse by E. B. White in this magazine had the mogul objecting, “After all / It’s my wall,” before it concluded, “ ‘We’ll see if it is,’ said Rivera.”) The work was destroyed in 1934. The same year, Rivera painted a new version, “Man, Controller of the Universe,” in Mexico City. The Whitney show features a full-sized (nearly sixteen feet high by thirty-seven and a half feet wide) digital reproduction of the surviving mural, printed on a single sheet of vinyl glued to a wall. I don’t know what to make of that except as an instance of technical whoop-de-do. Much as I empathize with Haskell’s yen for a pièce de résistance, I swear by the physical integrity of painting, here betrayed by a smooth-as-silk illusion.

Rivera inspired American painters to create tableaux of laboring or protesting workers (police brutality figures often) and of historical events and themes. The work of the African-American artist Charles White is notable; give an eye to his “Progress of the American Negro: Five Great American Negroes” (1939-40), which works such heroes as Booker T. Washington and Marian Anderson into a baroque panorama. The show also includes ten temperas from Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” of 1940-41: little pictures, narrating the northward exodus of Southern blacks, that reverberate with intense color, clenched design, and a quiet power of conviction that makes much other work here seem forced and fustian.

But America already had a prominent public artist: the ebullient neo-Mannerist Thomas Hart Benton, who hailed Rivera until he was alienated by his Marxism. Benton’s output might be termed liberal-nationalist with a heaping side order of Hollywood. His bravura series “American Historical Epic” (1924-27) has the virtue of featuring noble Indians along with the vice of casting them as perennial losers. He could be callous. But he was right on time for certain popular moods of the thirties—so much so that his reputation crashed soon thereafter. He has come to be mentioned most often as a teacher of Jackson Pollock—a status that happens to be at the beating heart of the Whitney show.

“The Uprising,” by Diego Rivera, from 1931. Courtesy collection of Vicky and Marcos Micha Levy; © 2020 Banco de México Rivera Kahlo Museums Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Reproduction authorized by El Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, 2020

The young Pollock was a student, too, of Siqueiros, who was at once the mural movement’s most adamant Stalinist (in 1940, he led a failed attempt, with machine guns, to assassinate Trotsky) and its most experimental, indeed avant-garde, painter. Pollock attended a workshop that Siqueiros conducted in New York, in 1936, teaching innovative techniques: using non-paint materials, airbrushing, and, among other heterodox procedures, dripping and pouring. Meanwhile, Pollock emulated Orozco’s dark, fierce, rhythmic Expressionism to the point of making works that are almost—but not quite—hard to distinguish from it. Relatively neutral politically, Orozco favored mythological subjects in such explosively composed works as “Prometheus,” a mural at Pomona College, in California, which the Whitney represents, at about half scale, in another digital reproduction. Juxtapositions of paintings by Orozco and Siqueiros with contemporaneous ones by Pollock amount to a riveting show within the show: a crucible in which the apolitical American found ways around the crushing authority of Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Mondrian, and other European paragons. The vehemence of the Mexicans matched his volcanic temperament; and the heft of their gestural forms showed him how to rival, while evading, the tinkered unities of Cubism. I recommend comparing and contrasting the seething intensity of Pollock’s “Composition with Flames” (1936) with that of “The Fire” (1938), by Orozco, and Siqueiros’s “The Electric Forest” (1939).

“Vida Americana” valuably augments standard histories of modern art. Without the Mexican precedents of amplified scale and passionate vigor, the development of Abstract Expressionism in general, and that of Pollock in particular, lacks crucial sense. As for the politics, consider the persistently leftward tilt of American art culture ever since—a residual hankering, however sotto voce, to change the world.

By Peter Schjeldahl for the New Yorker

Peggy Guggenheim: The Last Dogaressa

Tony Vaccaro Archives Peggy Guggenheim in her gondola, 1968 

The American art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim saw Venice for the first time in 1924. She had traveled there for her honeymoon with her first husband Laurence Veil, an American-French Dada sculptor and writer. At the time, Peggy was only twenty-six—she was born in 1898—and immediately fell in love with the floating city. “I have never been in a city that gave me the same sense of freedom as Venice,” Peggy wrote, “Venice is not only the city of freedom and fantasy but it is the city of pleasure and happiness.”

© Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Jackson Pollock, Circumcision, January 1946. Oil on canvas. Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, Venezia.

In 1947, Peggy visited again and one year later she was offered to exhibit her collection at the Greek pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The exhibition was her official introduction to the city as an experienced and visionary collector and the confirmation that she had found a home for herself and her art. Among the pieces presented at the Biennale, there was a painting by Jackson Pollock, a piece that signaled the artist’s debut on the European art scene. In 1949, Peggy bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an unfinished building on the Grand Canal by architect Lorenzo Boschetti. The Palazzo became her home as well as the location of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. As one of the most visited attractions in the city, the Collection is a window into some of the best European and American art of the first half of the twentieth century.


© René Magritte, SIAE René Magritte, Empire of Light, 1953-54. Oil on canvas. Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, Venezia.

2019 marked the seventieth anniversary of the first exhibition held at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and the fortieth anniversary of Peggy’s death. To celebrate these occurrences, the Collection organized the exhibition Peggy Guggenheim, The Last Dogaressa. Through more than sixty pieces—paintings, sculptures, and personal scrapbooks—that Peggy collected after 1948, visitors have the rare opportunity to see masterpieces such as L’Empire des Lumières by René Magritte, Study for Chimpanzee by Francis Bacon, and Boîte-en-Valise created in 1941 by Marcel Duchamp specifically for her.


© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, SIAE Francis Bacon, Study for Chimpanzee, March 1957. Oil and pastel on canvas. Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, Venezia.

The Last Dogaressa opened with the pieces presented at the Greek pavilion in 1948, a clear celebration of Peggy’s first Venetian appearance. This exhibition also focused on Peggy’s extraordinary ability to recognize the talents of artists like Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Robert Motherwell. Among the artists of the abstract expressionist period, we also find Grace Hartigan and Irene Rice Pereira, a sign that Peggy strongly believed in the promotion and recognition of women artists.

© Grace Hartigan Estate Grace Hartigan, Ireland, 1958. Oil on canvas. Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, Venezia.

Yet Peggy did not only promote international artists, she was also interested in meeting local ones. One day at a restaurant in San Marco Square, she befriended Emilio Vedova and Giuseppe Santomaso, two of the most important modern Italian painters. Although she could speak Italian, Peggy found it initially hard to communicate with the two artists in Venetian, the local dialect that she eventually mastered. “The attention she gave the local talent was key,” says Gražina Subelytė, one of the curators at the Collection, “she was one of these artists’ earliest supporters.”

© Fondazione Emilio E Annabianca Vedova Emilio Vedova, Image of Time (Barrier), 1951. Egg tempera on canvas. Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, Venezia.

From her writings, it is evident that Peggy loved Venice. “If anything can rival Venice in its beauty, it must be its reflection at sunset in the Grand Canal” she noted. To this day, Venice reciprocates her love. It is still common to hear Venetians and students say “Let’s go to Peggy’s” as if they were planning a visit to an old friend who lives just across the bridge, that American lady with fascinating stories and a house full of art on the Grand Canal.

Ray Wilson Peggy Guggenheim in the garden of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice, 1970s. Next to her, Germaine Richier’s Tauromachy, 1953.

By Caterina Bellinetti for Art & Object.

Not a fake: Van Gogh self-portrait is his only work painted while suffering psychosis, experts say

Vincent van Gogh’s Self-portrait, 1889. Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo

A Van Gogh self-portrait dismissed as a questionable fake has now been authenticated. The picture, which belongs to Norway’s National Museum, was painted in August 1889 in the mental asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Today (January 20, 2020) it will go on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where it is on loan.

The Oslo self portrait is a highly disturbing image, depicting the artist just as he was emerging from a severe mental crisis. According to Louis van Tilborgh, the Amsterdam museum’s senior researcher, it is the “only work Van Gogh is known to have painted while suffering from psychosis”. As such, the newly reattributed self-portrait provides a unique insight into his mental condition.

Van Gogh depicts himself with a gaunt face and haggard expression. His face is only partly turned towards the viewer, avoiding our gaze, and his eyes have a glazed expression. The artist appears weak and vulnerable, with drooping shoulders. Van Tilborgh says that his timid, sideways glance “is often found in patients suffering from depression and psychosis”.

When Norway’s National Museum bought the painting in 1910 it was the first Van Gogh self-portrait to enter a public collection anywhere. But by the 1970s the attribution was being questioned because of its weak execution and disturbed facial expression. In 2003 the Norwegian conservator Johannes Rød suggested that it was a forgery. Mai Britt, the current Oslo curator, says that before the painting was sent to Amsterdam for study it was labelled as only “attributed” to Van Gogh.

The Oslo picture is quite unlike Van Gogh’s other 35 self-portraits, in depicting him as a disturbed soul. Not surprisingly, the attribution was seriously questioned: the painting’s early provenance remained unknown until recently, its style and colouring seemed atypical and art historians argued over whether it fitted in with the artist’s work in Arles, Saint-Rémy or Auvers-sur-Oise.

With growing doubts, in 2014 the Oslo museum sent the painting to the Van Gogh Museum for study. After more than five years of research, a summary of their findings is being released this morning and a detailed report by Van Tilborgh and his colleagues Teio Meedendorp and Kathrin Pilz will be published in the February issue of the Burlington Magazine.

On the key issue of provenance, a proposal made in 2006 by a previous Oslo curator, Marit Lange, has now been accepted. The self-portrait originally belonged to Joseph and Marie Ginoux, who ran the Café de la Gare in Arles, where Van Gogh lodged in 1888. In 1896 they sold the painting through Henry Laget, a local middle man, to Ambroise Vollard, the avant-garde Parisian dealer.

Van Tilborgh believes that the self-portrait was painted in late August 1889, in the asylum just outside Saint-Rémy: “The somewhat unusual type of canvas, the pigments, the sombre palette and the brushwork are all in keeping with his output in the late summer and autumn of that year.”

The painting is now linked to a letter in which Van Gogh wrote that he had made a self-portrait which was “an attempt from when I was ill”. The artist had suffered a severe mental attack at the asylum in mid July 1889, when he tried to swallow paints, but by 22 August he had recovered sufficiently to write to his brother Theo, asking that he be allowed access to his painting materials. Van Tilborgh argues that the artist made the self-portrait a few days later, before he suffered a minor setback and was ill for a short period at the beginning of September.

The result is an unsettling picture. Van Gogh could have resumed work after the crisis by painting a still life of flowers, but instead he turned to his own features. Van Tilborgh sees the self-portrait as “an expressive picture about suffering”. Taking up work proved therapeutic for the artist, “aiding his recovery”.

What is striking, at least for us today, is the depiction of the ear. The upper part is only loosely sketched in and the lower part seems to be almost missing. 

Eight months earlier Van Gogh had severely mutilated his left ear, which at first glance appears to be the one in the painting. But while working on the self-portrait he would actually looking at his features in a mirror, in reverse, thereby seeing his intact right ear. 

However, Van Gogh must surely have realised that those outside the art world would assume that he was depicting his left ear, which had been mutilated. He could have tried to avoid the problem by disguising some of the ear with hair, but he has deliberately and unflinchingly allowed the upper part to remain highly visible, with lighter-coloured paint.

Van Tilborgh argues that the artist began by depicting his fully intact right ear, but then took a palette knife to the picture, scraping away some of the paint. He believes that Van Gogh scraped the picture to give his face a more lifeless expression and to strengthen the impression of mental anguish.

Van Gogh normally sent his paintings to his brother Theo in Paris, so how did the Oslo self-portrait end up at the Café de la Gare? Presumably Vincent did not wish to give such a depressing image of himself to Theo, since he wanted to appear a strong character who was dedicated to his art. He therefore decided it should be a present for Madame Ginoux, one of his closest friends in Arles.

Marie Ginoux was then going through a period of ill health, causing Van Gogh concern. Van Tilborgh explains: “Vincent was unhappy in life, and thought she was too. In giving her the self-portrait, he was saying: ‘My situation is worse than yours, but we are soulmates.’ It is a heart-broken self-portrait, crying out for sympathy.”

Van Tilborgh believes that Vincent probably took the self-portrait to the Café de la Gare on a short visit to Arles in January 1890. The Ginoux couple may have had little enthusiasm for this gift, since it was hardly a pleasant reminder of their friend. Five years later they were probably relieved to be able to sell it, even for a modest sum (they received 110 francs for three of his paintings, equivalent to around £4 at the time).

The Oslo self-portrait is going on temporary display at the Van Gogh Museum today and will then be shown in its exhibition In the Picture (21 February-24 May), on artists’ portraits. After that the self-portrait will return to Norway, where it is likely to remain in store until the National Museum reopens in a new building in spring 2021.

By Martin Bailey for The Art Newspaper

Kerry James Marshall on Painting Blackness as a Noun Vs. Verb

Growing up, Kerry James Marshall was troubled by a distinct lack of African-American representation in art and in the larger media landscape. Often encountering images of brutality and suffering, he sought to change the narrative by crafting works that acted as a celebration of black life and identity. From depicting children at a July 4th barbecue, to two figures slow dancing in their living room, Marshall’s works proved to be tender, powerful, and a welcome addition to the Western canon.

His figures are always rendered in a deep, rich black, inspired by a disarming trend he noticed taking hold in the 1980s. “The only way [black artists] could stay with the black figure was by compromising it,” he remarked, “by either fragmenting it, or otherwise distorting it, by making it green, blue or yellow, or some other way to deflect the idea of its blackness.”

Marshall has continued in this fashion for decades, crafting monumental, mural-size paintings of powerful and jubilant black subjects in every-day settings. Coming off the heels of his first career survey, Marshall has elevated from important contemporary figure to undisputed master. In this excerpt from Phaidon’s brand new monograph, Kerry James Marshall, the artist sits down with conceptual artist Charles Gaines. The two discuss Marshall’s childhood in South Central Los Angeles, his approach to art-as-activism, and the inspiration behind his landmark work, Self Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980)


Heirlooms and Accessories, 2002

Charles Gaines: When I was researching Dieter Roelstraete’s 2012 interview with you for this conversation, one work you discussed that stood out for me was Heirlooms and Accessories (2002), because it addresses the idea of art and activism. This is a photographic triptych of lockets containing close-up pictures of women who were present at a lynching in the Jim Crow South. Your discussion was about how certain figures might be interpreted. For example, images of white women suggest the stereotype of the black sexual predator, while the metaphor of hanging is provoked by the necklaces themselves. For me, this raises questions about your thoughts on art and activism. For example, what do you expect when you raise these kinds of issues in works of art? 

Kerry James Marshall: Well, I guess the simplest way is to start with a question like, does one look at a work like that politically because of its relationship to history and politics? You can see how doing a thing like that can have an activist quality to it. But in terms of what that work is supposed to do, I never think of artworks as having a quality that’s intended to mobilize people to action. They don’t make people do things. But they do put questions in the mind of a viewer that they may not have entertained before. Everyone has in the back of his or her mind the idea that America was built by violence. But we never really think about how. The standard model is that white supremacy is only the guys in white sheets. You never really think about how completely embedded in the culture as a whole this notion of white supremacy is, and how everybody else’s relationship to it, the people who were in the sheets and the people who might never have put one on, but benefitted from the effects of this terror, helped to legitimize lynching as a part of the natural order.

That photograph, from which I isolated the women’s faces, is often reproduced. It’s a lynching that took place in the 1930s, in Marion, Indiana. It was a double lynching that was supposed to be a triple lynching. So when I did Heirlooms and Accessories, one of the things that I wanted to remind people of – and my art-as-activism is more like a reminder – is that there are angles and dimensions of history that are products of the relationships between the powerful and the powerless that people don’t quite consider. If you allow them to, people will always pretend not to know that these bygone events form our current reality. What was important to me about that photograph was not only the crowd of people who were there, but also its generational span, and that it wasn’t just men who perpetrated that violence but also women, who were often a causal factor. So I focus on three women who happened to be looking out at the camera. There’s one man in that photograph who’s looking out at the camera too. He’s the man who’s pointing at the bodies on the tree. He has a Hitler moustache. But if I’d focused on him, it would have been too obvious; it would have diverted attention from the ordinary folks who help perpetuate this type of violence. Those three women: a young girl who can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen, a girl who’s got to be about twenty or twenty-two, and an elderly woman who’s in her fifties or sixties, represent a generational span that was really important because it shows how structures of power are inherited; how power is transmitted generationally, from the men, through the women, to the culture.

The title Heirlooms and Accessories has multiple implications. An heirloom is a thing that’s handed down. Accessories are add-ons or adornments that enhance the spectacle, or yourself. Everyone who’s present at that event is an ‘accessory’ to the crime. The piece is constructed to be like a jewel box; that’s why the frame has a groove and there’s a strip of rhinestones that goes all the way around the frame. The idea is for the object to embody the concept of Heirlooms and Accessories on all of those levels. I wanted to combine the experiences of repulsion and attraction; you’re repelled and enticed at the same time. 

One could compare this work to Adrian Piper’s 1989 work titled Free #2, which includes an image of a lynching. Her interest seems to have been to use art to confront racism directly by aggressively challenging white people’s sense of identity, which is directly linked to the practice of lynching, a more psychological approach than yours. 

I deliberately take a different approach, maybe in part because my experiences in the world have taught me that a direct confrontational approach does more to shut down examination of a subject or an issue than it does to compel a spectator to engage with it fully. Confrontation is nagging and irritating, so I’ve always felt that a certain oblique angle at a thing is more effective. 

Certainly in terms of an individual work of art, it’s hard to establish proof of a cause-and-effect relationship that shows that art can affect social change. But maybe the hope is that collectively something can happen. For example, the memories of lynching that you bring up may not by itself result in social change, but as part of a collective of voices where others are also addressing these memories, maybe social change can happen. 

That’s a part of the problem. For most of us, the images we encounter of things like lynching are sensational, but pretty remote. Most of us haven’t been eyewitnesses to any of those events. And so what we’re doing is constructing an idea of what these things are from other people’s stories and images. What’s produced collectively is inadequate for making anything more than generalizations. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. We lived in Watts, but we moved out of the Nickerson Garden Projects there before the Watts riots took place. So when the riots broke out in 1965, we were living on 48th Street between McKinley and Avalon. We’d heard on the news that the thing that caused the riot was a traffic stop on Imperial Highway, in which the man who was stopped was riding with his mother and that the police had roughed up his mother. We heard that this police violence sparked the riot; the crowd that gathered around this incident became violent, which later turned out not to be true. 

I get your point, in terms of what fuels events; there’s a difference between what we might individually know from actual experience and the idea of collective knowledge, which is a combination of direct experiences and collective assumptions that are often wrong. 

We were on 48th Street and Imperial Highway. Where the riots started was 120th Street or something like that, maybe 125th, blocks away. So by the time the riots got to where we were, it was like a carnival. People were burning up the stores on Central Avenue and Avalon Boulevard. This happened during a period of discontent from 1965 up to 1969. During those years I went to Carver Junior High School and saw it get so embroiled in the Black Students Union issues that trickled down from Berkeley. Some of the issues were the same that you hear now, such as integrating black history into the American history curriculum. The violence that took place seemed confusing to me. The kids were burning up the school in protest. You had teenagers beating up the vice principal. There were rallies on the athletics field that got people excited about a lot of stuff that was supposed to be wrong but was the interpretation and translation of people who weren’t even going to school there. It was like what was happening with the riots. There were no proper black history classes then. One of the students’ demands was that they start offering these black history classes, but the first semester they offered Negro history, it was seriously under-enrolled. It was elective, not required. I signed up, but I thought, ‘What about all those people who were claiming that this was what we’ve got to have? Alright then, where is everybody?’ Those kinds of events, and discrepancies between what people know and what they don’t know, what people say they want and what they do, those things shaped my perception of discourse. How do you resolve these discrepancies? I started seeing that the responsibility for my needs shifted to me as opposed to a collective. I try never to approach a thing as if I’m one hundred percent certain about what it is or what the proper response to it is supposed to be.

This is an interesting issue for me. It’s clear that you recognize a complexity in the way political, social and cultural issues affect people’s lives. It’s also clear that an understanding of that complexity will make you better able to deal with these issues than any ideological framing could do. You may not agree with this example, but let’s take discrimination as a social/political issue: you address the issue as a subject, but you also address the complexity of how it plays out subjectively in society. It seems to me that you’re more interested in discrimination as a subjective experience because, as you said, you’re more interested in how you experience an issue, not in its ideological framing.

On a related matter, I wanted to find out how you came up with the idea to engage the political subject in your work, and so I researched how you became interested and involved in making art. I read how at one point you were introduced to the work of Charles White. I was wondering if he played a role in your discovery of what you wanted to do as an artist?

Well, it had something to do with it. It’s funny, I was going to say ‘indirectly’, but actually it’s a combination, directly and indirectly, because I first saw his work in a class I took at Otis with George de Groat. It was a drawing class for junior high school kids, and he showed us images from a book on White [Images of Dignity: the Drawings of Charles White]. I took the book and copied an image of Frederick Douglass. Looking through this book I noticed a couple of things about White’s work. One was that all the murals he did were about history and included historical subjects like Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth. They were also in individual pictures he did; there were several images of Harriet Tubman, a couple of Frederick Douglass, a few of John Brown, too. I was familiar with these figures because they showed up in history books. This is why, for me, White’s work was about history. I didn’t think of history as politics, really. White’s work accounted for the past in the same way that other historical moments are accounted for through art, such as Goya’s The 3rd of May and Picasso’s Guernica, as well as the historical paintings of David, Géricault and Delacroix. Not only that, but the entire legacy of classical Renaissance painting was for me based on reading the biblical or mythical subjects as historical. Growing up you understand how religion could be thought of as real, which made those stories history. Jesus narratives like the Stations of the Cross, the Virgin Birth, Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson came from the Bible. So it seemed like painting history was what artists did. My whole concept of what it meant to be an artist was formed around the idea that you picked subjects that were historical and meaningful so that people could derive meaning in their lives from the things they saw in paintings. That’s really how I began to understand what it meant to be an artist.


A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980

The reason I was thinking about that in relation to the political subject is that if you think about the kind of works in history that you just described, it’s reasonable to conclude that there’s a difference between the political and the historical, that you’re talking about a person or an event who’s importance to history has been established, not an ideology that’s still under scrutiny. But if you also think about the history of portrait painting and genre painting, the Barbizon School, Courbet, where the life and experience of ordinary people became the subjects, the difference between history and politics is less clear because it’s not just about the historical moment, but also the present moment. In relation to modern painting, classical too, but particularly modern, reflecting on figures like Douglass is seen most often politically because what they’ve done in the world is still part of a continuing conversation. The issues haven’t been settled by history. So within this framework, works of art may reflect on issues or causes that still have social significance. I’m suggesting that a historical genre such as the portrait can become political when the subject is black because the idea of the black subject is still unresolved.

I never thought of it that way. Also, we’re talking about when I’m thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, when I’m just forming my idea of what it means to be an artist. I don’t know what grade it was, probably third or fourth, when they took you to the school library – that is, when every elementary school had a library. And then they would take you on a field trip to the public library. Before then, you have no concept of anything, not of history, politics, sociology or race or anything. That stuff is all out there, but you don’t have a framework to fit it into that makes it comprehensible to you.

So your entry into the political was through history. When did it occur to you, the idea of the black subject?

That didn’t occur to me until I found out about White, because I simply accepted the majority of images I saw in books as representative of humanity, as the norm.

At a certain point, as you developed, as you worked through the idea that painting history was what artists did, you recognized the absence of the black subject in the history of painting. And at that point you understood it as a certain political space.

That really didn’t take shape with any kind of clarity until 1980, when I made the pivotal painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self. This was when it started to look like there was something that could be done with the black figure, that it could be used to explore ideas that are not only relevant to picture making by itself but also to convey some of these ideas that I’d been developing about where black people fit in. Before then, apart from self-portraits, which I’d do as an exercise, I was doing still-lifes and paintings of inanimate objects in order to figure out how to paint. I copied White’s work because I’d read in books how artists became artists: that they copied the work of a master and learned to make pictures that way. I used White for that reason. The images were appealing to me, but I didn’t see them as oriented towards a politics of race.

So the issue of representation was something that evolved more slowly.

It really came into focus with that one painting.

I just saw the Degas show at MoMA. There was an interesting comment by Degas in which he talked about copying artwork. He described a series of exercises where he did a drawing and copied it. And then he did a drawing of the copy and copied that. I found this comment to be one of the earliest examples of linking technique with style, where the analysis of style is a critical assessment of technique. Therefore copying for you revealed White’s thoughts, leading to representation, as well as his skills. 

This is one of great functions of that book. You can see an evolutionary transformation in the way he was making an image in the beginning and the way he was making it towards the end. You understood clearly that things don’t have to remain the same. At the same time there’s a consistency, which I understood as a product of conscious decisions about style, about regulating change. The other thing that was important was a 1971 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the first exhibition they did of White’s work. There were three black visual artists in that exhibition: Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington. I went to see that show dozens of times. They were so radically different from each other but equally powerful. That was an important moment for me, too. 

This brings me to a more in-depth question about your attitudes towards the formal properties of painting and their relationship to content. In a published interview, you and Dieter Roelstraete talked about the in influence of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man on your work. This seems to be a key moment in your effort to represent blackness in painting. You talked about how race, particularly blackness, was negotiated through Ellison’s representation of absence, that you could represent absence through colour. I wonder if you could go more into this idea of absence in relation to the formal properties of painting. To me, you’re a master colourist; there is no other painter in the history of painting with a greater mastery and understanding of colour. It’s not only your colour sense, but also your understanding of its metaphorical and discursive potential. My question is really about the colour black, both as a representation and as an aesthetic property. How in your mind does a colour like black lead to a critical space like race, particularly through the metaphor of absence, without compromising the materialism that preserves colour as a sensible experience?

It’s the result of the confluence of a lot of different things and ideas. Ellison’s book was a trigger for some of these ideas and a catalyst for finding ways to synthesize them. And White was also the gift that kept on giving. It was important that White was at Otis. Through him, I was introduced to many people, and things. I made the decision that when I got out of high school I was going to go to school there. Before then, I wasn’t on a track to go to college. White’s presence at Otis changed that. His class met in the evenings, so I couldn’t take it then; there wasn’t anybody that could take me. So I signed up for a Saturday painting class with a man named Sam Clayberger; he was a painter of nudes basically. My approach to colour derives almost exclusively from the way Clayberger thought about and used colour. I didn’t know until about a year ago that he was an animator who had worked for Hanna-Barbera. This made sense; there was something about his colour sense that seemed right for cartoons. He was the first person I heard talk about the way you use colour instrumentally. His approach looked arbitrary, but it wasn’t. He said you could substitute any kind of colour to function as a shadow so long as it had a relationship to the other colours that were near it. And so I learned to start building shadows using purple, green and blue from him. He also introduced me to the fact that none of these things are coincidental; that you decide on them and it’s all because you understand something about the structure of the way a picture works. He was also the first person who taught me you can analyze the way paintings work, that you can break them down and see how things fit together. Sam was different from Charles White, who was the master of drawing. White would show me how to set up and construct the face the way he did it. They would both talk all the time about history and politics; this is why I thought those things were important. I could see how White’s interest in the politics of the image was reflected in everything he was interested in. For example, he would bring in Goya, The Disasters of War and Los Caprichos, He used to bring in a book of the complete works of Käthe Kollwitz, his favourite artist. When I finally got to Otis in 1977, I met another painter, Arnold Mesches. Charles had the image and its relationship to subjectivity, Sam had the colour, and Arnold Mesches had the structure. These are the people who unlocked for me the way to understand paintings.

Because of these influences, you came to understand that the political subject was imbedded in the idea of painting mastery. As part of that mastery, the idea of the black subject seemed wholly consonant with the idea of making a good painting. 

In the late 1960s, early 1970s, maybe it happened a little earlier, there seemed to be all these conversations about participation in the mainstream and how to go about achieving it. For a lot of artists, it seemed that the only way to do this was to abandon the black figure. Not only was abstraction supposed to be more advanced, but also you were never going to achieve any great recognition until you let go of the black figure. And some people thought that the reason White never got the kind of recognition that people thought he deserved was primarily because he was too close to those black figures. There was a period in which I abandoned the black figure too, because I wanted to spend more time figuring out what pictures looked like, and how surface, colour texture, and all those things operated. I was doing a lot of collage work and mixed-media stuff. The Ellison book became the trigger that sent me back to the figure. I understood on some level that the abandonment of the black figure was a kind of loss and that I’d surrendered to a power structure rather than trying to challenge and overcome it in some way. And so A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self became an instrument to solve what I thought might be some deficiencies in some of the work that White was doing, as well as the work that some other black painters were doing in their use of the figure; I used the power of abstraction to solve these deficiencies in the way the figure was represented. I wanted to use all of the colour complexity that I’d learned from Clayberger, but to keep it close to black history, culture and the subjectivity of White’s work. So A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self was a way of starting at a zero degree because it was at, it was schematic, but it was built on all of the stuff I’d learned about picture making from my teachers at Otis that was opposite to the way a number of black artists approached the picture; the only way they could stay with the black figure was by compromising it, by either fragmenting it, or otherwise distorting it, by making it green, blue or yellow, or some other way to deflect the idea of its blackness.

Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994

This is a jewel, what you’ve just articulated about the issue of colour, abstraction and content. I’m reminded of a panel discussion in the 1960s sponsored, I believe by Artscanada, titled ‘Black’. Two of the participants were Ad Reinhardt and Cecil Taylor. 

You were there? 

No, I wish! But there’s an essay available that recounts the event. I heard about it from my friend the late Terry Adkins. We were trying to think about how to reconstitute this panel and restage the event. The panel was about blackness and the colour black; the purpose was to explore the political and aesthetic meaning of the word in order to question the saliency of political ideas in 1960s modernism. Anyway, Cecil Taylor and Ad Reinhardt got into this big argument. As I said, the subject was simply ‘black’ – it didn’t tell you black what. For Reinhardt of course, the word ‘black’ referenced a universal idea because black and absence were for him trans-lingual. ‘Black’ expressed a kind of universalized experience operating outside the domain of language. For Taylor, black was steeped in language; it couldn’t be considered except as a metaphor because of his experience of dealing with it politically. One idea that came out of this debate was that the term provoked a binary that ultimately placed constraints on our thinking: how the meaning of the term is informed by one’s experience. Even though Ad was making the argument that it was trans-linguistic, only a white person could entertain such a pure notion. The suggestion was that its racial connotation is irrelevant to ideas of art. Cecil found in Ad’s commentary the kind of ideological thinking that perpetuates racism. And so your project seems to be an interesting attempt to describe how the trans-linguistic aesthetic properties of painting and the linguistic properties of content merge and come together, to debunk the binary. 

When I made that picture, I think I understood for the first time that the image in it functioned linguistically. Which is why I always said that the idea of blackness operated rhetorically. This materially black figure has to be situated within the larger context as a linguistic figure amongst other linguistic figures, or as a pictorial figure within the context of other pictorial elements. Take, for example, the essay Carter Ratcliff wrote for Art in America some time in the 1980s, ‘The Short Life of the Sincere Stroke’. He talks about the way that every mark in a picture is a linguistic character in the sense that we deploy these marks to construct certain meanings and relationships. One of the reasons why the figure works so effectively for me is because I’m thinking of it in those terms, as an abstract linguistic figure and at the same time as an absolute sign or symbol of something. That’s why I’m able to continue working with the figure in ways that others haven’t. I understood that language structure continuously modifies meaning; it never disappears. It simply finds other contexts in which the figure can be used. But recognizing language’s role in those terms imposes a certain amount of responsibility. Whenever communication is an issue, a certain kind of clarity is important, so you have to be responsible for the way you use language. That’s why it takes me so long to make my pictures. When I insert a figure into a painting space, I have to consider all of the things that it means and then construct, edit and revise in order to reach its maximum effect so that blackness becomes a noun, not an adjective. 

Well put.

By Artspace Editors

Shahidul Alam: Truth To Power

Rubin Museum, New York
Exhibition Through May 4th

Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power presents the first comprehensive U.S. museum survey of Shahidul Alam, the renowned Bangladeshi photographer, writer, activist, and institution-builder and a Time magazine Person of the Year in 2018. Over 40 images and ephemera will show the breadth of his practice and impact throughout his four-decade career. The exhibition includes portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life, strife, and resistance in the “majority world”—a phrase Alam has used since the 1990s to reframe the notion of the “third world” or “global south.”

Shahidul Alam, Smriti Azad, Dhaka, 1994. Courtesy of Drik, © Shahidul Alam

The term also confronts the ways in which Western media continues to define how the majority of the world’s population—especially Bangladesh—is portrayed in relation to poverty and disaster. 

© Shahidul Alam

This pioneering exhibition aims to provide visitors with a nuanced view of Bangladesh and South Asia, to explore systems of personal and collective agency, and to underscore the importance of self-representation, empowerment, and truth as embodied in Alam’s life and work.

A mural of Noor Hossain on a campus wall in Dhaka. The writing on his back reads “Let Democracy Live.” © Shahidul Alam

While shining an unflinching light on major Bangladeshi tragedies and struggles, Alam’s images reveal a country and cultures often misunderstood and misrepresented. In addition to his powerful photographs, Alam has made an impact in Bangladesh, across South Asia, and even globally as the conceptual architect of transformative institutions, including Drik Picture Library, Drik Gallery, Pathshala South Asia Media Institute, Chobi Mela Photography Festival, and Majority World Photos. The regional solidarity he catalyzed cannot be overstated and will be illustrated through the exhibition narrative. 


Shahidul Alam after his release from Dhaka’s central prison, November 20, 2018. Photograph: Suman Paul/AFP/Getty Images

Alam’s role as changemaker is one he inhabits with equal resolve and energy. His belief in nurturing visual literacy has driven him to go beyond mere advocacy: Through the institutions he has built, he empowers the disenfranchised and misrepresented to tell their own stories.

Edited by Beth Citron