Monthly Archives: February, 2020

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.