Hundreds of kilometers away from Mexico City, where you can walk among walls that tell not only Mexico’s history, but also the history of art in the first half of the 20th century, there is a new exhibition that rethinks and sheds new light on the influence that Mexican muralism and the three great master muralists—José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera— had on their American counterparts.
Although muralism and the pieces that live on to this day, mostly on government building walls, have become so familiar to most Mexicans that they don’t even see them anymore, the truth is that their impact and high historical and ideological content have transcended borders, both in the time they were made and in the present day.
With this in mind, the Whitney Museum in New York has taken this esthetic current and reexamined it with “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945,” curated by Barbara Haskell along with Marcela Guerrero, assistant curator. The exhibition took about 4 years to be completed due to the complexity and great magnitude of bringing to the Whitney works not just by Mexican muralists, but also by the American artists that they inspired who also depicted their country’s history and social ills. Many of these works are very delicate and have only been shown to the public a handful of times.
The idea for the exhibition came up when curator Barbara Haskell developed a hypothesis that Mexican muralists made an impact on American art. Soon later, the curatorial team created a large catalog of artists and artworks that traveled between the US and Mexico, including artists who most certainly collaborated and were able to see these murals first-hand. The curators’ extensive research led to a final selection of 200 works by 60 artists from the two countries.
In an interview, Haskell shared that, as part of her initial hypothesis, she remarked upon the similarities between Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. These points helped the researchers find a much broader group of artists in whom the influence of Mexican muralists is undeniable:
… I began to see some similarities in subject matters essentially between artists like Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton and noticing that both of them dealt with history in a very similar way […] in a way that was both accessible to the general public, both of them really believed that art had to be for everybody, not just the elite. They shared that, and their subjects, and their relationship with history was the same.
Why it was forgotten
Curators Barbara Haskell and Marcela Gerrero point out that, among the reasons why the Mexican influence was forgotten, these four aspects are particularly important:
The rise of abstract art and the decline of figurative art after WWII
Abstract art dominated the art world after WWII, while those artists who made more figurative or representative art began to be seen as conservative, a controversial label both inside and outside the art world.
After the war, Americans were tired of seeing and hearing about social ills; they wanted to see nice, pleasant things, not political agitation or the darkest side of American history. As a result, representative art with historical or political content was pushed to the background.
In the 1950s, America became immersed in an aggressive anti-Communism campaign, where anyone who was even suspected to be remotely associated with this ideology could be interrogated or arrested. Naturally, since Mexican muralism and its proponents were closely linked to Communism, the movement gradually fell out of favor.
The problem with nationalism
Lastly, nationalist themes began to be associated with fascism and what had happened in Germany, so any artwork that had anything to do with nationalist views could potentially be seen as part of a fascist or authoritarian agenda.
When it comes to a presence in the United States, one of the most important examples is Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller mural, on which he painted Lenin’s face. American authorities did not like this aspect of Rivera’s work and asked him to remove it — the exhibition includes the letter asking Rivera to erase Lenin’s face –, but Rivera refused, and the mural was eventually destroyed.
Muralism and Chicano art
Despite the fact that muralism was forgotten and that the art world preferred new esthetic movements, its influence in American art never went away, especially thanks to new movements. Marcela Guerrero explained that, in the 1960s, southern California saw the birth of the Chicano movement, which, like muralism, wanted to reclaim its space in the country in the face of racism. Chicano artists created their own version of muralism, inspired, for instance, by Siqueiros, who made some of his pieces in Los Angeles. Thus, almost two decades after the participation and influence of Mexican muralists in the US, Chicano artists were the second wave of American artists to be influenced by this movement.
One of the most compelling aspects of Vida American and the muralist artworks from both countries is how current these pieces from half a century ago are. The pieces explore everything from unfair labor conditions, to the fight for workers’ rights, inequality, and racism; issues that live on to this day in both countries, along with new elements like migrant caravan and violence against minorities.
Although Vida Americana’s protagonists are the large frescoes, visitors can also find photography from this period, as well as magazines and books by women who might not have been big artists or muralists, but wrote along this esthetic current, and whose knowledge about Mexico and the muralists was essential. Some of them are Anita Brenner, Frances Toor Weinburg, and Alma Reed, who became a representative of sorts and patroness of Orozco, printing and framing his works, and sending his catalogs to exhibitions.
Apart from the artists already mentioned, the exhibition also includes works by: Charles Henry Alston, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Luis Arenal, Belle Baranceanu, Will Barnet, Thomas Hart Benton, Henry Bernstein, Emil Bisttram, Lucienne Bloch, Elizabeth Catlett, Miguel Covarrubias, Aaron Douglas, Hugo Gellert, Gace Greenwood, William Gropper, María Izquierdo, Frida Kahlo, Jacob Lawrence, Fletcher Martin, Leopoldo Méndez, Tina Modotti, Pablo O’Higgins, Jackson Pollock, Anton Refregier, Henrietta Shore, Paul Strand, Rufino Tamayo, Edward Weston, and Charles White, among others.
“Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945” will be open to the public until September 28th, 2020, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Cover image: Detail of “Mujer con flores” by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, circa 1932. Wikipedia Commons.