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Installation view of Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2020; from left to right: Diego Rivera, “Study for Colonial America,” from Portrait of America (c. 1933); Diego Rivera, “Reproduction of Man, Controller of the Universe” (1934); Hugo Gellert, “Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together (The Last Defenses of Capitalism)” (1932); Ben Shahn, “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” (1932) (all images courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art; photo by Ron Amstutz)

A long overdue corrective, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945 shifts the historical gaze of “American” art. Rather than situating Europe as the sole center of Modernism, the exhibition positions Mexican Modern artists as the school many US artists were following, not least for their influence in the country’s socio-political realm. Themes which centered Indigeneity, celebrations of the rural landscape, and visions of Mexican identity that deemphasized European heritage, all the while denouncing the violence of nationalism, were among those that most influenced US artists. 

José Clemente Orozco, “Barricade (Barricada)” (1931), oil on canvas, 55 × 45 inches (© 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City; image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY)

The curatorial thesis accounts for the transit and direct exchanges of artists working in both countries. José Clemente Orozco for instance, was the first of the muralists to visit the US in 1927, and produced murals in California and New York. His work had a significant impact on that of artists including Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Jackson Pollock. Through strategic juxtapositions, we see the trace of Orozco’s broad and long brushstrokes in Lawrence’s pointed ones, and in Charles White’s geometrical compositions. A particularly extraordinary pairing is of Orozco’s paintings with Lawrence’s Migration Series, revealing the social awareness of both artists in their subject matter.

In the same vein, David Alfaro Siqueiros’s New York-based Experimental Workshop (1934 and 1936) proved pivotal for many artists. Jackson Pollock learned his drip technique there and experimented with unorthodox materials. Fittingly, Pollock’s “Landscape with Steer” (1936-37) made with lacquer, and Siqueiros’s “The Electric Forest” (1939), made with nitrocellulose, hang side-by-side. The use of industrial materials were core to Siqueiros’s practice, as he believed revolutionary art required revolutionary styles and techniques.

Jackson Pollock, “Landscape with Steer” (c. 1936–37), lithograph with airbrushed enamel additions, sheet: 16 1/8 × 23 3/8 inches (© 2019 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY)

Although the exhibition dazzles for the exquisite workmanship and novelty of the art on view — with many pieces making their US debut — it falters in its praise of painting as the primary medium. It loses sight of the fact that a fundamental aspect of the creative landscape of this era in Mexico was the multidisciplinary nature of this period — what Siquieros called “plastic integration.”

The show includes photographs by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, sculpture by Mardonio Magaña, graphics by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, and films by Sergei Eisenstein, among a few other examples, but never manages to convey the extent to which these media were intertwined for artists in both geographic contexts, largely because it features so little that isn’t painting. In Mexico, many artists were highly focused on the dissemination of their work — from murals in public institutions, to magazines, and movies, art was meant to be integrated into daily life and occupy public space. The exhibition loses that spirit, which played a major role in teasing out the tensions of the post-revolutionary state.

Marion Greenwood, “Construction Worker (study for Blueprint for Living, a Federal Art Project mural, Red Hook Community Building, Brooklyn, New York)” (1940), fresco mounted on composition board, 18 x 24 1/2 inches

Beyond the mostly male giants of Mexican and US Modernism, this historical rectification includes works by lesser-known artists like Lola Alvarez Bravo, Anita Brenner, Carlos Mérida, and Henrietta Shore, among others. However, these works are mainly located in smaller galleries towards the end of the show. Not coincidentally, the exhibition welcomes viewers with a work by Diego Rivera, hung on a traditional “Mexican pink” wall, mimicking the framing and art historical hierarchy from which it seems to aim to move away. That a work by María Izquierdo is hung in a corner nearby, alongside the projection of an ethnographic documentary, likewise feels like an attempt to center her but ends up situating her on the folksy periphery.

Previous exhibitions — including the recent Pinta la Revolución. Arte moderno mexicano 1910-1950 at Mexico City’s Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes — have naturally spanned a variety of media and brought together a diverse group of artists, beyond those that serve the logic of the art market. In contrast, Vida Americana doesn’t quite fulfill its own goals of inclusion and breadth. Nonetheless, the dialogues it creates between works contribute significantly to furthering understandings of this chapter of art in Mexico and the US. We can see more clearly the similarities and differences between artistic production within the two countries, as well as the shared  legacy of this period.

María Izquierdo, “My Nieces” (1940), oil on composition board, 55 1/8 × 39 3/8 inches (© 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City; reproduction authorized by El Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, 2019)

In recent years, the Whitney has attempted to take a more inclusive approach to defining “American” art, looking towards the Americas more broadly, and organizing exhibitions focused on artists who have spent significant periods in the United States, such as with Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium in 2017; Vida Americana continues these efforts.

The exhibition likewise proposes a geopolitical inversion — a kind of echo to Joaquín Torres-García’s “Inverted America.” Just as for Torres-García, for whom the south is the north — what comes first — Mexico was a place where many artists from the United States, as well as from the Caribbean and elsewhere in Latin America, looked for inspiration, a reminder that the European avant-garde did not maintain a monopoly on Modernism.

Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 continues at Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street) through January 31, 2021.

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Leticia Gutiérrez

Leticia Gutierrez is an arts producer, curator, writer, and educator based in New York. Originally from Mexico City, Leticia graduated from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU with an MA in Arts Politics; and...

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