Diego Rivera, “Man, Controller of the Universe,” (1934) Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City Image courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons

In February, 2020, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945. A decade in the making, the exhibition strives (as stated on the museum’s website) to rewrite art history “by revealing the profound impact the Mexican muralists had on their counterparts in the United States,” inspiring American artists “to use their art to protest economic, social, and racial injustices.” Vida Americana garnered strong reviews praising the corrective it offers to the established narrative of American art during the first half of the 20th century as primarily influenced by European Modernism and striving toward abstraction. (New York Times critic Holland Cotter also hailed the exhibition’s timely response to “the build-the-wall mania that has obsessed this country for the past three-plus years.”)

When I saw Vida Americana, I made an intriguing discovery: a Yiddish sentence, faintly visible, on one of the exhibition’s major pieces, a full-scale reproduction of Diego Rivera’s 1934 mural “Man, Controller of the Universe.” In 1933, Rivera began a notorious earlier version of this mammoth work for Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, until Nelson Rockefeller ordered the mural destroyed for its pro-Communist content. The lower right side of “Man, Controller of the Universe,” which is jam-packed with figures, includes a group of demonstrators, among them Leon Trotsky, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx. They hold a red banner that reads “Workers of the World Unite in the IVth International” in English, Spanish, Russian, and, in much smaller, faded letters, Yiddish.

Detail of Diego Rivera, “Man, Controller of the Universe” (1934), from left to right, Leon Trotsky, Bertram Wolfe, and Friedrich Engels hold a banner, reading “Workers of the World Unite in the IVth International” in English, Spanish, Russian (to the left of the detail), and Yiddish (image courtesy the author)

Hidden in plain sight, this sentence exemplifies the extensive presence of Jewish artists whose works appear in Vida Americana but whose Jewishness goes unexamined — and unrecognized — in both the exhibition and its catalogue. The curators do discuss the significance of this galvanizing encounter between public art and radical politics for much smaller numbers of Black and Japanese American artists included in the exhibition. However, Vida Americana ignores the prominent and distinctive participation in this artistic moment by those Americans who were Jews. It seems that, in rewriting this chapter of art history by reinscribing artists who were “written out” of this narrative, the curators of Vida Americana replaced one exclusion with another. This omission is telling, not only for understanding American art of the period, but also for the larger public discussion of culture, identity, and politics in the United States today.

Jews number close to one half of the 40-odd American artists included in Vida Americana, and there are almost as many American Jewish artists featured as there are Mexican artists. Among the Jewish artists are well-known figures — Ben Shahn, Philip Guston — and those who were active in the leftwing Yiddish culture of the period: Hugo Gellert, William Gropper. Other American Jews appear in this encounter between Mexican and American artists, including New Masses editor Joseph Freeman, curator Lincoln Kirstein, gallerist Jake Zeitlin, and art historians Shifra Goldstein and Meyer Shapiro.

Hugo Gellert, cover of New Masses, vol. 2, no. 1, November, 1926 (image via the Marxists Internet Archive)

The Jewish artists in Vida Americana created politically charged canvases, prints, and murals in reaction to a distinct lived experience in the United States. Almost all were immigrants from Eastern Europe or the children of immigrants. During the years in question, defined by the Great Depression as well as heightened xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism, these artists, like many other American Jews, were drawn to radical politics, which offered an urgent response to the social and economic inequalities they faced. Like their Black and Japanese American contemporaries, these Jewish artists’ sense of self as Americans was fundamentally different from that of “white” artists on view in Vida Americana such as Thomas Hart Benton and Fletcher Martin.

Indeed, during the decades before World War II, the racial identity of America’s Jews, now generally classified as “white,” was anything but clear. Historian Eric Goldstein notes that “white Americans of the interwar period were increasingly convinced that Jews represented a distinct ‘problem’ in American life” and regarded “the Jew as a distinct racial entity that stood apart from the categories of ‘black’ and ‘white’ and was in need of individual attention.” The place of Jews in the racial matrix of the United States at the time was, in its own way, as problematized as that of Black and Asian Americans.

Jews also figure in this chapter of art history beyond the borders of the United States, especially in Rivera’s life and career, whose connections to Jews were extensive and varied. Moreover, he claimed that his maternal grandmother was descended from a Portuguese Jewish family. Rivera’s wife Frieda Kahlo, whose work also appears in Vida Americana, maintained that she, too, had Jewish ancestors, though researchers argue this was not the case. Even if Rivera’s and Kahlo’s connections to Jewishness were attenuated or imagined, their claims are telling nonetheless. Rivera declared in a much-cited quote: “My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.” By implicitly invoking the notion, widespread at the time, that to be a Jew was to be a revolutionary, proclaiming his Jewishness expressed a bond with radicals in Mexico and around the world.

In the United States, Jews’ participation in radical movements during the first half of the 20th century was prominent, sometimes verging on the emblematic. Historian Tony Michels notes that American Jews’ involvement with socialism and communism distinguished them from other ethnic groups. This engagement, rooted in the rise of Jewish radicalism responding to political oppression in the Russian empire, from which many had emigrated, was fueled by nativism and antisemitism encountered in the United States.

Addressing the particular circumstances of the American Jews represented in Vida Americana would complicate the curators’ analysis of this remarkable period in art history, beginning with the claim that American artists, following the Mexican muralists’ example, “embraced the belief that art had a social role.” Politically charged artworks and socially engaged art institutions were fixtures of immigrant Jewish life in America well before the Mexican muralists’ arrival. Radicalized Jewish artists produced a wide-ranging, ideologically charged visual culture, from illustrations in leftwing publications to exhibitions of contemporary artworks that decried fascism and championed universal human rights.

Cover of Arbeter shul [Workers’ School], a Yiddish primer published by the International Workers Order, New York, 1934. The children on the cover carry a banner that reads “We Learn and Struggle” in letters wrought out of hammers and sickles. (image courtesy the author)

Including the lived experience of Jewish artists alongside that of other marginalized artists would provide a fuller understanding of their participation in this moment of art making. Instead, the analysis in Vida Americana follows presentist thinking about identity politics. At the time, progressive activists’ embrace of the struggles of others — whites protesting Jim Crow, New York Jews voicing solidarity with miners in the American West, Japanese Americans supporting the Bolshevik Revolution — defied the racism, isolationism, and xenophobia then prevalent in the United States. Though not without its limitations, the political sensibility shaping the work of progressive American artists in Vida Americana merits attention in its own right. It can be instructive as a pioneering American effort to champion the human rights of all peoples, alternative to the country’s much more constrained, proprietary identity politics of the present.

What might explain the curators omitting the distinctive experience of the many Jewish artists exhibited in Vida Americana? Would including this experience disrupt the argument that artists of color, crossing the southern border of the United States, instructed the nation’s “white” artists and inspired those who are members of its other racial minorities? Would examining Jewish artists’ specific experience trouble the contemporary politics of race in America, in which Jews were welcomed by antiracist activists “as allies one moment and regarded as suspiciously ‘white-adjacent’ the next”? Would attention to these artists’ Jewishness rankle those who view American art museum boards and staffs as disproportionately “so white?”

A more nuanced analysis of these artworks would center on the give-and-take across artistic, cultural, and political borders, especially given the artists’ transnational movements and the collaborative creation of murals and other artworks. The extensive role of leftwing Jewish artists, critics, and others in this period, their complicated relationship with being American, other Americans’ relationship with Jews as neighbors, and their commitment as Jews to the struggles of others exemplify the complex transcultural richness of this groundbreaking moment in American politics and art.

Vida Americana resonates powerfully with contemporary American concerns about immigration, racism, and class conflict. Yet by ignoring progressive American Jewish artists’ work and their encounters with Mexican artists, the exhibition’s curators offer insights into a compelling period of American art that are, at best, incomplete. This omission, too, resonates with the present. The Whitney could have extended this exhibition’s challenge to current nativism and xenophobia in the United States to include attention to the present upsurge in American antisemitism, a core conviction of white nationalism today.

Finally, I note that Jews’ involvement in this chapter of art history is on view in Vida Americana — even as their presence is “written out” of the narrative. The disparity between what can be seen and what can be read may reflect a conscious curatorial choice or may be an oversight. Nevertheless, the story of Jews in Vida Americana is there for the discovery.

Jeffrey Shandler is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His most recent book is Yiddish: Biography of a Language (Oxford, 2020).

2 replies on “In a Whitney Museum Exhibition, Jewish Artists Go Unrecognized and Unexamined”

  1. It has always appeared to me that Jews have been written out of world culture despite our oversized contributions. It is an inconvenient truth. Neither cleanly white nor safely brown, our numbers are small but our impact is great. Other than being the fall-guy for the Christian narrative we are relatively invisible…Trotsky, Marx, Engels, Jesus, etc!

  2. A lot of what you say rings true. However, as a leftist Jew myself, I really wonder what you’re doing quoting conservative troll Ross Douthat as an authoritative source on antiracist activists.

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