At the Whitney Museum of American Art we have "Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945" (through January 31, 2021). This is a large and diverse exhibition of approximately 200 works by 60 artists from Mexico and the United States. It aims to show how that curious blend of populism and modernism that developed in Mexico in the wake of its early 20th century political revolution influenced artists in the United States in the period between 1925 and 1945.
Visually, there is a lot to like in this show, and I recommend it for that reason. But don't go expecting any attempt to recreate the full range of U.S. art & culture in the period under discussion. Rather, we get the usual conformity to 21st century verities.
I confess, I went to this show wanting to see its Mexicans, who somehow have more talent and glamor for me than all the industrious Yanqui painters who ground out Socially-Committed art for the W. P. A. and other worthy '30s organizations – and collectors --- back in the States.
Maybe this is just because I am a snob, and I knew that back in the 1930s, when the oil-rich Rockefellers were just setting up the Museum of Modern Art, they idolized those Mexicans. Indeed, one of the museum's first retrospective exhibitions was given to Diego Rivera in 1931, and what the Rockefellers publicized had a good chance of catching on with hoi polloi.
I also know that I saw one hell of a good show of Mexican art, "Paint the Revolution," at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2016, just four years ago.
I was particularly impressed with the way they recreated the mural accomplishments of the "Big Three" Mexican muralists – Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros – with huge color photographs. I was curious to see if the Whitney's display would come anywhere close.
The answer is no, although there is one great dramatic moment, with a huge but coloristically lacking reproduction of Rivera's "Man, Controller of the Universe" from 1934. The original is in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
The particular significance of this subject is that it's what Rivera had planned to paint a few years earlier on a wall in Rockefeller Center, then a-building in the midst of New York City.
It was all in the same oil-rich family that was starting MoMA, you see. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was building Rockefeller Center, while his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was the richest of the three ladies starting MoMA, and sometime president of its board of trustees.
Their son, Nelson, a recent Dartmouth graduate, was in charge of renting out all the many shiny & expensive new offices in Rockefeller Center (a tough sell in the teeth of the Great Depression).
He was also very interested in art (in later life, he would become a major collector as well as governor of New York State, and donate the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in memory of his son – but I'm getting far ahead of the time frame under discussion).
I believe that it was Nelson who first suggested Rivera for the mural job, but lo and behold, it turned out that the Mexican artist – who if not actually a Communist himself, had very left-wing sympathies -- wanted to incorporate a figure of Lenin into the mural.
Alas for Nelson! He couldn't figure what this Lenin figure would do to the rental business, so in the end Rivera was paid his full fee but the mural was either removed or painted over (nobody knows quite which, though the whole event created all sorts of hilarity in the city's media).
Rivera promised that he would go on painting murals with Lenin in them until all the money he'd been paid by the Rockefellers was used up, but(I presume) the final version eventually came to rest in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and a reproduction of it is what they have at the Whitney.
Anyway, this show has a lot of other good stuff in it, too -- especially in the Mexican section. Books from the 1920s about Mexico and photographs of Mexicans by U.S. photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti show that even before the Rockefellers got into the act, the gringo intelligentsia was interested in Mexico.
There are also lots of nice smaller paintings and sculpture by Mexicans, not only the Big Three muralists but also Miguel Covarrubias, Maria Izquierdo, Frida Kahlo (a cult favorite), Mardonio Magaña, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, and Rufino Tamayo.
It's when we get to the U.S. section that things get a little problematic.
I mean, the work on view itself is all very handsome.
However, if you take this exhibition as an accurate portrait of artistic practice in the U.S. in the 1930s, or even an accurate portrait of which artists were most influenced by Mexican art in the 1930s, it looks like less than half of all this activity was the handiwork of white gringos (I hesitate to say "Americans" because after all Mexico is part of America, too).
Let us look at the press release describing this show to give you a rough approximation of what I'm talking about.
The white U.S. artists listed there are Thomas Hart Benton, Philip Guston, Marion Greenwood, Jackson Pollock, and Ben Shahn – five in all.
The African-American artists listed are Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Thelma Johnson Streat, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff – six in all. There are also two Asian-Americans, Isamu Noguchi and Eitaro Ishigaki.
Does anybody remember how the original Neo-Marxists, back in the 1970s, used to prattle about how committed they were to "history"? If you believe the statistics implied by this press release, white gringos were a minority in U.S. society – and/or in the leadership of the artistic community -- even before World War II.
This is not historical fact. This is diversity as 21st century fashion.
It is so all-pervasive that even the gringos who made murals for the W.P.A. look like a more conservative bunch than they were -- none of the cubist/constructivist radicalism of Arshile Gorky or Ilya Bolotowsky.
Nevertheless, it all makes pleasant – if rather conservative – viewing. With the possible exceptions of Lawrence and Pollock, none of the U.S. paintings that I paid much attention to were esthetically radical, not even as radical as the Mexicans.
Pollock and Lawrence get special treatment, with many of their early works juxtaposed with what the show's organizers hope are demonstrably Mexican prototypes or influences. Their labels certainly succeeded in convincing me that Pollock greatly admired Orozco – as well as having learned some artistic technology from Siqueiros.
The Pollock pictures themselves in this show – dating from well before the artist achieved a mature style -- are mostly pretty doggy. But that's not to say that Orozco didn't arguably inspire Pollock to greater things.
Prominently displayed in this show is an Orozco from 1931 entitled "Zapatistas." It shows a procession of captured peasants, followers of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, being marched off to execution. They form a band of vertical figures across the bottom of the canvas that trudges from right to left.
A grim subject,surely, but with a composition that I would argue helped Pollock to organize his first great "Mural" of 1943 around a series of similarly leftward slanting vertical lines -- thereby creating a powerfully unified and harmonious canvas.
As "Zapatistas" was owned by MoMA, and MoMA (as I've already said) was high on the Mexicans in the 1930s, I think it's highly likely that Pollock had seen this canvas. And although I consider it unlikely that he was deliberately trying to imitate its composition, I'd argue that on some subliminal level he responded to the lessons it had to teach him.
Above you will see a reproduction of "Zapatistas" and here is a link to Pollock's "Mural," as it illustrates my review of the show that was (and is) at the New York HQ of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Compare the two images for yourselves!