La Vida Americana at the Whitney

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday February 12, 2020

Next Monday the Whitney Museum of American Art will open Vida Americana, an exhibition that places the artistic glory of the Mexican Revolution in context with a parallel shift in contemporaneous art in the United States. Years in the making, with loans from museums and private collections both here an there, the show succinctly represents the profound interplay that occurred between los tres grandes of Mexican Muralism:  David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco, and their North American followers.

Curated by Barbara Haskell, curator and scholar on contemporary art, Vida Americana  reorients art history as it places side by side the paintings, sculpture, photographs, prints, films and testimony by leading Mexican artists and photographers of the time and their American cohorts. The show presents close to 200 works by sixty Mexican and American artists, made between 1925 and 1945, with many never before seen in North America.

In the opening chapter of the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Ms. Haskell discuss the forces—both political and artistic—that charged the exchange that followed what has become know as the “Mexican Renaissance.” Muralism, she explains, was the result of a cultural shift in which easel painting and decorative arts were deemed retrograde, and swept aside in favor of fresco, “the ancient technique that offered a bold new vitality that rivaled avant garde trends sweeping through Europe, while at the same time establishing a new relationship between art and the public by telling stories that were relevant to ordinary women and men.”

“Largely excluded from the predominant canonical narrative of modern art that emerged in the United States,” Ms. Haskell continues, “the muralists’ legacy and enduring impact shapes a more expansive vision of modernism. By exploring the transformation in art making that occurred in the United States as a result of the Mexican influence, while also examining the effect the U.S. had on the muralists’ art, Vida Americana will expand our understanding of the rich cultural exchange between our two countries.”

At the outset of this state-supported artistic phenomenon in Mexico, American artists flocked there to see for themselves, and many remained to study with los tres grandes. By the mid-1920s, however, the economic crunch leading up to the world-wide Depression that crested in 1929 caused a cessation in public support for new murals. With Rivera as the sole artist left standing in this milieu, Orozco and Siqueiros came to the United States to make easel paintings, prints and large scale murals on both East and West coasts, and in Detroit. Not least of their contributions was in setting up workshops where countless American artist developed a new approach to picture-making as they searched for alternatives to European modernism.

Left: Diego Rivera, Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, 1931. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

It was not long before Rivera arrived, first in 1930, then two years later, on invitation from Nelson Rockefeller to create a mural for the new cathedral of capitalism, Rockefeller Center. Concurrently, the onset of the Great Depression provoked anxieties that nurtured a new art that would connect with a broad public, which flowered under the Works Projects Administration [WPA].

The Artists Project within the WPA was highly unusual in that it treated artists with the same consideration given to factory workers, by providing necessary jobs and income during this perilous time. Among those who participated and whose work is on view are Philip Guston, Ben Shahn, Marian Goodman, Charles White, William Gropper, Philip Evergood, Thelma Johnson Strat, Hale Woodruff, and others. 

Much wall space is given to Jackson Pollack, who studied in Siqueiros’s Experimental Workshop on Union Square in 1939. Siqueiros stated that artists could not make Revolutionary art with the materials and techniques of the past—that they “must live our marvelous dynamic age.” Under his direction, artists worked with unorthodox materials and began pouring and dripping paint onto canvas tacked onto the floor. The experience had a profound effect on Pollack long before he adopted the “drip technique” as his signature. The twelve works on view [one above] demonstrate Pollack's embrace of abstraction following the narrative art he was making during his studies under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. 

Among other highlights of the exhibition is a black-and-white photographic reproduction of a 1932 mural commission Siqueiros produced for a “Mexican folkloric marketplace” in downtown Los Angeles [above]. Instead of celebrating pre-Hispanic crafts and traditions, as his clients might have expected, the artist executed a strident condemnation of the abuse of Mexico’s indigenous population by the Mexican ruling class and American imperialists. Attempts at restoring the mural itself have failed under decades of its exposure to the elements.

The commission that brought Diego Rivera back to New York in 1932 charged the artist to portray “man at the crossroads, uncertain but hopeful for a better future." His sketches [on view] for the mural were approved; as he began painting, however, he hardened his composition into a dichotomy between a self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking, violent capitalist society and a virtuous, utopian communist one. Controversy over the mural escalated when he added a portrait of Vladimir Lenin—likely in response to criticism of Rivera in the communist press for aligning himself with American capitalists. He was asked to remove the portrait; he refused. Ten months later, the mural was destroyed. In response, Rivera painted a modified version of it for the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. A reproduction of that mural, Man, Controller of the Universe,  which is still in place, is shown here [above].

Vida Americana opens on Monday, February 17 and continues through October 4, 2020. The Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, NY, NY Info Educational and public programs, including the twice-weekly Ethics of Looking series begin next week. Members get free access starting today. Info All photos © Peggy Roalf


No comments yet.

Sign in to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Join Now