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Mexican Muralists Changed the Course of 20th-Century American Art. A New Exhibit Explores Their Influence

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Jackson Pollock’s best-known influences include European greats like Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. But often overlooked is the artist’s time at New York’s Experimental Workshop, founded in 1936 by David Alfaro Siqueiros, who along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco made up “los tres grandes” who led the postrevolution Mexican muralism movement. Siqueiros founded the Workshop in New York City in 1936, guided by the philosophy that in order to make truly radical art, artists must shed old practices and pioneer completely new techniques. As an impressionable young painter there, Pollock was exposed to the approach of pouring and dripping paint onto canvases, more than a decade before he would introduce his first “drip paintings” in 1947.

A new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, aims to rectify such oversights. The show, which runs from February through mid-May, shines a light on the Mexican artists whose politically charged, populist work shaped some of the most significant American artists of the 20th century, from Pollock to Philip Guston. The exhibit places Mexican works next to those of Americans who borrowed, often heavily, from their themes and methods. “Sometimes we talk about American art or Mexican art, but these are really fictitious borders, frontiers that do not actually exist,” says Marcela Guerrero, assistant curator of the exhibit.

The muralism movement began at the end of the Mexican revolution in 1920 (though some scholars posit that the revolution ended earlier and others, later), when the new government of President Álvaro Obregón fostered a cultural renaissance by commissioning several public murals with the aim of unifying the war-torn country. The works created during this time helped establish a cohesive Mexican identity as well as spearhead an alternative to European modernism. Soon enough, American artists and journalists flocked to Mexico to see the resulting works. But the exchange crossed the border in both directions: as Obregón’s presidency came to an end in 1924, the commissions dried up, and the muralists traveled to America in search of opportunity. They held exhibitions, created large-scale murals and conducted experiments that would see their influence take hold from coast to coast.

Orozco was the first of “los tres grandes” to come to the States in 1927, followed by Rivera in 1930, then Siqueiros two years later. In the coming years, the techniques, subject matter and ethos of these Mexican artists would have a profound effect on American artists. American artists and intellectuals at that time were in search of an alternative to European abstraction as well as a cure to the widespread materialism and isolation wrought by modern industrial life. Through reading the flood of American reportage about muralism in Mexico, Americans began to romanticize a vision of Mexico that was simpler, more unified and more egalitarian than the lifestyle they were leading.

A major part of the muralists’ ethos was the repudiation, espoused in particular by Siquieros, of “every kind of art favoured by ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic” and the praise of “monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property.” (We can only imagine what he might have made of Maurizio Cattelan’s duct-taped banana which sold for $120,000 at Art Basel in December.) The Mexican muralists valued accessibility in art to an unseen degree. This is not only seen in their subject matter—the lives of everyday people facing everyday struggles—it is also embedded in the form. The mural, displayed in a public space, was owned by no one but belonged to everyone. The muralists often practiced modernism without abstraction, in contrast to the dominant mode in Europe. This sparing use of abstraction pushed the idea of accessibility even further. Rivera’s “The Uprising” and Alfredo Ramos Martínez’s “Calla Lily Vendor,” for example, are representational paintings that depict exactly what their titles suggest. You didn’t have to have a degree in art to understand what these artists were trying to say.

But just as this exciting new cultural exchange was happening, Mexican identity in the United States was becoming highly contested. In 1930, “Mexican” was added as a separate race on the U.S. Census. Until then, Mexicans had been legally considered white. The addition was strongly protested by Mexican Americans, with support from the Mexican government, since it would ensure them fewer legal rights and privileges. It was removed from the next census. But their concerns were not unfounded: Over the course of the 1930s, an estimated 1.8 million Mexicans, over half of whom were U.S. citizens, would be deported. During World War II, the government would use census data to round up people of Japanese descent for imprisonment in internment camps. These government policies were reflected in the anti-Mexican attitudes of many Americans; at a moment when the U.S. was seeing an embrace of Mexican craft and culture, hatred for Mexican people was surging. “That’s the paradox,” says Barbara Haskell, the exhibition’s chief curator. “Mexican things were vogue. Mexican crafts were being sold in department stores all across the country, and, yet, the actual people of Mexican descent living in the States were being deported.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment and deportation, of course, are not relics of the past. During the last fiscal year alone, U.S. border authorities took nearly one million migrants into custody at the Southern border. Haskell hopes that highlighting these works from decades ago serves as a reminder “that art essentially is universal and doesn’t accord to borders.” With this universality, however, also come questions about who gets to tell what stories, and where the line between influence and appropriation lies.

The exhibit prompts viewers to ask these questions of some of the works displayed in the museum, including paintings by Thomas Hart Benton. Benton became known for using art to directly address pressing social issues, much like several of his Mexican contemporaries. But his work also problematically reinforced stereotypes of African Americans and Native Americans, even as he strove to drive home points about their oppression. And Pollock’s heavy use of Native American imagery, which might have been inspired by his exposure to Orozco’s embrace of mythology and ritual, has been subject to criticism.

Even Rivera was condemned as a “counter-revolutionist” for his involvement with elite patrons and for creating work about communities he was ultimately removed from. The artist continued to depict the working class and scenes of revolution, to which he was previously deeply connected, while working for American capitalists and institutions, like the Rockefeller family and the Pacific Stock Exchange. As Rivera became more and more involved with the elites, the quality of his work suffered. His paintings became “less and less meaningful,” says Haskell. “When he first does them, they have a power and a monumentality, a connection with a population that had been excluded. Later on, they seem to be caricatures of his earlier work. He’s doing it to make money. They sell well, people love them, but they don’t have the kind of intensity that his earlier work did.”

These questions cut across disciplines and art forms. Vida Americana arrives on the heels of the controversy stirred by a buzzy new novel about Mexican migrants, American Dirt, called out by many for serving up a whitewashed narrative. Which begs the question of the exhibition itself: the work and stories of Mexican artists presented by an American museum, framed around their influence on American art. Haskell says that the acknowledgement of their major impact across borders is exactly what makes the show unique: “that the Mexican artists’ story didn’t end at a Mexican museum.” And throughout the exhibit, it’s the Mexican murals, overpowering at 20, sometimes 30 feet in width, that impress upon the memory, their American counterparts figuratively and sometimes literally dwarfed by the works that influenced them.

Below, see several pairings that illustrate the breadth and types of influence that artists like Orozco and Siqueiros had on American artists of the 20th century.

Ritual and myth, from Orozco to Pollock

Left: José Clemente Orozco, Reproduction of Prometheus, 1930; Right: Jackson Pollock, The Flame , 1934–38
Left: José Clemente Orozco, Reproduction of Prometheus, 1930; Right: Jackson Pollock, The Flame , 1934–38Artists Rights Society (ARS)/SOMAAP; The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS). Image: The Museum of Modern Art/SCALA/Art Resource

Orozco made what is considered to be the first modern fresco mural by a Mexican artist on U.S. soil in 1930, when he was commissioned to paint Prometheus (left) at a new dining hall at Pomona College in California. The mural, a reproduction of which is displayed at the Whitney, was heralded by critics and artists. Pollock made a trip to California to see it for himself and would later hang a reproduction in his studio, as he considered it “the greatest painting done in modern times.” Pollock’s circa 1934–38 painting The Flame (right) depicts a semi-abstract fire and a skeleton, showing influence not only from Prometheus but also Orozco’s early-1930s mural at Dartmouth College, The Epic of American Civilization. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is said to have gifted humans with fire, defying the gods. Orozco relied on myth to convey the eternal struggle of mankind, constantly progressing and regressing throughout time. Pollock’s early work heavily explored ritual and myth as well, before he developed the even more abstract style that would bring him great fame.

A new national identity for Americans

Charles White, Progress of the American Negro: Five Great American Negroes, 1939–40Howard University Gallery of Art

Enlivened by how Mexican artists created a national identity that was inclusive of the people’s fight for freedom, American artists followed suit, with an interest in telling stories about the public fight for good. Charles White’s debut public mural, Five Great American Negroes, is an example of the unifying, epic nature of the works created during this time. A Works Progress Administration project, White’s mural includes triumphant portraits of Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver and Marian Anderson. White, along with Hale Woodruff and other artists of the time, is credited with helping create a new national identity for Americans—one that included the history, triumphs and lives of African Americans. Woodruff’s Amistad Murals, commissioned in 1938, are also on display at the Whitney. The series immortalizes the story of the 1839 slave rebellion in a similarly glorious, celebratory manner, showing the oppressed overcoming the oppressor.

The “anxiety of influence”

Left: David Alfaro Siqueiros, The Electric Forest, 1939; Right: Jackson Pollock, Landscape with Steer, 1936–37
Left: David Alfaro Siqueiros, The Electric Forest, 1939; Right: Jackson Pollock, Landscape with Steer, 1936–37Indianapolis Museum of Art; The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS). Image: The Museum of Modern Art/SCALA/Art Resource

Pollock was never forthcoming about his time working with Siqueiros. Haskell explains this omission by pointing to what Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence.” Pollock likely struggled to navigate the ambiguous line between Siquieros’ ideas and his own. The American painter’s circa 1936–37 Landscape with Steer (right) may have been completed about two years before Siqueiros’ The Electric Forest (left), but it speaks to the remarkably similar headspace the artists were in. The commonalities are striking, with both works adhering to Siqueiros’ ideology that artists “must live our marvelous dynamic age,” making use of experimental techniques pioneered by Siqueiros at his Experimental Workshop.

Glory and censorship, from Rivera to Gropper

Left: Diego Rivera, Lower panel of Detroit Industry, North Wall, 1932–33; Right: William Gropper, Automobile Industry (mural study, Detroit, Michigan Post Office), 1940–41
: Diego Rivera, Lower panel of Detroit Industry, North Wall, 1932–33; Bottom: William Gropper, Automobile Industry (mural study, Detroit, Michigan Post Office), 1940–41Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS); Smithsonian American Art MuseumTop

Impressed by their ability to create such epic works with the mission of unifying a war-torn Mexico, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw the need for a similar movement in the U.S. in the midst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in 1935, with the aim of making art a part of public life. At the Whitney, a mural study of William Gropper’s 1940–41 Automobile Industry (bottom), which was originally installed in a Detroit post office, shows a glorified vision of the working class in industrial America, with men collaboratively working to build a car. The lower panel of Diego Rivera’s 1932–33 Detroit Industry murals (top) depicts a romantic, racially integrated vision of the auto industry. One chief difference between the Mexican works and their American successors was the ability of the former to hold more depth and nuance, as they largely went uncensored (with the exception of Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center, which was destroyed in 1934 following the artist’s refusal to remove a portrait of Vladimir Lenin); other panels in Detroit Industry depict a contentiously received vaccination scene that resembled the Holy Family as well as nudity. Federally commissioned works were closely scrutinized, with controversial content often removed in service of an unambiguously if also unrealistically positive, and often whitewashed, vision of America.

Agitating for social change

Left: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Proletarian Victim, 1933; Right: Hale Woodruff, Giddap, 1935 (printed 1996)
Left: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Proletarian Victim, 1933; Right: Hale Woodruff, Giddap, 1935 (printed 1996)The Museum of Modern Art; Whitney Museum of American Art

The muralists did not shy away from depicting the injustices of their era. Siqueiros was imprisoned several times by the Mexican government for his radicalism. His 1933 Proletarian Victim (left) portrays a woman, shot in the head, bound and stripped, an apparent casualty of political violence. American artists also began to leverage art to agitate for social change. Hale Woodruff, an African-American artist who apprenticed with Rivera, depicted racial terror in a series of block prints. In his 1935 linocut Giddap (right), a crowd of white men cheer at the lynching of a black man. “We are interested in expressing the South as a field, as a territory, its peculiar run-down landscape, its social and economic problems—the Negro people,” Woodruff told TIME in 1942. Like Siqueiros, he hoped his work would educate audiences by elucidating, in undeniable visuals, the plight of oppressed people.

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Write to Anna Purna Kambhampaty at Anna.kambhampaty@time.com