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The Lasting Influence of Mexico’s Great Muralists

The title of a thumpingly great show at the Whitney, “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945,” picks an overdue art-historical fight. The usual story of American art in those two decades revolves around young, often immigrant American aesthetes striving to absorb European modernism. A triumphalist tale composed backward from its climax—the postwar success of Abstract Expressionism—it brushes aside the prevalence, in the Depression thirties, of politically themed figurative art: social realism, more or less, which became ideologically toxic with the onset of the Cold War. What to do with the mighty legacy of the time’s big three Mexican painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros? As little as possible has seemed the rule, despite the seminal influence of Orozco and Siqueiros on the young Jackson Pollock. Granted, there’s the problem of appreciating muralists in the absence of their murals. (A mural is a picture that is identical with a wall, and a wall belongs to a building that, besides not being portable, has meanings of its own.) But, with some two hundred works by sixty artists and abundant documentary material, the Whitney curator Barbara Haskell reweaves the sense and the sensations of an era to bring it alive.

Start the story with Emiliano Zapata, the peasant leader from a village in the central state of Morelos, who was tricked into a military ambush and martyred in 1919. This was a year before the decade-long, staggeringly bloody Mexican Revolution, which had begun with an attempt to overthrow the dictatorial and oligarchic President Porfirio Díaz, finally culminated in the election of Álvaro Obregón. (At least a million of the country’s fifteen million citizens lost their lives.) The agrarian rebel Zapata became an iconic figure for a new order that was merging social reform with a celebration of folkways and traditions—in striking contrast to the urban-industrial character of the Russian Revolution. (Shifting views of the Soviet Union regularly roiled the Mexican intelligentsia, many of whom welcomed the exiled Leon Trotsky to the capital, in 1937, before some effectively condoned his murder by a Stalinist agent, in 1940.) Nearly every artist had a go at exalting Zapata for his deep rootedness in native soil as well as for his dashing militance. Orozco’s “Zapatistas” (1931) lyricizes the rural force. A “Zapatistas” made the following year, by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, conveys a lot with witty economy: a packed composition of overlapping sombreros affording incomplete glimpses of peasant faces and rifle barrels. It radiates a sort of ecstatic menace.

Ramos Martínez, who immigrated to Los Angeles in 1930, is one of a number of lesser-known artists who impress in the show’s opening sections. The Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti, who journeyed the opposite way, from Los Angeles to Mexico, in 1923, is represented with crisp images, including a still-life of a sickle, a loaded bandolier, and an ear of corn. But the exhibition centers on the three leaders of the mural movement and their galvanizing effects north of the border. The star, of course, is Rivera, whose panache in an epic style of sophisticated populism won him world fame. In 1931, he was given the newly founded Museum of Modern Art’s second monographic show (the first was devoted to Matisse) and created a remarkable suite of portable frescoes. Among them were a magnificent portrayal of Zapata appropriating the white horse of a slain foe and “The Uprising,” in which a woman with a baby defends a worker from a sword-wielding soldier. I once underrated that work, but this time it affected me with its cinematic immediacy. Rivera keeps looking better in retrospect, after a long period in which his standing declined while that of his wife, Frida Kahlo, soared. I prefer Kahlo myself, though by a narrower margin now. The show includes only two works by her. One jolts. The self-portrait “Me and My Parrots” (1941) communicates a force of personhood beyond that of any of the hundreds of other faces on view here.

Rivera notoriously enchanted American financiers and industrialists, engaging in a dizzying dance of co-optation that extended to adulatory coverage in Forbes and peaked with his masterpiece murals, completed in 1933, in the Detroit Institute of Arts, of a Ford plant in full-tilt operation. This celebrity proved tricky for him at home, where Siqueiros, among others, denounced him as a sellout to class enemies. Rivera countered by painting a head of Lenin into his grand mural suite for Rockefeller Center, in 1933. Ordered by Nelson Rockefeller to remove the Bolshevik, Rivera refused. (Light verse by E. B. White in this magazine had the mogul objecting, “After all / It’s my wall,” before it concluded, “ ‘We’ll see if it is,’ said Rivera.”) The work was destroyed in 1934. The same year, Rivera painted a new version, “Man, Controller of the Universe,” in Mexico City. The Whitney show features a full-sized (nearly sixteen feet high by thirty-seven and a half feet wide) digital reproduction of the surviving mural, printed on a single sheet of vinyl glued to a wall. I don’t know what to make of that except as an instance of technical whoop-de-do. Much as I empathize with Haskell’s yen for a pièce de résistance, I swear by the physical integrity of painting, here betrayed by a smooth-as-silk illusion.

Rivera inspired American painters to create tableaux of laboring or protesting workers (police brutality figures often) and of historical events and themes. The work of the African-American artist Charles White is notable; give an eye to his “Progress of the American Negro: Five Great American Negroes” (1939-40), which works such heroes as Booker T. Washington and Marian Anderson into a baroque panorama. The show also includes ten temperas from Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” of 1940-41: little pictures, narrating the northward exodus of Southern blacks, that reverberate with intense color, clenched design, and a quiet power of conviction that makes much other work here seem forced and fustian.

But America already had a prominent public artist: the ebullient neo-Mannerist Thomas Hart Benton, who hailed Rivera until he was alienated by his Marxism. Benton’s output might be termed liberal-nationalist with a heaping side order of Hollywood. His bravura series “American Historical Epic” (1924-27) has the virtue of featuring noble Indians along with the vice of casting them as perennial losers. He could be callous. But he was right on time for certain popular moods of the thirties—so much so that his reputation crashed soon thereafter. He has come to be mentioned most often as a teacher of Jackson Pollock—a status that happens to be at the beating heart of the Whitney show.

The young Pollock was a student, too, of Siqueiros, who was at once the mural movement’s most adamant Stalinist (in 1940, he led a failed attempt, with machine guns, to assassinate Trotsky) and its most experimental, indeed avant-garde, painter. Pollock attended a workshop that Siqueiros conducted in New York, in 1936, teaching innovative techniques: using non-paint materials, airbrushing, and, among other heterodox procedures, dripping and pouring. Meanwhile, Pollock emulated Orozco’s dark, fierce, rhythmic Expressionism to the point of making works that are almost—but not quite—hard to distinguish from it. Relatively neutral politically, Orozco favored mythological subjects in such explosively composed works as “Prometheus,” a mural at Pomona College, in California, which the Whitney represents, at about half scale, in another digital reproduction. Juxtapositions of paintings by Orozco and Siqueiros with contemporaneous ones by Pollock amount to a riveting show within the show: a crucible in which the apolitical American found ways around the crushing authority of Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Mondrian, and other European paragons. The vehemence of the Mexicans matched his volcanic temperament; and the heft of their gestural forms showed him how to rival, while evading, the tinkered unities of Cubism. I recommend comparing and contrasting the seething intensity of Pollock’s “Composition with Flames” (1936) with that of “The Fire” (1938), by Orozco, and Siqueiros’s “The Electric Forest” (1939).

“Vida Americana” valuably augments standard histories of modern art. Without the Mexican precedents of amplified scale and passionate vigor, the development of Abstract Expressionism in general, and that of Pollock in particular, lacks crucial sense. As for the politics, consider the persistently leftward tilt of American art culture ever since—a residual hankering, however sotto voce, to change the world.

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