Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The Trump administration has tried to physically cordon off Mexico from the United States, and presumably would just as soon exclude the country from America’s cultural orbit as well. From that perspective, the Whitney’s judiciously conceived exhibition “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art” is also slyly defiant. Most immediately, it demonstrates that some of the most significant American artistic trends and movements of the twentieth century cannot be fully understood outside the larger context of the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 and the muralists that it spawned. These include Abstract Expressionism, Social Realism, the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Black Renaissance, Regionalism, and Neo-expressionism.
On display are early representational works – such as Landscape with Steer (1936–37)– by Jackson Pollock, who was a student of David Alfaro Siqueiros; Works Progress Administration murals of clear Mexican lineage; Jacob Lawrence’s equally indebted visual narrative of the Great Migration; and Charles White’s kindred Progress of the American Negro canvases. Also in the show is Philip Guston’s poetically macabre 1937–38 tondo painting Bombardment, directly prompted by the Spanish Civil War but stylistically traceable to the muralists (who in turn modernized and politicized Italian baroque painting), foreshadowing the mordantly existential abstract work for which he is best known. The Mexican muralists’ effect on the north was not merely osmotic. The most influential ones – José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and Siqueiros – infiltrated the United States, making and exhibiting art there and exchanging ideas with American artists.
Some mainstream artists and critics regarded the muralists with suspicion, both because the idea of “national art” acquired fascist overtones after the Second World War and, perhaps more saliently, because the revolution had rooted communism in Mexican politics. Rivera and Siqueiros were members of the Mexican Communist Party, although Rivera was expelled on account of his sympathies with Leon Trotsky, the dissident Soviet communist who had fled to Mexico in 1937. They were not mere sequestered observers. Orozco, as a journalist-cartoonist, saw the violence unmediated. Siqueiros, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, was a committed and highly radicalized political activist. In May 1940, he and others mounted a plot to murder Trotsky. They failed in that objective but did kill Trotsky’s American bodyguard, Robert Sheldon Harte. Trotsky was assassinated later that year.
While Rivera glorified the revolution and Siqueiros cast it as an irrepressible force, Orozco locked on to its brutality rather than any heroism it produced and refused to see social upheaval through rose-colored glasses. Uncertain about its redemptive power, he presciently foresaw a long struggle for the Mexican people – and, implicitly, for any people liberated and galvanized by violence. Juxtaposed with his work, that of American counterparts gains nuance and complexity. Curator Barbara Haskell wisely included selections of Thomas Hart Benton’s extravagantly vivid American Historical Epic (1927–28) series in the exhibition. Benton openly admired the Mexican muralists as artists but disavowed their lefty politics. Especially at this moment, a blinkered audience might see his paintings as an expression of American exceptionalism, romanticizing and sanitizing Americans’ post-revolutionary experience, and sublimating slavery, the historic abuse of Native Americans, and other national vices. Next to the Mexican murals, however, Benton’s more candid and frank ground-level exploration of the savagery of Manifest Destiny and American expansionism is more equitably illuminated. “Vida Americana” thus serves not only as an engaged and learned contextualization of American art but also as a magisterial reality check on American myopia and self-regard.
“Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art,” Organized by Barbara Haskell, curator, with Marcela Guerrero, assistant curator; Sarah Humphreville, senior curatorial assistant; and Alana Hernandez, former curatorial project assistant. Whitney Museum of American Art. Through January 31, 2021.
Artists include Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Marion Greenwood, Philip Guston, Eitarō Ishigaki, Jacob Lawrence, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock, Ben Shahn, Thelma Johnson Streat, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff. In addition to Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, other key Mexican artists in the exhibition include Miguel Covarrubias, María Izquierdo, Frida Kahlo, Mardonio Magaña, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, and Rufino Tamayo.