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How the Mexican Revolution Changed Modern Art in America

At the Whitney Museum, an ambitious survey shows the transformative effects of Mexican muralism on the US avant-garde 

‘Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945’ is a virtual exhibition. Not in the sense that almost every exhibition is virtual right now – though that, too, of course. Rather because the trio of painters at the heart of the Whitney Museum’s survey – David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, known as Los Tres Grandes (The Three Greats) – made works that weren’t site-specific so much as sites in themselves: frescos that merged image with architecture as paint binds to drying plaster. The singularity of these sites is, by the same token, difficult to separate from the proud, sturdy populism that their creators aimed to communicate. But the Whitney curators, led by Barbara Haskell, have swallowed hard and separated. With two modest exceptions by Rivera, the only murals in their show are digital projections, scale models or matte-vinyl reproductions glued to white walls.

Philip Guston, Bombardment, 1937, oil on masonite, diameter: 106.7 cm. Courtesy: © Philadelphia Museum of Art; gift of Musa and Tom Mayer, The Estate of Philip Guston and McKee Gallery, New York

In the three decades following the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), the country’s muralists produced work that was at once figurative and conceptual, rousing and cunningly dialectical, invested in solving complex formal problems and fanning the flames of socialist revolution. It was the kind of work the Cold War-era US preferred not to think about. For Clement Greenberg, the intense, introverted (and CIA-sponsored) abstractions of Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston were best understood in opposition to the figurative kitsch of socialist art. Never mind that Pollock idolized Orozco and studied with Siqueiros in the 1930s, or that Guston painted Siqueiros- and Rivera-infused murals for the first decade of his career.

Marion Greenwood, Construction Worker (study for Blueprint for Living, a Federal Art Project mural, Red Hook Community Building, Brooklyn, New York), 1940, fresco mounted on composition board, 46 × 62 cm. Courtesy: Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York; gift of Mrs. Patricia Ashley 

Haskell has done a remarkable job of laying out the origins of the muralism boom. Even when she chases its shadow north to New York, Chicago and Detroit, she never makes Los Tres Grandes seem like precursors, only notable for their gringo apprentices. You could be forgiven, on the contrary, for browsing the Whitney website and concluding that there was little to the New York School of the 1950s that a Mexican painter hadn’t done better a generation earlier. In Prometheus (1930), the mural Orozco painted for Pomona College in Claremont, the Titan seems to push out against the upper edges of the apse in which he’s trapped, and it’s not hard to draw a comparison to the roaring centrifugal force of Pollock’s drip paintings.

José Clemente Orozco, Pancho Villa, 1931, oil on canvas, 68 × 50.6 cm. Courtesy: Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, INBAL, Mexico City 

What got lost on the journey from the 1930s to the ’50s, from Mexico City to Manhattan, was Marxism. Siqueiros, probably the most dogmatic of Los Tres Grandes, got mixed up in a botched Stalinist plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940; but all three, at different times and in different ways, were ideologically driven to a degree that may be hard to fathom today. (The Detroit Industry Murals that Rivera painted for the Ford Motor Company in 1932–33, ridiculed at the time by card-carrying communists the world over, now seem like capitalism’s lapse, not his.) There’s more than a whiff of irony to the fact that muralism, the artform Orozco lauded in his 1929 manifesto, ‘New World, New Races and New Art’, because it isn’t ‘hidden away for the benefit of a certain privileged few’, was being celebrated at Whitney until recently; but Mexican muralists prospered because they embraced new technologies and perhaps the exhibition’s current, all-online form upholds the spirit of their practice, if not the letter. In an ordinary month, ‘Vida Americana’ would be a major event. As things stand, it seems to mark a paradigm shift: a reminder that today’s populism and accessibility aren’t found in the heft of a building but in the weightlessness of Wi-Fi.  

Main image: Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads/Man, Controller of the Universe, 1933, fesco, 4.8 × 11.5 m. Courtesy: Rockefeller Center, New York 

Jackson Arn has written for The New Statesman, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Nation, and other places.

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