“Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945”
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As our Dear Leader declaims that everything coming across our southern border is inferior and dangerous, it behooves us to remember that American culture has often taken its cues from Mexico. One notable instance is the subject of this ambitious, sprawling exhibition about the influence of Mexican painters on the art of the United States during the first half of the 20th century. Spearheaded by the museum’s longtime historical curator Barbara Haskell, the exceptionally timely Vida Americana proves in turns engrossing, inspiring and confounding.
The latter arises from the exhibition’s lack of a chronological or linear narrative. Instead, thematic groupings provide dynamic comparisons of artworks to one another, but little sense of the order in which developments occurred or why they progressed as they did. Yet the meandering nature of this approach seems like a minor annoyance given the surfeit of terrific Mexican works that inspired American artists to forcefully address the social and economic ills of our nation.
The story begins after the Mexican Revolution in the early 1920s, when the Mexican government commissioned artists to help unify the country by decorating buildings. Led by los tres grandes, “the big three”—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros—these artists achieved international fame by covering vast walls with murals depicting historical, cultural and political themes. Americans flocked to Mexico to document, assist and study with the muralists. By decade’s end, however, public commissions in Mexico dried up, so los tres grandes came north to paint murals for schools, museums, civic groups and even millionaires. While these massive artworks can’t be moved, of course, the Whitney compensates with gorgeous charcoal studies, huge photo-reproductions, wall-filling video projections and easel paintings of similar subjects. Rivera, fortunately, made “portable murals,” and the two fresco panels on view make clear his style’s appeal. The Uprising shows class struggle with the legibility of a political cartoon: In front of a confrontation between the military striking Marxist workers, a woman holding a baby stops a soldier with a sword from striking a male laborer in blue overalls. Rivera and Siqueiros, in fact, were both card-carrying Communists.
They shared the political commitment of their art with their American followers, who, in the face of the Great Depression at home and the rise of fascism abroad, began painting Social Realist images of progressive themes. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White and Thomas Hart Benton emulated Rivera’s epic scale, Orozco’s humanistic expressionism and Siqueiros’s experimental techniques. Some later turned to abstraction when the Cold War changed the political climate; others never gave up on trying to better the world through figurative art. The stirring works in Vida Americana show the vibrant possibilities for art when borders are crossed and social justice drives the engine.