I didn’t disclose my contrarian reaction to the Whitney Museum’s ambitious, widely acclaimed Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 at the time when it opened last February. But with it now in the last stretch of its run (extended to Jan. 31, due to the Covid pause), I feel less compunction about tempering the praise lavished by art critics on this ambitious exploration of how U.S. modernists were inspired by Mexican painters (and not just by the “muralists” of the title).
It’s not that “Vida Americana” doesn’t deserve admiration. It’s just that it has been overpraised for providing eye-opening new insights into this cross-cultural phenomenon, as embodied in the socially conscious work, below, by U.S. artist Ben Shahn, who (as stated in the Whitney’s label) had worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera on that Mexican muralist’s famously ill-fated Rockefeller Center mural.
My reaction to the Whitney’s show was more reserved, because I had previously perused a more intimate, less well publicized show that had made the same points (with some of the same examples) as the Whitney’s much larger, more eclectic version.
The Whitney’s insights into the influence of the Mexican muralists on artists from the U.S. were revelatory only if you had never set eyes on the much less well attended display at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum in Hanover, NH. Having reviewed for the Wall Street Journal the Hood’s 2012 Men of Fire: José Clemente Orozco and Jackson Pollock, my response to the Whitney’s expansive follow-up was more, “been-there-done-that” than unadulterated adulation.
The signature work of the Hood’s installation re-crossed the Atlantic from the Tate, London, for the Whitney’s presentation. Here it is, as prominently positioned at Dartmouth:
The New York show’s main thesis is that it “reorient[s] art history, revealing the muralists’ seismic influence on the style, subject matter and ideology of art in the United States between 1925 and 1945,” in the words of its wall text. The art critics co-signed that party line: In his Feb. 20 review, NY Times co-chief art critic Holland Cotter stated that the Whitney show “reshapes a stretch of art history to give credit where credit is due.” Catching up with the show late this year, LA Times art critic Carolina Miranda similarly extolled the Whitney for “rewrit[ing] American art history and, in the process, mak[ing] it more Mexican.”
Not exactly: Notwithstanding the words of the Whitney’s wall text, the “seismic influence” of the Mexican muralists (particularly Orozco) had not only been “revealed,” “reshaped” and “rewritten,” but also examined in depth (albeit with fewer examples) eight years ago at Dartmouth. That said, the big-city show—backed by more robust financial support, greater clout in wrangling art loans, and broader critical attention—has a comprehensiveness and scope that the college museum could only dream of.
Originally scheduled to close in May of this year (but extended into next year, due to the pandemic closures), the Whitney’s curatorial tour de force, drawing together some 200 works by 60 American and Mexican artists, was deftly organized by its veteran curator, Barbara Haskell:
For works that it couldn’t possibly borrow, because they were non-transportable, monumental murals, the Whitney went so far (too far?) as to display copies: One is a reproduction of Rivera’s own modified version of his short-lived Rockefeller Center mural that, with its Communist subtext, provoked the ire of Nelson Rockefeller, the patron who had it destroyed after having commissioned it:
Scrutinizing this work, I had fun playing “Where’s Vladimir,” searching for the images of Lenin (right of the central figure), Trotsky and Marx (both further right, behind the red banner that proclaims: “Workers of the World Unite”).
I felt a bit foolish ogling, as if it were an original, a monumental, walk-in recreation of the landmark Orozco work that had “caused a sensation in the artworld,” as described in the Whitney’s label. Pollock and other American artists made pilgrimage to Pomona College, Claremont, CA, to see “Prometheus,” which Pollock had called, “The greatest painting done in modern times.”
Here’s a view from its entrance:
…and here’s a peek inside, as you turn to the right:
Sparked by that Pomona mural was this intense Pollock conflagration—a highlight of both the Hood and Whitney shows:
But while the impact of the Pomona murals on American artists is widely acknowledged, nowhere is Pollock’s debt to Orozco more evident to me than in the resonance between the American acolyte’s “Mural,” 1943, and the Mexican muralist’s 24-panel “The Epic of American Civilization,” 1932-34. The 24-year-old Pollock had traveled to Dartmouth’s Baker Library in 1936 to absorb that mural’s sweeping history of the Mexican people.
As I wrote in my WSJ review of the Dartmouth’s dossier show (organized by Sarah Powers, then of the Hood, along with Pollock expert Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, NY), “Pollock was influenced not only by Orozco’s larger-than-life scale but also by the swirling energy of his brushstrokes and dramatic use of black to define curving contours.”
Those traits made their grand entrance in Pollock’s own output with his “Mural,” 1943, which to my eyes is a direct descendant of the Mexican muralist’s “Epic.”
Here’s how I described that connection in my WSJ review of “Men of Fire”:
A frenzy of black verticals and whorls, enlivened with touches of pink, yellow and turquoise, “Mural,” under sustained scrutiny, comes into focus as a cross-canvas parade of upright, abstracted figures, with outlines strongly reminiscent of the black-defined curves of the marching Aztecs’ muscled flesh in the “Migration” panel that begins Dartmouth’s Orozco mural.
Restored to greater vibrancy by the Getty Center (a process that I wrote about for the WSJ, here), “Mural” is now on loan (to Sept. 19) to the Guggenheim Museum from the University of Iowa’s Stanley Museum of Art, Iowa City. Water-soaked due to the Iowa River’s devastating flood in 2008, the Midwest museum only began construction of its new building in August 2019, with reopening scheduled for 2022. (My 2009 in-person report on that flood damage, accompanied by my photos, is here.)
Another connection between the Dartmouth mural and Pollock’s work was elucidated by Helen Harrison, when she gave me a guided tour of “Men of Fire” (CultureGrrl Video, here). She pointed out that Pollock’s “Bald Woman with Skeleton,” owned by the Hood (and now on loan to the Whitney’s show) referenced “Gods of the Modern World,” a section of the college’s Baker Library mural.
“Bald Woman” was the cover image of the Hood’s catalogue…
And here’s a better look at that lurid painting, in my photo taken at the Hood:
Also in the Whitney show is this study, borrowed from Dartmouth, for the section of Orozco’s mural that inspired the above Pollock:
And here’s a photo of that section of Orozco’s mural (in the foreground) at Baker Library:
But back to the Whitney:
My reservations about the show didn’t dampen my appreciation of Haskell’s canny juxtapositions of powerful works drawn from disparate sources, such as this strong, self-possessed Latina trio, engulfed by native flora and fauna (as in Kehinde Wiley‘s portrait of Barack Obama?).
It stopped me in my tracks…
…as did this dynamic work by Charles White, portraying the historic achievements of five celebrated African Americans, seen in the context of monumental, politically powerful works by Mexicans:
The White was another déjà vu moment for me: I had been riveted by this epic depiction of prominent black Americans in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2018 retrospective devoted to this socially conscious artist, where it was a signature work:
Even though the thesis behind the Whitney’s “Vida Americana” may not be new, this was a perfect time, with the Mexican border on everyone’s minds, to knock down cultural barriers at a major mainstream U.S. cultural institution. This broader focus is consistent with the new mandate of the Whitney, when it moved downtown in 2015 to its new facility in Meatpacking District, to expand its definition of “American” art to encompass Latin Americans.
This is also a perfect time to debunk the parochial perception that a thought-provoking take on art history doesn’t entirely exist until it happens in New York. Or, to riff on NYC’s unofficial anthem: “If you haven’t seen it here, you haven’t seen it anywhere.”
“Men of Fire” was the torch that lit the way for “Vida Americana.” But the New York side of this cross-museum conversation was groundbreaking in more thoroughly exploring the Latino side of the cross-cultural conversation.
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