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Museum highlights Mexican Muralists' impact on U.S. art

Pictured above is a reproduction of "Prometheus" by José Clemente Orozco, a painting that shows the story of a Greek Titan. – Photo by Photo by Courtesy of Rhea Swain | The Daily Targum

The Whitney Museum of American Art launched its much-anticipated exhibition “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945” on Feb. 17 to the public. This exhibition explores the impact of three Mexican muralists on American Art in the early 20th century, who were collectively known as “Los Tres Grandes” (The Big Three): José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. 

These modern artists, who held largely Communist opinions in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, spent a considerable amount of time in the United States and were commissioned to do murals for wealthy American capitalists.

These artists and their patrons did not always see eye-to-eye in their social and political beliefs, which made for an incredibly interesting cultural conversation and often even a clash. The imagery that the Big Three featured in their murals drew from their indigenous culture and the ideas that informed and simultaneously glorified the Mexican Revolution.

When you take the elevator up to the fifth floor of the Whitney building in the Meatpacking District in New York City, you are greeted by a shocking pink wall leading you into the exhibition. To the right of this wall is a white wall that reads in bold pink letters: “Vida Americana.” This exhibition is alive with color, and the Mexican muralists’ command over this emotional and vivacious element of art is undeniably present.

The artworks in the exhibition have been organized into eight broad sections: “Romantic Nationalism and the Mexican Revolution,” “Orozco on the Coasts,” “Siqueiros in Los Angeles,” “Epic Histories,” “Rivera and the New Deal,” “Art as Political Activism,” “Abelardo L. Rodriguez Market” and “Siqueiros and the Experimental Workshop.”  

To me, the most striking paintings that perfectly complemented the work of the muralists in “Romantic Nationalism and the Mexican Revolution” are Frida Kahlo’s “Me and My Parrots” (1941) and Alfredo Ramos Martinez’s “Calla Lily Vendor (Vendedora de Alcatraces)” (1929). 

These two portraits of female subjects capture two very different essences of the modern Mexican woman. The former was Diego Rivera’s wife, but also much more than that, and is famous for striking self-portraits, her iconic unibrow and the depiction of her rich Mexican heritage in her paintings. The latter is placed adjacent to Kahlo’s self-portrait and is a work typical of Martinez’s style, who is considered to be the father of Mexican Modernism.

A work lauded by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock as “the greatest painting in North America,” a reproduction of Orozco’s “Prometheus” (1930) captures one’s imagination when wandering the Neil Bluhm Family Galleries at the museum. Straying away from his contemporaries’ active engagement with local folklore, Orozco looks to the tale of the Greek Titan who brought fire and knowledge to earth. 

Orozco’s gestural brushwork and evocations of human emotion and struggle influenced American artists such as Jacob Lawrence of the Harlem Renaissance.

“Siqueiros in Los Angeles” discusses the artist’s collaborative efforts on murals with artists and assistants, such as Luis Arsenal and Philip Guston, and looks into the influence of the rising urban industry and Hollywood on his work. “Epic Histories” shows visitors how the work of the Mexican muralists guided artists’ narratives and visions during the Great Depression, with Aaron Douglas and Thomas Hart Benton being prominent names in this section. 

“Rivera and the New Deal” describes Rivera’s storytelling techniques and representations of productive labor as an inspirational model for artists working under former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, with references to his somewhat controversial “Detroit Industry Murals” fresco (1932-33) at the center of this section.

“Art as Political Activism” features some of the most grotesque, beautiful and evocative imagery in the exhibition, with Rivera’s incredibly controversial mural “Man, Controller of the Universe” (1934) being its grand finale. 

The reproduction of this work, originally intended for 30 Rockefeller Plaza, is astonishing and the carefully thought-out details on the mural reflect Rivera’s opinions of socialism and capitalism. The mural was commissioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. but was taken down shortly after its installation in the early 1930s as it featured a portrait of Vladimir Lenin and was seen as anti-capitalist propaganda. Fortunately, Rivera reproduced it for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City where it resides today.

“Vida Americana,” which closes on May 17, 2020, offers a cultural and historical dialogue worth listening to and experiencing.

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