Mexican Muralists and The Whitney Rewrite Art History

1932 Zapatistas by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Courtesy: San Francisco Museum of Art

When you enter the Whitney Museum exhibition, you’re surrounded by tropical settings, Oaxacan beauties, lush floral compositions, and the romance of Mexico. But a few steps beyond, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945  delivers epic struggles, monumental murals, revolutionary fervor, inspirational triumphs, and heroic views of everyday people.

It’s the most important art exhibition currently on view in New York, on view through January 31, because it shows how three acclaimed, radical Mexican artists – Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros – influenced a generation of artists in the United States with their commitments to public works, no-holds-barred graphic depiction of social injustices, and masterful, innovative techniques.

Diego Rivera’s 1931 fresco The Uprising – everyday people showing heroism in extraordinary times. Private collection

Take a tour through the show on the Whitney exhibition site, listen to the audio guide, and see some of our favorite works here.

The paintings, photos, and films in the first gallery celebrate a romantic vision of Mexico’s native heritage alongside works evoking poignant, sometimes violent moments in the country’s recent revolution. It’s a rich experience, with modernist photos by Modotti, evocative footage by Eisenstein, and riveting works by Khalo, Rivera, and Alfredo Ramos Martínez.

Orozco’s 1930 mythic mural Prometheus for Pomona College, California

But just beyond, you’ll glimpse galleries that promise deeper stories of emotional, turbulent, modernist angst. A half-scale reproduction of Orozco’s mythic Prometheus mural occupies an alcove, surrounded by works by artists he inspired –Jacob Lawrence’s pictorial history of African-American northern migration in 1910-1940 and Jackson Pollack’s early Thirties paintings that channel Orozco’s depiction of writhing life forces.

Take a look at The Whitney’s introduction to Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, which shows life in Mexico at the time they developed their distinctive styles, gained international acclaim, and came to the United States:

Another startling Pollack reveal lies in the Siqueiros gallery that tells the story of the experimental workshop that the Mexican master ran in New York, where New York artist were encouraged to experiment with airbrushes, stencils, and paint splatters.

Pollack’s 1937 airbrushed litho Landscape with Steer – influenced by his workshop with Siqueiros. Courtesy: MoMA

Siqueiros was big on pushing the boundaries and using modern materials to create truly revolutionary work. Pollack’s experiments are here, along with the revelation that workshop participants were encouraged to lay unstretched canvas down on the floor and work from above. Sound familiar?

The magic of this exhibition is the side-by-side mounting that allows visitors to ponder the many ways that young Depression-era US artists took so many of the lessons of the Mexican muralists to heart.

Detail of 1939-1940 Charles White Progress of the American Negro: Great American Negroes. Courtesy: Howard University

The exhibition goes on to chronicle artists who were inspired to tell epic stories of the American frontier and forgotten African-American success stories. In one room alone, you can pivot and take in expansive, monumental paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, Aaron Douglas, and Charles White.

Another section of the show looks at Diego Rivera’s fascination with American industrialization and assembly-line workers, including a wall-size video of Rivera’s 1932 mural of Detroit’s Ford assembly line. The adjacent gallery shows his influence through WPA-funded works by Ben Shahn, Phillip Evergood, Thelma Johnson Streat, Marion Greenwood, and others. Gears, machines, heroic workers, and strivers in an industrial age.

Reproduction of Rivera’s 1934 mural Man, Controller of the Universe, originally created for Rockefeller Center

A “wow factor” at the far end of the gallery is the reproduction of the infamous Rivera mural commission for Rockefeller Center that was destroyed due to Rivera’s refusal to take out Communist references. You experience the uproar it caused by reading original newspaper clippings and magazine articles. When his work was destroyed, Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts invited him to recreate it. That’s the reproduction at the Whitney, giving everyone a chance to experience a piece of lost New York art.

Many exhibition visitors miss one of the most satisfying components of the show – a three-channel video of the murals done by a host of painters (under Rivera’s direction) in a market in Mexico City. Walk to the right corner of the big Rivera mural and step inside the Abelardo L. Rodriguez Market to see murals created by Ramón Alva Guadarrama, Marion and Grace Greenwood, Noguchi, and others:

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