By Jorge Fuentelsaz
New York, Jan 15 (EFE).- New York’s Whitney Museum is mounting an exhibit highlighting the impact leading Mexican muralists – including Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros – had on the United States, an exposition featuring some 200 works by 60 Mexican and US muralists.
“This is a story that hasn’t been told. (The public), they need to come to see how important the Mexican muralists work (is), and (how it influenced) American art,” curator Barbara Haskell told EFE during the presentation of the exposition, which will open its doors to the public on Feb. 17.
Standing beside some pink Mexican tote bags designed for the show, Marcela Guerrero, another curator, told EFE that the Mexican muralists brought to the US “not only the end of the modern art that created large monumental paintings, but also the idea that art could serve as a commitment, a social proposition. That is something that Americans had not seen and didn’t have at that time.”
Both women gave as an example the mural created by Rivera in Detroit, a work impacted by the auto industry and which is on display at that city’s Institute of Arts.
Although the original will not be at the exposition, a photographic reproduction of the work will be there along with a video of the epoch showing the Mexican artist working on the mural.
After the Mexican Revolution in the second decade of the 20th century, authorities handed numerous projects to Mexican muralists, “but in the mid-1920s, (these projects) were reduced and they came to the US because there was the opportunity to create murals” on public and private commissions, Guerrero, a Puerto Rico native, said.
Meanwhile, Haskell said that the popularization of Mexican mural art was due in large part to US artist George Biddle, a friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, in office from 1933-1945, who after traveling to Mexico to learn from Rivera, wrote FDR to try and convince him to develop a similar type of art in the US.
Biddle told Roosevelt that Mexican authorities had “hired artists (in) Mexico to depict the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution, and that there were artists in America that were willing (and) eager to do the same thing for this country,” Haskell said.
“Tons of artists went to Mexico, they’re starting to be reports in magazines and photographs of the murals in Mexico. So that brought the waves of artists to Mexico to work with … muralists and look at the murals, so that when the muralists arrived back in America they were superstars,” she added.
Haskell went on to say that, for example, the influential US painter Jackson Pollock “went to see the mural that Orozco did at Pomona College in 1930. He said it was the most important painting in the Western Hemisphere and he kept a photograph of it in his studio throughout the 1930s.”
At that time, US artists had fixed their gaze upon the European avant-garde, but as Guerrero explained, the old Europe was dealing with a more aristocratic vocabulary and its artists employed more mythological and classicist themes.
“During the 1920s, the Mexican mural is far, far more influential (than the European) and one of the reasons is … they really … reasserted the social role of art, that art has a relationship to society, that it could interact with the public in order to create an understanding of the world, and that had been lost by the French,” Haskell said.
US artists “were desperate to have their own language … (because) there was no indigenous art in the US,” Guerrero said.
In addition, that epoch coincided with the Great Depression and painters began to look for an art that would help them “as a nation and that was modern at the same time.”
Thus, Mexican works like “Barricada” (1931) by Orozco, “Vendedora de Alcatraces” (1929) Alfredo Ramos Martinez, “El Levantamiento” (1931) by Rivera and “Zapata” (1931) by Siqueiros will be on display at the show alongside US works such as “Bombardment” (1937) by Phil Guston and “The Driller” (1937) by Harold Lehman.
But bringing together all these works providing evidence of the bridges between the two countries has not been easy. It’s been a task lasting four years and a year-and-a-half “of almost a diplomatic mission” to request the loan of various works from other museums and institutions from all over the world.
“It’s an opportunity to see those great works but, at the same time, to see the conversation there was at the beginning of the 20th century between US and Mexican artists. That is something that has not been seen in any of the expositions there have been in the US,” Guerrero concluded.