Vida Americana: Art show showcases how Mexican art history and culture continue to influence the U.S.
The Whitney Museum of American Art latest exhibition Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art; serves as an art history lesson for those who may not know where American art got its inspiration.
In the mid 1920’s, Mexico had gone through a dramatic change, the decade-long Mexican revolution fueled in part by: radical communism, a schism between the rich and the poor and civil unrest had swept the land. The Mexican Government was struggling to unite a crumbling Nation.
Jose Clemente, David Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera, the Mexican Muralists known as Los Tres Grandes, responded to the crisis to unite their nation through art.
After commissions and paint brushes dried up in Mexico, each artist made the voyage to the United States. It is here they exhibited their work, hosted experimental schools and created other commissioned works, all while spreading their views through art.
“This Exhibition is really rewriting art history,” said Curator Barbara Haskell. “It’s been the common assumption that the French were the influence on American art, Vida Americana changes the narrative and shows that it is the Mexican artist that had the most profound and pervasive influence on the art of this country.”
In an age where we block our borders, in the depression era we embraced these artists, their culture and their creativity.
Vida Americana is meant to highlight the cross-cultural exchange the U.S. embraced in the past which forever changed American art. One such painting was Man at the Crossroads by Rivera, the staunch communist, although he was not the first choice to paint the mural in Rockefeller center; he later received a $20,000 commission. Already highly criticized for not supporting the communist cause, Rivera’s mural showcased many aspects of social and scientific culture.
Within it, a man is shown controlling machinery that powers atoms and celestial stars; which depicts the advancement in science and machinery. Also, within the painting is Vladimir Lenin who is seen holding hands with a group of multi-racial workers. While wealthy socialites are seen playing cards and smoking while a war can be seen behind them.
Seen as a critique and labeled as anti-capitalist propaganda at the time, the work was destroyed before ever being unveiled.
One art goer couldn’t help but notice how even today these works of art can have an impact on a U.S. audience and still somehow capture a polarized society.
“I have been to this exhibition twice, if you listen to politicians of today, especially the extreme right and extreme left, it's all the same thing- inequality,” said Lois Rich, a New Jersey based artist that works and creates what she calls functional clay pieces.
“You can easily see any current politician as one of the subjects in these videos, or paintings,” said Rich.
Many comparisons to American contemporary artists can be drawn one, that comes to mind is Shephard Fairey, the highly-political artist who created an iconic image of President Barack Obama, and his large murals that read, “Make art not war.”
Many may be surprised to learn that Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist of the modern era, was influenced by Mexican art.
“I like to say that if it weren’t for people like Orozco and eventually Siqueiros, we wouldn’t have the Pollock that we all know and love,” said Marcela Guerrero, assistant curator for the show. Pollock was so influenced by Siqueiros after taking his experimental class, that he chose to only work with his drip paintings and with industrial paints from that time.
This was in part due to Siqueiros who preached that artists of a specific time push the boundaries in the medium by only using elements relative to the time that they’re in. Such as industrial house paint and nails which can be found in Pollock’s Number One which currently hangs at The Museum of Modern Art.
Vida Americana uses Mexican works to show an American audience the truth. Mexican people, Mexican art, Mexican history and culture have and continue to impact the U.S. This evidence is found all over Vida which proves this through documentation and in the art that has subsequently followed and draws life from the Mexican artist.
Editors note: Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 was originally showcased at The Whitney Museum of American Art from Feb 17, 2020–Jan 31, 2021
Echo of a scream
Vendedora de flores
José Clemente Orozco
Make Art Not War