Whitney Museum of American Art, through Jan 31
Well, a bit behind the times (aren’t we all in veritable lockdown) …
I’ve had finally had a chance to reflect on this extensive spread at the Whitney—which sticks to its theme of influence and confluence vis-à-vis Mexican artists after the revolution and American artists through the Depression era into WWII—led by Los Tres Grandes, Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros. All three had direct and indirect, personal and professional ties to the US and, in the main, were thus recognized by the Americans included here, several sojourning in Mexico at various points in their careers.
Near the start (main wall off the elevators and to the right, moving towards a central cluster of galleries) the tone is set by several characteristic Rivera paintings featuring Olmec-like soft geometry and folksy subjects mixing ancient, historical, and his own time. Following are other kinds of culturally and geographically specific scenes, painted, photographic, and (in one case) sculptural, by (among others) Frida Kahlo, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, Rufino Tamayo, Tina Modotti, and Mardonio Magana. Moving into direct juxtapositions of Mexican mural projects and WPA-type projects by Americans, an illuminating installation of mainly studies and disparate panels by Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and Thomas Hart Benton, along with other more and lesser-known practitioners of mural-scale art. Collectively, a good sense of the kind of imagery that infiltrated the American public square in the period covered is conveyed–namely, a charged Social Realism. Peasant and proletariat protest, pain, injustice, and heroic workers, agricultural and industrial, are featured, gathered in spaces that mash together current, asynchronous, and symbolic political events and gatherings.
The influence of Orozco and Siqueiros, vis-à-vis fiery visual tone and gestural bravura on a formative Jackson Pollock is also given substantial attention, reminding of Pollock’s art journey beyond the hype.
One pending critical quandary (still thinking): the inclusion of several wall-papered repros of murals that go beyond documentation into a kind of simulacrum. Especially so here with a huge image of Rivera’s famous Controller of the Universe fresco (Bellas Artes, CDMX), the result of a famous controversy over a commission for Rockefeller Center, covered through ephemera here. This work is crucial to the trajectory of the exhibition and the impulse to give a sense of its scale is understandable. At the same time, at this moment when online art viewing has been rapidly disintegrating lines between virtual and physical art, an alternative, expanded documentation with additional related original studies might have been another route. Being very picky, I also felt coverage of Siqueiros’s recently restored Los Angeles mural, Tropical America (1932), a scathing anti-colonialist visual tract centralizing the crucifixion of a Native American that was ultimately covered and hidden for decades, could have been given more context, although its recent recuperation is past the scope of this exhibition. BTW, note the powerful foreshortening, overall, in Siqueiros.