Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Los Tres Grandes: US Artists Interpret the Mexican Muralists

Translating Revolution:  U.S. Artists Interpret Mexican Muralists at the National Museum of Mexican Art

February 12th to August 1, 2010
1852 West 19th Street
Chicago, 312-738-1503

Jackson Pollock, Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton), 1938-41.  OOil on the smooth side of Masonite attached to a stretcher, 20 x 24 inches.  Collection of Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Jackson Pollock, Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton), 1938-41. OOil on the smooth side of Masonite attached to a stretcher, 20 x 24 inches. Collection of Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH

Modernism was so underdeveloped in the United States in the early 1930s that the impact that the Mexican Muralists – Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera – was all the more decisive.  The employment of artists to paint WPA-funded murals in public spaces created a burst of activity that lead to the emergence of art communities and groups, including amongst them many future Abstract Expressionists.  Translating Revolution gives ample opportunity to review the course of this progression, and to see how it flowed from the Mexicans’ emphasis on themes of the common man engaged in political and social struggle.  It is not hard to see how the expressionist fury and Futurist intensity in the murals of Orozco and Siqueiros were suggestive to American artists during the Great Depression – a time of considerable social and political upheaval.  Diego Rivera’s tamer version of Social Realism also had significant impact.  He absorbed important lessons from Cubism which became part of his rhythmic compositions using flattened planar figures in densely populated mural scenes, a style that proved to be a very popular with WPA artists.

Edward Millman’s Detail Fresco, St Louis, MO Post Office (1942) observes many aspects of Orozco’s work.  Three counterpoised men stand and kneel in a wasteland of ruptured planks, a design clearly inspired by Orozco’s Zapata 1930 (not in the exhibition). Millman’s men have large knuckled hands that convey both supplication and anger.  This same symbolic device is apparent in the lithograph by Leopoldo Mendez, Murdered Teacher (1938), which presents a bound teacher being burned along with his books.   His struggling hands and the flames of fire surrounding him directly and simply convey the emotional impact of the scene.

One highpoint of the exhibition is a boldly sketched charcoal head study from Orozco’s  Man on Fire mural 1938 – 39 (in Guadalajara, Mexico) in which the brusquely rendered bald head of a furious prophet stares intently with piercing eyes.  His painting The Martyrdom of Saint Steven I (1943) shows the violent stoning of the saint by a bloodthirsty crowd: muscular sinews in the limbs and backs of his figures heighten the tension in the mob and add to the tone of existential violence and death so common in his art. In contrast to this particular work, much WPA art is infused with a populist sympathy for suffering.  The painting A Man to Remember (1939) by Charles Wilbert White presents a seated ragged amputee begging for alms.  The creased folds in his worn out face and clothes magnify the sense of pathos.  His approach seems inspired by Siquerios’ energetic use of abstract space around his figures, resembling a vortex of fire that is used to highlight the presence of intense feeling.

Two important early examples of Jackson Pollock’s work show his direct connection to the Mexicans. In Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton) (1938-41) a nightmare scene presents a faceless bald female nude bending over a disjointed animal skeleton.  She is surrounded by an hallucinatory mob with starving faces claustrophobically crammed on either side of her.  The intense gestures in Pollock’s brushstrokes and the bilious mix of yellow, green, blue and red makes this one of his darkest Orozco- inspired works.  In another equally turbulent painting, Untitled (Composition with Ritual Scene) (1938 – 41), the primitive theme of animal sacrifice is repeated.  By outlining his figures in heavy black angles and curves he abstractly suggests figures marching or intertwining in a tangle of movement. Pollock had participated in a political art workshop lead by Siqueiros in 1936, and though he never met Orozco he was deeply moved by his 1930 mural, Prometheus, which he had seen at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Edward Millman, Fresco Detail, St Louis, MO Post Office, 1942.  Tempera on masonite
Edward Millman, Fresco Detail, St Louis, MO Post Office, 1942. Tempera on masonite

Futurist-based circular and geometric divisions of space are visible in Philip Stein’s Battered (1983) where almost the entire vertical surface is filled with the curved torso of a nude woman rendered in heavy outline.   Her hands and arms are protectively raised as if to fend off an attack while her foreshortened face, pressed into the upper right corner, is reduced to an expressive oval.  Her pained and contorted expression rhythmically repeats in a series of curved brushstrokes. In a smaller work of Stein’s, The Cursed (1951), the metallic sheen of a phalanx of Conquistador helmets defensively glow with the cold hostility of machines used in warfare – a prevalent theme in Mexican Muralist art.

There are noteworthy works in the exhibition by Ben Shahn, Tina Modotti, Pablo O’Higgens, Elizabeth Catlett, and Eleanor Cohen and others.  The last room, however, has many contemporary, more conceptual works that are distant from the compositional and expressionist urgencies of the Mexican Muralists. Gone is the vitality with which “Los Tres Grandes” challenged American painters to connect with the social realities, emotions and conflicts of their time.

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, Illinois. The recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Grant in 2002, she will be exhibiting at the Kouros Gallery in New York City in 2011 and is represented by the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago.