By Martica Sawin
To step out of the elevator onto the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum into the newly installed exhibition Vida Americana Mexican Muralists Remake American Art is equivalent to walking into a time warp. One is back in Greenwich Village of ninety years ago when José Clemente Orozco was painting frescoes on the walls of Joseph Urban’s New School building on 12th Street, when David Alfaro Siqueiros conducted a workshop in experimental technology at Union Square, and Diego Rivera brushed a head of Lenin into his outsize mural for Rockefeller Center. Not only has the Whitney achieved a tour de force in replicating immovable (or destroyed) frescoes and unearthing little-known works by American artists responding to the Mexicans, but it has written a neglected chapter back into the history of American art.
Instigated on the heels of the Mexican revolution in 1920, the mural movement in Mexico sought to communicate on public walls the history of the nation and the lives of ordinary people. When the demand for frescoes diminished in Mexico some of the leading practitioners, including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros, found commissions in the United States. An early example is Oroxco’s fresco, Prometheus, executed at Pomona College in 1930, which the Whitney has replicated for the present exhibition. Diego Rivera was given a hero’s welcome when he arrived in San Francisco the same year to begin work on three mural commissions. The following December New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted a Rivera mid-career retrospective; meanwhile he worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts on a vast and intricate interweaving of machines and workers, in frescoes funded by Edsel Ford (shown in a panoramic photograph at the Whitney).In Los Angeles, Siqueiros, the last of Los tres grandes to arrive, taught at the Chouinuard Art Institute where he enlisted a team of students to work on a 24’ fresco in the school’s courtyard, among them Phillip Guston and Ruben Kadish, high school classmates of Jackson Pollock. With Siquieros’ help, Guston and Kadish spent a summer in Mexico working on a fresco commission in Morelia. Later they joined Pollock in New York; all three were deeply impressed when they drove to Hanover, New Hampshire to see Orozco’s 36’-long Epic of American Civilization, 1932, at Dartmouth College.
As the Depression deepened, the Roosevelt administration launched a succession of Federally sponsored public art programs and put thousands of artists to work under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. The influence of the Mexican muralists on much of the art done for the Federal Art Project is apparent in both style and choice of subject. Some Americans who had worked on murals with the Mexicans moved directly over to the W.P A. under the Federal Art Project. Lucienne Bloch, who had been Rivera’s assistant at Rockefeller Center, painted murals for the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village. Phillip Guston did murals for the 1939 Worlds Fair; his Study for Queensbridge Housing Project of 1939 is in the Whitney show. A common thread running through the works on view is the drive for social and political change, either through depiction of brutal and repressive forces or glowing visions of technological potential. Along with this went various political allegiances, largely Communist or Socialist. (Both parties had presidential candidates on the electoral ballots.) The upshot was that art came to be judged not on its quality but its politics. The onset of the Cold War and the witch-hunting of the McCarthy era brought on a reaction that caused art promoting social reform to vanish from many walls. Congratulations to the Whitney for this belated historical adjustment. Vida Americana continues through May 17, 2020.