Why Mexican Modernism Is so Relevant Right Now

Alina Cohen
Feb 24, 2020 11:01PM

María Izquierdo, My Nieces, 1940. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City. Reproduction authorized by El Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, 2019. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Mancacoyota, 1930. © The Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project. Courtesy of The Dallas Museum of Art.

Figurative painting is the dominant aesthetic mode. Artists feud about how radical the government should be. Fights about aesthetic patronage and censorship dominate news headlines. These themes, which are at the core of “Vida Americana”—a new show at the Whitney Museum of American Art that examines Mexican modernism from 1925 to 1945—also represent some of our contemporary art world’s most pressing issues.

“Vida Americana” is part of a growing group of major exhibitions that explore Mexico’s influence on international modernism. Altogether, these shows argue that Mexico’s cultural interchange with the U.S. and Europe radically shifted the relationship between artists and politics, reconsidered the role of craft in fine art, and gave birth to Abstract Expressionism.

Alfredo Ramos Martinez, Flores Mexicanas, 1914-1929. © The Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project. Courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art.


Other institutions exploring this period of art history include the Dallas Museum of Art, which just opened “Flores Mexicanas,” a show on depictions of women in Mexican art; the Art Institute of Chicago, which centered its recent presentation “In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair” on six female artists who lived and worked in Mexico between 1940 and 1970; the National Gallery of Australia, which will mount a forthcoming show around the impact of the Mexican Revolution on international culture; and SFMOMA, which, in October, will open the most comprehensive exhibition of Diego Rivera’s work in two decades. Di Donna Galleries also recently examined work that European Surrealists made while in exile in Mexico after World War II; additionally, a traveling show organized by the Frist Museum, “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection,” just opened at the Musée National Des Beaux-arts in Québec.

Whitney curator Barbara Haskell—who initially conceived “Vida Americana” 14 years ago—hopes her show will contribute to an ongoing “recasting of art history.” “The French have always been given credit as the only people American artists were looking at,” she said, nodding to major American modernists such as Stuart Davis, Man Ray, and Charles Sheeler, who all took inspiration from the European avant-garde. “In this 20-year period, it was really the Mexicans who were the major influence,” Haskell said.

Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Calla Lily Vendor (Vendedora de Alcatraces), 1929. © The Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Harold Lehman, The Driller (mural, Rikers Island, New York), 1937. © Estate of Harold Lehman. Image © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Gallery by gallery, in “Vida Americana,” Haskell weaves together cross-border connections that shaped artmaking in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, “Los Tres Grandes”—the major Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—were acclaimed throughout the United States for their large-scale public works. Though the three men held (and feuded over) varying leftist political views, their murals similarly mythologized and embraced the history of Mexico, its indigenous populations, and its laborers.

The U.S. government was eager to support an art form that was similarly public, collaborative, and nationalistic. With prodding by artist George Biddle, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched two major public art programs in the U.S.: the short-lived Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), followed by the WPA’s Federal Art Project. In the exhibition catalogue, Haskell writes that Roosevelt hoped to rally “a fractured society around a set of social ideas,” since he “had come into office promising to steady a nation whose faith in America’s foundational ideals had been shattered by the Depression.”

Jackson Pollock, Landscape with Steer, 1936–37. © 2019 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Siquieros, Orozco, and Rivera traveled around the U.S. to make art, teach courses, and attend conferences. Thanks to the WPA, they connected with artists such as Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock, who were then working in a figurative mode. The viewer can easily imagine how Pollock’s groundbreaking “all-over” splattered painting style—which he solidified in the late 1940s—could have evolved out of massive, expressionist public murals.

Charles White, another painter hired by the WPA, along with artist Elizabeth Catlett, traveled to Mexico in the 1940s and met Los Tres Grandes; Siquieros offered them a place to stay. The muralists appealed to African American artists, said Haskell, because they foregrounded indigenous populations as “the bedrock of national identity.” Similarly marginalized in the U.S., artists such as Catlett and White grew comfortable with celebrating their own identities in their work. To make her case, Haskell thoughtfully juxtaposes figurative works by all of these artists, suggesting aesthetic connections and references.

Diego Rivera, Man, Controller of the Universe, 1934. © 2020 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Reproduction authorized by El Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, 2020. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Haskell described opening the crates of work on loan from private collections and Mexican institutions as “thrilling.” Some of the pieces left Mexico for the first time, and some may never travel again. One such work is Rivera’s astounding Electric Power (1931–32). The fresco, which verges on Surrealism, features faceless workers inside an ambiguous machine. A city rises in the background, across a teal body of water. It’s on loan from Mexican collectors Vicky and Marcos Micha Levy. According to Haskell, Mrs. Levy cried when she parted with the work.

Given the potency of these artworks and the interconnections between the American artists and the Mexican artists, why isn’t this chapter better represented in art history? Haskell offers four key reasons: Tired from the Depression and World War II, Americans sought out art that was more of an escape than a reminder of hardship; the nationalist messages embedded in muralism weren’t particularly attractive after the end of the war; McCarthy-era, anti-communist fervor made socialist messaging taboo in the 1950s; and the rise of Abstract Expressionism made figurative work seem retrograde. Ironically, it’s taken decades for the art in “Vida Americana” to look fresh, challenging, and vivid again.

Frida Kahlo, Me and My Parrots, 1941. © 2020 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Diego Rivera, Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, 1931. © 2020 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Part of that is good timing. “Mexican modernism is such a pivotal topic at the moment,” said Mark Castro, curator of Latin American art at the Dallas Museum of Art. Another reason we’re seeing so much Mexican modernism in U.S. museums, Castro believes, is that “so much of contemporary collective consciousness is focused on the border.” Exhibitions of Rivera, Kahlo, and their cohort evoke an era when culture moved across the border more easily; as Mexican-American relations become increasingly fraught, it’s a good time to reassess the richness of cultural exchange.

Anni Albers, Study for Camino Real, 1967. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019. Photo by Tim Nighswander / Imaging4Art. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Cynthia Sargent, Bartok, designed 1955/60, produced ca. 1967. Photo © The Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

In addition to rewriting art history and reconsidering contemporary politics, shows tied to modernism in Mexico can also foreground the importance of craft. American artists who spent time in Mexico in the mid–20th century—including Sheila Hicks, Anni Albers, and Ruth Asawa—discovered new modes of making. The country’s strong traditions of weaving, basketry, and rug-making inspired the trio, who integrated south-of-the-border techniques and motifs into their sculptures, installations, drawings, and tapestries. Their work broke radically with the Abstract Expressionist painting that dominated the critical discussions of their time. The Art Institute of Chicago’s recent show celebrated their groundbreaking aesthetic approaches—alongside those of Clara Porset, Lola Álvarez Bravo, and Cynthia Sargent—and posited that unsung artisans in Mexico have influenced modern art in quieter ways than, say, Rivera or Kahlo.

All of these shows, and their disparate angles, reveal the art-historical canon to be an ever-shifting kaleidoscope. They throw bold, brilliant artworks and characters into old, limited narratives. Museums and galleries are all the more colorful and thought-provoking for it.

Alina Cohen