How Mexico’s Muralists Lit a Fire Under U.S. Artists

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The exhibition’s final gallery, “Siqueiros and the Experimental Workshop,” is basically a Siqueiros-Pollock showcase. It’s set in New York, where, beginning in 1936, the two artists worked together as teacher and student. We see examples of the increasingly anti-conventional techniques the muralist developed: spraying, splattered, dripping paint, building up glazes in ugly lumps on the canvas surface, anything to make the results look unpolished and unsettling. And we see Pollock beginning to test out these unorthodoxies. He would, eventually, transcendently, apply them to abstraction. But it’s clear that even in the 1930s he was on fire. And the evidence is that Siqueiros held the igniting match.

Is it too much to say that we owe Abstract Expressionism, at least the Pollock version of it, to Mexico? Maybe, but only a little too much. In any case, the debt was forgotten fast. Pollock stayed mum on the subject of sources. Once World War II started, the United States didn’t want to know from anticapitalist leftists, or immigrants, particularly brown-skinned ones. After the war, Communist was a prosecutorial scare-word, and Abstract Expressionism was suddenly red-white-and-blue. It was advertised internationally as a visual embodiment of American freedom, with no mention, maybe no memory, of where its greatest practitioner learned his Ab-Ex moves.

This exhibition demonstrates this by putting Siqueiros and Pollock together and uses the same compare and contrast method throughout, often pairing canonical stars with artists we may not know, like Luis Arenal, Jesús Escobedo, Mardonio Magaña, Edward Millman, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, Mitchell Siporin, Henrietta Shore, and Thelma Johnson Streat. Did influence run both ways? Student to teacher? South to north and back? Undoubtedly. (And everyone learned from Europe.) The result at the Whitney is a study in multidirectional flow, tides meeting, mingling, which is the basic dynamic of art history, as it is, or should be, of American life. It’s a dynamic of generosity. It gives the show warmth and grandeur. Why on earth would we want to stop the flow now?

Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945

Through May 17 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan; 212-570-3600, The exhibition travels to the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas, from June 25-Oct. 4.

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