America Today

A few weeks ago I was up in New York for a friend’s wedding. Fairly recently we found out that we are going to be leaving the East Coast and moving out to Colorado. These two sentences may seem somewhat unrelated, but there’s a logic here.

Due to our impending move, any chance to visit New York has become a mad dash to see and absorb all the art I’m afraid I’ll never see again. I’m sure we’ll be back sometime, I still have friends and family there, but it might be years out. On this last visit we hit up the Met, the Cloisters (still technically the Met), and the Morgan Library. This post is about the Met and the wonderful exhibition “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered“.

I’ve worked on a lot on murals that I haven’t ever seen. Some are destroyed, most are in Mexico. Any chance I get to actually view a mural series I’ve studied makes me giddy. Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today is a series of 10 mural panels depicting “ modern America”. The series was originally painted for the New School for Social Research (which also features an excellent series by Orozco) and is filled with all the American “socialist” iconography that I love. We’ve got manufacturing, construction, transportation, the modern city etc… There are angles! So many wonderful angles. In the industry scenes all the men are anonymous extensions of the machines they use. Just another cog! It’s such a great work that really exemplifies the kind of progressive hold over, not quite full communist, public art that I love so much.

A panel from America Today

The mural has been gifted to the Met which I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, it allows people like me to easily view it. On the other, it takes the work out of context and dampens the message. In the Met it serves as an artifact of it’s time. It’s a snapshot of when artists thought art could truly change society rather than a motivating force in a school devoted to progressive ideals. But I got to see it and sit in a room and really take in the work, so… maybe it’s alright where it is.

Seeing a work in person is always so much more gratifying than seeing it in a book or on a website. I often think it’s kind of silly that we modern art historians write extensively about works we’ve never seen, but we do because it’s convenient. When you see a work in person you see so much more. Murals are especially tricky. You can’t ever experience the “monumentality” of a mural when it’s shrunk down to 6×6 inches. The figures in America Today are roughly life size, and the mural is meant to be displayed as a sort of panorama covering all four walls of a room. Viewing it in person you get a much better sense of  Benton’s America. In person movement becomes apparent. Benton’s use of color reinforces the feeling of the vibrant loud city, in a way that’s just not possible unless seen in person.

You also notice more important things that help you read the work more completely. Benton’s America is very gender segregated. I never really read that way before but when viewing the work as a whole it’s incredibly obvious. I knew that men made up the majority of figures in the mural, and that they were the only figures in the scenes of industry, but they are also the only figures who take part in any labor. Women in Benton’s America dance, flirt, and are ogled by men. The only “employed” women are burlesque dancers and the women mother in corner is one of the few not being leered at in some way. Women also only exist in the city. The rest of the country is too rough and tumble, or maybe too mechanically complicated for lady folk. It’s an interesting contrast, one I might write more about some day or might not.

Photographing art, our favorite past time.

The takeaway is that this mural is fantastic, and you should go see it. The exhibit closes in April, though I suspect the mural will be on view much longer than that.


Made in the USA & Phillips After 5

On the first Thursday of every month the Phillips Collection hosts Phillips after 5, an after hours event centered around a specific theme, usually having to do with the current exhibition. July’s Pa5 landed on the 3rd and coincided with the museum’s new collection-based exhibition Made in the USA, a thoroughly patriotic event all around.

Made in the USA highlights the museum’s extensive collection of modern American Art, and is fully representative of modernism in the US throughout the 20th century. As someone who has worked extensively within this genre/period it warms my heart to see some of my favorite, yet often overlooked, artists given pride of place in the gallery. Too often American modernism is dominated by its exceptional abstract artists – and O’Keeffe, Pollock, Rothko, Calder, etc., are all well represented here – but what’s fantastic about the Phillips’ American collection is the depth of “American modernism” it contains. The opening piece to the exhibition is Walt Kuhn’s 1931 painting “Plumes”, a work I think is aptly suited to demonstrate America’s fascination with and wariness of its new modernity, a thread I’ve tried to explore in my own work and one I think gets lost in the traditional narrative of masculine bravado that is Abstract Expressionism. While the early 20th century art scene was dominated by varying forms of abstraction, Realism was still very much a thing and has unfortunately gotten a bad rap as ugly, sad, art. I blame you Greenberg!

 WALT KUHN (1877–1949)   Plumes, 1931

WALT KUHN (1877–1949)
Plumes, 1931

Duncan Phillips set out to build a collection which would “reveal the richness of the art created in our United States, to stimulate our native artists and afford them inspiration.”–Duncan Phillips, 1921. The end result is an eclectic mix of styles, subjects, and techniques as varied as the American population itself. While Made in the USA is just a collections exhibition, it’s the type of exhibition we need to see more of.

Also did I mention the party? Pa5 is a great event, one definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area. The highlight (other than the fun of booze and snacks in the gallery) is the sheer number of spotlight tours, lectures, and other special programs that run during the night. At no other time can you be so fully engrossed in an exhibition whilst a Chicago blues band reverberates through the galleries. Also there’s booze…

Where did these photos come from?

I’m just back from Belgium where I definitely didn’t take these pictures of Jan van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” aka “The Lamb of God” aka “The Ghent Altarpiece” panels in the conservation center of the Museum of Fines Arts Gent


No way, wasn’t me. But I did go see the panels at said museum (which is definitely worth the visit btw, the museum collection was wonderful!). If you’ve ever taken an Art History course, you are probably intimately familiar with the Ghent Altarpiece. Suspected to be the first oil painting and history of high profile thefts, it’s one of your standard 101 pieces. Having seen the work myself (both at the Museum of Fine Arts and in situ at St Bavo Cathedral) I get the hype. It’s a beautiful painting. Also it’s huge, maybe 10×20 ft. The figures are just under life size.

The Museum of Fine Arts Gent along with the Getty Foundation have done a great job of making the altarpiece accessible to the public online. You can checkout Closer to Van Eyck if a trip to Belgium isn’t in the cards.

Orozco is not here for your hot potato of Mexicanism

I’m knee deep in thesis writing. It’s crunch time. I have two weeks to get my final draft in before the final revisions are undertaken. All this to say, I haven’t had much time to update on the blog, but I did want to share this excellent letter I came across from José Clemente Orozco to Jean Charlot, after Orozco had seen Rivera’s 1927 exhibition at the Wehye Gallery in New York. It’s seriously giving me life in these dark times.

“Diego Riveritch Romanoff is still very much of a threat to us. Deeply rooted is the idea that we all are his followers. To speak of ‘Indians,’ of ‘revolution,’ of ‘Mexican Renaissance,’ of ‘folk arts,’ of ‘santos,’ etc. … is all the same as to speak of Rivera. . . . Even the ‘syndicate’ (?), ‘proletariat,’ ‘Maximo Pacheco,’ ‘agrarians,’ etc. … all those terms are synonymous with Diegoff. Perforce, we must with every means at hand rid ourselves of this hot potato of Mexicanism of which Mrs. Paine and Anita Brenner are today the prophets.

“I heard that, up to now, people were kindly inclined towards things Mexican . . . but that is all ended with the Art Center show. I rejoice, should it mark the beginning of a new era, wherein each one would be appreciated at his own worth, rather than for the exotic-picturesque-renaissance-Mexican-Rivera-esque.

“The Mexican fashion or mode de Mexique, whatever you wish to call it, or more simply this joke, is over. Proof of it is the exhibition they gave Diegoff at the Gallery Wheye, so-called, or Wyhe. It is more like a bookstore . . . a sort of flea market in miniature where one may find some-thing of everything, even old irons. In season, their shows are at the rate of one every three days. You imagine the quality. One show was of Diegoff, and I saw there his cubist follies. One canvas had a toothbrush glued to it. Another was in the style of Zuloaga. Water colors there were, in the style of Cezanne.

“Of course, the newspapers reviewed the show kindly. They brought out the Mexican Renaissance, Indians, and the Revolution. They dubbed him ‘many-sided’ and ‘great man.’ Renaissance with a toothbrush!!!!!

“I doubt if he sold any.”

“As to potentate Rivera, here the problem is worse than in Mexico. The amount of publicity is incredible, and deeply rooted the idea that he is the great creator of everything, and that all others are his followers. Each time that one is introduced as ‘a painter from Mexico,’ they say, “Oh! then! You know the great Rivera, don’t you ?”‘

-Letter from Orozco to Jean Charlot, after attending Rivera’s exhibit at the Wehye Gallery in 1928.

Some thoughts on “Paint the Revolution!”

John Dos Passos via Wikipedia

In 1927 American author John Dos Passos published “Paint the Revolution!” in the left wing magazine New Masses.  The essay reflects on the completed murals of Diego Rivera and other artists in Mexico City, and is also a scathing critique of modern art in America.

In the piece Dos Passos articulates the major “benefits” of murals over traditional fine art paintings.  On paintings in museums he writes

“look at all the little pictures … after Cezanne, Renior, Courbet, Picasso … little modern designs of a stove-pipe and a bisected violin … a horrible picking of crumbs from rich men’s tables. Occasionally a work of real talent, but what’s the good of it? Who sees it? A lot of male and female old women chattering round an exhibition; and then, if the snobmarket has been properly manipulated, some damn fool buys it and puts it away in the attic, and it makes a brief reappearance when he dies at a sale at the Anderson Galleries.”

Museums, despite the cost of entry, impose barriers. Not everyone can visit a museum, and works of art hung only in these institutions will never have the capacity to truly be seen by the public at large. Paintings in private collections serve even less of a function.  At a basic level, Dos Passos is arguing for an active art, that art must have a use.

Dos Passos sees the mural movement of Mexico as an example of art with a function. Of the program he writes:

New Masses cover, November 1928. via Wikipedia

“It wasn’t a case of ideas, of a lot of propaganda-fed people deciding that a little revolutionary art would be a good thing, it was a case of organic necessity. The revolution no more imported from Russia than the petate hates the soldiers wore, had to be explained to the people. The people couldn’t read. So the only thing to do was to paint it up on the wall.”

Murals are educational. Much like medieval church decoration, the murals in Mexico helped to teach the population about its history. Murals are not just decoration, but also tools that can be used to enrich society.

By 1927 Vasconcelos’ program had all but fallen apart, and Mexican artist were starting to seek mural commissions out side of the country. But the effort to create a national mural program was well worth it to Dos Passos:

“But, even is nothing more is done, an enormous amount of real work has been accomplished. Even if the paintings were rotten it would have been worthwhile to prove that in our day a popular graphic art was possible. “

The quality of art doesn’t matter as much as access. Even if the art is terrible, it’s still worth more to society than masterpieces locked in an attic.  In his essay, Dos Passos praises the muralists and Vasconcelos for their efforts in spreading Communist propaganda. While Dos Passos is on the far left of the spectrum, his general thoughts on the ability of murals to better the general public was shared by artists and politicians across the board in America.  In 1934 artist George Biddle published an article espousing similar sentiments, calling for artists to take an active role in society.1

What I like about Dos Passos essay (other than his awesome take down of museums and the “snobmarket”) is that he very clearly outlines many of the essentials of muralism that a lot of other critics dance around. Murals must have a function, idealy it should be to educate. Murals are not just decoration. Museums limit access, and subsequently limit the work of arts ability to have a function. Murals should be public.

These ideas become very interesting when MoMA attempts to capitalize on muralism with its 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers. The exhibition was a critical failure, I suspect because so much of the work violated what had become the public conception of a “mural”, an idea that is a whole other blog post.

1. George Biddle “An Art Renascence Under Federal Patronage.” Scribner’s Magazine, 1934

The Mexican Model, Iconography

In a previous post, I started to outline my definition of a “Mexican Model” of muralism. To quote myself

“As of now what we can infer of the “Mexican Model”, is a government program of propaganda aimed at visually codifying the “identity” of its people through art.”

So lets explore the visuals. The murals produced in Mexico during the 1920s were the product of a very deliberate attempt by Mexican artists to return to a more authentic, less European influenced art. David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote extensively on the path art in Mexico and the Americas should take, and it is his theory of a proletariat art form rooted in indigenous tradition that I consider to be the foundation of the Mexican Model. Though many artists across Mexico completed murals during this period, Siqueiros stands out as the driving force behind a politically engaged modern art that American artists admired.

Siqueiros began to develop his theory of “pure art” (as he would later come to call it), while studying in Europe. After a short amount of time among the European avant-garde, Siqueiros became disillusioned and found the formal experimentation lacking in substance.1 He criticized the artists for being too concerned with “aesthetic trivialities,” and could not find a “common philosophical or political ground with the French avant-garde.”2 A trip to Italy with Diego Rivera, and some time spent in France with a Communist labor union began to reshape how the artist viewed art and its purpose.

Mayan relief sculpture from Palenque, Mexico

In 1921 Siqueiros published Three Appeals for the Current Guidance of the New Generation of American Painters and Sculptors. In the manifesto, he calls for art to “restore the lost values of painting and sculpture as well as endowing art with new values.”3 A return to lost values was a direct critique of modernist abstraction which had become overly occupied with formal experimentation. He theorized that an art deeply rooted in the political consciousness (an idea borrowed heavily from Lenin and his writings on the role of art) of the people should evoke their national heritage. For Siqueiros, Pre-Colombian art represented a visual culture uncorrupted by European influence. “Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, etc., … [show] a genuine knowledge of nature that can serve as our point of departure.”4

Siqueiros was not the first artist in Mexico to promote the idea that contemporary artists should look to their ancestors for inspiration. Best Maugard, Dr. Atl, and José Guadalupe Posada, all created and promoted art which took inspiration from Mexican history and culture. Posada’s calavera, a figure with its roots in the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, were extremely influential for the muralists, and they appear in a number of their later works. Dr. Atl painted numerous works celebrating the Mexican landscape, while Best Maugard developed a theory of drawing based heavily on pre-columbian motifs. Maugard’s theories were embraced by the Obregón regime and he served as the director of the department for art education between 1921 and 1924 At the Secretariat of Public Education. Both Delpar and Reiman speak extensively on Maugard and see his theories and involvement in the Secretariat of Public Education as central to the creation of the American perception of Mexican art.

Why then do I single out Siqueiros? Siqueiros put himself forward as the voice of The Syndicate of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors, formed in 1923 to provide Mexican artists with a clear aesthetic and ideological focus and authored the majority of the syndicates essays on art theory. While Siqueiros was not the first artist to call for a return to the past, he was, however, quick to warn against letting an appreciation of Pre-Colombian art turn into generic Primitivism (a point which seems incredibly self aware at this early stage of the game.)  According to Three Appeals… artists should take from ancient art is a purity of form and nature rather than iconography. The ultimate goal is to create a universal art which connects with our present “dynamic age”, embracing the machine and construction, the things that make up “the contemporary aspects of our daily lives.”5

Rivera’s peasants and revolutionaries.

Expanding on his earlier essay, The Manifesto of the Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors Union of Mexico authored by Siqueiros clearly laid out the guidelines for the iconography of a contemporary Mexican art. The manifesto names the worker, the farmer/peasant, and the Indian as those who comprise the proletariat of Mexico. We’ve already established the murals were in part meant to codify the identity of the people, creating Obregón’s ideal constituency. In clearly defining their audience via the manifesto the muralists were able to tailor their art to the masses. The worker, the peasant/farmer, and the Indian (sometimes additionally the soldier) would become the “holy trinity” of revolutionary imagery. These very modern figures were to compromise the main subject matter of murals, while aesthetically the murals would take their formal qualities from pre-columbian art. After the formation of of the syndicate, Siqueiros’ aesthetic program came to fruition. Figures are monumental and thick like ancient sculptures. Aztec and Mayan civilization is celebrated, while the peasant, indian and worker are depicted as heros.

So what can we add to our definition of a “Mexican Model”? The Mexican Model is a government program of propaganda aimed at visually codifying the “identity” of its people through art. The Mexican Model looks towards the artistic tradition of its indigenous peoples rather than Europe for inspiration, juxtaposing traditional forms and motifs with modern day subject matter depicting its intended viewer, the proletariat, in the role of hero in a realistic aesthetic.

  1. Philip Stein, Siqueiros: His Life and Works (New York: International Publishers, 1994), 32.
  2. Ibid
  3. David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Three Appeals for the Current Guidance of the New Generation of American Painters and Sculptors,” in Inverted Utopias trans, Mari Carmen Ramierz and Hector Olea (New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 2004), 458-459.
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid

The Vogue for all Things Mexican

I’m in the middle of reading two books for my thesis and wanted to jot some notes down before I get distracted by something else. South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination 1914-1947 by James Oles, and The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico 1920-1935 by Helen Delpar, both address America’s “obsession” (my word) with Mexico in the early part of the 20th century. This is something I’ve thought a lot about but never explored in depth. So come on, let’s world build!

South of the Border is actually an catalog for the 1993 Yale University Art Gallery exhibition of the same name. The exhibition explores the relationship between American and Mexican artists and what drove Americans to view Mexico in a brand new light as the art center to emulate. Delpar’s book, published 1992, takes a wider look at American/Mexican relations but does devote a full chapter to the fine arts. Delpar’s book in particular has already proved to be an invaluable resource for me, filling in the gaps of political and cultural relations between the two countries sometimes taken for granted in other writings on American/Mexican art during this time period. South of the Border caught my attention right away. Constructing a Modern Mexican Art the opening essay by Karen Cordero Reiman, really hit at the heart of what I’ve trying to elaborate on for some time.

Reiman opens her essay stating

“To understand why Americans, and particularly American artists, were interested in Mexican art and in Mexico as an artistic subject between 1925 and 1950 is not necessarily to understand Mexican art of the time. Foreigners attracted to Mexican art have generally been drawn to the “exotic,” to what they consider “typically Mexican” and different from their own culture…”

In the first opening sentences Reiman introduces us to the notion that we’re not trying to understand Mexican art, but rather the conception of Mexican art that Americans had created. We’re thinking about how American artists interpreted and subsequently appropriated Mexican art. This is central  to my theory of a “Mexican Model”. The model is American made, which makes it all the more interesting when Mexican artists painting in America are criticized for being too timid in subject matter, or unoriginal in composition, and American artists are praised for being “a dyed-in-the-wool Mexican, in feeling as well as point of view and expression.” (Delpar 158).

What I’ve been able to take away from these two books (full disclosure, I have not finished reading either) is just how deep(?) America’s fascination with Mexican visual culture went and how quickly it was forgotten. The end of the Mexican Revolution and the relative safety and political stability which followed, allowed Americans to start traveling to the country again. That the Revolution was fought for “democratic ideals” struck a chord with Americans fearful of the rise of fascism in Europe. (Delpar 136) Travel begat souvenir shopping, and decorative arts and and goods flooded into America. The expanding art market in America enticed Mexican artists to begin exhibiting and seeking patronage in the states. Mexican motifs began to show up in American furnishings, interior design, and architecture.  All of this laying the groundwork for the arrival of the Mexican Muralists as the great modern alternative to European abstraction, something Americans could identify with and embrace as their own.

The Mayan Theater, Los Angeles, California. Opened 1927, the theater embraces Pre-Columbian motifs, a hallmark of the Mayan Revival Style.

It’s interesting to think about the popularity of the Mexican Muralists during this period of strange fascination with all things Mexican and that Mexican Muralists began to show in America during a period where most Americans were predisposed to like anything Mexican. That’s not to say that the muralists popularity was undeserved, just that their acceptance in America was possibly helped by wave of interest in Mexico which had started almost a decade prior.

I hope to expand on the arguments that these two books put forth. There’s a lot to think about here. I’m really interested in the ways the Mexican government promoted “Mexicanness” (Reiman’s word) to Americans as a way to foster good relations and an interest in supporting Mexican art and trade. And subsequently, how this false concept of “Mexicanness” shaped Americans expectations of what Mexican art and by extension Mexican murals should be. In regards to murals, there’s a lot of rhetoric about the Mexican muralists that is sometimes sharply at odds with the critical reception, and I’d like to explore how this created ideal of Mexican art plays into that discrepancy.

*My citations have really been a mess on these posts. I still haven’t found a way to deal with them in WordPress that I’m satisfied with and since these posts are extremely informal I may just stick with the MLA-lazy version I’ve used here. Sorry!

“Mexican Model” What the hell do I mean by that?

One phrase that repeats over and over in my work on my thesis is “Mexican Model”. What do I mean by this term that seems so convenient in the my head? While I’ve done a bit of work creating the concept of the “Mexican Model”, I really want to dig into the term, tear it apart, and make it explicit to the reader and myself what I’m talking about.

The first time I conceptually introduced the idea of the “Mexican Model” was in a paper focusing on the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and  Photographers, which I began (rivetingly):

In 1934 American artist George Biddle published an article in Scribner’s Magazine titled “An Art Renascence Under Federal Patronage.” In the piece Biddle calls for the production of a socially conscious form of art to be supported by the government in an effort to facilitate “a revival of art whereby the artist will move from the periphery to the core of national life.”1 In particular, Biddle advocates for the government sponsorship of mural commissions to be modeled on the program instituted by Mexican President Alvaro Obregón.

So our starting point is the mural program instituted by Mexican President Alvaro Obregon (henceforth referred to as Obregón). Continue reading

Detroit Institute of Arts to examine rare Diego Rivera drawings that inspired ‘Detroit Industry’

The Detroit Institute of the Arts recently announced that they’ll be undertaking a survey of 13 large scale studies Rivera made for his Detroit Industry mural cycle. You can read all about their plans here. I’m surprised these studies haven’t been digitally photographed before though. They’ll make a great resource. From the images in the slideshow it looks like the studies were used for the figures of the “elements” along the top register.

Study for Detroit Industry mural

Detroit Industry Mural



Berenice Abbott and Eugène Atget

This post is the first in a series associated with my paper Sources and Models of Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York.

Berenice Abbott was an American documentary photographer, probably best known for her project Changing New York. The breadth and scope of Change New York is astounding. Abbott spent 11 years (roughly from 1928-1939) photographing every aspect of New York City during the height of the Great Depression. Orginally from Ohio, Abbott first came to New York in 1921 to pursue a career in journalism. For whatever reason, she became interested in sculpture and quickly dropped journalism for a career in the arts. She soon made her way to Paris where she ended up as a studio assistant to the photographer Man Ray. Paris is also where Abbott became familiar with the work of Eugène Atget.

Atget was an eccentric figure in modern photography. By the time Abbott came into contact with him, he had been photographing Paris for decades. Atget’s photographs of empty streets and decaying storefronts would go on to inspire a variety of artists. Avant-garde artists such as Man Ray, Picasso, and Andre Derain, were drawn to Atget’s work for it’s slightly off-kilter view of modern life.

Eugène Atget, Eclipse, 1912

Abbott had a different take on Atget though. She called his photographs images of “reality unadorned”. Atget claimed his photographs were purely documentary. He did not view them as works of art, though he did sell prints to museums and artists. I think Abbott shared a similar view of his work, and that the purpose of photography was to document. The phrase “reality unadorned” is an interesting one. For all we know, Atget didn’t alter his photographs in post production. That he carefully composed his photographs is evident, but I think part of the reality Abbott admired so much was in the completeness of subject matter. Atget photographed everything. No subject received preferential treatment, and in his own way Atget attempted to present each subject as honestly as he could.

When viewed on their own, without context, Atget photos can seem like some sort of strange surrealist dream. Deserted corners, odd doorways, and headless mannequins are frequent subjects. Often the perspective in Atget’s photos seems a bit off. As individual prints, Atget’s work can seem a bit divorced from real life. But when considered as part of larger body of work, it becomes apparent what Atget was aiming at, a complete view of a city in the grips of major change.

The totality of Atget’s project and the element of time (Atget’s attempt to freeze time), were huge influences in the future work of Abbott. Not only would her interactions with Atget provide the impetus for Changing New York, but Atget’s influence would inspire Abbott to pursue serial photography as an essential component of her “realism”. Atget’s collection instilled Abbott with a belief that truth could not be represented in a single photograph, but that multiple images taken at different times and from different angles could “capture city life in totality.”[1]

1. Wolfgang Brückle, “On Documentary Style: ‘anti-graphic photography’ between the Wars.” History Of Photography 30, no. 1 (2006), p. 78.