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.

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