By Caitlin Kelly
I hadn’t been to a museum since early March 2020, after attending a conference, where I saw a show of Degas at the National Gallery, which I loved.
I really miss seeing art face to face!
So when a very good friend got us tickets to to see a show at the Whitney (closing this weekend), and an outdoors lunch afterward (30 degrees be damned!) I eagerly said yes.
I had planned to double-mask but my one mask was so hot and so uncomfortable I couldn’t.
The show is fantastic. I’ve been to Mexico several times and so I knew the work of the big three muralists — Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco. I’d seen some of their work in situ. The scale is astonishing, truly monumental. You really need to step back a good. few feet to really grasp it all.
This show offered insights into how the Mexican muralists inspired American artists between 1925 and 1945, years of economic upheaval.
There’s the Bonus Army.
There are riots and police brutally putting them down with guns and batons.
There’s a powerful shared spirit of rebellion.
The show includes this huge, wall-length black and white photo of an L.A. mural — commissioned to show happy Mexicans — that instead is a powerful, damning repudiation.
Note the rapacious eagle — the symbol of American might and power — hovering above a crucified Mexican.
Of course, the mural, like so many, was quickly destroyed or painted over.
Their rage and honesty are searing and challenged, then as now, corporate and political power.
Today’s many #BlackLivesMatter murals — honoring the many Blacks shot dead by police — seem to be the contemporary equivalent.
These muralists did not mess around!
Rivera was hired to paint a mural at the then-new Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, a hugely prestigious commission — but failed to curb his politics as expected.
The Rockefeller family approved of the mural’s idea: showing the contrast of capitalism as opposed to communism. However, after the New York World-Telegram complained about the piece, calling it “anti-capitalist propaganda”, an image of Vladimir Lenin and a Soviet Russian May Day parade were secretly added in protest. When these were discovered, Nelson Rockefeller – at the time a director of the Rockefeller Center – wanted Rivera to remove the portrait of Lenin, but Rivera was unwilling to do so. In May 1933, Rockefeller ordered the mural to be plastered-over and thereby destroyed before it was finished, resulting in protests and boycotts from other artists. Man at the Crossroads was peeled off in 1934 and replaced by a mural from Josep Maria Sert three years later. Only black-and-white photographs exist of the original incomplete mural, taken when Rivera suspected it might be destroyed. Using the photographs, Rivera repainted the composition in Mexico under the variant title Man, Controller of the Universe.
The controversy over the mural was significant because Rivera’s communist ideals contrasted with the theme of Rockefeller Center, even though the Rockefeller family themselves admired Rivera’s work.
The Whitney show is large, with works by others, like Ben Shahn and Philip Guston. There are works by Canadians and Japanese, also influenced by the muralists and their commitment to social justice.
From the Whitney:
With nearly 200 works by over sixty Mexican and American artists, this exhibition reorients art history by revealing the profound impact the Mexican muralists had on their counterparts in the United States during this period and the ways in which their example inspired American artists both to create epic narratives about American history and everyday life and to use their art to protest economic, social, and racial injustices.