The cultural renaissance that emerged in Mexico in 1920 at the end of that country’s revolution dramatically changed art not just in Mexico but also in the United States. Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 will explore the profound influence Mexican artists had on the direction American art would take. With approximately 200 works by sixty American and Mexican artists, Vida Americana reorients art history, acknowledging the wide-ranging and profound influence of Mexico’s three leading muralists—José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—on the style, subject matter, and ideology of art in the United States made between 1925 and 1945.
The Whitney Museum’s own connection to the Mexican muralists dates back to 1924 when the Museum’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney presented an exhibition of the work of three Mexican artists—José Clemente Orozco, Luis Hidalgo, and Miguel Covarrubias—at the Whitney Studio Club, organized by artist Alexander Brook. It was Orozco’s first exhibition in the United States. A few years later, in 1926, Orozco also showed watercolors from his House of Tears series at the Studio Club; and the following year Juliana Force, Mrs. Whitney’s executive assistant and future director of the Whitney Museum, provided critical support for Orozco at a time when he desperately needed it by acquiring ten of his drawings. The Mexican muralists had a profound influence on many artists who were mainstays of the Studio Club, and eventually the Whitney Museum, including several American artists featured in Vida Americana, such as Thomas Hart Benton, William Gropper, Isamu Noguchi, and Ben Shahn.
Curated by Barbara Haskell, with Marcela Guerrero, assistant curator; Sarah Humphreville, senior curatorial assistant; and Alana Hernandez, former curatorial project assistant, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from February 17 through May 17, 2020 and will travel to the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, where it will be on display from June 25 through October 4, 2020. At the McNay Art Museum, the installation will be overseen by René Paul Barrilleaux.
“Vida Americana is an enormously important undertaking for the Whitney and could not be more timely given its entwined aesthetic and political concerns,” said Scott Rothkopf, Senior Deputy Director and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator. “It not only represents the culmination of nearly a decade of scholarly research and generous international collaboration but also demonstrates our commitment to presenting a more comprehensive and inclusive view of twentieth-century and contemporary art in the United States.”
Comprised of paintings, portable frescoes, films, sculptures, prints, photographs, and drawings, as well as reproductions of in-situ murals, Vida Americana will be divided into nine thematic sections and will occupy the entirety of the Whitney’s fifth-floor Neil Bluhm Family Galleries. This unprecedented installation, and the catalogue that accompanies it, will provide the first opportunity to reconsider this cultural history, revealing the immense influence of Mexican artists on their American counterparts between 1925 and 1945.
By presenting the art of the Mexican muralists alongside that of their American contemporaries, Vida Americana reveals the seismic impact of Mexican art, particularly on those looking for inspiration and models beyond European modernism and the School of Paris. At the same time that American artists and their audiences were grappling with the Great Depression and the economic injustices it exposed, the Mexican artists provided a compelling model for portraying social and political subject matter that was relevant to people’s lives, thereby establishing a new relationship between art and the public. Works by both well-known and underrecognized American artists will be exhibited, including Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Marion Greenwood, William Gropper, Philip Guston, Eitarō Ishigaki, Jacob Lawrence, Harold Lehman, Fletcher Martin, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock, Ben Shahn, Thelma Johnson Streat, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff. In addition to Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, other key Mexican artists included in the exhibition include Miguel Covarrubias, María Izquierdo, Frida Kahlo, Mardonio Magaña, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, and Rufino Tamayo.
This historic exhibition will feature works that have not been exhibited in the United States in decades. Two of Rivera’s 1932 studies for Man at the Crossroads, his destroyed and infamous Rockefeller Center mural, will be lent by the Museo Anahuacalli in Mexico City. They also will lend Rivera’s study from his Portrait of America series (c. 1933). The Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil will lend several key works by both Orozco and Siqueiros that have never been or are rarely seen in the United States, including Orozco’s Christ Destroying His Cross (1931), Pancho Villa (1931), and Landscape of Peaks (1943); and Siqueiros’s Intertropical (1946), Resurrection (1946), and Cain in the United States (1947). Other important Mexican loans include Siqueiros’s Our Present Image (1947) from the Museo de Arte Moderno; and María Izquierdo’s My Nieces (1940) and Siqueiros’s Proletarian Mother (1929) from the Museo Nacional de Arte. Two paintings by Japanese-born artist Eitarō Ishigaki will also be on loan from Japan’s Museum of Modern Art in Wakayama.
“The panoramic Mexican murals of the post-revolutionary period depicting national history and everyday life used a pictorial vocabulary that was simultaneously modern and distinctly Mexican. Combined with the radical socialist subject matter of the works the Mexican muralists created while living in the United States, their influence on artists in this country was profound,” explained Barbara Haskell, the exhibition’s curator. “Largely excluded from the predominant canonical narrative of modern art that emerged in the United States, the muralists’ legacy and enduring impact shapes a more expansive vision of modernism. By exploring the transformation in artmaking that occurred in the United States as a result of the Mexican influence, while also examining the effect the U.S. had on the muralists’ art, Vida Americana will expand our understanding of the rich cultural exchange between our two countries.”
Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 will be accompanied by a full-color, 256-page, scholarly catalogue edited by Barbara Haskell. Co-published by the Whitney Museum and Yale University Press, the catalogue will include eleven essays by scholars in the United States and Mexico. Drawing on recent research by the curatorial team at the Whitney and the contributing authors, the publication includes a foundational essay by Haskell and is complemented by a series of insightful contributions from Mark A. Castro, Dafne Cruz Porchini, Renato González Mello, Marcela Guerrero, Andrew Hemingway, Anna Indych-López, Michael K. Schuessler, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, ShiPu Wang, and James Wechsler. Also included are 139 color and fifty-seven black and white illustrations, as well as a list of artists included in the exhibition.
The lead sponsor for Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 is the Jerome L. Greene Foundation. The exhibition is also sponsored by Citi, Citibanamex, Delta and AeroMexico.
Major support is provided by the Barbara Haskell American Fellows Legacy Fund, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Whitney’s National Committee.
Generous support is provided by The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Ted and Mary Jo Shen.
Significant support is provided by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation, the Alturas Foundation, Paul Arnhold, Wes Gordon and the Arnhold Foundation, Blair and Cheryl Effron, Garrett Moran and Mary Penniman Moran, and Laurie M. Tisch.
Additional support is provided by Tony Bechara, Jeanne Donovan Fisher, the Garcia Family Foundation; and the Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc.
Curatorial research and travel were funded by the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation.