PRINT December 2020

“Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945”

Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Calla Lily Vendor (detail), 1929, oil on canvas, 45 7⁄8 × 36". © Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project.

FLOWER POWER! The fragrant phrase hit me like a ton of calla lilies as I wandered into “Vida Americana,” Barbara Haskell’s fascinating show about how the Mexican muralists—especially José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, known as Los Tres Grandes—influenced US artists as varied as Belle Baranceanu, Elizabeth Catlett, William Gropper, Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, and Charles White.* In the first room, between Rivera’s Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, 1931, and Alfredo Ramos Martínez’s Calla Lily Vendor, 1929, a veritable welcome mat had been laid out. 

Diego Rivera, Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, 1931, encaustic on canvas, 78 1⁄2 × 64".

Of course, applying the phrase to these works is anachronistic. Invented by Allen Ginsberg in 1965, flower power became a rallying cry for protesters intent on countering police force with peace and love. But there is a hippie aspect to the story Haskell tells as well. Álvaro Obregón, the first post-revolutionary president of Mexico, realized that to keep such a diverse nation together, he had to invent a common Mexican identity, one in which “the country’s indigenous peasant population was recast into a bedrock role.” Cue native crafts, peasant dresses, and, yes, flowers. And when Orozco arrived in New York, in 1927, the American journalist and Mexiphile Alma Reed, who became his most important fan, introduced him to an heiress-run “ashram” in New York where Blake and Nietzsche were presiding spirits. The 1960s did not come from nowhere.

Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Zapatistas, 1932, oil on canvas, 49 1⁄2 × 39 1⁄2". © Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project. Photo: SFMOMA.

But these two flower paintings had me thinking about another kind of flower power, that of flowers going to market: massing, packing, and proliferating. (Spoiler alert: These operations constituted the formal keynote of the whole show.) In each work, an Indigenous woman carries some two dozen calla lilies in a basket on her back, where they form a glowing, growing crown of white petals punctuated by golden spadices. Nearby, in another painting by Martínez, Zapatistas, 1932, and in two photographs by Tina Modotti, Campesinos Reading “El Machete”, 1929, and especially Workers’ Parade, 1926, the prominent phallus-and-vessel structure of the flower returned in the shape of sombreros seen from above, with their rhythm of brims and crowns, and here they reached across the surface of the image rather than just being packed at the top.

The formal device of packing a surface with repeated forms was a perfect ideological fit for the revolutionary moment, for there is nothing like a huge mass to suggest the power, at once impacted and expansive, of the masses.

Tina Modotti, Workers’ Parade, 1926, platinum or palladium print, 8 1⁄2 × 7 1⁄2".

I am not sure where the Mexican artists got their penchant for this restless, relentless rhythm. Maybe it was the horror vacui of ancient bas-reliefs, in which the Mesoamerican plumed-serpent god wound its way across stone surfaces until there was no room left. Or maybe it was the medium of the mural itself, with its demand to fill walls. In any case, the formal device of packing a surface with repeated forms was a perfect ideological fit for the revolutionary moment, for there is nothing like a huge mass (“Ten thousand saw I at a glance,” wrote Wordsworth of his daffodils) to suggest the power, at once impacted and expansive, of the masses. The device worked equally well, if differently, for Siqueiros, Rivera, and Orozco, who each occupied distinct places within the ideological spectrum of the Left.

Jackson Pollock, The Flame, ca. 1934–38, oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 20 1⁄2 × 30".

On the US side, no one is better represented in the show than Pollock, with eight early paintings. That Pollock was inspired by Los Tres Grandes is well known, but to actually see his works next to theirs was eye-opening. The trigger for Pollock was not flowers but something that spreads even faster: flames—specifically, the flames and flamelike figures in Orozco’s incredibly awkward and hortatory mural Prometheus, 1930, represented in the show by a large photograph set dramatically within an arched niche. Young Pollock visited it at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and dubbed it the greatest painting in North America. OK. The point is that he caught fire, and in his small painting The Flame, from some time in the mid ’30s, he had the good sense to skip the mythic central figure and let the flames spread across the surface in tongues of white, brown, and red. Add to this the technical and material daring Pollock imbibed in New York from Siqueiros’s Experimental Workshop (there is a great comparison between two works from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, one by each artist, both employing lacquer), and he is all ready to bloom.

José Clemente Orozco, 2020 reproduction of Prometheus, 1930. Installation view. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

I left the show feeling that the power of repetition and procession, whether of flowers, flames, sombreros, machetes, swords, or assembly lines, was like an advanced Mexican pollen introduced into the waiting flower beds of an immature US art scene. Repetition was the opposite of centric, academic composition, and it caught on (if I may switch to a more topical metaphor) like a virus. Many of the artists got over it. Guston, for example, had a brief, intense romance with the muralists before renouncing them. Pollock never got cured, and we are the luckier for it.

“Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945” is on view through January 31, 2021.

Harry Cooper is senior curator and head of modern & contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

*It is worth noting that the exhibition includes several graphic and disturbing images of lynching.