Mexico City

Mexico City

Since the decline of the Muralist Movement (Orozco and Rivera) and the unfolding of the highly individual talent of Rufino Tamayo, Mexico has suffered a lack in painting. Certainly new prophets were expected but did not materialize. The generation of Anguiano and Chavez Morado failed to produce a genuine talent and there was little else besides the youngsters tirelessly treading the same well-worn path of naturalism and anecdotal painting, employing motifs copied and enlarged from the murals and repeated and exploited to depletion. It is true that in the beginning the artists banded together under the title of Taller de Grafica Popular . . . following in the footsteps of Mexico’s renowned engraver Posada . . . had promise; (they stood nearest to the vigorous folk arts but standard Revolutionary themes quickly stultified this effect and, anyway, these men were not painters in the strict sense.

The position today is that several groups of painters diverse in origin and often in violent opposition to one another, jostle for position. Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington (with their imitator Alfonso Duran) continue to perpetuate the tenets of the Surrealist Movement which came here direct from Paris during the late war; with fantastic scenes based on Hieronymus Bosch in the case of Carrington and delicate, esoteric constructions with strong metaphysical overtones on the part of Varo. Jose Luis Cuevas, a bitter and violent draughtsman (not unknown in the U.S.) and surrealist in tendency, deriving from Goya, Orozco, Lautrec and German Expressionists like Otto Dix, continues to satirize his times.

Cuevas is loosely associated with another movement called La Presencia. The leaders here are actually Arnold Belkin (Canadian born but Mexican trained) and Francisco Icaza. La Presencia is based on the ideas put forward by Seldon Rodman in his recent book The Insiders and issues manifestoes at frequent intervals applauding the figurative approach in painting and taking sly digs at the Abstractionists. Another movement of one is that of Mathias Goeritz. Once a sculptor, Goeritz for years produced abstractions made of nails driven into a board and arranged in patterns. Now he is persuaded “art has come to an end” and so produces “No-Art” works which are in fact plain wooden gilded panels which dimly reflect the onlooker as he moves before the “painting.” Goeritz’ last show here at the Inez Amor gallery went on to New York and was a sellout.

The other two groups vying for notice in Mexico’s commercial galleries and in the state-sponsored Palace of Fine Arts in Juarez may be called the Individualists and the Internationalists. Painting in the now world-wide International Abstract style, launched perhaps originally in imitation of the Americans are Lillia Carillo, Manuel Felguerez, Vincente Rojo, Vlady, Cordelia Ureta, Echeverria and Enrique Clement. Cordelia Ureta recently won an award at the San Paolo Bienal. She often echoes the color of Tamayo (whose pupil she was) and the forms in her most recent paintings sometimes become shrouded in haze. Perhaps Rojo, Carillo and Felguerez have the most promise in this group. They are all young and great craftsmen. Rojo employs quaint, grid-like forms and arid, stringent color, reminiscent of the sun-scorched Mexican plain. Carillo is sensitive and delicately feminine without losing strength. She is perhaps most influenced by Viera da Silva. Felguerez, an ex-architectural student and perhaps the most promising of them all, seems as yet a little unsure of his path. He oscillates between de Kooning and Kline and is now headed for a purity of expression in his white, semi-relief paintings. Most recent of all is his vast mural for the Cine Diana, Mexico’s latest and swankiest movie house on the Paseo de la Reforma. In this work Felguerez develops a fully three dimensional technique. His wall bulges and swells with rounded and gridded shapes. These are painted a rust red and unkind critics have compared it to an oversize pile of kitchen junk left in the rain! Recently Echeverria showed a couple of canvases at the Palace of Fine Arts in a group show which seemed exactly to tread the narrow balance between figurative and non-figurative, but although his color is always interesting, in the work of his most recent show at the Proteo Gallery, he does not appear to have maintained his position, for the clear, bright, tan-colored forms have merged and melted into obscurity.

Of the Individualists (artists maintaining a very personal approach outside the ‘movements’), Alberto Gironella, after winning the prize at the First Paris Biennial in 1959 with a painting which strongly echoed the Mexican popular arts, has since experimented with Picasso-like re-workings of Valezquez in high relief and now seems turned (to judge by his San Paolo Bienal contribution) toward the New York school of Neo-Dada or Pop Art. He has great talent and ability but, as in the case of Felguerez, he does not yet appear to have found his line, but stands away from the rest by his refusal to give up the image.

The most Mexican of the painters now working here are Pedro Coronel and Gunther Gerzo. True, Coronel borrows from the synthetic cubism of Gris while Gerzo owes an obvious debt to Klee, yet by their form, color and content both these two remain national and true to themselves. Coronel paints a nightmare world peopled by motifs from Pre-Columbian mythology (the serpent) and the popular arts (the Judas figures). His semi-abstract subjects deal exclusively with those perennial Mexican preoccupations, birth, sex, love and death, and his savagely colored canvases with their Picasso-like simplifications, suffered only from a total lack of appreciation of paint quality. After winning the First Prize at the last Bienal, two years ago with a vast mural-like painting in cerises, purples and scarlets on the theme of Earth-Mother, Coronel exhibited in Paris where he had a great success, even stealing the thunder of Picasso who had a show of lithographs in the adjoining gallery. Last week we were able to see here some of the paintings which caused the critical battle of words in Paris. Opening at the new I. N. B. A. state-run gallery, Coronet showed new canvases alongside some of his Parisian ones. Great strides were evident. While the forms remained concise and clear, wedded to the Pre-Columbian heritage, the color was even more “Mexican” with warm and cool clashing reds, pinks and burnt yellows, cerises and purples, all deriving from the popular arts; but now the surface was refined and tactile, rich in texture and writhing in echo with the twisted snake forms of the image. Coronel seems to be approaching his zenith.

By his refining of the paint surface Coronel brings himself nearer to Gerzo. But there the resemblance stops. Every one of Gerzo’s canvases is wrought to an exquisite surface of great sensitivity. If Coronel is warm and glowing, often reminding us of the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs, Gerzo is obsidian cool. Beginning with the Surrealists who arrived from Europe with the late Wolfgang Paalan, he has steadily developed a non-figurative approach with forms which are truly Pre-Columbian in origin, deriving from the pyramids and plumed serpents and especially from certain Mayan chipped wands of flint, they emerge from the canvas enmeshed in the icy grip of time. Recently Gerzo visited Greece and the warm infusion from the Mediterranean seems to have assisted him in his final development. He is now freer, often using sanded surfaces and shows a mysterious sacadotal world, each canvas radiating its own particular light. Where Coronet is intuitive, impetuous, fiery, Grezo is intellectually precise, craftsman-like and serene in the final beauty of his comparatively small canvases.

Rufino Tamayo is Mexico’s oldest, most renowned living painter and so the announcement of a one-man show of his work at the new Misrachi galleries last April aroused great expectations. These were not quite fulfilled. In these twenty-five odd washed out, wall-scarred canvases, Tamayo’s familiar figure motifs were all but erased by the flaking and aging appearance of the surface. The effect was often as if a Tamayo from an earlier period had been left out in severe weather and the paint had deteriorated. Four of his largest canvases were entirely abstract and painted in dun-colored, earth-smeared droppings and rubbings which were not always pleasant. However, through it all were still traces of this painter’s original greatness and it may well be that his abandonment of his native Tehuantepec-derived coloring may be only a phase on a journey to ever greater work.

Toby Joysmith