Mexico City

Mexico City

Various Venues

In 1960 Mr. Seldon Rodman, an Amer­ican critic, published a book, The Insiders. Scurrilously argued, it aimed firstly at discrediting the current fashion of Abstract Expressionism or Ges­ture painting and secondly at advancing certain figurative painters for whom Mr. Rodman made claims. Included in the list of Rodman-approved artists were Mexico’s muralist Orozco and the draughtsman Jose Luis Cuevas. By Rod­man’s own admission (in an article by him in the Mexico Quarterly Review) the only favorable response to his book was from Mexico City. Almost im­mediately upon its publication mani­festoes began to appear here signed by the painters Arnold Belkin and Fran­cisco Icaza. Belkin and Icaza were both figurative painters (the former working in a watered-down version of Orozco, the latter in a Goyaesque style slightly influenced by Mexican popular arts), and they began to form a group of like­minded painters called the Humanists.

Manifestoes have continued to ap­pear claiming this or that painter, critic or intellectual for the Humanist camp, damning the rival Abstract group, urging the necessity for painters to return to Man as subject and calling for a re­appearance of human values in paint­ing.

The words were occasionally woolly but the volume was unabated. Rodman gave his support, magazine articles ap­peared for the group, but to date noth­ing concrete in the way of paintings has been offered, except an isolated group show. Now, two years after the publication of The Insiders, the Mexican public can see the work of two Hu­manist painters. Opening on the same night was a large showing by Francisco Icaza at the new I.N.B.A. state-run gal­leries and by Francisco Corzas at the Misrachi galleries. Arnold Belkin will be showing in the latter gallery in the near future.

There is clearly a common bond be­tween Icaza and Corzas. Both are in­fluenced by Goya: both eschew color and paint for the Windsor Brown soup of the museums and both follow Cuevas in his fantastic approach where men become animals, animals human. Icaza, the older of the two (Corzas is only 26) has already gone through the more obvious of his Goya-isms––and in these new large paintings on the theme of metamorphosis––he is at once far more abstract and also appears more lost than the younger painter. The show is patchy––ranging from sometimes flabby, more often taut and concise near-abstract forms in rich, cool umber­glazed coloring to directly observed and recorded paintings of birds. There are also a few heads in Icaza’s older, lurid style of the semi-insane, echoing Cuevas and the German Expressionist, Nolde. All this may create present con­fusion as to where Icaza stands, but taking a longer view it seems he has almost entirely shed his older models (Goya; Cuevas, Munch) and begun to find his true self as a painter. His next show should be interesting and a crit­ical one for him in his painterly de­velopment.

By comparison Corzas appears sure, competent, with no doubts at all. In his limited color (he uses only black, white, umber and raw sienna) his quaint, fantastic, often idiot or simian, generally depraved and fatally degraded groups staring from the canvas, make his influences clear. Imagine that Cuevas suddenly began to paint on a large scale, with a book of Goya’s Capriccios open beside him as well as a few prints from Picasso’s Blue and Rose period on the wall and you have a clear idea of Corzas’ work. Neverthe­less his paint quality and technical mastery are astonishing and, when he has finally found himself, surely he will be a considerable painter.

Considering these two important shows it is clear that both these paint­ers have absolutely no connection with European painting since Cé­zanne or even the Impressionists. For them Cé­zanne himself, Klee, Cubism, and all the various movements which have come out of Europe since around 1870 as well as the rise of Abstract Expression­ism in the U.S., do not exist. Only through the influence of Cuevas is there an echo of German Expressionism, only through Leonora Carrington, pupil of Max Ernst here in the City, is there a hint of Surrealism. Nor is this necessarily an adverse criticism. Cézanne himself had to go back to Pous­sin in order to advance the whole course of Western painting. Icaza and Corzas have certainly gone back . . . whether they will advance belongs to the future of Mexican painting.

We see another expression of politics in art––although this time in the politics of social snobbery––in the recent opening of Juan Soriano (also at the Misrachi galleries). Soriano has, since an early age, been considered a prodigy. It has even been said that he is the only true successor to Tamayo. He is ex­tremely clever, witty and leads a very active social life. In many ways he is an exquisite . . . the Oscar Wilde of Mexico! His new show contains a dis­appointment and also an extremely hopeful note. Soriano has taken as theme for this show a series of por­traits (ranging from strong, life-like drawings, to attenuated, stylized, some­times decorative paintings) of Lupe Marin, the second wife of Diego Rivera who later married Jorge Cuesta, the poet. Looked at from one angle, the show is a carefully calculated gimmick to achieve a snobbish success. This is the worst than can be said of it. The hopeful positive thing about these tall thin kakemono-like paintings with their seared yellows, purples, golds and scribbled calligraphy is that the artist has truly sought to find his roots: where he has improvised on his draw­ings the motifs become Mayan, ancient, and somehow right. Nothing is more dis­tressing here than to see an artist apeing European or North American painters. Pre-Columbian art is a rich, as yet unworked heritage. (The Mural­ists, being more illustrators than painters, scarcely touched it, for they bor­rowed, rather than absorbed.) Like Pedro Coronel, who has nourished him­self on Mexican popular art forms and Gunther Gerzo whose painting is linked with ancient pyramid and village forms, Soriano, in these few paintings has truly digested and then echoed the shallow incised and polychromed carving of early Mayan stelae and in doing so almost effaced the sour note of his social snobbery.

The work of Icaza, Corzas and Soriano taken together sound a hopeful note. Gone, it seems, are the dead days when the young painters tirelessly repeated fragmentary motifs from the Muralists or copied from the avant-garde maga­zines of Paris and New York. Certainly Icaza and possibly Soriano (if he can shed his social cleverness and become a humble painter) show that Mexican painting is again on the move. The doldrums are past. A fresh waft of air stirs the dead calm of the Mexican art world.

––Toby Joysmith