New York

Eitarō Ishigaki, Soldiers of the People’s Front (The Zero Hour), ca. 1936–37, oil on canvas, 58 1⁄2 × 81 1⁄2".

Eitarō Ishigaki, Soldiers of the People’s Front (The Zero Hour), ca. 1936–37, oil on canvas, 58 1⁄2 × 81 1⁄2".

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

Eitarō Ishigaki, Soldiers of the People’s Front (The Zero Hour), ca. 1936–37, oil on canvas, 58 1⁄2 × 81 1⁄2".

Curated by Barbara Haskell with Marcela Guerrero, Sarah Humphreville, and Alana Hernandez

FOR THE SECOND TIME since its relocation, the Whitney Museum of American Art appropriated the word America from a context with a hemispheric connotation to refer solely to the United States in an exhibition title. The first instance was in 2015, with its inaugural downtown show “America Is Hard to See,” named partly after a Robert Frost poem about Columbus’s encounter with the New World. This spring, “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945” co-opted the name of a journal published by artist and agitator David Alfaro Siqueiros in Barcelona in 1921 whose scope was the hemispheric Americas. The title’s slippage was indicative of the exhibition’s other oversights: It misrepresented Mexican art by approaching it from the vantage point of the United States.

The simplistic and outdated premise of “Vida Americana” was that Mexican artists of the fervent postrevolutionary era influenced their counterparts north of the border: This framework, besides engendering other issues, positions the Whitney as the institution that discovered Mexican art. The relationship outlined here was already established via James Oles’s important 1993–94 exhibition “South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination, 1914–1947,” and Catha Paquette’s groundbreaking work on Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller murals (the latter was acknowledged but not cited in the “Vida Americana” catalogue). And in its zeal to connect every US artist’s brushstroke to a Mexican prototype, the exhibition’s script became forced and insufficient; it missed more complex narratives. For example, the curators inexplicably excluded the paintings of Jean Charlot, even though the French-born artist was a prominent voice of the first generation of muralists in Mexico City whose monograph The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920–1925 (1963) is required reading for anyone studying the movement. Charlot relocated to the United States in 1928 and painted an important group of murals in Georgia, including Cotton Gin, 1942, one of his finest.

Thomas Hart Benton, Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28, oil on canvas mounted on aluminum, 60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8". From the series “American Historical Epic,” 1920–28. © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Even if we accept its interest in arguing for the importance of this period of Mexican art, “Vida Americana” was a disappointment. It recognized only a handful of artists from an incredibly vibrant generation (partly due to its focus on those who traveled to the United States or could trace a connection to its expats) while glossing over Mexican intellectual history and the era’s heated critical debates. Of the significant Mexican artists included, many were poorly represented, or misrepresented. The two paintings by Frida Kahlo, for example, were not from her vibrant periods in New York and Detroit during the 1930s. Meanwhile, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Siqueiros—or los tres grandes—were present in spades, even via reproductions. From Rivera, the curators included multiple minor easel paintings of peasant life, which, alongside other works in this section of the show, merely reinforced stereotypes about Mexico. The influence of Alfredo Ramos Martínez was misunderstood; a “painter of women and flowers” prior to arriving in the US, he impacted postrevolutionary Mexican art more through his alternative models of art pedagogy, which led to avant-garde engagements by social-practice artists avant la lettre Fernando Leal, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, and Rosario Cabrera, left unacknowledged by the curators.

Hideo Benjamin Noda, Scottsboro Boys, 1933, gouache and watercolor on paper, 10 5⁄8 × 16".

“Vida Americana” was equally frustrating in its representation of art in the US. Thomas Hart Benton’s “American Historical Epic,” 1920–28, a tour de force of narrative figuration of which a selection was presented, was begun before the launch of the Mexican-mural movement, undercutting the curators’ claims of influence. The wall text discussed his problematic use of “ethnic and racial stereotypes” without calling out Mexican artists’ reliance on stereotypes in the service of the art market. Mural studies by artists such as Charles Alston, Harold Lehman, Emil Bisttram, and others abounded, but most final scenes were not visible in the galleries. Bisttram’s sketch for his Roswell, New Mexico, courthouse mural on the theme of justice now registers as a picture of white-supremacist family values, yet “Vida Americana” did not elaborate on representational art’s role in the agendas of both the Left and the Right. The exhibition did include murals by US painters in Mexico, highlighting artists perceived as transnationally important, but more local research could have been instructive: Alston’s mural Magic in Medicine and its companion, Modern Medicine, both 1940 and located in what was, at the time of their making, called the Harlem Hospital Center in New York, are rarely seen, and Lehman’s Man’s Daily Bread, 1936–38, on the city’s Rikers Island, painted after Ben Shahn’s project was rejected, disappeared decades ago.

The most tantalizing works in the exhibition included those by Japanese Americans Eitarō Ishigaki and Hideo Benjamin Noda; both foregrounded the plight of African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Ishigaki shows a black man holding up a white comrade during the 1932 Bonus Army March on Washington. Noda’s stunning gouache-and-watercolor drawing Scottsboro Boys, 1933, pictures Haywood Patterson, one of nine black teenagers sentenced to death after two white women falsely accused them of rape. African American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas were also prominently featured; unlike many of the Mexican artists, they depicted their own communities. Overall, the US artists stood out for their stylistic diversity, thematic variety, and innovative approaches to the human figure. Instead of attempting to convince museumgoers of the importance of Mexican muralists to US artists—well-trodden ground—the exhibition could have offered a nuanced account of how artists on both sides of the border understood representation, in both the pictorial and the political sense: as moral imperative and transformational practice. 

Tatiana Flores is professor of Art History and Latino and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She is the author of Mexico's Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: From Estridentismo to ¡30-30! (Yale University Press, 2013).