Interview with Whitney Museum of American Art curator Barbara Haskell by David Ebony
The Whitney Museum of American Art’s groundbreaking and visually sumptuous survey, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945, arrived during a contentious time in the U.S. It opened on February 17, 2020, a charged political moment amidst the start of a presidential election year. For nearly four years, the current White House administration and its allies in Congress have fostered controversial and divisive programs of isolationism and relentless xenophobia, inciting particularly malevolent attitudes toward the nation’s neighbors south of the border—Mexico, and Latin America in general.
With some urgency, the exhibition of approximately 200 works, organized by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, as well as the fully-illustrated accompanying catalogue, underscore the fruitful interconnectedness of Mexican and American cultures that flourished during the mid-twentieth century. The necessity of restoring respect for and understanding of the long-standing and mutually beneficial ties between the two countries is one of the major emotional undercurrents of Vida Americana.
In the U.S., particularly in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Americans had a deep appreciation for Mexico, and especially its distinctive contribution to modern and contemporary art. Mexico was in vogue, and the most sought-after artists in those years were three prominent painters: Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), often referred to as Los tres grandes (The Three Greats or The Big Three). These artists were and remain well known for their vast, narrative murals, with an epic sweep and grandeur, as well as their command of the dicey fresco technique not seen since Michelangelo’s day.
The artists regarded themselves and their art as revolutionary, and most of them subscribed to socialist programs and tenets. They supported American institutions like the John Reed Clubs, promoting artists and writers with Marxist leanings. Eventually, the anticapitalistic political messages of the Mexican artists proved problematic for many Americans. A notorious example is the destruction of the Rivera mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center, when the artist refused to remove a portrait of Lenin he had included in the composition. Many American curators, critics and artworld observers found the Mexicans’ political stance particularly irksome after World War II, when Stalinist policies and propaganda began to overshadow socialist principles and ideals.
The works of Los tres grandes and other Mexican artists of the period, and the impact they had on at least a generation or more of American artists is the focus of Vida Americana, which includes well-known American artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, and Paul Cadmus, hung alongside major works by Mexican artists like Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, and Tina Modotti, among others. The exhibition also contains extensive documentary material and films. The book includes essays by Haskell and scholars James Weschler, Gwendolyn Shaw, Andrew Hemingway, Anna Indych-López, and others, covering a wide range of related topics.
Shuttered in mid-March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the exhibition recently reopened, and will remain on view through January 31, 2021. Vida Americana had been scheduled to travel this fall to the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas. The time constraints and complexity of the exhibition’s loan agreements, however, has made the show’s appearance in Texas impossible. The McNay will instead feature an exhibition of its extensive holdings of graphic art by Los tres grandes, on view through January 3, 2021.
This summer, during the exhibition’s shutdown, I spoke with Barbara Haskell about the exhibition, the artists it highlights, and its significance for today. At the time, dates for the show’s reopening in New York had not yet been set.
Ebony How and when did you conceive of Vida Americana?
Haskell I had the idea for it about fifteen years ago when I started to see similarities between artists like Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton, and how in their works they transformed history into epic narrative paintings. It seemed to warrant further investigation. But it languished at the museum until four years ago when I was given the green light to go ahead. So it’s been four years of intensive work, but I had been thinking about the exhibition for a long time.
Ebony Toward the end of your essay you talk about the exhibition’s relationship to the current political climate. I wondered if your aim had to do with that. In the book you discuss President Hoover’s Depression-era policies regarding Mexican immigration; and the parallels with current White House policies are striking.
Haskell The timing turned out to be fortuitous. As the exhibition began to get organized, I felt it was lucky that the show hadn’t been greenlighted fifteen years ago. It’s so much more timely now. Even in the last few months it seems timelier than it ever was. It’s arrived at a pulse point of political energy, when artists are looking closely at political issues, and seeing, as the Mexican artists did, that art has a social role.
Ebony When you started to organize the show, what artworks did you focus on? Were there certain key pieces that you needed to tell the story?
Haskell After the show was scheduled and I began jumping into the research in earnest, it was a question of doing a pretty wide sweep, investigating what works Mexican artists showed here, and then looking into the Mexican artists’ relationships with U.S. artists. And we explored what happened under the WPA, and looked at George Biddle’s letter to Roosevelt arguing for the president to follow the Mexican example and hire U.S. artists to depict the social ideals of his administration. That unto itself opened up a whole new arena of research we needed to explore. It began with the specific works that Mexican artists showed here, what impact they had, the reverberations, and what other artists said about what they were seeing. We started out with a very wide range of works—a list of some four hundred—but we narrowed it down to about two hundred pieces. They fit nicely on the fifth floor, but we could not include more without the show feeling crowded.
Ebony You mention as a precedent for the exhibition a 1921 show in Los Angeles, with a catalogue written by Katherine Anne Porter, which apparently caused a stir.
Haskell That show really launched the whole fascination with Mexico—the vogue for all things Mexican. At that moment, in the 1920s, Mexican culture came to be regarded as authentic, “real” culture, as an antidote to what many started to bemoan as U.S. fragmentation and isolation. There was a feeling that somehow American life was no longer satisfying, and that we had lost connection to community, and to the land.
Ebony An essential part of the exhibition has to do with ideas of public art versus private art, or private commissions. That also seems of-the-moment, tying in to the changing attitudes about public art, and the controversies surrounding the recent removal of Confederate statues from public view, for instance.
Haskell It’s also about the idea that art is for the people—not just for the entertainment or gratification of the wealthy and privileged, but that it’s for all people. Again, it has to do with the notion that art has an important role in society, a social function. That was an idea that the Mexican artists helped spread.
Ebony Maybe the best-known story related to these issues is about the Rockefeller family’s complex relationship with Diego Rivera. I was thinking about Rivera’s involvement with the Rockefellers at the moment when the Mexican oil fields were about to be nationalized.
Haskell It was a complicated relationship right from the very beginning. The Rockefeller Corporation had extensive investment interests in Mexico, and Nelson Rockefeller was very much aware of that situation. At the same time, Abby Rockefeller was truly interested in Mexican art, and was a great fan of Rivera as an artist. She bought work by Rivera, and supported him. She was also very supportive of the [Rockefeller Center] mural as it was going up. Nelson would go to the site practically daily to chat with Rivera and see what was going on. And Abby, too, was initially supportive of the idea that Rivera was taking a political stance in the work.
Ebony Was she supportive of the addition of the Lenin portrait to the mural?
Haskell It’s hard to know. Everything changed after the Lenin portrait. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was opposed to the mural’s themes from the beginning. He wanted a mural depicting science and technology leading to a better spiritual and material world. The dichotomy Rivera painted between the communists’ utopian world versus the capitalistic deluded one, were things he took offense to. Rockefeller Corporation executives were also concerned about a controversial mural’s negative impact on renting the huge amount of office space in the new building. When Nelson asked Rivera to remove the Lenin portrait, Abby sided with him and the rest of the family. Once it had been decided to remove the mural, some artists appealed to Abby to intervene. But she decided to remove herself from the controversy. In the end, she held firm to family loyalty.
Ebony The exhibition centers on Los tres grandes (The Three Greats or the Big Three):Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. While the show was evolving, did your opinion of their works change?
Haskell It did. For most people, when you think of the Mexican muralists, you think of Rivera. He’s the best-known and most beloved. In the 1930s, he was widely regarded as “the hero of the Western World,” certainly Mexico’s greatest painter. I think it’s fair to say that among the general public now, he is still the best known. There is something very accessible and optimistic about his work. Even if he might feature a portrait of Lenin, there is something appealing about the work. And he is a terrific painter—there’s no doubt about that. But Orozco and Siqueiros were the ones I came to admire more in working on this project. Orozco especially, was just an amazing talent—in the quality of the brushwork, the energy, and in his fierce dedication to an idea, even if it’s somewhat tragic or deals with the foibles of humankind. He was a very powerful painter, as was Siqueiros. Probably, Siqueiros was looked at the least, because of his communist sympathies, particularly in the 1950s. Americans didn’t want to embrace someone advocating for communism and for the Soviet Union, as he was. But he is a wonderful painter also. He was a fiery personality, and had a great influence on a whole range of artists, Pollock being the most obvious.
Ebony Did you travel to Mexico and visit, or revisit, the major murals?
Haskell I did; and they are amazing. They’re beautiful, and rightly considered Mexico’s national treasures. In the art community today, Los tres grandes are still considered to be the guiding light of what Mexican art can be, even among contemporary artists who are doing very different things.
Ebony Some years ago, on a trip to Mexico City, I visited the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros, which was a really bizarre extravaganza where you take a kind of slow-moving rollercoaster ride through an installation designed by Siqueiros. Is that still in operation?
Haskell Yes, it is.
Ebony It’s like a small amusement park, an environmental piece. It ties in with the idea explored in the book about Siqueiros and “the spectacle.” All of Los tres grandes seemed to be attracted to that idea of creating a public spectacle, including Orozco. I didn’t realize that he did the large multipaneled painting [now at MoMA], Dive Bomber and Tank (1940), in public, in front of the museum audience, an early work of performance art.
Haskell Yes, he painted it in a kind of cordoned-off space at MoMA, and anyone could watch. It’s true about the spectacle. In a way, public art demands a kind of spectacle, or theater. Pollock took note of that aspect of the work as well.
Ebony There is an entire gallery in the show devoted to Pollock’s relationship with and admiration for Orozco.
Haskell Initially, Orozco was the one who Pollock identified with the most. At one point he regarded Orozco’s Prometheus (1930) as the greatest painting in the Western Hemisphere. But after Siqueiros came to New York and started the experimental workshop, in 1936, Pollock was one of the first participants. He worked on a May Day float with Siqueiros. There were two sides to the workshop: on one hand, it made works for political events and, on the other, it experimented with new ways of art making. Siqueiros would do things like put the canvas on the floor, and people in the workshop would walk around it and throw and splatter paint on it. For Pollock, that was a formative experience. I think the idea of the “anxiety of influence” operated in Pollock’s case because later on he rarely talked about Siqueiros, while many others identified this moment as being critical in Pollock’s development. It opened him up to the idea of technical experimentation and freedom—to just splatter paint, and to work on huge canvases.
Ebony While you focus on Los tres grandes in the exhibition and the book, there are quite a few artists featured who are new to me. And the show clarifies many of the connections between the American and Mexican artists. You’ve also highlighted a number of African-American artists with connections to the Mexican muralists—including Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, and Hale Woodruff.
Haskell Those connections were very concrete because they all went to Mexico, or they worked with the Mexican muralists here in the U.S. And they wrote about them extensively. Just as an example, Jacob Lawrence refers over and over again to Orozco, about the muralist’s depictions of the people, and his architectonic approach to form and use of diagonals. Lawrence described the work as a union of form, color, and a story. Both Charles White and Hal Woodruff went to Mexico to work with Rivera. They shared with the Mexican artists the idea of creating an art of liberation, using the arc from oppression, to resistance, to liberation. That was something that greatly appealed to the African-American artists. It was the concept that you could make heroes and heroic narratives out of your own racial history and heritage.
Ebony You also give significant attention to women artists of the period, who are usually, or often excluded from studies of the Mexican muralists—the Greenwood sisters, María Izquierdo, and Henrietta Shore, among them.
Haskell Marion and Grace Greenwood have a very prominent place in the story. We have a fresco by Marion Greenwood in the exhibition, and you can see its close relationship with Rivera in terms of style and subject matter. Both sisters spent a great deal of time in Mexico. Frida Kahlo is more familiar to everyone; it was important for us to include her also. She optimizes the idea that the rural population embodies the ”real” Mexico, that it is a symbol of national identity. Kahlo comes from the upper middle class, but she rejects her father’s heritage in favor of her mother’s Indigenous roots.
Ebony Another revelation for me was the work of the Japanese-born artist Eitarō Ishigaki.
Haskell Yes, an amazing artist. His work is very political as you can tell from the pieces in the show. Ishigaki was one of the founding members of the John Reed Club in New York City; because he remained a communist, like Siqueiros, he was deported in 1951. He took all of his work back to Japan, and so it hasn’t been seen in this country since then.
Ebony Finally—and this is a question I often ask the curator or curators of a major show like this—what do you hope audiences come away with from the exhibition?
Haskell Well, one goal from the beginning was to rewrite art history. We wanted to show that it wasn’t just the French influencing twentieth-century American art, although they are usually credited for it. In the period we focus on, it was the work of the Mexican artists that was absolutely the predominant influence on American art. And I think we succeeded in changing the narrative of that particular moment in art history. Also, after bringing the show together, and seeing the objects in the galleries, it became clear that the exhibition would demonstrate that art can be formally powerful and address social and political issues that are relevant to everyone. It is a call to action as timely now as it was eighty years ago.
Barbara Haskell is a curator at the Whitney Museum of American art. Over the years, she has organized for the museum numerous artist surveys and thematic exhibitions.
David Ebony is a contributing editor of Art in America, as well as a contributor to several other publications, and the author of numerous artist monographs.