Amid the closures necessitated by health and safety concerns because of the coronavirus, some art museums here in New York City are offering special online discussions and programs, while others are bringing whole exhibits to the virtual realm. Among the latter is the Whitney Museum of American Art, who had most recently caused a stir in the art world with their exhibit Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945. I had intended to check this show out myself before the Whitney was forced to shut down. So when I realized that the Whitney had made the exhibit available online here, I spent a couple of hours giving myself a virtual tour—and discovered a show that has some things to say about our current time, and not entirely in ways you might expect.
WHAT: Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945
WHERE: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
WHEN: Dates to be announced, the virtual format is available at https://whitney.org/exhibitions/vida-americana
First, a word about the experience of walking through an art exhibit online: to say the least, it isn’t ideal, especially for a show that features murals—or at least, sizable reproductions of them—whose powerful effect lies in part on their massive size. Still, the Whitney has done its best to re-create the experience of being in the space itself. Besides digital reproductions (only about a fifth of the 200 artworks featured in the physical exhibit are represented online) and audio guides to some of those works, the web page includes installation photographs giving us a sense of how all of the art looked in the museum itself. These shots allow us to imagine how it would have been to be in the space, walking from room to room, taking in all of the art and information.
Even if it can only hope to be an approximation of the experience of being at the Whitney, it’s still worth checking out the exhibit online. Somewhat like the recent Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim, Vida Americana is nothing less than an act of rewriting art history, shining a light on the heretofore unremarked-upon influence of legendary “Big Three” Mexican muralist painters José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros on American artists like Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, and more in the wake of the Great Depression. Here, you see not only some of the works Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros created in the United States—like Orozco’s “Prometheus” (1930) in California’s Pomona College, Rivera’s “Detroit Industry, North Wall” (1932-3) at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Siqueiros’s “Tropical America” (1932) in Los Angeles—but also the work of the artists they influenced.
The works themselves are something to behold, even in the reduced dimensions of a computer screen. Orozco’s “Prometheus” mentioned above, “Christ Destroying His Cross” (1943), and “Landscape of Peaks” (1943) abound in fiery, larger-than-life surrealism; you can see why his style made an impression on, say, Jacob Lawrence, whose 51st panel of his “Migration Series” is displayed in the exhibit and bears Orozco’s influence—especially in his line-laden representation of flames. Rivera’s “Detroit Industry, North Wall” and “Man, Controller of the Universe” (1934) murals are awe-inspiring in the wealth of their detail. These works influenced many American artists to paint similarly vast frescoes on public buildings across the country. And Siqueiros’s “Tropical America“, with its no-holds-barred depiction of the crucifixion of an indigenous person, still astonishes with its angry directness of address. Even more dazzling than that is the inclusion of some of the paintings Siqueiros created during his two trips to New York in 1934 and ’36, which saw the revolutionary artist experimenting even further in ways that left an indelible mark on, among other artists, Jackson Pollock. His legendary “drip technique” owes much to Siqueiros’s influence, as evidenced in seeing Siqueiros’s works like “The Electric Forest” (1939) and “The Resurrection” (1946) juxtaposed with early Pollock’s works like “Landscape With Steer” (1936-7) and “Composition With Flames” (1936).
Perhaps even more interesting than the artworks themselves—and what, surprisingly, makes Vida Americana even more relevant in our current coronavirus-marked time—is the historical context in which all of these works took place. In Mexico, Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros were galvanized by the Mexican Revolution through the 1910s. When they all came to the US to create work from the 1930s onward, America was itself in the midst of upheaval, with the Great Depression exposing societal rifts and inspiring artists to seek new ways to express their own national, social, and political beliefs.
About a decade in the making, Vida Americana, which opened in February, was seen mainly as a response to the anti-Mexican rhetoric trumpeted by the Trump administration, in particular its obsessive focus on the creation of a border wall between the US and Mexico. Now that the coronavirus has dominated news headlines for over a month, seeing this exhibit inspires other associations—in particular, the question of what art in the United States might look like as we find ourselves on the path to another major economic depression, one that may rival if not surpass the Great Depression in scale.
Of course, American artists now have seven intervening decades of art to draw from for their responses, ranging from Andy Warhol’s Pop Art movement to the punk protest art of the Guerrilla Girls. In fact, the Whitney itself not too long ago featured An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017, a survey that offered plenty of blueprints for where American art might go in the near future. Because to be sure, artists will respond, and, with the indignities perpetrated by the Trump administration, many already have. With things about to get much worse before they get better, art may well be the only avenue anyone has to express their frustrations.
Alas, the crucial difference between the Great Depression and our current moment is that, under the New Deal, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created a framework that allowed artistic creation to flourish. Our current president, by contrast, has shown no such interest in art, leaving artists struggling to find their own ways to get their work out there. But the results will surely be fascinating indeed.