José Clemente Orozco: Zapatistas, circa 1932. Museum of Modern Art
The Whitney’s show, “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art,” is a study in revisionism, recasting the standard story so that those formerly disregarded and excluded from the canon of modern American art are instead given a place in it. Exhibitions in recent years have been doing that rewriting in accord with values newly freed from stigma, discovering or rediscovering artists who are female or non-European-American, or who simply didn’t fit the strictures of formalist Modernism. The artists in this show, however, were truly avant-garde in their social values, championing the underdogs of history when it was deeply unfashionable to do so.
Their politics and style became, in the late 1940s, the subject that dared not speak its name, and they were all but expunged from the record. They were Communists or fellow travelers, and the show could equally have been called “American Communists”: it seems the more apt title for an exhibit less about “American life” than about a sense of what that life ought, and ought not, to be.
Though the show is presented coolly enough as a reassessment of the influence Mexican artists had on North American art, I could not greet it with detachment. The three Mexican muralists central to the show—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco—were touchstones for my lefty artist father, who had made the pilgrimage to exotic New Hampshire from New York with a group of friends just to see the 1934 Orozco mural in Dartmouth’s Baker library. A number of my father’s old buddies and teachers from the American Artists School—where a free art education was briefly to be had, between 1936 and 1941, courtesy of the John Reed Club—are in the show.