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This book is the product of two interconnected developments. First, contemporary Mexican artists moving in the international art world are enjoying a lot of success, and while Mexican art is now no longer represented solely by the muralists, figures such as Santiago Sierra, Carlos Amorales, Minerva Cuevas, and Gabriel Kuri are reinventing the avant-garde of social intervention. This development has been paralleled in art history in Mexico by the emergence of a socially engaged, contextualizing approach. Some of this new work has been “social art history” based on thorough research of primary sources, but central to it all is a reappraisal of the muralists. In a nutshell, they are no longer sacred icons of Mexican culture and nationhood; in fact, it has become fashionable to critique them and the myths they serve. I doubt that either of these two developments, the artistic or the scholarly, could have happened without the other. Or perhaps, in the spirit of social art history itself, I should suggest that they are both products of the latest phase of Mexico’s urbanization, of the gigantic growth of Mexico City, and of the new forms of life, new social conflicts, new possibilities, and enormous human problems that are emerging there. Those changes have necessarily produced innovative perspectives on Mexico’s artistic legacy, the muralists above all.
Of course, José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927–1934 contains no direct reflection on contemporary art, but it is important to recognize the larger circumstances from which it comes. The specifically art-historical context is also twofold. Published in the United States, the book was an occasion for Mexican and American scholars to collaborate on a study of Orozco’s murals in the U.S. But further, the character of this result seems to have been determined by changes in art history in Mexico specifically, changes that have been catalyzed by two institutions: the curatorial and critical collective Curare, and the Instituto des Investigaciones Estéticas at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Most of the contributors to this book have been involved with one or the other: James Oles and Francisco Reyes Palma have been associated with Curare, and Renato González Mello, Alice Azuela, and Rita Eder with the Instituto; Karen Cordeiro Reiman is not directly connected with the Instituto, but has been in dialogue with some of its members. There are necessarily a number of Americans included, as well as the distinguished British scholar Dawn Ades, but overall the energy that drives the book comes from the new spirit in Mexican art history.
The team is led by Mello, the leading authority on Orozco. His two contributions to the book read like outtakes from a much more comprehensive project, which they are. But they are full of interesting information and go a long way toward elucidating the works and giving us a sense of the dimensions of the artist’s thought. It is important to know, for example, that Orozco was a serious reader of William Blake, as were his New York patrons.
Mello’s essays are followed by one each on Orozco’s four major mural projects in the United States. In chronological order, they are: Pomona College (by Reiman), the New School for Social Research (by Diane Miliotes), Dartmouth College (by Jacquelyn Baas), and a portable fresco in the Museum of Modern Art collection called Dive Bomber and Tank (by Oles). The remaining essays in the book attempt other kinds of overviews, such as Alejandro Sorell’s study of Orozco’s influence on American mural painting.
In my opinion, the best piece in the book is Oles’s essay on the multipanel Dive Bomber and Tank. It does not hurt that the work is the most creative and forward-looking of the artist’s American pictures, but Oles understands that social art history is not about accumulating facts but rather about making interpretations, and that the energy of parti pris is still what matters. Context is interpretation, and because he has something important to say about the work Oles’s writing has energy—it certainly got me off the couch. I also admire Reyes Palma’s somewhat wry and lapidary Foucauldian overview of muralism as a strategy and symptom of the unfinished (and unfinishable) nation-building project of Mexico’s elites. It is refreshing in its refusal to honor any sacred cows.
One fresh perspective that has emerged in this new critical context is the notion that the muralists were really modernists (judging from this book, the view has quickly become conventional). The muralists critically accepted the influence of modernist painting, which is visible in their work but did not overpower it. This is a much-needed corrective to the dismissal of the muralists in the wake of Abstract Expressionism as tendentious illustrators. Oles, Mello, Eder, Reyes Palma, and Ades make the case here, and the examples they present of Orozco’s ability to break expressively both form and narrative and to engage fully with the range of possibilities opened up by modernism are compelling. The implications for the future of figurative art are as profound as they are for twentieth-century art history in general, and so deserve a prominent place in current discourse.
Orozcophile though I am, I find his American murals disappointing. They swerve more toward caricature than toward Cubism, and while that is interesting in itself, I find them pictorially less compelling than some of the more experimental works he completed in Mexico. In particular, The Epic of America Civilization at Dartmouth College, despite some brilliant moments, tends to the tedious. Necessary revisionism aside, the Abstract Expressionists were still right: content can only be realized through pictorial invention, not through plodding narrative. High-mindedness may have been the artist’s enemy. Pomona College’s Prometheus, with its mythic theme, succeeds brilliantly, but the New School pictures, full of noble sentiments, seem genuinely incompetent, suggesting the work of an untalented art-school student.
But Orozco could draw. One important merit of this book is its exposure of the artist’s drawings and preparatory studies. He was a great master of life drawing and was thoroughly versed in all academic skills, but more importantly, he knew that in the progress of a mural there always came a point when he had to submerge those skills. Orozco’s occasional infelicities of modeling, dinginess of color, and stiffness of gesture raise an obvious question: What kind of murals would they be if the figures were classically perfect, the spaces fully rational and the gestures smoothly rhetorical? The answer is equally obvious: utterly undistinguished and beneath mention. The modern figurative painter has no option but to ruin and spoil his or her means, and though the point might be obvious, it has not been made well enough. With Orozco, it cannot be avoided.
This most impure of abstractionists and most inorganic of figure painters was able to sublimate these two negative achievements into work of greatness because he was the most original and inventive of image makers: masks with chains pouring out of their eyes in the Dive Bomber and Tank; the mechanomorphic Cortes in Guadalajara; the Carnival of Ideologies, also in Guadalajara; the Gods of the Modern World at Dartmouth; but above all the incredible heresy and most daring imagination of the Christ who chops down his own cross, featured at Dartmouth. Orozco was most fecund in imagery, and as such he was unusual in a century that was generally more fecund in forms. Pablo Picasso once commented, apropos of Vincent van Gogh’s shoes, that new subjects in art are rare, and admirable when they appear. In the twentieth century Orozco must take the award for most new subjects, but this means that his achievement can only be appreciated in literary terms. This is not what we are used to. Orozco in the United States gives us a chance to contemplate this achievement, but the fact remains that the artist’s best work is in Mexico, in Guadalajara and Mexico City above all.
Is it feasible to hope for a similar English-language treatment of his great Mexican murals? Probably not. The sad truth is that today an investment in culture of the magnitude and richness of this book requires participation from those who have a stake in ownership. America has no holdings in the best of Orozco’s work; it cannot be relocated to this country to adorn any museum or private collection. The failure of art history to achieve a rounded and comprehensive view of the twentieth century necessarily follows.
Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo