Category: Siqueiros

Siqueiros: L.A. Panel Discussion

Siqueiros in Calle Olvera – Peter Wood. 2008. © All rights reserved. Oil on canvas. 7 x 5 ft.

"Siqueiros in Calle Olvera" – Peter Wood. 2008. © All rights reserved. Oil on canvas. 7 x 5 ft.

Since January 2005, this web log has been following the history of América Tropical – the famous 1932 mural painted by Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. So it is my pleasure to announce the first of three important L.A. panel discussions regarding the mural and the legacy of Siqueiros.

Organized by Amigos de Siqueiros and moderated by painter Raoul De la Sota, América Tropical At Last is an artist organized forum that will present “an overview of the career of David Alfaro Siqueiros and a discussion of the social and political events during which he worked.”

Panelists will include the creative director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, Judy Baca; photographer, writer, and curator of the upcoming Siqueiros: Censorship Defied exhibit at L.A.’s Autry museum, Luis Garza; historian and artist, Raul Herrera; historian Isabel-Rojas-Williams – and artist John Valadez.

The Friday, June 18, 2010, free public event begins at 7 p.m. The round-table discussion takes place at the Mexican Cultural Institute Art Gallery, which is located on the famous avenue where Siqueiros painted his controversial mural. The address for the Mexican Cultural Institute is 125 Paseo de la Plaza – the institute is adjacent to the famous bandshell at La Placita, right next to the historic Plaza Methodist Church. The gallery can be found in the institute’s basement from a street accessible staircase – look for the signage.

The June 18 opening of the Siqueiros panel discussion series at the Mexican Cultural Institute Gallery.

The June 18 opening of the Siqueiros panel discussion series at the Mexican Cultural Institute Gallery in Los Angeles, CA.

Update: The June 18, América Tropical At Last event at the beautiful Mexican Cultural Institute Gallery was well attended by around 100 people.

The forum lasted nearly three hours, which hardly seemed enough time for all of the presentations and audience feedback. Although the event was marred by technical problems and what I feel was a lack of focus, significant questions were still raised, and people were given much food for thought. I will offer a summation of the evening’s proceedings when I file a final report on the entire series of panel discussions – which I urge all Southern Californians to attend. Those outside the region will benefit from that final report, which is sure to reveal new information about Siqueiros, América Tropical, and the possibilities for a new social activism in art.

The next speaker’s forum, Artist Warrior: From Siqueiros to Carrasco and Beyond, is scheduled to take place on July 16, 2010, at the Mexican Cultural Institute Gallery, 7 p.m. According to the organizers, the evening will focus on the artist as a “political and cultural activist,” and “what strength of purpose” it takes to create public art “in these fractious times.” Panelists will include artist Jose Antonio Aguirre, artist Raul Baltazar, artist and teacher Glenna Avila, artist Barbara Carrasco, artist Wayne Healy, and a screening of Bert Corona’s film Artist Warrior. Corona (1918-2001), is considered by many to have been one of the founder’s of the Chicano movement.

The final panel, Freedom of Speech and Censorship, will take place on August 20, 2010, at the L.A. headquarters building of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF). The program starts at 7 p.m. and will feature artist Ernesto de la Loza, artist Gilbert Magu Lujan, artist Eloy Torrez, the President of MALDEF, Thomas Saenz, and a screening of Jesus Trevino’s film, América Tropical. MALDEF is located at 634 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA. 90014. The final two panel discussions will also be moderated by artist and teacher, Raoul De la Sota.

[ The painting of Siqueiros was kindly provided by artist Peter Wood, whose works can be seen here. You may contact Mr. Wood at ].

Siqueiros: América Tropical Press Conference

Siqueiros: América Tropical – Event program for the March 31, 2010 presentation on the status of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center.

Siqueiros: América Tropical – Event program for the March 31, 2010 presentation on the status of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center.

The Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros completed his second Los Angeles mural, América Tropical, in 1932. Created on the rooftop of the Italian Hall building located on the city’s historic Olvera Street, the mural was formally presented to the public in an official unveiling that took place on the evening of October 9, 1932. Within six months the portion of the mural visible from the street was whitewashed by conservative city authorities because of the artwork’s political message – a searing attack on U.S. imperialism. Inside of a year the authorities obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. América Tropical has remained hidden from public view for the last 77 years – but that is about to change.

By invitation I attended the March 31, 2010, event at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Taper Auditorium, heralding the progress of the future David Alfaro Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center. Sponsored by Amigos de Siqueiros, the city government of Los Angeles, and the Getty Conservation Institute, the event was the first opportunity for the public to learn the details regarding the upcoming $9 million visitor center – which is on the verge of being constructed. The event was attended by some 200 people, including foreign dignitaries, elected officials, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. The program lasted nearly two hours and included several informative Powerpoint presentations about the future center.

Close to 200 people filled the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium to hear the latest news on the status of the Siqueiros mural project. In this photo, Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, gives a benediction to open the event. Father Estrada blessed Siqueiros, and all artists who work for social justice. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Close to 200 people filled the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium to hear the latest news on the status of the Siqueiros mural project. In this photo, Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, gives a benediction to open the event. Father Estrada blessed Siqueiros, and all artists who work for social justice. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

The moderator for the evening was Armando Vazquez Ramos, co-chair of Amigos de Siqueiros, which has as its mission the conservation, protection, and promotion of the América Tropical mural.

Ramos briefly introduced a number of VIP’s in attendance, such as the Secretary of Culture for Mexico City, Elena Cepeda; the Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, Timothy P. Whalen; the Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West, Jonathan Spaulding; as well as a delegation of staff members from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which houses the only intact U.S. mural by Siqueiros – Portrait of Mexico Today: 1932. After opening remarks by Ramos and fellow co-chair of Amigos, Dalila Sotelo, the two introduced Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, who gave a benediction that blessed Siqueiros and all artists who work for the people and social justice.

Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District of L.A., addressed the gathering of foreign dignitaries, politicians, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District of L.A., addressed the gathering of foreign dignitaries, politicians, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was scheduled to address the gathering but at the last minute could not attend. Consequently, following Father Estrada’s blessing, a representative spoke on the Mayor’s behalf. After assuring the audience of the Mayor’s full commitment to the Siqueiros mural project, she promised those gathered that by “the end of this summer, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony to start this project.”

Here I must note a statement that the Getty’s Timothy P. Whalen gave the press at the event, explaining that once there is a groundbreaking, it will take 18 to 24 months to complete the construction of the center, now scheduled to be finished by 2013.

The Mayor’s representative was followed by L.A. Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District, who delivered an address further confirming the city government’s devotion to seeing the Siqueiros mural project completed. He told those gathered that “We have to uncover this beautiful mural and show it to the world.” Following Councilmember Huizar was California State Assembly Member, Kevin De León, of the 45th Assembly District of Los Angeles.

Assemblyman De León told a humorous but heartfelt story about how he came to discover the América Tropical mural. Mr. De León has a friend with access to the Italian Hall, the building on Olvera Street where Siqueiros painted his mural on the exterior of the second floor rooftop. The friend kept telling De León about the rooftop mural by Siqueiros, but the Assemblyman simply did not believe the story. One day that friend arranged to have De León visit the Italian Hall, and upon entering the building and surveying the dust, disrepair, and general disorder of the historic site (which is presently closed to the public), De León became convinced his friend was playing a practical joke on him – until the two made their way to the rooftop.

When De León set his eyes upon the mural that he never knew existed, he was, in his own words, “blown away.” He described his discovery as a life changing experience, and ended his address by vowing to do everything within his means to see the Siqueiros Mural And Interpretive Center brought to completion. “América Tropical,” De León said “is a treasure we must preserve.”

In this 1933 photograph of Olvera Street, the whitewashed Siqueiros mural América Tropical, can be seen in the upper right half of the photo. The authorities whitewashed the part of the mural that could be seen from the street – which is seen here as a large blank space. City authorities later obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. Photo/Los Angeles Times archives.

In this 1933 photo of Olvera Street, the whitewashed Siqueiros mural América Tropical, can be seen in the upper right half of the photo. The authorities whitewashed the part of the mural that could be seen from the street – seen here as a large blank space. City authorities later obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. Photo/Los Angeles Times archives.

Assemblyman De León’s presentation wrapped up the formal statements issued by members of the city’s government, and the audience then began to receive details on the progress of the Mural And Interpretive Center project. I am certain that, as someone who has followed the story of América Tropical since the late 1960s, I was not alone in feeling a sense of astonishment that at long last the mural was actually being brought back to life; that its regeneration was backed by the City of Los Angeles and the prestigious Getty museum, and that the mural would rightly take its place as a major historic site for L.A. and for the international arts community.

Leslie Rainer, a conservator at the Getty Museum’s Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), was introduced, and her Powerpoint presentation ran through the history of the mural, with a focus on the GCI’s involvement in the mural’s preservation, which began in earnest in 1989. Rainer gave a step by step account of GCI efforts over the years; seismic retrofitting of the wall on which the masterwork is painted, the installment of rigid protection panels over the mural to shield it from the elements, the stabilizing of the mural with protective chemicals, and the analysis of the paints Siqueiros used in creating his mural. Here the artist left conservators a vexing challenge, and while Ms. Rainer did not go into those details, I will share the particulars as I understand them.

In his desire to use the most revolutionary techniques and materials, Siqueiros abandoned the time tested fresco mural technique of painting with water-based pigments on fresh lime plaster – the method fellow muralist Diego Rivera utilized. Siqueiros instead created his mural by painting on cement with automobile lacquer paint applied with a spray gun and brushes. Using a compressed air spray gun powered by a generator was something only Siqueiros had done in his previous works, likewise his use of pyroxylin, the aforementioned auto lacquer paint. A nitrocellulose based lacquer once used to paint cars; pyroxylin was the artist’s favored paint because of its intense pigmentation, rapid drying time, and tendency to produce startling effects when different colors were allowed to flow together.

While previous works by Siqueiros were created on masonite or other stable grounds given an underpainting of gray pyroxylin, América Tropical was painted by direct application of pyroxylin on a single layer of cement – and the two did not bond well; the pyroxylin immediately fixed on the cement surface instead of penetrating it. After some time the pyroxylin began cracking and pulling away from the cement, a process exacerbated by the whitewash coating. GCI conservators have exerted a great amount of energy in successfully arresting the degradation of the mural. They determined that a complete full-color restoration of the original mural would only destroy the integrity of the work, so it was decided to preserve the mural as it is – a ghost of its former appearance.

Ms. Rainer went on to recount how América Tropical became almost entirely lost to memory, until the late 1960s Chicano Power movement in L.A. rediscovered Siqueiros and his mural – which in large part inspired the Chicano Arts Movement. In 1968 the mural came to public attention simply because the whitewash had begun to peel off, exposing tantalizing bits of the long forgotten artwork. Rainer told how in that year Shifra Goldman made photographic documentation of the devastated mural, kicking off a campaign to preserve América Tropical as well as providing impetus to the Chicano Arts Movement. Ms. Goldman has been a pioneer in the study of modern Latin American art, and it is hard to imagine this area of research without her scholarship and fortitude.

View from Main Street – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Watercolor. In this artist’s conception of the future Mural and Interpretive Center, the Siqueiros mural is located on the rooftop pictured at far left. This would be the view from Main Street, parallel to the foot traffic area of Olvera Street.

View from Main Street – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Watercolor. In this artist’s concept of the Mural and Interpretive Center, the Siqueiros mural is located on the rooftop pictured at left. This would be the view from Main Street, parallel to the foot traffic area of Olvera Street.

After Ms. Rainer’s presentation, Gwynne Pugh, the principal and co-founder of Pugh + Scarpa Architects, gave a Powerpoint presentation that was a project overview on architectural matters.

Pugh walked the audience through the floor plans and blueprints for the Interpretive Center, providing great insight into its engineering and structural designs. The center’s two thousand square feet of galleries will include a rooftop viewing platform, where people will be able to view the mural. Following Mr. Pugh’s talk was Thomas Hartman’s presentation. President of IQ Magic, a firm involved in interactive exhibits and displays for museums, Mr. Hartman lectured on a range of topics related to the mural. He described how the various rooms in the Mural Interpretive Center will look and function, using his Powerpoint display to provide digital graphics and artist’s concept drawings to illustrate his firm’s vision and goals for the center.

Perspective Looking Toward Entry – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, the entry room of Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured.

Perspective Looking Toward Entry – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, the entry room of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured.

Hartman described the two-story center as spacious and well lit by natural sunlight, with hand worked materials like field stone and yellow cedar wood commonly used throughout the building. He disclosed that the entryway to the center will be ceremonial in nature, giving the public a good idea of what the center contains, even if the upper floors are closed. A large photograph of Siqueiros will welcome visitors, and when they step into the ground floor entry room they will be faced with multiple wall plaques of text, artworks, and photographs that explain the museum’s concept and purpose. Not a true museum that displays original art and artifacts, the Mural Interpretive Center will instead provide educational and interactive displays that will inform, educate, and engage a wide and varied audience.

Projected Siqueiros Mural – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, one of the many proposed multi-media rooms in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. In this particular room, a 30 ft. wide digital projection of the América Tropical mural will be displayed, along with other audio and visual materials.

Projected Siqueiros Mural – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, one of the many proposed multi-media rooms in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. In this room, a 30 ft. wide digital projection of the América Tropical mural will be displayed, along with other audio and visual materials.

Mr. Hartman described the various multi-media displays that will be central to the Mural Interpretive Center experience; projectors that will throw a 30 foot long full-color reproduction of the mural on an internal gallery wall, where that digital projection will be supplemented by other, smaller projections; details of the mural, photographs of the artist at work, and other images. Some displays will incorporate digital audio systems and speakers that when touched, will transmit audio files of spoken histories and narratives pertaining to the mural’s history.

Likewise, 30 inch flat screen computer monitors placed throughout the center will offer all types of information to viewers. Hartman emphasized the flexible nature of these proposed displays, noting that as technologies change and expand, older displays will easily be rotated out and replaced with updated versions.

Immersive Muralism – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, another proposed multi-media room in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. This display would present audio/visual materials on Siqueiros' ideas regarding "immersive muralism," that is, murals that envelope viewers in architectural space, but also change appearance when viewed from various angles.

Immersive Muralism – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, another proposed multi-media room in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. This display would present audio/visual materials on Siqueiros' ideas regarding "immersive muralism," that is, murals that envelope viewers in architectural space, but also change appearance when viewed from various angles.

Mr. Hartman’s description of the rooftop viewing platform was most engrossing. Ultimately, visitors to the center will find themselves led to the roof, where they will gather on a special 240 square foot viewing platform placed adjacent to, but some 125 feet from the actual mural.

That space will protect the mural from those who will want to touch it, but it will also afford a clear and unobstructed full view of the mural. A specially designed canopy will stretch out above the mural for some thirty feet, protecting it from the harsh L.A. sun, and large perforated copper side screens will also serve the same purpose. The platform is designed to accommodate a steady stream of hundreds of viewers, who will be able to reach the rooftop by stairs or elevator.

In closing, Mr. Hartman invited those gathered to imagine what the original October 9, 1932 unveiling ceremony must have been like. It was, as he noted, “the event of the season,” and much of the city’s intellectual elites were in attendance; writers, artists, photographers, political activists – city politicians and mainstream media as well. Also in attendance that evening were members of the “Bloc of Painters,” those American artists who had assisted Siqueiros in the painting of América Tropical and his first L.A. mural, Mitin Obrero (”Worker’s Meeting” – painted at L.A.’s Chouinard School of Art in 1932). The Bloc included some twenty painters, including the likes of Millard Owen Sheets, Philip Guston, Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, Fletcher Martin, Harold Lehman, Reuben Kadish, and Luis Arenal. Hartman indicated that the accounts of some of the Bloc painters would be included in the center’s interactive displays.

In addition, Mr. Hartman mentioned that Dean Cornwell attended the public unveiling of América Tropical. Cornwell would be responsible for painting the 1933 monolithic mural series, California History, still located on the second floor interior rotunda of L.A.’s magnificent Central Library. Cornwell and Siqueiros both painted murals in L.A. that told the history of the Americas; with América Tropical Siqueiros told a story of imperialist expansion, colonialism, and resistance – Cornwell on the other hand painted a mural that extolled a benevolent and civilizing Western colonialism. The two visions could not have been further apart, needless to say Cornwell’s mural was enthusiastically supported by L.A.’s upstanding citizens and civic leaders, while Siqueiros’ work received a coat of whitewash. In truth the two artists had genial relations, in fact, Cornwell not only helped sponsor the Siqueiros mural, he assisted in its painting (In 1994 L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote about the two murals in his article, Two Murals, Two Histories. You can see a portion of Cornwell’s Central Library mural here).

The closing remarks of the program were given by Gregorio Luke, the former Director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach and currently the Executive Director of Amigos De Siqueiros. I have had my disagreements with Mr. Luke, and I made them public in June of 2007 when I wrote Chicano Artists Need Not Apply, a critique excoriating Luke for his “protracted refusal to exhibit or otherwise collaborate with Chicano/Mexican American artists” at MOLAA. Perhaps Luke has changed his ideas regarding Chicano artists, I am not certain, but his remarks at the L.A. Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium indicated an enlightened position – in fact, I found his lecture inspiring. Luke revealed an obvious passion for the works of Siqueiros, and he spoke with the animated gestures and energy of an old fashioned orator; he can really be quite engaging and persuasive, so Amigos De Siqueiros will no doubt benefit from his leadership.

Self-Portrait – David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1945. Pyroxylin on masonite. A reproduction of this painting will be one of the many reproductions of the artist’s works to be displayed at the Mural and Interpretive Center.

Self-Portrait – David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1945. Pyroxylin on masonite. A reproduction of this painting will be one of the many reproductions of the artist’s works to be displayed at the Mural and Interpretive Center.

Aside from his grand rhetoric in praise of maestro Siqueiros, Luke let loose a few salient remarks I found of great consequence. He divulged that he has been approached by Chicano artists who made it known that in part, they pursued art because of Siqueiros’ influence. I would place myself amongst this group. I discovered Siqueiros in 1968 when I was fifteen years old, and I do not hesitate to say that without his influence I would have been a very different artist. Luke also commended Siqueiros for his revolutionary activism on behalf of the downtrodden, noting that the artist made no distinction between painting and his political acts, to Siqueiros the two were seamlessly integrated. Observing that Siqueiros’ example provides today’s artists with a way forward, Luke chastised those who only want to “paint like the old masters of the past,” but he reserved his ire for today’s detached and indifferent crowd of postmodernists, “who are imprisoned by their own limitations” and “want to be so avant-garde that they become irrelevant to the people.”

Mr. Luke ended with a powerful assertion regarding the soon to be reborn América Tropical mural: “We will reverse an act of censorship, and provide inspiration for another, future revolution.” With that the event ended, but what transpired that evening will provide food for thought for months to come – at least until that promised end of summer groundbreaking for the David Alfaro Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center.

I admit feeling an amused but wary skepticism regarding the whole affair. I can only imagine what Siqueiros, the implacable communist militant, would make of his legacy being blessed by a Catholic Father, warmly embraced by U.S. politicians, and enshrined by a major Yankee art museum. Oh, the contradictions! If Frida Kahlo had painted a mural in Los Angeles during the 1930s, the L.A. city government would have long ago wrapped it in an edifice designed by Frank Gehry. “Gringolandia” might wish to give Siqueiros the Frida Kahlo treatment, i.e., to turn him into a chic handbag or a trendy coffee table book, but the art of Siqueiros may prove difficult to commodify, since it directly speaks the urgent and uncompromising language of revolution. His works continue to be controversial, and goodness knows how we need a contentious and oppositional force in today’s art world – not to mention the rest of society.

I leave you with the inspired words of news reporter Don Ryan, who covered the original 1932 official unveiling of América Tropical in the October 11, 1932 edition of the L.A. Illustrated Daily News, Ryan wrote of that ceremony;

“This night that we are living seems to be fifty to one hundred years in the future. The artist Siqueiros, whom the federal authorities seem so anxious to deport, is without doubt a dangerous type; dangerous for all the snarling and pusillanimous spectators and retailers in art and life. The federal agents justly claim that his art is propaganda, for when the youth confront this gigantic dynamo that pounds in the night under the rain, or clamors boldly when the brilliant sun of midday shines in the plaza, they will possibly find it the inspiration to rise in rebellion in future revolution, in art and in life, exclaiming; ‘Off the road conservatives and old ones, here comes the future!’”

In Memoriam Philip Stein, “Estaño”

I had the great pleasure of meeting Philip Stein and his wife Gertrude in October of 2003, when the two visited their daughter Anne in Silverlake, California. Last April I received the sad news that Philip died at his home in Manhattan on April 27, 2009, at the age of 90. A public memorial celebrating his life and legacy will be held Sunday, September 13, 2009, at:

The Village Vanguard
178 7TH Avenue South.
Greenwich Village, New York City
1 to 3 p.m. RSVP: 212-346-9309

Philip Stein, aka Estaño, at a 2008 exhibit of his work in New York City. Photo by Robert M. Siqueiros.

Philip Stein, aka Estaño, at a 2008 exhibit of his work in New York City. Photo by Robert M. Siqueiros.

I will never forget finding the biography SIQUEIROS - His Life and Works, in a Los Angeles bookstore in 2003. As an artist deeply influenced by the Mexican Mural Movement, I was fascinated by the book’s scholarly yet readable examination of the Mexican muralists, and of the life and works of David Alfaro Siqueiros in particular. I did not purchase the book, which was written by Stein, but I spent the next day kicking myself for not having done so. I was astonished when the very next day the publisher of the book contacted me, inquiring if I would like a review copy of the book. The publisher was kind enough to put me in contact with Stein and from that point on Philip Stein and I became fast friends.

Stein of course was an active participant in the Mexican Mural Movement, and he worked with Siqueiros as an assistant painter on eleven murals in Mexico City from 1948 to 1958. It was in those early years that Siqueiros gave Stein the nickname of Estaño, a moniker that stuck ever since. The insights Stein provided me regarding the social realist movement of the period – both in Mexico and the United States - cannot be found in any book, not even Stein’s. I conducted an interview with him in 2004 that affords some clear understanding and deep perceptions of the man and his times – but clearly much more needs to be written.

Stop The War – Philip Stein. 1976. Acrylic on panel. 36" x 48" In the artist’s own words regarding the subject of this painting, "There is no end to this call of the people."

"Stop The War" – Philip Stein. 1976. Acrylic on panel. 36" x 48" In the artist’s own words regarding the subject of this painting, "There is no end to this call of the people."

I was surprised to learn of Estaño’s passion for Jazz. He spent much time in the early Jazz clubs of New York, maintained an absolutely massive collection of Jazz records, hosted Jazz radio shows in Mexico and Spain, and produced two albums on the Jazz Art label. In 1968 he painted a glorious mural on an interior wall of the legendary New York Jazz club, the Village Vanguard – which should explain why his memorial is being held at that historic venue. The New York Times wrote an obituary for Stein at the time of his death which included a rare glimpse of the Vanguard mural, New Man, New Woman.

Regrettably, I will not be able to attend the memorial at the Village Vanguard, but come the day and hour of the celebration, I will play my copy of John Coltrane, Live at the Village Vanguard, as a last salute to the people’s artist, Philip Stein.

Charles White: Let The Light Enter

In April of 1967 the Heritage Gallery of Los Angeles published Images of Dignity, a monograph on the life and work of the great African American artist Charles White (1918-1979). I acquired a copy of the book just a year later when I was fifteen-years-old, the hardback volume providing one of my first insights into the works of White, American social realism, and the very idea of political engagement in modern American art. I have no hesitation in crediting White as a major influence in my life as an artist.

Opening this past January 10, and running until March 7, 2009, New York’s Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presents the important retrospective - Charles White: Let The Light Enter, Major Drawings, 1942-1970. The gallery’s biography on White opens with the following quote from the artist, which makes clear why he was such an influence upon me and why I continue to hold him in such high esteem:

“I am interested in the social, even the propaganda, angle in painting; but I feel that the job of everyone in a creative field is to picture the whole scene. . . I am interested in creating a style that is much more powerful, that will take in the technical end and at the same time will say what I have to say. Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent. If I could write, I would write about it. If I could talk, I would talk about it. Since I paint, I must paint about it.”

I will mostly dispense with listing the biographical details and accomplishments of Mr. White since the artist himself wrote eloquently of his life and times in an autobiography that now appears on the Charles White Archive website. Instead I am going to focus on two aspects of White’s career that have considerable relevance to the present: his relationship to the Works Progress Administration in the U.S. during the Depression Era, and his connection to the socially conscious Mexican Muralist Movement of the same period - which has been another source of endless inspiration for me. In light of discussions on the possibility of there being a new federal arts program under the Obama administration, White’s overwhelmingly positive experience with the WPA provides food for thought, as does his having found common cause with the Mexican school of socially engaged art.

Drawing by Charles White

[ Awaken from the Unknowing - Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper. 1961. In this drawing White implores the viewer to read, knowing that literacy is essential to the people’s advancement. Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

White was a 20-year-old living in Chicago, Illinois, when in 1938 he was employed by the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Art Project (FAP) Easel Painting Division, which was no small matter since until that time the young artist barely managed to survive by doing odd jobs - when he could find them. In a 1965 oral history interview conducted for the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art, White credited the FAP program with having enabled him to survive as an artist through very hard times. He also recognized the program for having expanded his range of artistic skills and knowledge, commenting that the FAP was “almost a school.” White said the following in his autobiography concerning having worked in the FAP:

“Looking back at my three years on the project, I see it was a tremendous step for me to be able to paint full time, be paid for it, although the pay was the bare minimum of unemployment relief. The most wonderful thing for me was the feeling of cooperation with other artists, of mutual help instead of competitiveness, and of cooperation between the artists and the people. It was in line with what I had always hoped to do as an artist, namely paint things pertaining to the real everyday life of people, and for them to see and enjoy. It was also a thrill for me to see so many accomplished artists at work, and to be able to learn from them.”

White eventually switched from the FAP’s Easel Division to its Mural Department, where he learned the basic skills needed to create monumental mural works. In 1939 FAP gave White the responsibility of creating a large mural for the Chicago Public Library. He chose for his mural the theme of outstanding African American leaders, and so painted Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Booker T. Washington. Today the 5’ x 12’ oil on canvas mural hangs in the Law Library of the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. Creating murals was a lifelong passion for White, and my home city of Los Angeles is blessed with the very last one he painted - a work produced in 1978 and located at the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Exposition Park Branch of the L.A. Public Library.

Here it is necessary to mention White’s relationship to the Mexican school - that fusion of muralism, printmaking, and easel painting driven by social concerns. “Los Tres Grandes”, the three greats of Mexican mural painting: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, had all visited the United States by the early 1930’s. In the wake of their U.S. visits they left behind a number of fabulous public murals, but also an enthusiastic network of American artists they had influenced through workshops, lectures, collaborations, and direct mentoring.

In 1941 White met and married Elizabeth Catlett, a remarkable artist in her own right. The two traveled to Mexico City in 1946, where they created prints with El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop, founded in 1937), the foremost print collective in the country at the time. It was at the TGP that White learned the art of lithography, which became an enduring passion for him. At the workshop he met and worked with the likes of Diego Rivera, Pablo O’Higgins, and Leopoldo Méndez. In White’s own words, “One of the honors of which I am most proud is that of having been elected an honorary member of the Taller.” Catlett also did several of her most memorable prints while working at the TGP; and some of the collective’s prints, including works by Catlett and Méndez, made their way into Gouge - the Los Angeles Hammer Museum’s stunning exhibit on printmaking in the 20th century (now showing until Feb. 8, 2009).

Drawing by Charles White

[ Dreams Deferred - Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper. 1969. The title of this drawing refers to the 1951 poem by African American poet, Langston Hughes - What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

During their sojourn in Mexico City, White and Catlett were invited to stay at the home of David Alfaro Siqueiros, where they lodged in the top floor of the muralist’s residence. White’s time in Mexico was revelatory, providing him the confirmation that his chosen path in art was the correct one to take. He felt kinship with the radical populism of the Mexican artists, whose fiery works embodied the very idea of social realism in art. White and Catlett would divorce in 1948: she stayed in Mexico for good, while he moved to New York City. There he began to associate with like-minded artists such as Antonio Frasconi, Leonard Baskin, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Moses and Raphael Soyer, and other giants in American social realism. Eventually Mr. White settled in the city of Los Angeles, where he became an influential drawing teacher at Otis Art Institute.

What I always found so impressive about White was that he never abandoned his artistic vision in order to follow the dictates of what was fashionable. Despite the ascendancy and near total dominance of abstract art in the 1950s, followed by the successions of Pop, Minimalism, and all the vacuities of Postmodernism - White remained true to his style of figurative social realism. Part of his memoirs recount his lonely isolated struggle in the 50s against abstraction, of “going against the tide of what everyone was claiming to be ‘new’ and ‘the future’”, and we are all the richer for White’s perseverance.

But White’s courage went far beyond his flying in the face of what was trendy in the art world. He came to reject careerism in art, regarding celebrity as anathema to the higher ideals of art. The spirit found in the following passage of his memoirs should be held aloft as a banner by those artists and their supporters who ardently believe in art as a tool for social transformation;

“I no longer have my hopes and aspirations tied up with becoming a ’success’ in the market sense. I have had a measure of success in exhibits, some prizes and awards, although not as much as I might have gotten had there not been certain ‘difficulties’ presented by my speaking as part of the Negro people and the working class. Getting a marketplace success or recognition by art connoisseurs is no longer my major concern as an artist. My major concern is to get my work before common, ordinary people; for me to be accepted as a spokesman for my people; for my work to portray them better, and to be rich and meaningful to them. A work of art was meant to belong to people, not to be a single person’s private possession. Art should take its place as one of the necessities of life, like food, clothing and shelter.”

Charles White: Let The Light Enter, Major Drawings, 1942-1970, at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. January 10 - March 7, 2009.

Josep Renau: Commitment and Culture

The people of Spain have been celebrating the 100th birthday of the Spanish painter, poster designer, and muralist, Josep Renau, through a number of tributes, not the least of which has been a traveling exhibition; Josep Renau (1907-1982): Commitment and Culture. Organized by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the University of Valencia, Spain, the exhibit is now running at the Universidad de Zaragoza until January 30th, 2009 (View the Spanish language or English translated website). Comprised of over 200 works including photomontage creations, drawings, paintings, and posters, the exhibit spans the artist’s entire influential career.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Celebridades Norte Americanas /North American Celebrities. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1956-65. ]

In 1992 the Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) in San Diego, California, presented the very first exhibition in the U.S. of Renau’s magnum opus photomontage series - Fata Morgana USA: The American Way of Life. I attended that exhibit and found it full of acidly sardonic photomontage works that lived up to the title of the series. Unfortunately the MoPA website does not even list the slightest detail concerning its ‘92 exhibit. Luckily for all however, the museum website does sell the brilliant catalogue book, Fata Morgana USA: The American Way of Life, which is an indispensable resource regarding the life and art of Renau.

When reading about the early radical proponents of photomontage, rarely is the name of Renau mentioned, yet he played a significant role in the development of the art. His montage works should be regarded with the same sense of appreciation given to the creations of John Heartfield, George Grosz, Alexander Rodchenko, Raul Hausmann, or Hannah Hoch.

Art by Josep Renau

[ El Presidente Habla Sobre La Paz /The President Speaks About Peace. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1952. ]

The MoPA exhibit of Fata Morgana USA gave us Renau’s view of America as it existed from the Cold War years of the late 1940s to the early ’60s. He depicted a country arrogantly projecting its military power across the globe; a land enthralled by the rise of mass media and hyper-consumerism, embroiled in anticommunist witch-hunts, and terribly divided along racial lines. In fact, some of Renau’s most engaging images had to do with America’s shameful history of racism.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Orgasmo Racial /Racial Orgasm - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1951.]

At a time when African Americans could neither vote nor use facilities marked “For Whites Only”, Renau’s images called attention to the fact that democracy in the U.S. was a dream left unfulfilled for millions. Perhaps his most volatile artwork on the subject was the photomontage titled Orgasmo Racial (Racial Orgasm - 1951); which presented a close-up portrait of a skull-faced white man from whose mind sprang the most fearsome imaginings, tortured and murdered black men roasting in fires set by flag waving members of the Ku Klux Klan. No less blistering a condemnation of racism was the artist’s Sombras en la Plantación (Plantation Shadows - 1955); a depiction of a Southern Belle gently swaying to and fro in a tree swing on her estate - the tree casting shadows in which you can see the agonized faces of impoverished Blacks.

To say that Renau is not widely known in the United States would be an understatement. But what is the reason for this unfamiliarity? No doubt his ideology had much to do with it, since he joined the Communist Party of Spain in 1931 and remained a lifelong member until his death. He once said, “I’m not a Communist painter, just a Communist that paints”. A continued ignorance regarding his works, especially for artists at this juncture in history, is nothing short of inexcusable.

Born in Valencia, Spain, Renau graduated from art school in 1925, and then succeeded in making a living as a drawing professor - devoting himself to painting and advertising poster design. He created his first photomontage, The Arctic Man, in 1929. He would be hailed internationally in the years to come for his significant work in developing the art form. When the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936, he designed posters in support of the Spanish Republic against the insurgent army of General Francisco Franco and his fascist allies Hitler and Mussolini. That same year the Republican government appointed Renau General Director of the Arts, giving him the responsibility of safeguarding Spain’s cultural heritage during the war, and he would transfer part of the Prado Museum’s collection in Madrid to save it from fascist bombardment. In 1937 Renau helped design the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Paris, France, where he commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a mural for the Pavilion in support of the Spanish Republic. The result would be Picasso’s Guernica.

When the fascists succeeded in crushing the Spanish Republic in 1939, Renau, like millions of Spaniards, went into exile. He first traveled to France and then to Mexico, where a large number of Republican exiles settled. Upon his arrival in Mexico he began a collaboration with the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, helping to paint Retrato de la Burguesia (Portrait of the Bourgeoisie), a revolutionary mural for the Electrician’s Union headquarters in Mexico City.

In 1940 Renau became a Mexican citizen, and being well versed in advertising art he made a living designing posters for the Mexican film industry. Eventually he turned his critical gaze toward American culture, and imagined the beginnings of his masterwork, Fata Morgana USA. Those familiar with medieval studies will recognize “Fata Morgana” as the Italian name for Morgan LaFée, King Arthur’s fairy half-sister who produced mirages in order to bewilder enemies. But Renau was interested in the name because it defined a “mirage” as an actual phenomenon, and he had it in mind to use his caustic photomontage art to expose American myths as the greatest of all illusions.

To accomplish his task Renau combined his mastery of photomontage with his expertise in the language of mass media and advertising design; not to conjure up a forerunner to pop art, which was accommodationist to corporate power, but to create a visual language that would subvert advertising and the system it sprang from. Renau began compiling thousands of photographs from the pages of American magazines and newspapers, inventing a catalog system for the collection of images to facilitate the construction of his montages. With precision Renau used the simple tools of razor blade and glue to combine photographic elements, putting the last touches on a montage by painting out unwanted areas or filling in details with pencil or brush. When a finalized work was photographed for publication, the constructed image appeared altogether seamless. Years later the artist would comment on the beginnings of his project, saying that it:

“(….) was to a considerable part drafted in Mexico, the only Latin American country which has a joint border with the United States and where, for this reason, the physical, psychological and political pressure of Yankee imperialism is expressed more directly and brutally than anywhere else.

(….) It is noteworthy how much society in USA is most effectively softened up by the powerful eroding action of the big monopolies and how it has become sensitive to the striking feed-back of the mass media (film, radio, television, newspapers, comics, magazines, etc.). This takes place to such a degree that the formula ‘American way of life’ - partially and tendentiously abstracted from social reality itself - is taking on the shape of a real ‘model’; this concerns a considerable part of the US population which has of necessity formed itself in accordance with the commandments of such an abstraction.”

In 1958 Renau moved to the German Democratic Republic where his work on Fata Morgana USA began in earnest. When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Renau visited Spain the next year for the first time since his exile, taking the opportunity to exhibit some of his Fata Morgana USA images in several cities. As part of the Venice Biennial of ‘76, Renau would show his completed Fata Morgana USA series consisting of 69 images. It was not until ‘77 that Renau published 40 select works in book form under the title of Fata Morgana USA. In 1982 Renau died in East Berlin at the age of 75.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Recién Casados /Just Married. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1957.]

While influenced by dada and surrealism, Renau’s works never offered incoherent rage or dream-like escapism. His was a didactic art that peeled away layers of myth and obfuscation to reveal unpleasant realities. Sometimes his images accomplished this through whimsy, at other times with a frank bluntness, but he always made his point in a highly imaginative way. Take for example his photomontage Recién Casados (Just Married - 1957), depicting a blushing bride, who in actuality is a metaphorical stand-in for the U.S. public. Joined in matrimonial bliss to a robber baron who has an oil drill bit as a head, the bride carries what appears to be a heart shaped floral arrangement, but in reality it is nothing more than another oil drill bit. At the feet of the lovebirds, drooling paparazzi jockey for position, while in the background a gushing oil well symbolizes the couple’s consummated relationship. This rumination on the oligarchy and its relationship to the public was also a prescient comment on gender politics, a topic to which Renau would return time and again.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Miss Bistec de Chicago /Miss Beefsteak of Chicago - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1960/66.]

A continually running narrative throughout Fata Morgana USA is the subjugation and objectification of women, which Renau not only attributed to the workings of capitalism, but insisted was necessary for the system to work at all. In Dia de la Victoria (Day of Victory - 1953), Renau constructed his photomontage around a full page photo of an alluring lingerie model posing in Life magazine. At first glance the montage seems festive with its marching band, confetti, streamers and fluttering flags, until one notices the barely concealed caption to the original photo; “Victory Lingerie: A top U.S. designer creates models to welcome home service husbands”. A second glance reveals the scantily clad model is surrounded by U.S. veterans of the Korean War - and they are all amputees.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Sociedad de Consumidor /Consumer Society. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1972.]

Taken as a whole, Fata Morgana USA can be seen as a comprehensive denunciation of capitalist culture, but of the dozens of images in the series that strike at commercialism, perhaps none cut so deeply as the 1972 photomontage, Sociedad de Consumidor (Consumer Society). Here Renau visualized the citizen being reduced to nothing more than a mindless consumer, ingesting without hesitation an endless stream of manufactured goods and desires that includes the ideology of capitalism itself. But while the word “consumption” denotes the act or process of consuming things, it is also an archaic medical term that refers to the wasting away of the body; and the physical presence of Renau’s consumer has withered into an undemanding and simple receptacle. We are left to wonder how the artist would have commented on the “Black Friday” 2008 Christmas season in the U.S., when hundreds of holiday shoppers in a mad rush to buy cheap consumer goods at a New York Wal-Mart trampled an employee to death.

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now, is a splendid exhibition of woodcut and linoleum prints now showing until Feb. 8, 2009, at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. On display are 100 diverse and quite extraordinary prints from the likes of Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Käthe Kollwitz, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Joseph Beuys, and many others too numerous to mention.

Divided into four thematic sections, the first presents the emergence of modern printmaking in the 1870’s, the second shows how artists used the grain of the wood to enhance their compositions, the third is devoted to prints in the arena of social activism, and the final section presents sacred and religious iconography. While I could easily wax poetic on the prints included under each theme, in this article I will focus on the prints categorized under social activism, or as the Hammer defined them - prints that are “The Voice Of The Activist”.

Woodcut print by Iglesias

[ La Seudorepublica y la Revolucion (The Pseudo-republic and The Revolution). Carmelo Gonzalez Iglesias. Woodcut. 1960. 51 x 169 inches. Detail from the upper left of the monumental print. In the foreground sits a worker paralyzed by hunger and despair. Springing up behind him are Cuban sugarcane cutters rising in revolution with machetes in hand. They are led by Lady Liberty bearing a sword and wearing a Phrygian cap - the international icon of revolution and freedom. ]

Without a doubt, the core of the exhibit is comprised of two monumental woodcut prints from Cuba; The Pseudo-Republic and the Revolution by Carmelo Gonzalez Iglesias, and Latin America, Unite! by Luis Peñalever Collazo - who was a student of Iglesias. In contemplating the intricate woodcut prints one is left dumbfounded by the fact that they were designed to be used as street posters!

Woodcut print by Iglesias

[ The Pseudo-republic and The Revolution. Detail from the left panels of the monumental print. A revolutionary worker breaks the chains that bind him, defiantly waving a machete with the word "Independencia" emblazoned upon it. He exhorts his armed compañeros (bottom left) to join the battle against their oppressors, and they can be seen - middle left - fleeing into the arms of an eagle-faced Uncle Sam.]

Iglesias and Collazo are beyond reproach when it comes to superlative draftsmanship, clear narrative, and technical virtuosity. Their prints make today’s vaunted “street-art” seem feeble in comparison. Unfortunately the Hammer would not allow photography in the gallery, and the museum has not made available any decent reproductions of these extraordinary prints. The few image details I present here are woefully inadequate in conveying the beauty and power of these Cuban woodcuts.

Woodcut print by Collazo

[ America Latina, Unete! (Latin America, Unite!) Luis Peñalever Collazo. Woodcut. 1960. 33-7/8 x 87-1/2 inches. Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum. Photo by Brian Forrest. ]

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from the left panels depicting the insurgent Cuban masses led by a woman who points the way towards revolution. A slain comrade is at the feet of marchers who carry a banner reading - "Venceremos" (We Will Win). ]

Both Pseudo-Republic and Unite! were created in 1960, just a year after the triumph of the revolution against the U.S. backed regime of General Fulgencio Batista. Since the majority of the mural-like prints were wheat-pasted on city walls in Cuba, not many copies survived intact. However, in 1961 Che Guevara gave a set of the prints to a young foreign student in Cuba, Maurice Zeitlin (now a UCLA professor), and the gift to Zeitlin currently hangs in the Hammer exhibit. Printed from seven different woodblocks, Pseudo-Republic measures 51 by 169 inches, and like puzzle pieces, when the separate prints are brought together properly - they become one cohesive narrative. Unite! is somewhat smaller at 33 7/8 by 87 1/2 inches, but no less effective. It too was printed from several carved woodblocks.

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from central panels depicting combat between a Cuban patriot and a knife wielding imperialist. ]

The exhibit has a small but weighty collection of graphics produced by the Mexican collective - El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Included in this grouping is a beautiful linoleum cut by African American artist, Elizabeth Catlett, who worked with the TGP when she moved to and settled in Mexico in 1946. The print on display is titled Sharecropper, and only a few black and white proofs were made by Catlett in 1952. In 1968-70 the artist would pull an edition of 60 full color prints - but it is one of the stunning black and white proofs that is on view at the Hammer. Another of the TGP associated artists shown in Gouge is Leopoldo Méndez, who surely was one of Mexico’s most impressive socially conscious printmakers. I was first introduced to his works during the 1970’s, when his fiery prints were enthusiastically circulated in Chicano arts and activist circles in the U.S. In the near future I will be writing extensively about Méndez on this web log, but for now, all that is necessary to say is that his print at the Hammer show, The Heritage of Juarez - is a marvel to behold.

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from right panels depicting life under capitalism. Workers divided by race bludgeon each other over dwindling resources, women sell themselves into prostitution, and imperialist war planes launch attacks. ]

Gouge also presents three woodcuts by David Alfaro Siqueiros from his 13 Grabados series. In 1930 the artist spent 6 months in a Mexican prison for having participated in a May Day demonstration. While incarcerated he created 13 grabados (engravings), cut from scrap wood, and upon his release he printed a small edition of proofs. It would not be until he came to Los Angeles as a political refugee in 1932 that he would print his woodcuts as a full portfolio in an edition of 100. In tribute to the great Mexican printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada, the prints were made on colored tissue - and three of these made their way into the Gouge exhibit. Stylistically the works are blunt, almost abstract, and not surprisingly they deal with issues of state repression and violence.

In addition, Gouge has on view an impressive collection of prints from the German Expressionists. Woodcuts by Erich Heckel, Emile Nolde, Christian Rohlfs, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Lovis Corinth, and Käthe Kollwitz - all provide consummate examples of the Expressionist school I so unwaveringly admire. But it is two woodcuts created by Conrad Felixmüller in 1921 that I find especially delightful - if for no other reason than the artist is so little known in the U.S. and rarely if at all exhibited. Felixmüller’s Factory Worker (Invalid) and Mine Engineer, are sympathetic portraits of working men, a common theme for the artist. Stylistically the brusque angular portraits explode with dynamic swirls of energy and agitated lines, while revealing considerable empathy for the men he portrayed.

The Gouge exhibition is not without its weaknesses. The contemporary prints, relying heavily on gimmickry, by and large convey little more than the detached hollowness one associates with postmodernism. The limitations of these new works, deficient in both originality and anything significant to say, is made all the more apparent when they are compared to the older works in the exhibit. Another drawback to the show is that it lacks an exhibit catalog. I could write volumes on the tour de force works of the Cuban artists alone. Given the fact that outside of Cuba virtually nothing is known about these particular artworks or the artists that produced them, it is indeed unfortunate that the Hammer has not published even a diminutive catalog. Despite these failings Gouge is a blockbuster show not to be missed.

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now - at the Hammer Museum from November 9, 2008 through February 8, 2009. On Feb. 4, 2009, exhibit curators will hold a 12:30 lunchtime talk concerning Luis Peñalever Collazo and his woodcut, Latin America, Unite!

Frida Kahlo’s 100th birthday

To celebrate the 100th birthday of artist Frida Kahlo, which falls on July 6th, 2007, Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is exhibiting the largest body of Kahlo’s artworks ever to be put on public display anywhere in the world. Opening June 13th, 2007 and running until August 19th, 2007, the show is the first comprehensive exhibit of the artist’s works to be held in Mexico, and it’s comprised of some 354 original drawings and paintings - as well as a portion of Kahlo’s manuscripts and letters. In addition, talks on Kahlo’s political views and influence on the arts will be held in conjunction with the exhibit. The Associate Press quoted Bellas Artes Director Roxana Gonzalez as saying, “It is important for our visitors to know that Frida wrote, thought - challenged the Americans - here they will see the complete Frida.”

Painting by Frida Kahlo

[ Self-portrait with Necklace - Frida Kahlo. Oil on panel. 1933. ]

And that complete view of Frida is long overdue, especially here in the United States, where “Fridamania” has refashioned the radical artist into a series of harmless and exotic clichés. In Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, author Hayden Herrera wrote that the artist became, “first a legend, then a myth and now a cult figure.” The end of that statement is most certainly true, and Herrera played no small role in the transformation of Kahlo into a pop icon - her 1983 biography served as the basis for director Julie Taymor’s 2002 Frida, starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo. Unfortunately that film has become the prevailing English-language history of the left-wing painter.

Will the real Frida please stand up!

[ After the success of director Julie Taymor’s Frida, Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey, which originally graced the first edition of Hayden Herrera’s book, was replaced with a photograph of Salma Hayek - completing the erasure of Kahlo the woman and the triumph of Frida the Hollywood representation. ]

In an interview conducted for PBS by filmmaker Amy Stechler (The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo), Herrera was asked when people started to recognize Frida as a painter, and she responded by saying:

“(….) in the second half of the seventies, she was not really very well known. In Mexico, she was known as Diego Rivera’s sort of peculiar wife with the strange little paintings that most people really didn’t like very much. They were too peculiar. And too weird. They are weird. I mean, we’ve gotten used to them now, but they still are kind of weird. And in the United States, I don’t think many people had heard of her. At least, I’d never heard of her until somebody…Max Kozlov and Joyce Kozlov presented me with a catalog and said, ‘Go write about it for Art Forum.’ And that was about, I think around 1974 - ‘74, ‘75 - somewhere in there. Anyway, I think Frida Kahlo’s fame began in the late ’70s and had a lot to do with feminism, had a lot to do with the Chicana people in the United States loving having this sort of emblem of Mexicanidad and loving her whole story, because it’s a painful one.”

As a devotee of Kahlo, Herrera’s observations as quoted above are on target, but what exactly is she telling us? That the reasons for Kahlo’s fame have less to do with her abilities as an artist and more to do with the sensibilities of a contemporary audience? That’s quite a revealing statement regarding the cult of personality that has developed around Kahlo, which seems to have more to do with her tragic personal life than with her actual artistic output. When Herrera admits that Kahlo is understood as “myth” and “cult figure,” we’ve already slipped into territory where anything about the artist will be believed, which is undeniably why the Taymor/Hayek version of Kahlo’s life was so popular in the United States. The superficial film provided its audience with an easy to digest soap opera that focused on the sex lives and marital problems of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo - it was a movie that for all intents and purposes effectively stripped Kahlo of her political beliefs.

Painting by Frida Kahlo

[ Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick - Frida Kahlo. Oil on panel. 1954. Arranged like a votive religious painting, Kahlo depicted the earth, a dove of peace, and Karl Marx, as holistic forces ready to vanquish all afflictions. Kahlo portrayed herself freed from pain by the hands of Marx, which simultaneously strangle a vulture-like Uncle Sam. At the time of this painting Kahlo was in such severe pain that she could no longer work without taking strong pain medication - a factor that lead to the less precise nature of her late works. ]

I’ve been singing the praises of Frida Kahlo ever since the early 1970’s, but I find it astonishing that she’s now perceived - at least outside of Mexico - as that country’s leading artist, while her compatriots in the Mexican Muralist Movement have largely been excised from history. To gauge the depth and breadth of “Fridamania” and how quickly the phenomenon took over, one need only examine the 1988 PBS American Masters documentary about her husband, Rivera in America, which detailed the art and career of the eminent painter. Though you do catch glimpses of Kahlo in the documentary, the hour-long film barely mentioned her, and instead focused on the achievements of Rivera - who played an enormous role in changing the face of his nation’s art and culture. Today that portrayal has been entirely reversed, with Kahlo the super-star in the limelight and Diego left forgotten.

I don’t mean to imply that Kahlo doesn’t deserve acknowledgment or that she should be thrown back into obscurity - personally I love her art and recognize her as a fantastic, inspiring painter. But the passing of time should bring about a deeper appreciation of artists and art movements once misunderstood, and while time has no doubt been good to Frida Kahlo - why have the extraordinary artists surrounding her been retired to the shadows? It has been relatively easy to commodify Kahlo’s works over the likes of those by fellow radical painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Jean Charlot, Pablo O’ Higgins, Juan O’ Gorman and others. But it’s a mistake to view these didactic artists as “political” while maintaining Kahlo’s paintings were simply “personal.” Kahlo’s works are the perfect example of “the personal being the political.” No less than the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, recognized this fact. He famously said that “The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb.”

Photo of Kahlo at a solidarity demonstration for Guatemala

[ This photo shows Kahlo in her last public act, July 2nd, 1954 - demonstrating against the CIA organized military coup that overthrew the elected government of Guatemala. A year prior Kahlo’s right leg had been amputated below the knee for health reasons. Against her doctor’s advice, Frida went to the protest in a wheel chair while convalescing from pneumonia. She held a placard depicting a dove carrying the message, Por la Paz (For the Peace.) Diego Rivera can be seen behind her with his hand on her shoulder. Less than two weeks after the protest, Frida Kahlo passed away. ]

A militant if unorthodox communist, Kahlo was connected to the major political events of her day. Whatever one makes of her politics, ideology was undeniably a major force that consistently ran through her life, so I find it annoying that her persona has been recast to fit the current intellectual atmosphere. While big money and fan worship have airbrushed Kahlo into an easily digestible, exotic commodity - the truth can be found elsewhere. As fate would have it, an exciting new discovery has been made that re-emphasizes the undying loyalty and comradeship between Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The Mexican paper, La Jornada, reports that scientists in Mexico City have found over 100 hitherto unknown drawings created by the couple. The artworks, along with photos and letters, were secreted away in a hidden room of the Casa Azul (Blue House), the house where the two artists once lived together and which now functions as The Frida Kahlo Museum. A special press conference has been arranged for June 27th, where a list of the exact items found will be revealed.

Frida Kahlo sought to sweep away the cobwebs of the old world, and perhaps the major exhibit at Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes will shed some much needed light on that reality.

Siqueiros Online Video Stream

An online streaming video is now available for Siqueiros: The Art of Censorship, a recent speakers forum about David Alfaro Siqueiros, his murals, Los Angeles history, and public art. Held last November 9th, 2006, at the Los Angeles Times Harry Chandler Auditorium, the forum was attended by some 300 persons and recorded by L.A. public television station, Channel 36 - who makes the video stream available from their website.

Speakers included Luis Garza - the instigator behind the future exhibition Legacy & Legend: Siqueiros & America Tropical-Censorship Defied, Judith F. Baca - muralist and founder of SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, California), William F. Deverell - director of the Huntington/USC Institute on California and the West, Suzanne Muchnic - Los Angeles Times art writer, and Patt Morrison - writer and columnist. To view the video, go to:

L.A.’s Siqueiros Mural To Live Again

On August 2nd, 2006, after spending my entire adult life reading about América Tropical, the internationally famous mural painted in Los Angeles by Mexican Muralist master, David Alfaro Siqueiros, there I was, for the very first time - barely inches from the huge masterwork. Just the day before I had received a telephone call from friend and associate, Luis Garza, who sits on the city’s Siqueiros Mural, Events, and Marketing Committee overseeing the restoration of the mural. Garza had called to invite me to the important press conference where L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would have exciting news regarding the mural.

A detail of the famous Olvera Street Siqueiros mural, América Tropical

[ A detail of the famous Olvera Street Siqueiros mural, América Tropical. The image is not the actual mural, but a scale size digital blow-up. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

Mayor Villaraigosa’s press conference took place early in the morning on Olvera Street, the city’s founding avenue and location of the Siqueiros mural. That morning the historic area of the city, known officially as the El Pueblo Historic Monument, was bristling with television, newspaper and radio reporters eager to cover the story. Before a large crowd of city officials, local business people, artists and reporters, the Mayor publicly announced the city’s collaboration with the Getty Foundation on finalizing conservation efforts and providing public access to the mural. At last, the day many of us had dreamed of for years had finally arrived. It was official, a budget for the project had been approved - the renowned mural would live again.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

[ Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the Siqueiros mural press conference. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

At the press conference Mayor Villaraigosa remarked: “The people of the city of Los Angeles will finally be able to view this cultural treasure long obscured from sight. The mural, while controversial in its time, will allow adults and children of all ages to learn about and appreciate the diverse history of this city, the importance of freedom of artistic expression and the origins of the muralist movement in this city.” The Mayor added, “While people can agree or disagree with the message, what’s important is that it was art, and art, while sometimes controversial, is important - because what it does is to lift the soul.” The Mayor’s comment that the mural was “controversial in its time” treats the work as if it were safely and firmly rooted in the past and without relevance to our present political situation. In fact, the work may be more provocative today than when it was first painted - especially during this time of world crisis. Rather than shying away from the artist’s political message to concentrate on his mural as purely an artistic triumph, we should celebrate and defend the anti-Imperialist politics of América Tropical. That being said, I must applaud the Mayor’s bold leadership in campaigning for the conservation of this priceless and influential artwork.

After his comments the Mayor introduced the three representatives from the Getty who were on hand to talk about the museum’s role in the conservation project. Deborah Marrow, Interim President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Timothy Whalen, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), and Joan Weinstein, Interim Director of the Getty Foundation. The three spoke of the Getty Foundation’s commitment to the project, from the construction of a protective shelter and viewing platform for the mural, to the installation of an interpretive center that would place the artwork in historical and artistic context. The overall cost of the project is $7.8 million, with the Getty and the City of Los Angeles basically splitting the expense. The Mayor next introduced Judy Baca, famed L.A. muralist and the Founder/Artistic Director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center of Venice, California. She gave an impassioned speech on the importance of the Siqueiros mural and of muralism in general, noting L.A.’s reputation as the mural capital of the world, and imploring those present to support a revitalization and expansion of the L.A. muralist movement.

Viewing platform to be constructed by the Getty

[ Artist’s rendition of the viewing platform to be constructed by the Getty. ]

As the press conference concluded, officials announced that everyone was invited to the Italian Hall, the historic building on Olvera Street where Siqueiros painted his 80-by-18 foot rooftop mural on an outside second-story wall. We were given a rare opportunity to stand on the roof where we could examine the mural. In actuality, the artwork is now sheltered by a metal covering, over which is stretched a digital reproduction of the mural as it looked before it was censored by a coat of whitewash in 1932. The Getty’s plan is to preserve the mural just as it is - a ghost image - and not to repaint or fully restore it. There are several reasons for this approach, the chief cause being that the artist painted his work in a way that had not yet been proven. Abandoning the traditional method of fresco painting whereupon tempera pigments are painted onto fresh limestone plaster, the experimentally minded Siqueiros painted his mural on concrete using Pyroxylin, a newly developed material that was primarily used to paint automobiles. Conservators have found that the paint’s adhesion to the wall was flawed, adding to the problems of restoration.

Artist Mark Vallen

[ Artist Mark Vallen - Photo by Gary Leonard, ]

From atop Italian Hall there is a dazzling view of downtown L.A., and one can just imagine the splendor of the site once the Getty builds the mural’s protective shelter and viewing platform. A representative of the Mayor’s office requested that all of the artists present stand before the mural so as to be photographed - a tribute to Siqueiros and the impact the Mexican Muralist had upon the artistic community of Los Angeles. I noticed that one of the photographers taking pictures of the proceedings was an old acquaintance - L.A.’s own Gary Leonard. He deftly took a quick shot of me, and naturally we ended up talking about the significance of the day. Interestingly enough, Leonard is related by marriage to Philip Stein (aka Estaño), the American social realist artist who for ten years worked in Mexico with Siqueiros on creating some of the master’s finest works.

Fleeing repression and persecution in Mexico, Siqueiros came to Los Angeles in 1932. During his six month stay here he painted three important murals before being brusquely deported by the U.S. government. His first mural was Mitin Obrero (Worker’s Meeting), a two story creation painted on the side of a building at Chouinard School of Art - where he had been teaching mural painting techniques. It was the very first time anyone in the world had used an industrial spray gun to paint a mural directly on cement. Finished in July 1932, the mural was almost immediately painted over by right-wing authorities. Siqueiros’ second mural was América Tropical, and his third, Retrato del Mexico de Hoy (Portrait of Mexico Today), only survived because it had been painted on the wall of an outdoor patio at the private residence of film director, Dudley Murphy.

A full view of the rooftop mural

[ A full view of the rooftop mural. Again, this is not the actual mural, but a scale size photographic blow-up. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

Back in 2002, I wrote about the experience of attending the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s unveiling of Portrait of Mexico Today, a work acquired and placed on permanent display by the museum. Thousands attended the unveiling ceremony, and countless others have since visited to see the mural. Unquestionably that painting has enriched us all and contributed to the general prosperity of Santa Barbara. The fact that América Tropical is a more well known and significant work, indicates that its reinvigorated presence will no doubt render tremendous positive effects for the people and city of Los Angeles.

[ UPDATE: On August 8, 2006, I received the following e-mail from Peter Lincroft, the son of famed American muralist, Eva Cockcroft. Peter’s letter seemed an appropriate update to my original article:

"Excellent blog entry on the exciting news about America Tropical. In addition to its historical importance, the mural has a personal meaning for me, because it was the subject of the last mural ever painted by my mother, Eva Cockcroft, before she passed away on April 1, 1999. My mother's mural, which she painted in collaboration with Alessandra Moctezuma, is in East LA and is a reproduction of (and tribute to) the original. You can get more info, as well as see pictures of the mural at this website." ]