Category: Social Realism

Siqueiros: Confronting Revolution & Censorship Defied

This article will address two recent events in Los Angeles having to do with the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, the September 18, 2010 panel discussion A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts, that took place at the Center For The Arts in Eagle Rock, California, and the recently opened Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied at the Autry National Center in Griffith Park. I was a participating panelist in A Print Dialogue, and I attended the Members Opening Reception for the Autry exhibit the day before the show opened to the public.

The Sept. 18, 2010 panel discussion, "A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts," at the Center For The Arts in Eagle Rock, California.

The Sept. 18, 2010 panel discussion, "A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts," at the Center For The Arts in Eagle Rock. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

It was indeed an honor to have been a participant in the panel discussion A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts, an event organized by the José Vera Gallery and sponsored by the Autry Museum.

The panel discussion was moderated by the Senior curator for the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), Cynthia MacMullin.

Running through October 27, 2010, the José Vera Gallery is currently presenting Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Aesthetic, a stunning exhibition of prints by the revolutionary artist that set the context for the Print Dialogue panel discussion.

 Muralist Wayne Alaniz Healy and artist Luis Ituarte. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe ©

Muralist Wayne Alaniz Healy and artist Luis Ituarte. Photo Jeannine Thorpe ©

My fellow panelists and esteemed colleagues, muralist Wayne Alaniz Healy, independent curator Lynn La Bate, artist Luis Ituarte, and art historian Dr. Catha Paquette, helped to make the round-table discussion lively and informative. This post will include a rough transcript of my presentation at the round-table discussion, but first I would like to offer a brief review of the event.

Over 100 people filled the Center For The Arts, which is located in the beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival style structure that was first constructed in 1914 as the Carnegie Library Building; the classic mission architecture of the center provided the perfect venue for the evening’s dialogue. The proceedings were videotaped by filmmaker Jose Luis Sedano, who has been diligently filming events leading up to the unveiling of the Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center now under construction. I might add that the Autry’s Tessie Borden has published an informative article about the round-table talk, which can be read on the Autry’s Trading Posts web log.

From left to right: Dr. Catha Paquette, independent curator Lynn La Bate, and Cynthia MacMullin of MOLAA. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe ©

From left to right: Dr. Catha Paquette, independent curator Lynn La Bate, and Cynthia MacMullin of MOLAA. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe ©

There is much renewed interest in Siqueiros, no doubt because of the flurry of activity around his Olvera Street mural. Most people think of Siqueiros as a muralist, but he was also a master printmaker.

The panel discussion, and the exhibit at the José Vera Gallery, were designed to inform people of that fact. Art historian Dr. Catha Paquette and independent curator Lynn La Bate began the program with a scholarly look at the life and works of Siqueiros. Their separate presentations were thorough and exhaustive, covering many aspects of the artist’s philosophy, working methods, and place in art history. Still, I was amused by the wholly academic question broached by Paquette and La Bate, and taken up by members of the audience, as to whether the works of Siqueiros belonged to the Western “canon of art,” a matter the artist would no doubt have dismissed as bourgeois. The only “cannon” of interest to Siqueiros was the one pointed at the capitalist power structure. He said of his América Tropical mural;

“It is eloquent proof of how the intrinsic work of art respective to the current moment can be uniquely of revolutionary conviction. It is an eloquent display of the superiority of the collective work of democratic art in action over the wretchedly small efforts of the individual. It is the emergence of an expressive vehicle requiring monumental murals in the open air, facing the sun, facing the street - for the masses. It is a technical forecast of a near future’s art - the art of a new communist society.”

If Siqueiros has a place in the Western canon of art, it is in that long established branch were the “human condition” and the state of society have served as themes for artists. Dr. Paquette and La Bate (who by the way co-curated the Autry Siqueiros exhibit), used the term “social realist” to describe the art of Siqueiros, making the false assumption that the term would be readily understood by the audience.

Dr. Catha Paquette and a projected image of Siqueiros. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe ©

Dr. Catha Paquette and a projected image of Siqueiros. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe ©

As the term “social realism” had been bandied about, when my turn to lecture arrived I strayed from my prepared statement to give a brief history of the school, noting that; “in the 1930s there were three great schools of social realism, in America, in Germany before the rise of fascism, and in Mexico, each made enormous contributions to the history of art - but tonight I am called upon to talk about Siqueiros and the Mexican school.” I pointed out that social realism could be traced to “that first modern painter, Francisco Goya,” and it could later be found “in the works of Honoré Daumier,” but “the modern school of social realism as we know it today, began in New York in the year 1908.”

I then gave a brief but comprehensive description of the “Apostles of Ugliness,” those eight American painters who in 1908 defied the art world by painting the poor, immigrant, and working class populations living in New York slums. Social realism, I said, “is in fact a profoundly American school of art… and by ‘American’ I mean the land that extends from the tip of Argentina to the streets of L.A. and beyond.” I noted that social realism “is any art form that brings attention to the working masses and the poor, with the intention of provoking critical thought that leads to reformist or revolutionary action.”

[The rest of the commentary is a rough translation of my talk lifted from my prepared notes:]

"The Echo of a Scream." Siqueiros. 1937. Pyroxylin on panel.

"The Echo of a Scream." Siqueiros. 1937. Pyroxylin on panel.

“I first stumbled upon the art of Siqueiros in the early 1960s when I was around 10-years-old. That initial encounter was with this nightmare of a painting, The Echo of a Scream. I had found a reproduction of the image and became transfixed by it. I struggled to comprehend its meaning, but the artwork only gave me the feeling that there was something truly menacing in our world that no one had bothered to tell me about.

Later on as teenager - when I began to study the works of Siqueiros in earnest - I discovered that he had been moved to paint this work in 1937 when the Japanese Imperial army bombed Shanghai, China. Siqueiros had loosely based his painting upon a news photograph of the carnage.

Much has been made of Siqueiros being opposed to easel painting, and his eschewing it in favor of the more democratic public art form of muralism. I believe this to be a misconstruing of the facts, exacerbated by the artist’s own lofty proclamations. In 1923, a number of left-wing artists formed the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, or El Sindicato (the union) as it was commonly referred to, and Siqueiros would write their first manifesto in December of that same year. It was co-signed by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and a number of others. I am going to read an excerpt from the manifesto, since it exemplifies the ideals of the Mexican school that Siqueiros held fast to his entire life;

‘To the indigenous races humiliated through the centuries; to the soldiers converted into hangmen by their chiefs; to the workers and peasants who are oppressed by the rich; and to the intellectuals who are not servile to the bourgeoisie:

We are with those who seek the overthrow of an old and inhuman system within which you, worker of the soil, produce riches for the overseer and politician, while you starve. Within which you, worker in the city, move the wheels of industries, weave the cloth, and create with your hands the modern comforts enjoyed by the parasites and prostitutes, while your own body is numb and cold. Within which you, Indian soldier, heroically abandon your land and give your life in the eternal hope of liberating your race from the degradations and misery of centuries.

Not only the noble labor but even the smallest manifestations of the material and spiritual vitality of our race spring from our native midst. Its admirable, exceptional, and peculiar ability to create beauty - the art of the Mexican people - is the highest and greatest spiritual expression of the world-tradition which constitutes our most valued heritage. It is great because it surges from the people; it is collective, and our own aesthetic aim is to socialize artistic expression, to destroy bourgeois individualism.

We repudiate the so-called easel art and all such art which springs from ultra-intellectual circles, for it is essentially aristocratic. We hail the monumental expression of art because such art is public property.

We proclaim that this being the moment of social transformation from a decrepit to a new order, the makers of beauty must invest their greatest efforts in the aim of materializing an art valuable to the people, and our supreme objective in art, which is today an expression for individual pleasure - is to create beauty for all, beauty that enlightens and stirs to struggle.’

El Sindicato’s manifesto was widely distributed, and had considerable effect. Clearly, as Echo of a Scream amply proved, Siqueiros was able to create an easel painting imbued with radical populist ideals, so easel painting in and of itself was not the problem; the trouble was in the private ownership and commodification of art - a question that remains unresolved. In his pursuit of a democratic art form, Siqueiros turned to the world of print making.

 "New Democracy." Siqueiros. 1944. Pyroxylin on panel.

"New Democracy." Siqueiros. 1944. Pyroxylin on panel.

I am going to talk about a specific print that Siqueiros published in 1970, but first, it is necessary to examine one of his previous artworks - a mural that has a direct link to the print in question.

In 1944 Siqueiros painted this monumental allegorical mural depicting a female figure representing New Democracy (the name of the painting), bursting out of the earth’s crust. The work portrayed the impending victory of allied forces over the fascist armies of the Axis powers - but it also implied more. New Democracy carries the torch of liberty in one hand, and a flower of peace in the other.

The political and artistic impetus behind this mural was one and the same, the New Democracy painting was the product of what Siqueiros called the New Realism in aesthetics - a didactic art that would in the artist’s words “aim to become a fighting educative art for all.” In New Democracy Siqueiros painted a faceless Nazi soldier in death, his lifeless hands covered in blood; side panels (not shown) portrayed the victims of fascist brutality. But while victory over fascism is more than suggested in the mural, the artist described it as an incomplete triumph. New Democracy is still shackled by the heavy chains dangling from her wrists, and she struggles tremendously to wrest herself free from the living rock that imprisons her.

 "Heroic Voice" (Alternate title: Por La Raza). David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1970. Lithograph. 26 x 20 inches. In this print, Siqueiros depicts the slain acclaimed journalist Ruben Salazar.

"Heroic Voice" (Alternate title: Por La Raza). David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1970. Lithograph. 26 x 20 inches. In this print, Siqueiros depicts the slain acclaimed journalist Ruben Salazar.

Now we leap from the New Democracy mural of 1944, to the lithograph Siqueiros created in 1970. As many in the audience are aware, forty years ago up to 30,000 Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles marched against the Vietnam war in what was called the Chicano Moratorium - it was a massive protest that demanded an end to the war, but the community also had other grievances; putting an end to poverty, racism, and police brutality being high priorities. The huge march ended with a peaceful rally in Laguna Park.

The Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriffs responded to this unprecedented protest with extreme violence.

Officers attacked the crowded park using clubs and tear gas, protesters fought with their bare hands to defend the park - and the violence spiraled out of control. As the riot spread into the community, the police began using live ammunition against the protestors; they would kill four people that day - Angel Diaz, Lyn Ward, Gustav Montag, and Ruben Salazar.

Ruben Salazar was an award-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and also the news director for the Spanish language KMEX television station. As such, he openly criticized the police for racist conduct in his columns - which did not endear him to the authorities.

This writer presenting the story behind the poster of Ruben Salazar by Siqueiros. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe ©

This writer presenting the story behind the poster of Ruben Salazar by Siqueiros. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

On August 29, 1970, Salazar was covering the Chicano Moratorium for KMEX when the violent clashes broke out. He took refuge in the Silver Dollar Cafe on Whittier Boulevard. The L.A. County Sheriffs descended upon the cafe, and a deputy fired a 10-inch long metal tear gas projectile into the premises - it hit Salazar in the head and killed him. Forty years later, the police have still not released the files they possess on the subject of Salazar’s death. The Sheriff’s Dept. maintains that the killing was a “tragic accident,” but many in the community feel it was a “targeted assassination.”

Siqueiros responded to the state suppression of the Chicano Moratorium and the killing of Salazar with this lithograph print, which he titled; Heroic Voice (though its also known as “Por la Raza” - For the Race). It is not simply a portrait honoring the slain newsman, but a political statement with broad implications. In viewing this print, it should become obvious as to why I brought your attention to the New Democracy mural; Siqueiros merged the two images in his lithograph. Beneath the beaming face of the assassinated Salazar, New Democracy still struggles to free herself from bondage, her shackles still in place. The message of the print is unmistakable, the struggle against fascism continues.

Flowers for Ruben Salazar in front of the Silver Dollar cafe. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Flowers for Salazar in front of the Silver Dollar cafe. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

I attended the 40th anniversary march and rally to commemorate the original Chicano Moratorium.

On August 28, 2010, up to 3,000 people marched to what is now called Ruben Salazar park - only this time the protest was against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I took this photograph in front of where the Silver Dollar Cafe used to stand. As the multitudes passed this spot - which bears no memorial plaque to Salazar - mounds of flowers were tossed upon the sidewalk to honor the slain journalist.”

[It was at this point in my address that I presented a projected image of my poster, No Human Being Is Illegal, pointing out that dozens of free copies where distributed at the 40th anniversary Chicano Moratorium march; while underscoring how the poster is a continuation of the socially engaged spirit of the Mexican School of social realism. My talk then concluded with the following:]

“Simón Bolívar led the Independence movement that crushed Spanish colonialism in South America. Envisioning a hemispheric confederation of the newly liberated countries, he said; ‘the name of our country is América.’ That vision in part guided the hand of Siqueiros, but he held a much larger conception of the world that rejected the divisions of class, nationality and ethnicity.

It has been said in some quarters, that history is written by the victorious. If that is so then the official histories of our continent have been penned by colonizers, imperialists, and oligarchs. However, history is also a people’s memory, and Siqueiros gave us the visual representations of that memory. He painted the other America, the one seen through the eyes of the indigenous, the downtrodden, the compesino, and the exploited urban workers.

Siqueiros and his associates in the Mexican School of social realism, confronted the world crisis of their day through their art. Contemporary artists face a social crisis of unparalleled dimension. We were given a preview of the ecological collapse that awaits us with the recent BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. is currently fighting wars overseas as millions of Americans loose their jobs and homes. The border of Mexico is being militarized, and nearly 30,000 Mexicans have been killed in the so-called ‘war on drugs.’ Postmodern art now dominates the international art scene with its detached, cynical, apolitical stance. Its casual indifference to the plight of humanity makes postmodernism a totally inappropriate art for today; it is time for a new social engagement on the part of artists.

I believe artists should embrace, study, and analyze the works of Siqueiros and the Mexican School, not for nostalgic reasons, or misled notions that the past can be superimposed on the present. We need to comprehend the motivations, triumphs, and errors of the Mexican School. With such an understanding, we will be that much closer to bringing about a new social realism for the 21st century.”

Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied

 Censorship Defied at the Autry National Center. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Censorship Defied at the Autry National Center. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Censorship Defied at the Autry National Center, is truly a must see, groundbreaking exhibition. I commend the Autry for mounting the show, and applaud curators Luis C. Garza and Lynn La Bate for their hard work and dedication in pulling off such a grand exhibit.

The show offers a multitude of interactive and informative digital displays, historic photographs and documents, ephemera such as old postcards, books, and flyers, and some stunning works created by American social realist artists from 1930’s Los Angeles, such as Edward Biberman and Millard Sheets - which provide much needed context for the story of Siqueiros in L.A.

The show also contains artworks by a number of Mexican social realists who worked with Siqueiros; José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and Luis Arenal. Of course the crowning works in Censorship Defied are by Siqueiros, and his print works are displayed along with a handful of his original paintings.

At the Opening Reception for Censorship Defied at the Autry National Center, a member views lithographs by Siqueiros. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

At the Opening Reception for Censorship Defied at the Autry National Center, a member views lithographs by Siqueiros. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

The opening portion of the exhibit is extremely powerful, with the initial artworks encountered a dizzying array of majestic prints by Siqueiros, Orozco, Rivera, Leopoldo Méndez, and Arenal. One hardly knows where to look first. Particularly riveting was the black and white lithograph by Luis Arenal depicting a gas-mask wearing soldier marching towards the viewer from out a cloud of poison gas; that faceless combatant thrusting his bayoneted rifle forward makes for a chilling image that could have been printed this very month.

There is much to be scrutinized in the first part of this show, so much so that a second trip to the exhibit is required to absorb it all. There is the 1930 print suite, Siqueiros: 13 Grabados, the small primitive woodcuts the artist made in a cell at the notorious Lecumberri prison after being given a six month sentence for participating in a May Day march, and there is a small but exquisite painting Siqueiros created in pyroxylin (which is essentially car lacquer). Titled Marcha Revolucionaria (Revolutionary March), the little painting packs all the power of one of the artist’s monumental works. It explodes with energy, and unusual for the artist, the work was painted on a sheet of copper as was the practice before the advent of stretched canvas.

At the Opening Reception for "Censorship Defied" at the Autry National Center. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

At the Opening Reception for "Censorship Defied" at the Autry National Center. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

While I have been aware of the paintings of Martin Charlot for a while, I had the pleasure of meeting him in person for the first time when giving my talk at the Center For The Arts in Eagle Rock. Martin is the son of Jean Charlot, who was a major figure in the Mexican muralist movement.

Jean Charlot’s 1933 color lithograph, Woman Standing with Child on Back, is included in the Autry exhibit. Diego Rivera credited Jean Charlot for having revived the art of frescoe mural painting, in fact it was Charlot who painted the very first frescoe mural in Mexico with socio/political content, his Massacre in the Great Temple, a 1923 wall painting in the Escuela Preparatoria of Mexico City depicting the crushing of the Aztec empire by invading Spanish Conquistadors.

Martin Charlot is a soft-spoken, unassuming fellow, and quite a remarkable painter, so it was a pleasure to walk through the Autry exhibit with him, stopping before some our favorite works to exchange comments. He brought my attention to Angels Flight, a familiar oil on canvas by Millard Sheets, telling me that it was his “favorite” work by the artist (Sheets was one of the assistants who helped Siqueiros paint the Worker’s Meeting mural at Chouinard Art School). Martin and I also stopped before a lithograph by Luis Arenal, Mujer de Tasco (Woman of Tasco), a beautifully drawn representation of an indigenous woman’s head. We were both struck by how Arenal’s lithograph resembled the work of the famed German artist, Käthe Kollwitz.

At the Opening Reception. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

At the Opening Reception. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Another transcendent highlight for me that evening was meeting Eric Garcia and his family. Eric is the son of the celebrated social art historian and scholar, Shifra Goldman. In 1968 Ms. Goldman was responsible for initiating the campaign to preserve the Siqueiros mural, América Tropical. She was also instrumental in restoring and moving his last mural, Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, where it now resides. To say that the presence of Goldman looms large in the circles that appreciate Siqueiros is an understatement. Tragically, Ms. Goldman has slipped into advanced Alzheimer’s and is no longer cognizant. Her once towering intellect has been wiped away, and we are the poorer for it.

I first met Ms. Goldman in 1984, and over the decades we continued to cross paths, never failing to have interesting conversations regarding the political dimensions of art. She believed, as I do, that art and politics are inseparable. She once told me that she would “never” lecture about Frida Kahlo, unless she could use such an occasion to inform her audience about Aurora Reyes Flores (Mexico’s first female muralist), and the “dozens of other women artists” who contributed so much to the greatness of Mexican art. Goldman could be irascible and confrontational, but rarely was she far from the truth.

When I asked Eric how he thought his mother would react to the Autry Siqueiros exhibit, he chuckled that “She would probably find something to loudly complain about.” Eric’s remark had a ring of truth about it - and not just because it was an accurate description of Shifra’s disposition. I have much more to say about the Autry’s Censorship Defied exhibition - including some criticisms - but for now I shall refrain from further comment and simply urge the reader to attend this most remarkable and historic exhibit. In the weeks to come this web log will be updated with further examinations of the show.

[Updates: Siqueiros exhibits, events, and links the reader may find useful]

Siqueiros Paisajista/ Siqueiros: Landscape Painter, is a blockbuster exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, California. It is the first exhibit to present the fiery and volatile landscape paintings created by the Mexican muralist. Organized by the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil of Mexico City, which holds the largest collection of easel paintings by Siqueiros, the show runs until January 30, 2011.

Siqueiros & the Mexican School of Social Realism. Saturday, October 23, 2010. 6:30 p.m.
José Vera Gallery, Eagle Rock.
As part of the cultural programming surrounding their Siqueiros print exhibit, Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Aesthetic, Mark Vallen will present a multi-media lecture on the Mexican school of social realism and how it continues to be relevant in the 21st century.

David Alfaro Siqueiros & the “Bloc of Painters.” American Social Realism in the 1930s
Saturday, November 6, 2010. 6:30 p.m.
at the Mexican Cultural Institute, Olvera Street. When Siqueiros arrived in Los Angeles in 1932 he assembled what he called the “Bloc of Painters,” a group of American artists whose members assisted the Mexican muralist in painting three monumental wall paintings in L.A. Bloc members included Rubin Kadish, Harold Lehman, Fletcher Martin, Phil Paradise, Murray Hantman, Barse Miller, Paul Sample, Philip Guston, Millard Sheets, and many others. Who were the Bloc Painters and what contributions did they make to art and culture in the United States? By combining projected images with his lecture, Los Angeles artist Mark Vallen brings to light that buried history. Sponsored by the Amigos de Siqueiros.

Amigos de Siqueiros: works with the City of Los Angeles to protect, conserve and promote América Tropical and to create a venue where the works of the internationally renowned Mexican artist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, can be showcased.

Goya: Los Caprichos in Los Angeles

The Goya exhibit at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Museum in Glendale, California. Photo by Mark Vallen.

The Goya exhibition at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Museum in Glendale, California. Photograph by Mark Vallen.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. That was the title Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), gave to an etching he created in 1799. The print was Goya’s comment on the lack of critical thinking in Spanish society at the time, the etching part of the artist’s 80 print edition known as Los Caprichos, a suite of etchings that condemned the greed, corruption, and backwardness of church and state in late 18th century Spain.

What makes the Los Caprichos print series such a wonder to us in the early 21st century is not simply that they are works of genius created by a master draftsman and printmaker, or that they depict the appalling history of the Spanish Inquisition; we are enthralled by the prints because, somehow, despite the passing of centuries, the etchings continue to speak of the here and now. Goya’s prints reveal elemental truths about governmental abuses of power, the struggle for human rights, and the perils of ignorance, conformity, and religious zealotry.

El sueño de la razon produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1796-1797. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 43 from Los Caprichos.

El sueño de la razon produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1796-1797. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 43 from Los Caprichos.

In November of 2008 I wrote an article titled, The Enduring Works of Goya, where I brought attention to a traveling exhibition of Goya’s famed Los Caprichos series, which was then making its tenth stop on a national tour of the United States. As of this writing the show is at the small Forest Lawn Memorial Park Museum in Glendale, California, where the prints are to be displayed until August 1st, 2010.

Though it may sound like an unlikely venue, the diminutive museum has a modest but noteworthy permanent collection of art from around the world, which includes Bouguereau’s oil painting, Song of the Angels. The museum has done a superlative job in presenting the Goya prints; on the whole the exhibit is better organized and curated than many of the big shows I have seen at larger museums.

It was the unpredictable quirks and impulses of those guided by superstition or a lust for power that Goya castigated with his etchings. Translated into English Capricho means, “Caprice,” or “Whim,” but while the artist portrayed the follies and weaknesses of individuals in his print series, he always remained cognizant of how larger social forces manipulated and corrupted people. His prints are in essence a stinging critique against placing the interests of the few above the rights of the many – a concept all too relevant for the year 2010.

All 80 etchings from the Los Caprichos series are arranged in the large well-lit entry room of the Museum at Forest Lawn; the prints line the walls as well as a number of freestanding square display columns positioned in the center of the exhibit space. A number of wall plaques provide information on the artist, his works, and the times in which they were produced. Explanatory captions are placed next to the etchings, giving viewers concise information pertaining to the theme in each print. I found many of the descriptive captions for the artworks thought-provoking, so the reproductions of Goya’s prints that accompany this article will include select quotations from the museum’s captions, along with my own commentary.

¡Que se la llevaron! (They carried her off). Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1797. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 8 from Los Caprichos.

¡Que se la llevaron! (They carried her off). Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1797. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 8 from Los Caprichos.

¡Que se la llevaron! (They carried her off). The museum caption reads: “Goya captures the intense action in the abduction of a woman by two men, who may be identified as solicitors of the inquisition, or by death itself.”

The artist captured the elemental horror of a political kidnapping carried out by the state, where a citizen is abducted and held incommunicado.

I cannot view this etching without thinking of “Extraordinary Rendition,” the U.S. government practice of kidnapping suspected terrorists and sending them for “interrogation” in client states where torture is practiced by the authorities.

Extraordinary Rendition was utilized extensively by the administration of George W. Bush, but quietly extended and expanded by President Obama.

Ni más ni menos (Neither more nor less). The museum’s Gallery Guide booklet wrote that this etching was: “Perhaps the most harsh statement that Goya makes of his contemporaries – those who paint portraits with the intent to please their patrons rather than to depict the sitter in a true likeness.” Goya’s critique was not a trifling matter, but a critical assessment that still bears considerable weight for artists today.

Ni más ni menos (Neither More nor Less). Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1796-1797. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 41 from Los Caprichos.

Ni más ni menos (Neither More nor Less). Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1796-1797. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 41 from Los Caprichos.

In a comment aimed directly at artists, Goya inscribed at the bottom of his print, “You’ll never die of hunger,” that is to say – those who put themselves in service to the ruling elite and avoid telling the truth will be handsomely rewarded.

Goya portrayed the artist in his print as a trained monkey painting the portrait of an ass, but the simian artist painted the donkey without his long ears, and sporting a powdered wig!

In his notes pertaining to this print, Goya wrote of the aristocratic ass, “He is quite right to have his portrait painted. Those who don’t know him or have never seen him will now know who he is.”

¡Lo que puede un sastre! (Look what a tailor can do!) The museum caption reads: “The scarecrow-like image and caption provided by the artist, gives us a vivid understanding of Goya’s attitude toward superstition and ignorance of those who give credence to such foolishness. Like a vision from Heaven, some people will kneel in prayer to anything, provided it is cloaked in an acceptable form.”

¡Lo que puede un sastre! (Look what a tailor can do!) Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1799. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 52 from Los Caprichos.

¡Lo que puede un sastre! (Look what a tailor can do!) Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1799. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 52 from Los Caprichos.

Here I must note Goya’s clever title, which questions the identity of the “tailor,” the one who created and dressed up the scarecrow. Goya understood the tailor to be Spain’s ruling class, which in part held power by sustaining ignorance, reactionary political traditions, and promoting blinkered and proscriptive religious ideas. As it was in the past, so it is today.

Que pico de oro! (What a Golden Beak!) Goya said of his print: “This looks a bit like an academic meeting. Perhaps the parrot is speaking about medicine? However don’t believe a word he says. There is many a doctor who has a ‘golden beak’ when he is talking, but when he comes to prescriptions, he’s a Herod; he can ramble on about pains, but can’t cure them; he makes fools of sick people and fills the cemeteries with skulls.”

Here Goya used an old Spanish figure of speech that referred to a charlatan making use of flowery rhetoric in order to impress and manipulate the naïve and gullible. To have “a beak of gold” was to posses such oratory skills.

Que pico de oro! (What a Golden Beak!) Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1796-1797. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 53 from Los Caprichos.

Que pico de oro! (What a Golden Beak!) Francisco Goya. Etching, aquatint. 1796-1797. 8 7/16 x 5 7/8 inches. Plate number 53 from Los Caprichos.

That Goya made his “Golden Beak” a parrot added extra bite to his critique, since a parrot is a masterful mimic of sounds; the artist implying that Golden Beak was simply promulgating the ideas put forth by ruling class circles.

Goya was ambivalent about who his Golden Beak was, an academic, a physician, perhaps a member of the aristocracy? What is certain is that we have our own Golden Beaks today – those who promise “hope” and “change” but deliver war and privation.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life

Last year, celebrated American paintings were presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from October, 2009 to January, 2010. Titled American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, the exhibit was comprised of 103 paintings that recorded the American experience from the colonial period to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. On display were iconic canvases by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and George Bellows, along with artists whose names are unfamiliar to most, but whose works have left an impact on the American consciousness.

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899 - 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899, 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

Organized by the Metropolitan, the museum maintains a website about the exhibit, an archive that should be viewed by all. In addition, the Met’s publishing house released an exhibit catalog that features many works not included in the show. People on the West coast of the U.S. can see the Met’s survey of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where the show opened on February 28, 2010 for a four-month run.

The exhibit is divided into four categories presenting a timeline of the nation’s development; Inventing American Stories: 1765-1830, Stories for the Public: 1830-1860, Stories of War and Reconciliation: 1860-1877, and Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915. The Met’s conception of the nation’s history sweeping from the East to the West coast was somewhat meekly “corrected” by LACMA’s adding a fifth category; paintings depicting the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese influence on the history of California, but sorry to say this section of the exhibit seemed but an afterthought. LACMA reduced the number of paintings the Met originally had on display by around 20, and swapped out paintings from the Met’s collection for works found in LACMA’s collection - for instance, the Met initially included Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), whereas LACMA replaced it with the artist’s Wrestlers (1899).

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

The exhibit is important for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the progress of American art. The show gives an overview of the nation’s growth, presenting a wide look at the people and forces that shaped the country. Artists in the exhibit frequently brought up questions of class, race, and gender – unconsciously or not – and to see America’s changing political landscape chronicled by artists is just one of the fascinating aspects of the show.

Today’s Americans will hardly be able to recognize the country and people depicted in American Stories; the transformation of American society from 1765 to the present having been truly astonishing in scope. Existing U.S. culture with its digital communications and amusements, “reality” television shows, and celebrity worship, bears little if any resemblance to the country as it was from 1765 to 1915; yet, some things never change. Thoughtful viewers will be compelled to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Where are Americans going as a people?”

I attended the LACMA exhibit on March 1, 2010, and recommend it to others. There are simply too many fabulous artists and paintings in the show to write about, so I proffer the following opinions regarding just a few of the works found in the show.

The first painting to greet the viewer is Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His iconic 1768 portrait of the Boston silversmith, who would come to play a major role in the American Revolution, is a remarkable work of art, partly because the artist was self-taught at a time when there was not a single art school or museum in the colonies. The jolt of standing in front of Copley’s flawlessly realistic painting of the American revolutionary is repeated when seeing that the room in which it is hung also holds other marvelous canvasses; The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt, Chinese Restaurant by John Sloan, The Breakfast by William McGregor Paxton, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sidney Mount. That African Americans are central characters in three of these paintings is but an introduction to the complicated racial dynamics in the U.S. that serves as a subtext for much of the exhibit.

In Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), it is a black man that holds a rope lifeline to the imperiled Watson, who is being attacked by a shark in open water. The artist put the black sailor at the apex of a triangular composition in order to draw the eye directly towards him; he is also portrayed as an equal to all the others – a remarkable narrative for a canvas painted when America held African people in bondage. Painted 16 years before the American Civil War, Mount’s Eel Spearing (1845) has as its focus a black slave woman at the bow of a small boat teaching a young white boy how to catch eels. While the woman is obviously in control, she is also a slave. Homer’s The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of blacks in America in 1899 – 38 years after the close of the Civil War. The canvas depicts a black man in a small wrecked sailboat cast adrift on a stormy sea filled with sharks. I could write lengthy essays about each of these extraordinary paintings, but for the sake of brevity I shall restrict my remarks to John Singleton Copley’s Revere.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Copley had no formal training in art, but his stepfather was an engraver and portrait painter who undoubtedly tutored the precocious teenager for the three years they lived together. By the time Copley was fifteen he was known for producing impressive oil portraits of notables in his community, and that reputation, not to mention his technical skill as a painter, grew considerably. He was thirty when he painted Paul Revere (1735-1818).

When Revere sat for Copley he had not yet carried out the acts that would make him famous, like his illustrious April 18, 1775 Midnight Ride from Boston to Lexington to warn patriots of British troop movements.

He was nevertheless deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty, that underground organization of patriots whose  “no taxation without representation” slogan came to epitomize the anti-colonial struggle. Only five years after Copley painted Revere, the Sons of Liberty initiated the legendary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when patriots, including Revere, seized three ships in Boston Harbor in order to dump the cargo of British tea overboard in an act of protest against British taxation. That fact is not insignificant when considering the portrait of Revere, since Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant that had his British-consigned tea tossed overboard during the Tea Party! The issue of British taxation went back to 1767, a year before Copley painted Revere, when the British Parliament imposed heavy new taxes on tea in the colonies. Given that evidence, Copley’s painting takes on new meaning.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Revere had Copley paint him as a master craftsman in the silversmith trade, he was after all one of the most famous silversmiths in colonial America. On the mahogany table at which Revere sat, you can see his silversmith tools set out before him, and he had himself pictured holding a silver teapot. It has generally been accepted that Copley’s painting of Revere is simply a portrait of a successful artisan, but I think there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.

One must take into account that at the time of the painting’s creation, people living in the thirteen colonies were entering a period of intense political conflict that would ultimately lead to revolutionary war. Viewed in that context, it is incorrect to see the portrait merely as an expression of Revere being proud of his profession, rather, it appears he meant his portrait as a political statement. An outspoken radical, Revere was no doubt infuriated by the 1767 British tax on tea, and so it was probable that by having himself painted holding a teapot, he was challenging viewers over British rule. Revere stares directly at the viewer as if to ask, “Which side are you on?”

It was also unusual for a gentleman to have himself painted wearing anything other than his finest frock coat, yet Revere had himself depicted wearing an open sleeveless waistcoat (the undergarment worn beneath a fine coat) and a linen shirt, which at the time was a form of “undress” appropriate only for hard work or relaxing at home in private. The British controlled the economy of the colonies through the importation of goods and by imposing taxes. As the anti-colonial movement gained strength, patriots found multiple ways of resisting British hegemony, such as boycotting imported goods. When the colonists began producing linen as an act of resistance, those using imported British linen were isolated as Tories, conservative supporters of British rule. By having himself portrayed wearing a billowing shirt of American-spun linen, Revere was making a statement in favor of independence; the shirt was not so much a symbol of being a craftsman as it was an affirmation of revolutionary politics.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While Revere’s linen shirt and teapot were more than likely politically charged props, Copley had no interest in political matters, besides, his family members were Loyalists devoted to the British Crown. In a 1770 letter Copley wrote to Benjamin West (an American-born artist who moved to England and became a painter to the court of King George III in 1772), he flatly stated that he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neither pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the art itself.”

Though he helped establish American painting and created portraits of prominent American patriots, Copley did not have a passion for independence. His relationship to Revere, as well as his attitude towards the anti-colonial movement, is indicative of the complicated human drama that occurred during the revolution. Copley left the colonies for London in 1773, a year after the Boston Tea Party – never to return to America.

Another notable artist from the Revolutionary War period whose works are included in the exhibit is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). A fiery radical and member of the Sons of Liberty, Peale created portraits of many leaders involved in the War of Independence – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton to name but a few. In 1765 Peale met the artist John Singleton Copley, and studied in his Boston studio for a time before traveling to London in 1770 for two years of formal training under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Upon return to the colonies, Peale settled in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he joined the Continental Army to wage war against the British Empire.

After the successful War of Independence, Peale refocused his energies on the arts and sciences. In 1782 he opened the very first art gallery in the United States, and in 1786 he established the nation’s very first museum, the Peale Museum, which was given to the exposition of paintings and natural history. There are two paintings by Peale in the LACMA exhibit, a 1788 double portrait of the merchant Benjamin Laming and his wife Eleanor, and the 1805 Exhumation of the Mastodon, whereupon Peale recounted his having discovered and excavated a prehistoric mastodon skeleton in New York, painting the scene for posterity.

Skipping ahead to mid-point in the exhibit there is a collection of splendid canvasses by Winslow Homer, these are aside from his painting in the exhibit’s opening room. Of the handful of works arranged on their own wall under the Stories of War and Reconciliation section of the show, two took my breath away, The Veteran in a New Field and The Cotton Pickers.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

Created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865), The Veteran in a New Field (1865), depicts a former soldier hard at work harvesting wheat, his Union army jacket cast off and laying in the field at the picture’s lower-right corner.

The ex-combatant swings his scythe into the tall wheat as if he were the grim reaper, the fallen wheat symbolizing the massive numbers of deaths from the war – including the nation’s chief executive. Some 620,000 soldiers from the Confederate and Union armies perished in the conflagration, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By contrast, around 416,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in WWII. It is not hard to imagine the impact this painting had on Americans in 1865, but while the painting’s imagery is a metaphor for a people’s sacrifice and loss, so too is it a symbol of recuperation and redemption.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

The Cotton Pickers was not included in the original Met exhibit, but since it is part of LACMA’s permanent collection, the L.A. museum wisely placed it in their showing of American Stories; luckily for the public I might add, it is one of Homer’s finest works. Painted just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the canvas depicts two emancipated black slaves, except they are working at the same backbreaking labor they performed prior to their liberation, and likely for the same property owner. The slave’s lament of working from before sunrise until after sunset had not changed; Homer painted the two African American women standing in a cotton field at the crack of dawn, their bags heavy with cotton picked from before daylight. The artist’s handling of the dim light of morn is awe-inspiring, but it is the expressions on the faces of the women that I found extraordinary. Far from being broken, they appear dignified and ready to step beyond dreadful circumstances. The woman in red looks positively defiant, exemplifying the spirit that would carry blacks through some very unhappy days.

The exhibit’s final category of paintings, Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915, might have the most resonance for present-day viewers, since we continue to grapple with the same questions portrayed in the canvases; the evolving status of women, global expansionism, waves of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, and the predicament of the working class.

I found The Ironworkers – Noontime by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) to be of specific interest. Anshutz was an influential painter whose genre paintings were in great demand. Trained by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905), he might at first glance seem an Academic painter, but a closer examination reveals an artist breaking with convention. His portraits of women appear to be celebrations of American Victorianism, though paintings like A Rose (1907) and The Challenge (1908) depict women who were a far cry from the timid and demure model of the Victorian Lady. Anshutz was a respected teacher of painting who instructed at the Pennsylvania Academy. His students included John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens; painters who would initiate America’s first art movement, the Social Realist Ashcan school, it is their works that comprise the final group of paintings on display in American Stories.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Painted in 1880, The Ironworkers – Noontime is about as bleak a picture of America’s industrial landscape as one is likely to find. Anshutz painted men and boys who worked at a nail factory in West Virginia taking a break from their dreary work. At the time there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.

Most American and immigrant workers labored seventy hours or more per week for extremely low wages and absolutely no benefits whatsoever. Factory work was hazardous and often injurious or fatal as safety standards were non-existent. Child labor was rampant. The burgeoning union movement was just beginning to make the eight-hour day one of its central demands.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime." Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

Anshutz based his painting on sketches he made at an actual factory, and if the poses of the men seem founded on an Academic approach, overall the artwork contains important differences with Academic painting.

To begin with, the artist recorded a scene from real life, a dismal factory where laborers worked to the point of exhaustion. It was a tableau painted without romanticizing or sentimentalizing its subject; the workers were shown as simply worn-out and poverty-stricken. It was a disagreeable scene that would have sent any Academic painter to flight. The work’s gritty realism ran counter to the saccharine idealism of Academic art. Late in life Anshutz declared his belief in socialism, and while trained by Bouguereau, he had more affinity with Robert Koehler (1850-1917), a German-born painter and fellow socialist that spent most of his career in the U.S. The two were among the first artists to depict industrialism and its impact on working people (Koehler’s work was not included in American Stories).

A prominent painter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who also served as the director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Koehler created a number of paintings that portrayed urban workers. His 1885, The Socialist, is the earliest known portrait of a working-class political agitator. Between the years 1878-1890, Germany banned socialist organizations, publications, and meetings, and as a result many German socialist leaders came to the U.S. where they addressed the growing worker’s movement in cities like New York and Chicago. Koehler’s The Socialist could have portrayed such a meeting or rally anywhere in the U.S. or Germany.

Anshutz’s The Ironworkers – Noontime was created six years before the Haymarket massacre of May 4, 1886, when violence between workers and police in Chicago led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers, who were on strike demanding the eight-hour day. The authorities arrested eight labor leaders and anarchist activists from Chicago’s eight-hour day movement, charging and convicting them for the murder of one of the police officers. The U.S. labor movement was dealt a decisive blow when four of the defendants were executed, even though there was no evidence linking them to the killing of the officer. Koehler’s The Strike was painted that same year, and when his painting was shown at a spring 1886 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City, a review in the April 4, 1886 edition of the New York Times referred to it as the “most significant work of this spring exhibition.” At that very moment activists were organizing for a national strike that would bring 350,000 workers into U.S. streets to demand the eight-hour day – and the Haymarket massacre was only weeks away.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

The final room in the exhibit is a showcase for the Ashcan School, with works by George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens on display. Stylistically these works seem closest to our own reality; their technique, approach, and content having been influenced by the Modernist revolution. In fact New York’s Armory Show of 1913, where Americans got their first eye-opening exposure to modern art, was in part organized by Sloan; those in the Ashcan circle like George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show.

Sloan’s small oil on canvas The Picnic Grounds depicts flirtatious working class youth in a public park in New Jersey, the energetic brushwork epitomizing the best of the artist’s early works. William Glackens was a brilliant colorist who concentrated on the depiction of city life as enjoyed by middle-class layers of society. The Shoppers is one such painting, portraying a group of fashionably dressed women as they wonder through a department store, a new phenomenon in America at the time. Everett Shinn was given to portraying life in the theater, though he created his share of canvasses depicting harsh realities on the street. In The Orchestra Pit, Shinn’s depiction of a popular vaudevillian theater in New York’s Madison Square, the artist places the viewer at the lip of the stage directly behind the orchestra pit. Of the Ashcan paintings displayed, two by George Bellows were my favorites – Cliff Dwellers and Club Night.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

Club Night was from a series of artworks Bellows created from direct observation of public boxing matches, which at the time were illegal in the U.S. To avoid the law but still be able to attract paying customers, fight organizers would hold bouts at private gyms, and boxing fans gained admission by becoming “dues paying members” of the athletic clubs; competitions were held behind closed doors for members only.

Bellows frequented a squalid New York City gym across the street from his studio called Sharkey’s, where such contests were held. Disdainful of those who attended the fights, Bellows pictured them as bloody-minded bourgeois individuals slumming in poor neighborhoods.

The groups of men dressed in tuxedos in the lower right portion of the painting bear a striking resemblance to the demented characters in Francisco Goya’s The Pilgrimage of San Isidro, one of Goya’s so-called “black paintings” depicting fanatical religious zealots.

In the end the limitations of the American Stories exhibit at LACMA are overshadowed by the show’s strengths. Despite curatorial exclusions and a tendency to expound a somewhat rosy view of American history, there is still an immeasurable sense of the real, the human, and the historic in American Stories. Compared to the cynical and socially detached gimmickry of postmodern art, the paintings in American Stories exude idealism, compassion, and a deeply felt humanism. It is regrettable that the timeline for the exhibit stops at 1915, when Modernism in the U.S. was just beginning to percolate. It would have been instructive to have included artists from the 1930s and 1940s, when the “American Scene” and “Regionalist” painters from coast to coast were in their heyday and Social Realism was the dominant aesthetic. It is unlikely that LACMA will hold such an exhibit in the future – but without a doubt I will continue to cover that era in articles yet to come.

Millard Sheets: The Early Years

Millard Sheets: The Early Years (1926-1944), on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) through May 30, 2010, is an important exhibit of works by a leading California exponent of the “American Scene” painters, those artists given to documenting ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives.

Incorporated into the American Scene genre were the subcategories of “Regionalism” and “Social Realism.” The former concentrated on themes of local life in small town rural settings, the later engaged in works of social criticism, focusing on the experiences of working people in urban settings. Depending on the artist, there could be much overlap between the three schools, and Sheets was one to blend them without difficulty; Social Realism ran through his early works. Given my interest in that genre, and feeling it best describes what I am attempting in my own artworks, I enthusiastically attended the exhibition and now proffer the following comments regarding it.

The first painting one sees when entering the museum is Abandoned, Sheets’ 1933 canvas that has come to symbolize the Great Depression. At first glance the focus of the work seems to be the wild and uncontrollable forces of nature, there is a spiritual quality to the painting, however, a second glance unveils an ominous, darker narrative. Under a forebodingly turbulent sky, horses move through a tangle of overgrown brush and fallen trees. The eye finally rests on a dilapidated windmill, and only then do the deserted farm buildings come into focus, as does the real meaning of the painting. It is a representation of American society brought to its knees by economic collapse, where even the family farm – iconic national symbol of self-reliance – has come to ruin. The mystical sense of the canvas dissolves into the brutal material reality that people were driven from the land and their properties repossessed by  banks, a story that has once again become sadly familiar to millions of Americans.

"Abandoned" – Millard Sheets. 1933. Oil on canvas. This painting of an abandoned farm has come to symbolize the Great Depression.

"Abandoned" – Millard Sheets. 1933. Oil on canvas. This painting of an abandoned farm has come to symbolize the Great Depression.

Aesthetically speaking, Abandoned is a highly polished and sophisticated painting with a finish that displays few brushstrokes. It is a work that was planned out well in advance, despite its energetic and spontaneous look. Sheets eschewed detail to concentrate on form and composition, and here it is obvious that far from being a conservative painter, he was utilizing abstraction and Modernist aesthetics. One last note regarding Abandoned. While it is generally thought of as a Social Realist comment on depression era America, an interpretation I subscribe to, in reality the artist was inspired to create his canvas after seeing an abandoned farm in Riverside, California. The farm was marked for destruction so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could build the Prado Dam flood control system.

Terminal Island Fish Harbor – Millard Sheets. 1935. Oil on canvas. Here the artist gives us a glimpse of the traditional West coast fishing industry as it existed at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California before the outbreak of WWI.

"Terminal Island Fish Harbor" – Millard Sheets. 1935. Oil on canvas. Here the artist gives us a glimpse of the West coast fishing industry as it existed at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California before the outbreak of WWII.

Terminal Island Fish Harbor is a painting that immediately caught my eye. No reproduction could possibly do justice to this extraordinary work depicting a historic harbor near Long Beach, California.

Sheets managed to capture the fading light of a California sunset with incredible accuracy, the golden light illuminating a scene of fisherman at their work.

The dominant palette is hot; pastel yellows, oranges, and reds, brilliantly counterpoised by the cool blues of deep harbor waters. Despite the high degree of realism, a close up look at Terminal Island reveals a modern painterly approach, a detail in the upper left corner of the painting giving the best example of this. From a distance the wood buildings looming over the docked fishing boats seem almost photographic; a close examination however reveals heavy impasto layers of paint that have been incised with the sharp end of the artist’s brush, giving the illusion of weather worn wooden planks. I stood before this painting for the longest time, marveling at the artist’s technical prowess. It was my favorite work in the exhibit and well worth the price of admission to view all by itself.

Artistic virtuosity aside, the painting is astounding for another reason. With his canvas, Sheets captured an important and historic slice of life from Southern California. Terminal Island has a long history; for generations it was occupied by the Tongva/”Gabrieleno” Indians, in fact it was the Tongva who greeted the Spanish in 1542 when the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in what is now known as San Pedro, California. When Sheets created his canvas in 1935, Terminal Island was almost entirely inhabited by first and second-generation Japanese, who had established a productive fishing industry there. In a 1977 interview conducted with the Oral History Program of the University of California Los Angeles, Sheets said the following:

“I spent a tremendous amount of time at the old Terminal Island fish harbor down in Long Beach, when they had a fantastic city of Japanese. There must have been 3,000 Japanese. Most of them couldn’t speak a word of English. They were all from Japan. All the customs and their festivals and the Sumo wrestlers, these marvelous big wrestlers that they had. I’ve seen all of the festivals down there. I used to see them three or four or five times a year, and I’d go down there and camp right on the dock. They all knew me, and I painted down there literally for years.”

In Terminal Island, the men on the docks pulling in the massive fishing nets were undoubtedly Japanese-Americans, but the vibrant community Sheets documented in his painting would met its doom just seven years after the artist finished his canvas. In the immediate aftermath of the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan, all Japanese-American adult males living on the island were arrested by the FBI. Subsequently, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which called for all persons of Japanese ancestry living in the U.S. to be locked up in “internment camps.” The entire Japanese-American community on Terminal Island was arrested, had its property seized, and was shipped off to prison camps. The traditional Japanese village on the island was entirely demolished, never to be rebuilt.

New High Street – Millard Sheets. 1930. Oil on canvas. A view of the unfashionable working class area of old downtown Los Angeles. New High Street was located near L.A.’s City Hall, which had been completed just two years prior to Sheet making this painting.

"New High Street" – Millard Sheets. 1930. Oil on canvas. A view of the working class area of old downtown Los Angeles. New High Street was located near L.A.’s City Hall, which had been completed two years prior to Sheets making this painting.

Also on display at the PMCA, the painting New High Street had great personal resonance for me.

It depicts a working class neighborhood in the old downtown area of Los Angeles that was bisected by New High Street, an avenue located between Sunset Boulevard and Temple Street, the vicinity where L.A.’s civic center would be built.

In fact, when Sheets painted this canvas in 1930, the construction of L.A. City Hall had been finished just two years earlier. The canvas shows an immigrant family’s old wooden house on a hill above New High Street, laundry hanging on the back porch and a little girl feeding chickens in the yard.

The reason I am fascinated with this painting – aside from its technical brilliance – is that my mother grew up in depression era Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, Anita Murieta, in a train boxcar parked on rented land in an L.A. suburb, where they grew vegetables and raised chickens to help make ends meet. Except for only slightly different circumstances and location, Sheets’ painting could have had my mother’s childhood as its theme. Everyday my mother’s mom would walk to the Pacific “Red Car” electric trolley station, riding the train to downtown L.A. where she would labor in the area around New High Street. Sheets’ painting echoes my own family connection to the City of Los Angeles.

New High Street – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view reveals that the entire painting was created using quick, heavy brush strokes and thick impasto from a palette knife.

"New High Street" – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view reveals that the entire painting was created using quick, heavy brush strokes and thick impasto from a palette knife.

New High Street is also a tour de force when it comes to direct “wet on wet” painting, and close scrutiny gives an idea of how the entire canvas was painted.

The little girl feeding the chickens was seemingly created from only two-dozen paint loaded brush strokes, applying only five colors (yellow ochre , cadmium red, burnt sienna, flake white, and ivory black). A single deft stroke of a brush laden with cadmium red and burnt sienna produced the girl’s arm, likewise, expertly dragging a brush loaded with ivory black over a wet field of white mixed with burnt sienna, produced the child’s pigtails.

This method tells you the canvas was painted spontaneously and on the fly, without a sketch or underpainting. Sheets’ had developed a personal calligraphic visual language that allowed him to create highly developed realistic scenes that were in actuality little more than short-hand oil sketches.

The painting Deep Canyon is related to New High Street, thematically as well as aesthetically. It is another of Sheets’ Social Realist examinations of poor working class neighborhoods. Keeping details to a minimum, the artist painted the urban jungle from brush strokes laden with paint, troweling on paint with a palette knife, and wiping, scraping, and incising the paint surface to various effect.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. Circa 1930s. Oil on canvas. A Social Realist examination of a poor working class neighborhood.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Circa 1930s. Oil on canvas. A Social Realist examination of a poor working class neighborhood.

The use of color in this work is breathtaking; deep shadows in warm browns are sharply contrasted by bright hues of red, blue, and green; the skillful application of paint giving the illusion of sunlight streaming through concrete canyons.

The painting is full of movement, from the roiling storm clouds and laundry flapping in the wind, to the frenetic gestures of shoppers and vendors on the avenue.

As with New High Street, there is a remarkable lack of detail to be found in the impressionistically painted Deep Canyon, which in no way impedes the work’s narrative or emotive qualities. While there are a number of people in the scene, none have been painted with facial features – save for the woman carrying chickens in the lower left corner, and her face is blurry and nondescript.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view of the bottom, left of center area of the painting, depicting female shoppers and vendors on the street.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view of the bottom, left of center area of the painting, depicting female shoppers and vendors on the street.

Sheets’ handling of the people in his canvas is a skillful blend of caricature and humanistic concern. The rotund women on the stoops in the lower right of the canvas would be comical in appearance, save for the fact that the artist painted them with empathy and somehow imbued them with dignity. The groups of people gathered around the vendor in the green dress are composed of rapid brushstrokes and daubs of paint, yet they convey much life and energy.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. A close-up view of the top, left of center area of the painting, depicting laundry hanging from tenement windows. Sheets' loaded up his bristle brushes with paint and applied nimble brush strokes to great effect.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Detail view of the top, left of center area of the painting, depicting laundry hanging from tenement windows. Sheets' loaded up his bristle brushes with paint and applied nimble brush strokes to great effect.

Clearly Sheets was inspired by Cliff Dwellers, a depiction of crowded tenement housing on New York’s Lower East Side that was painted some 17 years earlier by the celebrated American Social Realist, George Bellows. Unfortunately, the PMCA provided no information about Deep Canyon, the painting’s caption listing neither the date of its creation nor the name of the locality the artist depicted – but I would venture to say it was not a painting of a Los Angeles scene.

Sheets’ Deep Canyon is a far cry from his Tenement Flats, painted in 1933-1934 and not included in the PMCA exhibit. A Great Depression era look at the poor working class neighborhood of Bunker Hill in the downtown area of Los Angeles, the canvas is painted in a strikingly realistic style, and the painting’s every detail, from the porch railings to the patterns on the laundry hung out to dry, was treated with equal attention by the artist. Tenement Flats is also notable for its underlying geometric composition, a nod to the Precisionist art movement – revealing once more the artist’s embrace of Modernist aesthetics.

The larger part of the exhibition is dedicated to Sheets’ watercolor paintings, works that brought him much praise and recognition during his career. Sixty of these watercolors are on display at the PMCA, and they are consummate examples of the discipline of watercolor painting. In these delicate works the artist celebrated the glories of America’s natural wonders in a rapturous, almost paganistic manner, with most of the watercolors recording the splendors of California; massive rolling hills depicted as the very embodiment of the “earth mother,” horses frolicking on abundant plains under expansive skies, the shimmering ocean kissing the craggy coastline – all conveying timelessness and a sense of boundless freedom. Never far behind the artist’s exultant observations of nature was an unshakable humanism, and so a number of his watercolors show people working the land as farmers or as immigrant laborers.

Watercolor paintings on display at the PMCA like Siesta Under the Trees (1936), Camp Near Brawley (1938), and Migratory Camp Near Nipomo (undated), attest to the exploitation of migrant workers in California agriculture. Sheets sympathetically depicted Mexican immigrants and “Okie” migrant workers escaping the Dust Bowl of Midwestern U.S. states, at their backbreaking labor in agricultural fields and at rest in makeshift camps. Sheets’ large watercolor titled Farm Workers is the most hard-hitting of these, portraying impoverished male and female migrant workers in the fields carrying heavy burdens of harvested vegetables under a punishing sun – the exact same painting of California agricultural workers could be made today.

Sheets also traveled to Mexico where he painted village life and landscapes in watercolor. The PMCA exhibit includes three of these works, and here again; the paintings have personal resonance for me. Sheets visited the coastal city of Guaymas, Mexico, in the state of Sonora, where he painted the watercolors. One in particular, Sunny Day in Guaymas (1932), is an enchanting painting that shows a woman wearing a traditional “rebozo” hand-woven shawl. She walks against a back drop of craggy hills, cactus plants, and adobe homes, the same scenery common to historic Los Angeles. That my father was born in Guaymas, and as a two-year-old migrated with his family to San Diego, California, six years prior to Sheets painting the watercolor – completes the picture for me.

Sheets had high regard for the Social Realist artists of Mexico, though he did not share their political radicalism. He said of the Mexican Mural School; “I’ve always been more than excited, just tremendously moved by it.” He had personally met many of the top painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. In fact, Sheets was one of the artists who assisted Siqueiros in painting his Worker’s Meeting mural on an outside wall of the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles in 1932, when Siqueiros was briefly in the U.S.

The PMCA exhibit is not without problems, it starts with the assumption that the public is familiar with the life and work of Sheets – if only that were the case. The most discernible problem is the museum’s negligence to provide adequate captions for the works. The majority of labels give no information beyond title and medium, managing even to write “date unknown” on several pieces where the artist clearly signed a work with a legible date. Historical information needed for a full understanding of the artist’s works – and his place within his era – could have been provided as short, concise, paragraphs. The museum catalog for the exhibit, written by its curator, Gordon T. McClelland (an acknowledged authority on California “American Scene” painters), somewhat makes up for this omission, but museum goers should not be required to purchase a book in order to understand an exhibited artist.

Sheets accomplished much during his lifetime as an artist, and the PMCA should have done more to provide insight into his life’s work. That being said, Millard Sheets: The Early Years (1926-1944), is an exhibition not to be missed.

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.

Guayasamín: Rage & Redemption

La Madre y el Nino (Mother and Child) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941.

"La Madre y el Nino" (Mother and Child) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. The wretched of the earth.

Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín was an important two-year long traveling retrospective of artworks by Latin American master, Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). The exhibit recently ended its scheduled tour last August 16, 2009 at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, California. Guayasamín, hailed in his home country of Ecuador as a national hero and widely acclaimed throughout Latin America and indeed the world – is scarcely known in the United States. What accounts for this near total lack of recognition? Emphasizing the magnitude of his omission from public awareness in the U.S., I overheard someone say while viewing the show, “I’ve never heard of Guayasamín before. I don’t mean to sound sacrilegious, but I think he’s better than Picasso.”

Expertly curated by Joseph Mella, Director of the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, Of Rage and Redemption first premiered in February of 2008 at the Vanderbilt before moving on to four other national venues, including a run at the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C. The exhibit was laid out as a timeline, starting with the artist’s early figurative works from the 1940s, and culminating with his late period minimalist paintings from the 1980s and 1990s. Walking through the exhibit not only gave insight into Guayasamín’s artistic development over the decades, it presented an overview of history as it occurred in Latin America and throughout the world, since the artist was deeply concerned with real world events. In his own words:

“I have used a powerful weapon, the plastic, to denounce and protest the bad behavior of ‘man against man.’ I speak the truth of my time, without the picturesque or the anecdotal. I don’t look for beauty - but for truth. I use the body of humanity to show the present and historical reality, without academic euphemisms; this humanity – tortured by injustice, misery and horror, is present in The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon.”

La Cantera (The Accident) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. The artist’s depiction of an industrial mining catastrophe. Rich in minerals and metals, Ecuador’s miners were subjected to exploitation and poor working conditions for much of the 20th century.

"La Cantera" (The Accident) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. The artist’s depiction of an industrial mining catastrophe. Rich in minerals and metals, Ecuador’s miners were subjected to exploitation and poor working conditions for much of the 20th century.

While Guayasamín was undoubtedly influenced by modernist aesthetics, he wanted to move away from European traditions in art. One might see the German Expressionists in his agitated brushstrokes and figurative exaggeration, but Guayasamín’s unique late style was inspired by the ancient civilizations of pre-Hispanic America; it was Inca, Maya, and Aztec aesthetics that fired his imagination and guided his vision.

The Maya murals of Bonampak, Mexico painted in 790 AD and the Inkapirqa (Inca wall), built in Ecuador by the Inca in the late 15th century before the Spanish conquest – had more to do with Guayasamín’s artistic vision than anything offered by the European avant-garde of the late 20th century. In part it was this “indigenismo”, the utilization and further development of deep-rooted indigenous aesthetics that made Guayasamín’s art so greatly admired throughout Latin America.

Napalm – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1976

"Napalm" – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1976

I would like to remark on a number of paintings presented in the exhibit, for example, the oil painting titled Napalm. It condemned the incendiary weapon made infamous by its massive use in Vietnam by the U.S. military. Guayasamín’s terrifying canvas looks as if it were made from scorched flesh and coagulated blood. Painted in 1976, the canvas surely alluded to Kim Phúc, the little Vietnamese girl who was severely burned in a napalm attack that took place in 1972.

Photos and motion picture film of Phúc running down a village road, her clothes burned off and her seared flesh hanging in strips, became some of the most unforgettable imagery from the Vietnam War. But Guayasamín was also undoubtedly thinking of how napalm had been used in Latin America as well. In 1965 the Peruvian army bombed guerrilla fighters at Mesa Pelada with U.S. supplied napalm, and in 1968 the Mexican government used the U.S. furnished jellied gasoline against guerrilla groups operating in the southern coastal state of Guerrero.

Los Torturados (The Tortured) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Triptych. Oil on canvas. 1976-77. Painted in commemoration of Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer.

"Los Torturados" (The Tortured) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Triptych. Oil on canvas. 1976-77. Painted in commemoration of Victor Jara, the slain Chilean folk singer.

The canvas Los Torturados (The Tortured) alludes to another tragic moment in history. Painted in the years 1976-77, Guayasamín’s canvas at first glance seems a commentary on the torture of civilians at the hands of military regimes, which indeed it is - but the artist had something more specific in mind. Chile’s democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, in a brutal military coup backed by the United States. Some 3,000 civilians were killed and thousands more were detained by the military junta.

One of those arrested was Victor Jara, the famous Chilean folk singer and supporter of the deposed socialist government. He was taken by the army to Chile Stadium in Santiago, then being used as a torture and detention camp for thousands of prisoners. Once they realized the celebrated singer was in their custody, soldiers began to savagely torture Jara. Troops broke both of his wrists and crushed the bones in both of his hands with rifle butts before machine-gunning him.

Los Torturados (Detail) – Oswaldo Guayasamín.

"Los Torturados" (Detail) – Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Three years later Guayasamín would dedicate Los Torturados to the spirit of Victor Jara. In 2004 a new democratically elected government honored the memory of the slain singer by renaming Chile Stadium, The Victor Jara Stadium. In 2008 a Chilean government investigation and autopsy confirmed that Jara had been tortured and shot 44 times. Finally, in May 2009, a former low ranking army conscript was charged with the murder of Jara.

Another impressive oil painting in the exhibit was the monolithic, Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Meeting at the Pentagon I-V). The five panels created in 1970 offer psychological portraits of fictitious U.S. military chiefs conspiring behind closed doors.

Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Meeting at the Pentagon I-V) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1970.

"Reunión en el Pentágono I-V" (Meeting at the Pentagon I-V) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1970.

While viewing the panel portraits it is difficult not to think of director Stanley Kubrick’s doomsday film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, not for any intentional connection Guayasamín made to Kubrick’s cinematic masterwork, but simply because the paintings so brilliantly depict men whose minds have become unhinged by militarism.

While Kubrick drove home his point with dark humor, there is little of a comedic nature to be found in Guayasamín’s rough semi-abstract caricatures of the militarists. His military chiefs are Machiavellian ideologues practiced at placing lives in the balance for the sake of political expediency and bellicose Cold War objectives.

Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Detail) - Oswaldo Guayasamín.

"Reunión en el Pentágono I-V" (Detail) - Oswaldo Guayasamín.

One is almost tempted to chuckle at the men in the portraits for all of their pomposity and ridiculous jingoism, but quiet laughter seems inappropriate. Guayasamín and his compatriots had seen too many hearts and souls crushed by real jackbooted tin horn dictators to find anything funny about them or their shadowy benefactors.

The technique employed by Guayasamín in creating the panels added to the work’s powerful narrative. He literally troweled oil paint onto the panels, spreading and smoothing it in places, scoring and scraping it off in other areas. Repeated applications of paint applied in this manner resulted in a textured surface over which he applied glazes of color. His figures were painted on a black underpainting, and his finishing brush strokes of black were painted into wet color. The painting is a tour de force, full of lustrous transparencies, aggressive brush strokes, and remarkable textures.

Reunión en el Pentágono I-V (Detail) - Oswaldo Guayasamín.

"Reunión en el Pentágono I-V" (Detail) - Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Guayasamín’s masterful handling of paint bestowed upon his subjects a surprising if distorted humanity. One appears as a fleshy bureaucrat and another as a rhinoceros-skinned brute. One blue-eyed fellow hunched over at his desk with a look of consternation etched upon his face displays an unexpected vulnerability. The shred of morality he still possessed had been stirred; his eyes convey self-loathing – or is it extreme doubt – over something he has done or is about to set into motion.

The history of U.S. military intervention in Latin America is so extensive that one could devote an entire lifetime to its study. U.S. military invasions and occupations in the hemisphere pre-dated the existence and influence of the Soviet Union, often cited as the reason for the U.S. engineered coups and assassinations that took place in the 20th century.

Tears of Blood: Homage to Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, and Pablo Neruda - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1973. Not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit.

"Tears of Blood: Homage to Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, and Pablo Neruda" - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1973. Not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit.

Prior to the founding of the Soviet Union there were at least 25 major U.S. military interventions in Latin America, from the 1848 war of the United States against Mexico – one of the most shameless land grabs in world history – to several thousand U.S. Marines occupying the Dominican Republic in 1916.

Guayasamín’s Meeting at the Pentagon portraits adhere to the profile of military leaders from “El Norte” that Latin Americans have long held, and there has been little recent evidence given to make them change their minds. Despite President Obama’s assurances that there will be “no senior partner and junior partner” in U.S.-Latin American diplomatic relations, his actions speak otherwise. His near passivity regarding the June 28, 2009 coup d’état in Honduras have left many wondering if Obama tacitly approves of the military coup.

Every Latin American nation has withdrawn its ambassador from Honduras in protest of the coup, and member states of the European Union have done the same – it is only the U.S. that has failed to do so.

UPDATE 9/22/2016: Since the 2009 coup in Honduras, overwhelming evidence has emerged that shows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a major role in supporting the military overthrow of the democratically elected government.

Worse yet, Obama has struck a deal with the right-wing government of Colombia, giving U.S. military forces long-term access to seven military bases across that country and allowing for an expanded U.S. military presence in Colombia. At an Aug. 28, 2009 emergency meeting of the South American Union of Nations (Unasur) held in Argentina, South American heads of state blasted the Obama plan as a threat to regional peace and stability.

Rigoberta Menchú - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1996. Portrait of the Guatemalan Maya human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Price.

"Rigoberta Menchú" - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1996. Portrait of the Guatemalan Maya human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Price.

It was Simón Bolívar who once intoned, “Nuestra Patria se llama América” (The name of our country is América); an axiom that gave expression to a vision of hemispheric unity so deeply instilled in Latin Americans that many still take umbrage when citizens of the United States use the name “America” to mean U.S. national exclusivity and pre-eminence.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Bolívar (1783-1830) came to be known as “The Liberator” for his leading role in the independence movement against the Spanish. Revered throughout Latin America for having smashed Spanish colonial rule in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela, it was Bolívar’s pan-American vision that inspired and inflamed Latin American patriots ever since his death.

That same pan-national fervor permeates Guayasamín’s art, yet it would be a mistake to view him as an artist who was devoted only to the people of the Americas; the core of his art was a passionate universal humanism.

La Cantera (The Dead Children) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. A territorial dispute between Ecuador and Peru erupted into war in 1941. In this painting the artist depicted children who had been massacred by unidentified military forces.

"Los Niños Muertos" (The Dead Children) – Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1941. A territorial dispute between Ecuador and Peru erupted into war in 1941. In this painting the artist depicted children who had been massacred by unidentified military forces.

Strolling through the exhibit was akin to reading the works of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, in that Guayasamín presented the region’s anguished history in a visual language similar to the hallucinatory verse of Galeano. I first read Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, an authoritative history of the Americas from 1492 to the late 20th century, in the late 1970s; I have followed his writings ever since. However, it was his magnificent 1985 trilogy, Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire) that remains a favorite work of mine. A non-prosaic chronicle of the continent’s history, Memory reads like an epic poem that begins with the creation myths of indigenous people before there was written history, and ends in 1984 with a peasant fiesta in Bluefields, Nicaragua, where; “however much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breathes them and the land plows and loves them.” Galeano’s trilogy is a remarkably powerful and insightful work, and Guayasamín’s art is the closest visual equivalent I can think of.

Portrait of Leonor Estrada - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on panel. 1952. Not on view at the MoLAA exhibit.

"Portrait of Leonor Estrada" - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on panel. 1952. Not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit.

Despite its profundity, the Of Rage & Redemption exhibition had its flaws, the greatest of which was overlooking Guayasamín’s extraordinary power as a modernist portraitist. Save for a few realistic early works, the exhibition focused mostly on the artist’s mid to late period minimalist style, where he reduced the human figure to near abstraction. On the whole, the viewer was left with a rather narrow view of Guayasamín.

To fully appreciate the weight of Guayasamín’s art one must begin with his portraits, of which he created hundreds over the expanse of his career. Without sentimentalism or showiness, Guayasamín painted the likenesses of friends, relatives, associates, workers, and fellow artists.

As time went on he would also paint celebrities and presidents, but of those who sat to have their portrait painted - whether campesino or luminary – all were painted as equals. There were no “natural rulers” in Guayasamín’s universe; the only sovereigns were those who struggled against cruelty and injustice. The list of those who had their portraits painted reads like a directory of Latin American notables; Atahualpa Yupanqui, Mercedes Sosa, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Fidel Castro, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Francois and Danielle Mitterrand, and many others.

"Rosa Zárate, Flor Decapitada" (Rosa Zárate, Decapitated Flower) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1987. Latin America’s first call for independence from Spain was made in Quito, Ecuador, on August 10, 1809. Rosa Zárate and her husband Nicolás de la Peña were fighters in the independence movement, and when it was repressed in 1812 the two fled to Colombia. The Spanish eventually captured and executed them in 1813, cutting off their heads and sending them back to Quito where they were displayed to intimidate the population. Ecuador won its independence in 1822, and Zárate was remembered as a national hero. While not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit, this painting is part of the huge Image of the Mother Country mural that hangs in the Ecuadoran Congress.

"Rosa Zárate, Flor Decapitada" (Rosa Zárate, Decapitated Flower) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Oil on canvas. 1987. Latin America’s first call for independence from Spain was made in Quito, Ecuador, on August 10, 1809. Rosa Zárate and her husband Nicolás de la Peña were fighters in the independence movement, and when it was repressed in 1812 the two fled to Colombia. The Spanish eventually captured and executed them in 1813, cutting off their heads and sending them back to Quito where they were displayed to intimidate the population. Ecuador won its independence in 1822, and Zárate was remembered as a national hero. While not displayed at the MoLAA exhibit, this painting is part of the "Image of the Mother Country" mural that hangs in the Ecuadoran Congress.

Guayasamín’s style of portraiture was largely based upon exaggerated caricature, yet his portraits were never cartoonish. Portraits from the 1940s and 1950s were generally more realistic, but his later period primitivist approach in no way bordered on kitsch, and while he stripped away superfluous details he always succeeded in capturing the unique spirit of his individual sitters. In its totality the body of Guayasamín’s portraiture can be viewed as the collective face of Latin America’s people.

It is a shame that more people in the United States are not familiar with the works of Oswaldo Guayasamín, but his not being well-known in the U.S. is an issue of some complexity. The fashionable art world of today, transfixed as it is with the strictures of postmodernism, essentially does not know what to make of such an artist. Irony, cynicism, and lack of introspection, are the hallmarks of today’s trendy art – all notions antithetical to Guayasamín’s work.

One can imagine the nauseating kitsch of Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles on display at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but it is impossible to imagine Guayasamín’s memorial to the spirit of Victor Jara hanging in the same institution. Despite my differences with the Museum of Latin American Art, it deserves credit for mounting the Guayasamín retrospective.

For more information on the work of Oswaldo Guayasamín, visit the official website of the Guayasamín Foundation. MoLAA offers a small illustrated catalog of the exhibit, which is available at the museum’s gift shop. However, a splendid and much superior collaborative book by Guayasamín and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda can be purchased through Amazon. Titled America, My Brother, My Blood, the book combines words and poetry by Neruda with paintings and drawings by Guayasamín.

Image of the Mother Country, a colossal mural commissioned by the government of Ecuador, hangs in that country’s Legislative Palace (Congress) in the capital of Quito. The National Assembly of the Republic of Ecuador maintains an illustrated Spanish language .pdf file that explains the history and narrative of the mural – which was installed and officially unveiled in 1988.

"Imagen de la Patria" (Image of the Mother Country) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Mural. 1987-1988. Mounted in the Republic of Ecuador Legislative Palace (Congress). The multi-panel acrylic mural is supported by an aluminum superstructure and offers a pictorial history of the Republic.

"Imagen de la Patria" (Image of the Mother Country) - Oswaldo Guayasamín. Mural. 1987-1988. Mounted in the Republic of Ecuador Legislative Palace (Congress). The multi-panel acrylic mural is supported by an aluminum superstructure and offers a pictorial history of the Republic.

The Art of Bernard Zakheim

Enthusiasts of American social realism are generally familiar with the outstanding murals that were painted in 1934 on the interior walls of San Francisco’s Coit Tower. Few however, can name a single artist out of the twenty-six that worked on the murals inside the splendid Art Deco tower. One of those artists was Bernard Baruch Zakheim (1896-1985), a Jewish immigrant from Poland who would make San Francisco, California his home in 1920, becoming active in the Jewish community and the city’s bohemian circles of artists and left-wing activists. A number of Zakheim’s works are now exhibited at the A Shenere Velt Gallery on the Westside of Los Angeles until October 23, 2009.

Artwork by Bernard Zakheim

A Shadkhn - Bernard Zakheim. Costume design sketch for L.A. production of Sholem Aleichem’s, The Doctor, circa late 1920s. Shadkhn is Yiddish for “Matchmaker”, and in Yiddish Theater the matchmaker was portrayed carrying an umbrella. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo by Kirsten Cowan.

Titled Bernard Baruch Zakheim: Paris, San Francisco and Beyond, the exhibition is made up of 24 paintings and drawings created by the artist from the early 30s to the late 50s. I attended the opening of the exhibit and was pleased to meet the artist’s son, Nathan Zakheim, who regaled me with tales of his father’s life and work. It was a fortuitous encounter that gave me further insight into the creative output of Bernard Zakheim. Consisting mostly of sketches, watercolors, and studies for murals never created, the exhibition presents works that have rarely, if ever, been shown in public.

Nathan Zakheim told me that his father lived in Los Angeles for a short time in the late 1920s, and at some point produced costume and set design sketches for the Yiddish theater. A number of sketches created for a production of The Doctor by the famous Yiddish playwright Sholem Aleichem, are included in the exhibit. The gestural and humorous nature of these drawings makes them a sheer delight, but they are also important in that they are documents of the vibrant Yiddish theater scene that once existed in L.A. The adaptation of The Doctor that Zakheim worked on took place at the Wilshire Ebell Theater – then a major venue of literary Yiddish plays in L.A. along with the Assistance League Playhouse in Hollywood and The Globe Theater (now the New Beverly Cinema).

Study for WPA mural - Bernard Zakheim. Tempera on paper. Circa 1935. This full color sketch was submitted to the Works Progress Administration for a mural on the subject of immunology research. Regrettably the WPA did not commission the work. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo by Kirsten Cowan.

Study for WPA mural - Bernard Zakheim. Tempera on paper. Circa 1935. This full color sketch was submitted to the Works Progress Administration for a mural on the subject of immunology research. Regrettably the WPA did not commission the work. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo by Kirsten Cowan.

Two works on display in the exhibit, a finished sketch for a mural on medicine and immunology and a preliminary painting titled, The Donner Party, were submitted as mural proposals to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the mid-1930s, but unfortunately were never commissioned. Zakheim’s sketch for the immunology mural is related to the well-known 1935 mural he created on the history of California medicine for the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. Notwithstanding being a classic example of art from the 1930s, the mural sketch on display at the A Shenere Velt Gallery is a lost treasure of sorts. I can only speculate as to why the WPA did not approve Zakheim’s immunology mural, but the drawing certainly belongs in a museum collection.

The Donner Party is an especially moving painting based upon the doomed party of some 80 American settlers who attempted to reach California by covered wagon in 1846, but instead became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada – where they resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. Painted with tempera on paper, the study has the look and brush strokes of a fresco mural, and no doubt Zakheim intended it to be a mural for a post office or school. The painting depicts two figures, a seated man in a state of torment, and the woman who comforts him with her merciful touch. The man’s left hand is clenched into a fist of anguish and he wears a look of dismay upon his face, having just realized what he must do in order to stay alive. The woman has placed her hand upon his in a gesture that conveys acceptance of the unavoidable. The profundity of Zakheim’s painting goes well beyond the depiction of a tragic event in American history, instead it speaks of the “human condition”; the needless suffering people everywhere must endure in life. The work was also prescient, as the couple Zakheim painted could have been – just a few years later – European Jews contemplating annihilation under fascism.

Student Scholar - Bernard Zakheim. Tempera on paper. 1931. The artist captured Judaic life in Paris, France prior to the Nazi occupation. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo by Kirsten Cowan.

Student Scholar - Bernard Zakheim. Tempera on paper. 1931. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo - Kirsten Cowan.

Bernard Baruch Zakheim’s life as an artist was set in motion when he was a young man in Poland, but one could say that his professional career actually began once he settled in San Francisco. In June of 1930 he organized the city’s First Yiddish Art Exhibition, a showing of Jewish painters, sculptors, poets, and composers from San Francisco. He had developed a fascination with the socially engaged artists of the Mexican Muralist Movement, and was particularly interested in Diego Rivera, and so he sent the Mexican muralist a portfolio of drawings for comradely appraisal – a deed that would end up transforming Zakheim forever. Rivera would invite Zakheim to his studio in Mexico City, and when the two met in 1930 Rivera praised Zakheim’s drawings of Jewish life, commenting that “every artist puts into his work something of his own soil, of his own people.” Zakheim worked with Rivera long enough to know that his future lay in creating public works of art that were challenging in nature.

After his encounter with Rivera, Zakheim would make a sojourn to Paris, France in 1931, where he created a number of sketches and watercolors. A few of these are included in the exhibit, like the spontaneously painted watercolor portrait, American Girl in Paris, and Student Scholar, which provides a depiction of Orthodox Jewry in Paris just prior to the Nazi occupation of 1940. Zakheim returned to San Francisco in ‘32, receiving his first mural commission a year later from the newly-built Jewish Community Center at the intersection of California Street and Presidio Avenue. While Zakheim was a secular Jew absorbed in socialist politics, he always thought it important to highlight Jewish culture and heritage in his art, and so his mural for the center was a celebration of Jewish life. The mural depicted a festive Jewish wedding celebration, with rabbis, wedding couple, musicians, dancers, and athletes. The press wrote good reviews about the mural, no doubt pleased that the bohemian left-winger had avoided doing something controversial - but that would soon change.

The Library - Bernard Zakheim. Coit Tower fresco mural. 1934.

The Library - Bernard Zakheim. Coit Tower fresco mural. 1934.

In 1933 Zakheim and fellow artist Ralph Stackpole lobbied the government for a commission that would allow artists to paint murals on the interior walls of San Francisco’s newly constructed Coit Tower. Their efforts paid off when in 1934 the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) gave twenty-six artists – Zakheim and Stackpole included – the task of creating the Coit murals under the direction of Victor Arnautoff.

Zakheim chose to depict a U.S. public library in his mural - it would become his most well-known and contentious work. He painted a number of his friends into the mural, like the anarchist poet Kenneth Rexroth, depicted on a ladder reaching for a book on a top shelf. In the upper-right corner of the mural Zakheim painted the modernist sculptor Beniamino Bufano reading a paper with the headline, B. Bufano’s St. Francis Just Around The Corner. It was a reference to Bufano’s 18-foot granite statue of St. Francis of Assissi; a sculpture finally set in place in front of the Church of St. Francis in San Francisco on August 27, 1955. Bufano was certainly a colorful character; thoroughly bohemian, but a devout Roman Catholic in addition to being an anarcho-pacifist. When President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in 1917, Bufano chopped off the trigger finger of his right hand and mailed it to the president as a protest against America’s entry into the war.

The Library - Bernard Zakheim. Detail of Coit Tower fresco mural. 1934. Zakheim included a portrait of fellow artist John Langley Howard reaching for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

The Library - Bernard Zakheim. Detail of Coit Tower fresco mural. 1934. Zakheim included a portrait of fellow artist John Langley Howard reaching for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Zakheim also worked fellow Coit Tower muralist and friend John Langley Howard into The Library – reaching for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Zakheim was twice asked by officials to obliterate the reference to Marx from his mural, and his refusal to do so almost scuttled the entire project. Ultimately Zakheim’s stubbornness prevailed and Das Kapital remained.

Starting in 1940 Zakheim began a series of remarkable easel paintings titled Jewish Patriots of the American Revolution. The works revealed and commemorated the historic role of Jews in the anti-colonial American Revolution waged against the British Empire. When American patriots began the Revolutionary War of Independence against Great Britain, there were fewer than 2,000 Jews living in the 13 colonies, and the majority of them championed and fought for the anti-colonial cause. Zakheim wanted people to remember that history, and so began his group of paintings. One of the canvases was titled, Revolutionary Patriot Chaim Soloman revealing secrets of Red Coat military activities to an American Officer.

Revolutionary Patriot Chaim Soloman revealing secrets of Red Coat military activities to American Officer - Bernard Baruch Zakheim. Oil on canvas. 1940. A wealthy broker, Chaim Soloman became a leading financial backer of the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain.

Revolutionary Patriot Chaim Soloman revealing secrets of Red Coat military activities to American Officer - Bernard Baruch Zakheim. Oil on canvas. 1940. A wealthy broker, Soloman became a leading financial backer of the Revolutionary War against Great Britain.

Chaim Soloman was an early member of the Sons of Liberty, a secret mass organization of anti-colonial rebels in the Thirteen Colonies whose slogan was “no taxation without representation.” The Sons of Liberty attacked the property and symbols of British power, with the group’s most famous propaganda of the deed being the 1773 Boston Tea Party. More importantly, as a wealthy broker Soloman became a primary financial backer of the American Revolution. Zakheim painted a tableau in which Soloman appears as a revolutionary spy, passing on intelligence information about the Red Coats to an unidentified commander of the American Continental Army. In actuality the British arrested Soloman for spying in 1776. Though pardoned, he was arrested again in 1778 and sentenced to death. He escaped to the rebel capital of Philadelphia were he resumed his duel role as financial broker and pro-Independence revolutionary.

Mass Executions in the Stadium - Bernard Baruch Zakheim. Watercolor. 1939. Zakheim, an ardent supporter of the Spanish Republic, depicted the fascist troops of dictator Ferdinand Franco butchering workers in an amphitheater, the scene illuminated by an army searchlight.

Mass Executions in the Stadium - Bernard Baruch Zakheim. Watercolor. 1939. Zakheim, an ardent supporter of the Spanish Republic, depicted the fascist troops of dictator Ferdinand Franco butchering workers in an amphitheater, the scene illuminated by an army searchlight.

Unfortunately the Zakheim exhibition at the A Shenere Velt Gallery is rather limited in scope, presenting only a small number of sketches and paintings from the artist’s enormous body of work. Perhaps a comprehensive retrospective of his art will someday be mounted by a museum; such a showing is certainly long overdue. In the meantime I have attempted to pique the interest of those unfamiliar with Zakheim by mentioning some of his paintings not included in the exhibit just reviewed. I also suggest visiting www.bernardzakheim.com, which handles the artist’s estate.

UPDATE: 3/14/2016

Bernard Baruch Zakheim: Paris, San Francisco and Beyond ran at the now closed A Shenere Velt Gallery, once located on the Westside of Los Angeles.

Artist’s Responses to Homelessness

Hobos To Street People: Artist’s Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present, is a traveling exhibition now showing at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, California. Consisting of 75 artworks on the subject of homelessness from more than 30 national artists who span the decades, the timely exhibit concentrates on parallels between today’s works of art expressing social concern, and similar works created during the Great Depression.

Curated by artist Art Hazelwood and organized by the California Exhibition Resources Alliance (CERA), the exhibit includes paintings, prints, and photographs from the likes of New Deal-era artists like Rockwell Kent, Dorothea Lange, Fritz Eichenberg, Anton Refregier, Giacomo Giuseppe Patri, Albert Potter, as well as works from contemporary artists like Christine Hanlon, David Bacon, Eric Drooker and others too numerous to mention. In the words of CERA:

“The year 2008 marks the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, a time when the United States government responded to the devastating impact of the Great Depression by creating powerful programs to assist those in poverty. The Hobos to Street People exhibition compares artistic interpretations of homelessness created during this 75-year span – from the Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s to the stigmatized street people of today - with an emphasis on California.”

More than a few of the Depression-era artists whose works are included in the exhibit have regrettably fallen into obscurity, and so I would like to focus special attention upon some of them. One such artist is Jacob Burck (1904-1982), whose lithograph The Lord Provides is one of the more sardonic artworks in the exhibit. A painter who became well known for his editorial cartoons published in The New Masses and the Daily Worker during the 30s, Burck received a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1941 for his poignant, If I Should Die Before I Wake; a depiction of a forlorn child in the ruins of the Second World War.

The Lord Provides depicts what was a common occurrence during the depression, the arrest of those who protested for jobs, state relief, and the cessation of forced evictions. The title of the print was a jab at the fundamentalist Christian preachers of the day who sermonized against government intervention on behalf of the poor.

The Lord Provides - Jacob Burck. Lithograph. 1934. Courtesy of M. Lee Stone Fine Prints. ]

The Lord Provides - Jacob Burck. Lithograph. 1934. Courtesy of M. Lee Stone Fine Prints.

Aesthetically speaking, one could imagine Albert Potter’s 1933 woodcut, Brother Can You Spare A Dime, being created just this month.

Potter (1903-1937), lived and worked in New York’s Lower East Side, where he made numerous sketches and prints based upon his observations of urban life. He joined the WPA Federal Art Project in 1936, but his life was cut short a year later when he fell from a rock face while making sketches on a field trip.

Potter’s stark black and white portrayal of the grim reaper looming over a shattered metropolis populated by unemployed workers seems extraordinarily pertinent, especially when thinking of a devastated U.S. city like Detroit.

Included in Hobos To Street People is the serigraphic print, San Francisco 1934 Waterfront Strike, by Anton Refregier (1905-1979). One of the greatest social realist artists to have worked in America during the 1930s, Refregier emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1920. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design until 1925, and joined the WPA Federal Arts Project (FAP) in 1934 as a muralist, teacher, and supervisor of mural projects.

Refregier was selected by FAP in 1941 to design and paint a twenty-seven-panel mural for the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco, California. The agreed upon subject and title for the mural series was The History of San Francisco. Refregier was paid $26,000 for the monumental project, which at the time was the most expensive public art commission in the nation. The mural series covered 400 square feet and took eight years to finish.

San Francisco ‘34 Waterfront Strike - Anton Refregier. Screen print. 1949. Courtesy of M. Lee Stone Fine Prints.

San Francisco ‘34 Waterfront Strike - Anton Refregier. Screen print. 1949. Courtesy of M. Lee Stone Fine Prints.

Almost from the onset, Refregier’s murals were controversial. Instead of a pleasing tableau based on mythic ideals, the artist expressed the truth about the state’s actual history. He depicted the original Native American inhabitants and their displacement by the 1849 California gold rush; the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad by immigrant Chinese workers and the racist anti-Chinese 1877 “Sandlot” riots – as well as the 1916 frame-up of Socialist union organizer Tom Mooney. Refregier also included in his mural series a depiction of the 1934 San Francisco Waterfront Strike, where Longshoremen triggered a general strike that completely shut down the city, leading to the unionization of all West Cost ports of the U.S. After the mural series was completed Refregier created a silkscreen print version of his ’34 Waterfront Strike mural panel – the same print on display in the Hobos To Street People exhibit.

The United States Poster Service closed the Rincon Annex Post Office in 1985, but largely based on Refregier’s murals the federal government listed the building on its registry of historic places, it is now refurbished and the murals are on public display. In the 1930s Anton Refregier wrote a pamphlet titled Government Sponsorship of the Arts, where he made a statement that is perhaps even more relevant today:

“In this middle period of the 20th century, we are faced with the dilemma of reconciling the profit motive and the cultural needs of the American people. There is no denying that the capitalist system has provided material abundance unknown in previous history. It has been less successful, however, in implicating the spiritual values which would make that abundance meaningful in terms of human satisfaction.

In consequence, we find ourselves in an anomalous position. The richer we get in possessions, the poorer we become in their enjoyment. The leisure we have earned by mass production is a source of worry and unease. We are not quite sure we know what to do with it. In short, the profit system is not capable of providing the fullest cultural development of the people.”

The unease and alienation that Refregier spoke of has grown exponentially since his death, as the mass produced culture offered by capitalism reaches stunning new heights of mediocrity and vapidness. As a new depression looms over the U.S. and millions of Americans loose their jobs and homes, all while the Obama administration fights wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq - it will be exceedingly difficult for creative professionals to go on pretending that all is well. Sooner rather than later, a new school of socially engaged art will indeed emerge and flourish in the U.S. Hobos To Street People is unquestionably a contribution to such a burgeoning art movement.

At the time of this writing the exhibit is currently showing at the California Historical Society on 678 Mission Street in San Francisco, CA. (phone: 415-357-1848). Entry fees have been waived so that one and all can see the exhibit for free. A website for the exhibit can be viewed at the Western Regional Advocacy Project. In months to come the exhibit is scheduled to be shown at the following venues: Kolligan Library - University of California, Merced, CA (Aug.- Oct. 2009), Corona Public Library - Corona, CA (Nov. - Jan. 2010), Hayward Area Historical Society - Hayward, CA (March - May 2011), de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara University - Santa Clara, CA (July - Sept. 2011).

[ UPDATE: Hobos to Street People Panel Discussion - Thursday July 2, 2009. 6 PM. With Gray Brechin (Project Scholar of California’s Living New Deal Project), Lincoln Cushing and Tim Drescher (authors & art historians), and Mark Johnson (curator of At Work: The Art of California Labor). Panelists will speak to the similarities and differences between the present day and the New Deal era as they relate to public arts and government funding. This free event takes place at the California Historical Society Museum, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA. Info: 415.357.1848 ]

The Death of Motor City

In 1932 the Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera began painting a series of 27 fresco mural panels at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan. Titled, Detroit Industry, the monumental paintings had been commissioned by the president of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford (son of Henry Ford), and the director of the D.I.A., William Valentiner. The theme of Rivera’s murals was inordinately simple; the portrayal of U.S. auto workers on the factory floor utilizing the technology that made their tremendous productive capacity possible.

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Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

From Ford’s perspective the murals sang the praises of American industrial capitalism, from Rivera’s point of view they illustrated the boundless ability of the proletariat to change material reality for social good. Seventy-seven years later Rivera’s murals are still an awe inspiring wonder beyond compare – but the same cannot be said of America’s car companies.

Once the heart of the American automobile industry, the state of Michigan now leads the U.S. in unemployment at 14.1 percent. Detroit, the “Motor City”, is a wasteland and the state of Michigan is in near total collapse, a tragedy that hardly registers in the corporate media, but it is still a fact nevertheless. The Democratic Governor, Jennifer Granholm, has ordered $304 million in state budget cuts, from drastic reductions in higher education to deep cuts in social services to seniors and low-income residents. It has even been proposed that prisons be closed and state police laid-off; Granholm has already eliminated all arts funding for the state’s 2010 budget.

Photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Fisher Body 21 Plant – Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre are photographers who have artfully documented the decline of Motor City through their photo essay, The Ruins of Detroit. This photo shows a derelict factory once operated by Fisher Body, which built car bodies for the industry. Founded in 1908, the company became a division of GM in 1926.

It is beyond the scope of this web log to explain in detail the complexities behind the downfall of Detroit’s Motor City, suffice it to say, it is the result of a very long decline. Contributing to the dilemma is the intentional de-capitalization of U.S. industrial capacity - Wall Street’s transforming the U.S. economy from one based on production to one based on financial speculation; the process of capitalist globalization that allows U.S. companies to close factories in America and re-open them elsewhere. Here it must be noted that although GM’s U.S. auto plants will be downsized and closed, its factories in China will be expanded. The Wall Street Journal reported that GM plans to build another plant in China, and to “double sales in China to more than two million vehicles and introduce more than 30 new or updated models over the next five years.”

While President Obama bailed out Wall Street bankers with hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer monies, he refused to do the same for GM and Chrysler; his failure to do so in essence pushed the two automakers into bankruptcy “reorganizations” – what Obama and his Auto Industry Task Force have referred to as a “new path to viability.” That path includes plant closures, a major downsizing of the workforce, the cutting of wages and benefits for workers, and the elimination of company supplied health care coverage and pension plans. The Obama plan even forced Chrysler to merge with the Italian automaker, Fiat, which assumed control of Chrysler on June 10, 2009.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Tens of thousands of auto workers are losing their jobs and hundreds of thousands of others will be affected as auto manufacturing related jobs dry up. We have been told that a revitalized American auto industry will eventually rise Phoenix-like out of this wreckage, but I seriously doubt it. The U.S. auto industry has existed for nearly a century, and it has literally changed the face of the nation, so it is disconcerting that more Americans do not seem upset by its demise. The issue of missed opportunities persists. Why did the Obama administration not invest billions into retooling ailing auto companies so that they could produce light rail public transport systems for the nation along with small fuel-efficient cars? Such a project would have kept factories open and hundreds of thousands of workers fully employed.

The question for readers of this web log is; why has there been so little response from the U.S. arts community to this current sweeping economic collapse? Save for the populist song They’re Shutting Detroit Down by country western singer John Rich, American artists have avoided the subject altogether. Social realism has deep roots in U.S. art and culture, and throughout the twentieth-century conscience-stirring works have left their mark on the nation’s psyche. After a long interruption of incomprehensible postmodernist babbling – it is time for American artists to recapture the spirit of social realism. In this context a reconsideration of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural series is in order, as the monumental works are an appropriate starting point where artists can begin to formulate suitable responses to the present crisis.

The next best thing to visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts to contemplate the significance and relevance of Rivera’s mural series is to go see the Synthescape website’s virtual presentation of those murals. Working with galleries and museums, Synthescape digitizes art collections and exhibitions, transforming them into 3-dimensional landscapes that a user can walk through using a web browser. Synthescape has created such a panorama of Rivera’s Detroit murals – and it is a breathtaking thing to behold. One can zoom in on the murals to examine the slightest details, from brush strokes to color nuances; or zoom out to study Rivera’s overall dynamic composition, which can be seen as the artist intended it – from multiple vantage points.

Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals were painted between the depression era years of 1932 and 1933, a period of great turmoil and organized labor resistance, but also a peak period for the American social realist movement in art. Rivera based his murals on sketches and photographs he made at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant, which at the time was the largest factory in the world, employing over 100,000 workers. His intent was to exalt the strength and promise of the working class, and his depictions of American auto workers brimmed over with humanist compassion and solidarity. Under the nose of management, the dignified men represented in the murals did not appear grim or downtrodden; instead, they seemed like the ones in actual command, their hands controlling the machines that would help shape the development of humankind. But Rivera’s murals were also a response to the social realities swirling around him.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

U.S. auto sales were down and manufacturers responded by firing workers and cutting back operations. When Rivera started painting his homage to American auto workers, the unemployment rate in Detroit was 30%. On March 7 some 3,000 of these unemployed workers organized the “Ford Hunger March”, walking to the very factory that inspired Rivera’s mural series - the River Rouge plant. The workers attempted to deliver a petition to the company that demanded relief assistance and work. As protestors reached Gate 3 of the Ford plant, police attacked the demonstrators with tear gas and fire hoses, eventually firing live rounds at the unarmed workers, killing five and seriously injuring dozens more. Days after the massacre 60,000 citizens attended a mass funeral march to honor the slain workers.

In the aftermath of the Ford Hunger March, a series of massive labor strikes took place all across the U.S., none perhaps as relevant to Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals as the 1936-’37 Flint Sit-Down strike carried out by auto workers against General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan. Tens of thousands of workers went on strike, occupying factories and effectively shutting down GM operations until the strike was won. Flint was not only one of the greatest victories of the American labor movement; it established the strength and prominence of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and led to the unionization of the U.S. auto industry.

In 1932 Diego Rivera wrote an essay on art for Modern Quarterly titled; The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art. While he did not specifically address the issues presented in his Detroit Industry mural series, his words do explain his position on the importance of a didactic art that sides with the exploited. The following excerpt from the essay explains much about his Detroit murals:

“All painters have been propagandists or else they have not been painters. Giotto was a propagandist of the spirit of Christian charity, the weapon of the Franciscan monks of his time against feudal oppression. Breughel was a propagandist of the struggle of the Dutch artisan petty bourgeois against feudal oppression. Every artist who has been worth anything in art has been such a propagandist.

The familiar accusation that propaganda ruins art finds its source in bourgeois prejudice. Naturally enough the bourgeoisie does not want art employed for the sake of revolution. It does not want ideals in art because its own ideals cannot any longer serve as artistic inspiration. It does not want feelings because its own feelings cannot any longer serve as artistic inspiration. Art and thought and feeling must be hostile to the bourgeoisie today. Every strong artist has a head and a heart. Every strong artist has been a propagandist. I want to be a propagandist and I want to be nothing else. (….) I want to use my art as a weapon.”

This article is not an appeal for artists to replicate the past, nor is it a statement made out of a sense of nostalgia. Artists today are faced with extraordinary circumstances, and the possibilities for a new contentious art are endless. It is a mistake to think of social realism as a dead art movement, rooted in the past and of no consequence to our present. The genre is no more irrelevant to contemporary society than are protests and demonstrations organized by activist citizens – in fact, both are vital and necessary if democracy is to flourish.