On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
February 17, 2020 – January 31, 2021
As the elevators open onto the fifth floor of the Whitney, visitors are greeted with the exhibition’s name in towering letters: VIDA AMERICANA. In a nod to the transnational intent of the show and the Spanish-speaking population that makes up an ever-growing demographic in the United States, the full exhibition title, as well as all of the labels and wall text, appears in both English and Spanish: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 and Los muralistas mexicanos rehacen el arte estadounidense, 1925–1945. Spanish speakers will, however, immediately note a mistranslation. Estadounidense and American do not directly correspond to one another; a more accurate translation of “estadounidense” would be something along the lines of “United Statesian.” The misuse of American may not seem particularly pertinent or revealing at first glance—how often do we US citizens default to referring to ourselves as “Americans” and the United States as “America,” anyway? Unfortunately, this error in translation actually exposes much of the logic behind the exhibition.
Focusing on the impact of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco on artists in the United States, Vida Americana attempts to reverse the traditional narrative of art history, which has historically identified artistic influence as flowing from the US and Europe to Latin America, or, more generally, from the center to the periphery. Vida Americana’s aim, then, is to undo the marginalization engendered by art historical canonizing. And indeed, the exhibition, curated by Barbara Haskell with Marcela Guerrero, Sarah Humphreville, and Alana Hernandez, does clearly demonstrate the influence of Mexican muralism, part of the broader Mexican modernist movement, on US artistic production, as represented by painters like Jackson Pollock, Jacob Lawrence, Everett Gee Jackson, and Charles White. But is this enough?
Though Haskell initially began planning Vida Americana 14 years ago, it is important to note that the curators have intentionally linked the aims of the exhibition to today’s current political moment. In closing her essay in the exhibition catalogue, Haskell writes that despite “the rich cultural ties and decades of migration that have long existed between the United States and Mexico, the relationship between the two countries has always been fraught,” before observing that “the ugliness and xenophobia of the recent debates on the American side echoes the worst of the past. It thus seems more imperative than ever to acknowledge the profound and enduring influence Mexican muralism has had on artmaking in the United States and to highlight the beauty and power that can emerge from the free and vibrant cultural exchange between the two countries.”
While Haskell is correct in her assessment that the relationship between the US and Mexico has been historically fraught, her statement implies, whether intentionally or not, that the contentious nature of US-Mexico relations is mutually constituted. Meanwhile, the “ugliness and xenophobia” seen today is aberrant only in the overtly and directly racist language deployed against Mexicans, who are transformed into stand-ins for all Latin Americans. US history is, in fact, consistently marked by both xenophobia towards the region and imperialist intervention. The deployment of the multiculturalist myth of a “free and vibrant cultural exchange” feels outdated; these exchanges are often defined, at times subtly and others overtly, by an uneven power dynamic. This unevenness becomes evident in the framework of the show, which, as Haskell notes, explores Mexican muralism for the “benefit” of US viewers. Vida Americana does address race in the US, most clearly in the Epic Histories gallery, which features works by Black US painters Aaron Douglas, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff. But, given that the exhibition situates its relevance in relation to today’s political moment, where race and gender are at the forefront of national discussion alongside class, it is dismaying that more careful attention was not given to the fundamentally racist underpinnings of the ideologies that helped shape Mexican muralism. Moreover, the sexism that led to the exclusion of women artists from the movement (an exclusion that is very much reproduced by the show’s curation, which skews overwhelmingly male) is not addressed convincingly, nor is the reality of cross-border and hemispheric cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual communication that is more dialogic than binary, more complicated than the simple migration of los tres grandes across the border.
Vida Americana attempts to reorient art history by exploring how Mexican muralists, through their travels in the United States, influenced artists working in the US. In pursuit of this clean narrative of influence, however, the exhibition ultimately ends up reproducing many of the problems it seeks to address by insisting on understanding Mexican muralism only from the vantage point of the US. Vida Americana needed to break with the notion that flows of aesthetic and intellectual influence operate on a binary and acknowledge that, instead, ideas circulate both back and forth across the border as well as all throughout the region. At a base level, a proper contextualization of the muralist movement, one that is more attendant to issues of race, gender, representation, and power inequality, would have led to a richer and more nuanced understanding of how the works in the exhibition converse with one another. Returning to the translation error I began with, much in the same way that using “America” as a stand-in for the United States refuses the hemispheric meaning of the word and upholds the geopolitical hegemony of the US, Vida Americana similarly upholds the centrality of the US in regional artistic discourse. Perhaps we now recognize that Mexican artists did indeed influence US artists, but the hierarchy of center and periphery remains very much intact.