The Unheralded Influence of Mexico’s Muralists

These painters, the focus of a new exhibition at the Whitney, put their own stamp on 20th-century art

José Clemente Orozco, Barricade (Barricada), oil on canvas, 1931. ©The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
Alfredo Ramos Martínez’s 1929 Calla Lily Vendor is one of 200 works on view at the Whitney Museum by Mexican artists and the U.S. artists they influenced. ©The Alfredo Ramos Martínez Research Project

A ten-year revolution had united Mexico under a progressive constitution, but in the 1920s the country remained culturally fragmented. So the government commissioned monumental artworks that celebrated Mexico’s culture and history and valorized its common people—especially the indigenous peasants whom artists saw as representing “the real Mexico,” says Barbara Haskell, curator of a new exhibition focused on Mexican muralists, opening at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in February. These muralists also inspired a generation of American artists, who admired their heroic depictions of popular struggle. “Most of us grew up thinking that the dominant influence in the U.S. in the 20th century came from France,” Haskell says. But “looking at those decades, 1925 to 1945, what becomes clear is the huge impact of the Mexican muralists, who created images that were accessible, that really meant something, and did it in a very modern way.”

The Unheralded Influence of Mexico's Muralists
Harold Lehman, The Driller (mural, Rikers Island, New York), tempera on fiberboard, 1937. ©Estate of Harold Lehman
The Unheralded Influence of Mexico's Muralists
Jackson Pollock, Landscape with Steer, lithograph with airbrushed enamel, c. 1936-37. ©The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine