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Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–194

Feb 17, 2020–Jan 31, 2021 (extended dates)
Diego Rivera Mural.png

  © J. John Priola

“They were radical, they were revolutionaries at their time. They showed ideas that hadn’t been seen before. These depictions were represented at a monumental size. People were able to see themselves represented in these works.” Marcela Guerrero, Assistant Curator


Every student at SFAI has passed the wall where the famous Diego Rivera mural stands. However, not all of them know the history of the mural, and its place in the history of American art. “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City has extended the end date of its exhibition to January 31, 2021. So, if you happen to be on the east coast before February of next year, you will have a chance to see the importance that curator and show organizer, Barbara Haskell, gives to the Mexican Muralists.

The show is described thus by the curatorial team: “This exhibition is really rewriting art history, a testament to a huge amount of bonds that exist between the two countries. The point of consideration, for us as individuals, as artists, as a society, when we enter a show like this in this political moment, is exactly what we want from art. [The show can also be viewed online.]


“Mexico had undergone a radical cultural transformation at the end of its Revolution in 1920. A new relationship between art and the public was established at that time, giving rise to art that spoke directly to the people about social justice and national life. This new societal model galvanized artists in the United States who were seeking to break free of European aesthetic domination. These U.S. artists wanted to create significant and publicly accessible native art.


“At this time, numerous U.S. artists traveled to Mexico, and the leading Mexican muralists—José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—spent extended periods of time in the United States. They came to the U.S. during the Great Depression to get work, and while here, they produced murals, paintings, and prints, exhibited their work, and interacted with U.S. artists.

“The exhibition at the Whitney has nearly 200 works by over sixty Mexican and American artists. It reorients North American art history by revealing the profound impact that the Mexican muralists had on their U.S. counterparts during this period. The show illustrates the ways in which the Mexican Muralists’ example inspired U.S. artists both to create epic narratives about American history and everyday life, and to use their art to protest economic, social, and racial injustices.”


The Epic art of the Mexican Muralists captured our country’s imagination.


My only complaint about the show at the Whitney (and I’m not an art historian), is that there is very little mention that Diego Rivera actually began his U.S. mural work in California. In a seemingly New-York-centric way, the show highlights just one west coast muralist, José Clemente Orozco and his “Prometheus” mural at Pomona College. Jackson Pollock, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, drove out to Pomona see Orozco’s mural, and for many years spoke about the mural and its profound effect on his painting. Orozco had been one of the first of the Mexican Muralists to come to the U.S.


Rivera came to California in 1930 and completed his fresco at SFAI in 1931. SFAI’s architect Timothy Pflueger had invited Diego Rivera to paint a fresco on the newly-constructed gallery wall, the result being “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.” It was the second mural produced by Rivera in the United States, and is “a fresco within a fresco.” It shows The City officials of 1931 in action building The City, alongside working men, women and artists on scaffolding. It depicts Diego Rivera sitting on the scaffolding with his derrière to viewers. In 1930, this was considered shocking. The men are busy constructing a giant Blue-collar worker.


Right here at SFAI is both an amazing example of the Mexican Muralists, and a snapshot of the early days of San Francisco. If you can’t get to NYC in time for the Whitney show, you can see this primary Mexican Mural here in San Francisco (once the galleries of the school reopen).

Diego Rivera Mural (detail).png

©J. John Priola

Annie Reiniger-Holleb and the exhibition curators


Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945

(Feb 17, 2020–Jan 31, 2021) at Whitney Museum of American Art.

Organized by curator Barbara Haskell, with Marcela Guerrero, assistant curator; Sarah Humphreville, senior curatorial assistant; and Alana Hernandez, former curatorial project assistant.

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