A revisionist look at a political painter
Art is nothing if not revisionist in that it demands that we look, and then look again. That’s a fancy way of saying there’s a new fat man in my aesthetic life I had dismissed—not so much for his girth as for his perceived misogyny.
I am not talking about Alfred Hitchcock and his love-hate relationship with blondes, but the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who had been supplanted in my and many others’ minds by the more original-seeming work of his collagist/painter wife, Frida Kahlo, a more than deserving feminist rediscovery.
This was before I caught the current show of Rivera’s murals, drawings and other artifacts. More than a repeat, it’s an expansion of his Depression-era exhibit of the early 1930s for which he had been commissioned by Abby Rockefeller (of all ironies) to make an on-site installation. This show, on the ass end of our very own Great Recession, reunites five of the eight freestanding frescos Rivera and crew stayed up day and night to get in place, including some new city-inspired work.
It was a very successful exhibit, timed just right for the by now familiar to all New Yorkers white-suited peasant revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata wielding his scythe or the jaguar mask of a triumphant Aztec warrior with its toothy grotesque grin, which always seemed to have a comic book quality. Today, what appears the most exciting are the then-new creations inspired by the frenetic ongoing construction, Depression notwithstanding, in the city.
The standout is “Frozen Assets,” a huge one-dimensional mural divided into three distinct thematic layers. It has its witty title, of course (pop and “found object” artist title creators take note), a play on money as well as its second tier—bodies sleeping under a guard’s watch; the destitute, the out-of work packed end to end like so many fish in a place identified elsewhere as the hangar of the Municipal Pier.
On the bottom level, people from the moneyed classes wait to check out their valuables in a vault. Some say the elderly gentleman resembles John D. Rockefeller Jr. Both strata support, in one way or another, the top layer: the Chrysler, Empire State, McGraw-Hill and Daily News buildings, with 30 Rockefeller Center dominating all.
“Frozen Assets” has the impact of great medieval art, but it’s contemporary in its sociopolitical message, hitting us emotionally as well as allegorically. This non-one-percenter would give her non-assets to see what Rivera would make of the haves and have-nots of New York society today. Yet in its own way, it’s a formal piece: a static construction, holding out symbols the way virgins held out orbs in medieval art.
Just as representative of the city—this time of its manic energy—are some wonderfully hyperkinetic, clearly impromptu sketches (ink, charcoal, water color, 1931-32) of construction workers in the middle of their day, not necessarily part of Rivera’s job description but which obviously caught his attention. To the left of “Frozen Assets,” they would be easy to overlook. Don’t.
Also not to missed—you can’t, really, it’s so larger-than-life—is “Pneumatic Drilling” (1931), a charcoal that hugely shows Rivera’s fascination with the urban work tools and scene around him, with excerpted wall text from Rivera declaring he “plans to paint the rhythms of American workers.”
It’s all very different from his Mexican vistas and sensibility—case in point: the giant flora that opens this show, “Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita” (1931). Shockingly yellow, aggressive pistils protrude from giant white petals, telling us that Rivera never forgot his agrarian roots. Even Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers aren’t this violent.
Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art
Through May 14, Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., 212-748-9400, www.moma.org.
This article first appeared in the April 18 issue of CityArts. For more from New York’s Review of Culture, visit www.cityartsnyc.com.
Tags: Art, artifacts, collagist, contemporary, Diego Rivera, feminist, Frida Kahlo, Frozen Assets, medieval art, murals, painter, political painter, revisionist, sociopolitical message, thematic layers, wife
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