“If new races have appeared upon the lands of the New World such races have the unavoidable duty to produce a New Art in a new spiritual and physical medium.”
– José Clemente Orozco
José Clemente Orozco: New World, New Races and New Art
Known primarily for his large-scale public murals, the drawings, paintings and graphics of José Clemente Orozco (1883 – 1949) presented at Maya Stendhal Gallery reveal a personal perspective on one of the greatest Mexican artists of the 20th century. Orozco spent his life painting thousands of square feet of frescoes; as a consequence, his easel work is scarce. This exhibition is especially significant when considering the rarity of such smaller-scale works.
JosŽ Clemente Orozco is known as a leader of the renaissance in modern Mexican art. As a muralist, painter, draftsman, political cartoonist and lithographer, Orozco’s diverse talents reveal an artist whose grasp reaches far beyond the nationalist and socialist framework within which he is too often categorized. His artistic trajectory began on a small scale—José Guadalupe Posada’s engravings sparked an initial interest in art, and Orozco first drew political cartoons for magazines. He developed his painting skills as well and maintained an interest in all media until his death in 1949.
Unlike his contemporaries Rivera and Siqueiros, two artists far more aggressive and radical in their ideology, Orozco’s political position remained somewhat ambivalent and for the most part, on the periphery. Although he directly contributed to radical newspapers, producing political cartoons that served to strengthen his technical and expressive abilities in drawing, he was never a member of the Communist party. He “flirted” with them at most, occasionally attending meetings or contributing funds.1 Less incendiary and provocative than his peers, Orozco still managed to articulate powerful messages through his murals, lithographs, drawings, political cartoons, and paintings. He sustained a somewhat pessimistic vision of history, critiquing politics, urban life, technology, the realities and myths of his native Mexico, and the hybrid quality of the Americas.
Anthony Lee captures the artist’s essence: “Bookish, distant, irascible, scornful of admirers, often cynical and pessimistic about the course of Mexican history, and given to extraordinarily grand but also esoteric thoughts about the human condition, Orozco does not easily fit the mould of the activist public muralist.” In Mexico, it was expected that murals fulfill a didactic purpose. He carried this objective into his American commissions yet his responsibility as an artist to conceive and articulate new art to a new audience, as a foreigner no less, made him keenly aware of his new environment and his new place in it.
Mexico, in the 1920s, faced a historical clash between the old and the new, as well as an ethnic one between the Spanish and the Indian. Orozco, a hispanista, found the barbarism of the indigenistas to be tempered by the civilizing Spanish conquerors. Yet he did not entirely ignore his Indian roots; characteristically complex and at times contradictory, he associated himself with both parts of his lineage. In An Autobiography, the artist stated: “We too could wrest iron from the bowels of the earth and fashion it into ships and machines. We could raise prodigious cities, and create nations, and explore the universe. Was it not from a mixture of the two races that the Titans sprang?”2 If he faced racial divides in Mexico, then he encountered an even more complex situation in the United States. The time he spent there (1917-1919 and 1927-1934) invariably prompted the artist to contemplate his own artistic, philosophical and social vision, in addition to his commitment to his Mexican background. In New York, Orozco found inspiration in the city’s architecture and sensed that innovations in painting and sculpture must be a natural corollary. He published a manifesto on the subject in Creative Art in 1929, titled “New World, New Races and New Art.” In it, he called for a pictorial language that did not rely upon traditional European models or aboriginal styles of his ancestors. He later declared: “To lean upon the art of the aborigines, whether it be of antiquity or the present day, is a sure indication of impotence and of cowardice, in fact, of fraud.”3 He absorbed his modern environment while never completely abandoning his heritage and reawakened ancient narratives in a style that was completely contemporary.
Orozco’s bourgeois identity was countered by his attraction to subversive qualities of humanity. Intrigued by the marginalized populations and counter-cultures that were absent in his native land, Orozco often found himself in Harlem and Coney Island. Danza negra en Harlem, Nueva York exemplifies one of several images he executed that evokes this geographic slice of life. Several females face inwards towards each other to flank a tall building; their proportions are nearly identical to that of the architecture, suggesting a certain grandiose quality of not just the architecture but also the people, music, and culture of the Harlem Renaissance. He admired architectural innovations as depicted in The World’s Highest Structure; however, he was suspicious of the growing separation between the structural elements of buildings and their symbolic value. This oil on canvas expresses the artist’s disenchantment with the idea that skyscrapers could civilize society and elevate the symbolic value of architecture. Its uncertain spatial orientation is symptomatic of other images he painted of the urban landscape, such as the Queensboro Bridge, Fourteenth Street, Eighth Avenue and factories in Williamsburg.
The Orozco that we know best, who painted a surging figure of Prometheus at Pomona College, somber and stoic figures at The New School for Social Research, and a passionate and ambitious mural cycle at Dartmouth College, expressed a breadth of artistic style and ability. In his murals, he maintained a certain precision and a strong sense of angular volumes. “Frank Lloyd Wright was the first to acknowledge that Orozco’s art sprang from a complete command of architecture.”4 Well aware of the relation between pictorial space and how it must be viewed within a specific architectural framework, the artist was able to successfully establish a dialogue between art, architecture, and audience. It is interesting to consider, then, that these freestanding easel works in the exhibition, not defined by any architectural context, enable us to read how his expressionistic and abstract tendencies became more significant later in his life.
Following his trip to Europe in 1932, Orozco’s murals and easel works contained a new level of sophistication that was most immediately apparent at the Baker Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He synthesized his own recent experiences with a heightened critical sensibility into his work. One critique noted this piece to be Orozco’s “most dramatic vision of a borderless America.”5 We have a rare opportunity to glimpse how the artist conceived several of his murals by examining some of their compositional studies. One example is Ícaro y Dédalo. Other studies include Brazo, mano y parte de torso, done in preparation for the fresco, Modern Human Sacrifice, and Mano del maestro, an anatomical drawing executed for the University of Guadalajara dome. During his life, Orozco devised an algorithm to systemize much of his works, a “control of the artifice in all his creations.”6 Evidence of such formal organization appears in these studies. Hands were also an important element in his works, concentrating on heavy musculature and sharp contrasts between light and shadows on the page. Orozco drew daily from life, capturing the features and psychology of his models.
Orozco’s depictions of daily life are best represented by his lithographs; he selected lithography as his primary tool when he began working in New York in 1928. Cerros y figuras juxtaposes a barren landscape with several grave figures whose geometric cloaks mimic the rocky forms adjacent to them, weighing them down substantially. Casas y mujeres conveys a similar relationship between figures and the land, in which both are equally volumetric and plastic. He was able to balance stark contrasts between black and white compositions as deftly as he was able to create entirely dark surfaces. Orozco’s son, Clemente Orozco Valladares, commented: “Orozco tempered different intensities and rhythms, embodying them in the finished process. Thus, one can find solemn and serene works with religious connotations next to violent works full of energy. When seen in their totality, they register a broad thematic spectrum: epic, lyrical, satirical, compassionate, with a humanistic inspiration and a strong emotional impact.”7 Accustomed to working on a grand scale, he carries a larger-than-life sensibility into his smaller works. Orozco’s usual attempt to integrate his murals with “the life of the room” instead is reversed here, where his freestanding works produce a unique life of their own.
Towards the end of his life, Orozco’s small works lost their graphic precision and gained greater expressive qualities. Angular, crisp lines were replaced by frenetic scrawling marks. Examples from the La Verdad and Los Teúles series in particular communicate this visual aesthetic. The former consists of a total of eighty works, the first ten of which are dated, signed and titled. In them, La Verdad, or The Truth, is incarnated as human form, to show how it may be mutilated, distorted, and manipulated. The energetic and expressionistic handling of the works in the Los Teúles series testify to the chaos and displacement brought about by the Conquest, its subject matter. Evoking the energetic force of his ancestors, Orozco layers vigorous strokes of red, white, green and blue over dark figural outlines. These works are unsurpassed in creating an aural, as well as visual, experience—it is nearly possible to hear the screams of the figures and the beating of drums during their ritual dances. His son noted that in his father’s works, “nothing is graphically or plastically hidden…but the correct or plausible interpretation of these symbols escapes the average spectator.”8 These images, small yet powerful, enigmatic yet gripping, may be open to an infinite number of interpretative possibilities, and it is up to us, as viewers, to decipher and deduce the meaning of José Clemente Orozco’s works.
Working from the 1920s through the 1940s, until his death on September 7, 1949, the artist saw the rise and fall of significant creative movements: Social Realism, Regionalism, Cubism, Dada, the Harlem Renaissance, and German and Abstract Expressionism. During a period when he could have imitated a host of styles, he was able to successfully negotiate diverse European and American influences to construct a wholly unique artistic identity for himself. Well-read and intellectual, he learned from his peers about cubist art and he absorbed avant-garde art by visiting galleries when he first lived in New York between 1917 and 1919. He regularly visited museums, favoring Goya, Picasso, Matisse and Renoir and probably knew the work of Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. His work in the 1940s, well represented in this exhibition, coincided with Abstract Expressionism. Echoing the linear energy of Franz Kline or the chromatic patterns of Willem de Kooning, several works from Los Teúles reveal a deeper insight into Orozco’s aesthetic. Moreover, the disfigured group of women in Sextet of Women reminds one of Picasso’s figural Antibes sketches from the 1940s; the hovering, diagonal abstraction of 2…The Crooked, Deformed, Altered, Mutilated, Painted Truth calls to mind the frenetic draftsmanship of Egon Schiele. His own influence was not lost on his contemporary colleagues; his murals inspired many artists, including Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence, Gilbert Wilson, Philip Guston, and Jackson Pollock. Pollock was so fascinated by the Prometheus mural at Pomona that he visited it several times in 1930, and he told sculptor Tony Smith that it was “the greatest work of art in North America.”9 He kept a photographic reproduction of the fresco in his studio, and later persuaded Philip Guston and others to visit the Dartmouth murals, The Epic of American Civilization.
Although the majority of the works in the exhibition were produced in the decade that he died, they reflect an accumulation of sources over the course of a lifetime. Orozco’s art evades specific classification owing to diverse subject matter, symbolism, and media. Even today, at a time when the concept of a borderless America becomes ever more prevalent, the modern viewer may find certain sympathy with the universalizing goals and themes of mankind, whether American or Mexican, Spanish or Indian, to which Orozco aspired. His images fluctuate between poignant glimpses of a rural population and their revolutionary peers, between thoughtful visions of humanity and powerful allegorical symbolism. If Orozco’s public character was labeled as reticent, composed, and apolitical, his inner creative force produced an art that was violent, emotional, deafening, and impossible to ignore.
By Jessica Lantos, Maya Stendhal Gallery
1Alejandro Anreus, “José Clemente Orozco in the United States of America”, ArtNexus, May 2000
2José Clemente Orozco, An Autobiography, transl. Robert C. Stephenson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), 21.
3 Christopher Capazzola, “The Fires This Time,” In These Times, January 31, 2003. (http://www.inthesetimes.com/comments.php?id=55_0_4_0_M)
4 Clemente Orozco, José Clemente Orozco: Graphic Work (Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latin Art and Culture), (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 48.
5Christopher Capazzola, “The Fires This Time,” In These Times, January 31, 2003. (http://www.inthesetimes.com/comments.php?id=55_0_4_0_M)
6Clemente Orozco, José Clemente Orozco: Graphic Work (Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latin Art and Culture), (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 2.
7Clemente Orozco, José Clemente Orozco: Graphic Work (Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latin Art and Culture),
8Clemente Orozco, José Clemente Orozco: Graphic Work (Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latin Art and Culture), 126.
9Victor Alejandro Sorrell, “Orozco and American Muralism: Re/viewing an Enduring Artistic Legacy,” in José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934 (Hanover: Hood Museum of Art, 2002), 266.