David Alfaro Siqueiros’ anti-imperialist mural, “América Tropical,” spray-painted on the upper side-wall of Italian Hall and partially visible from Olvera Street in downtown L.A., was whitewashed shortly after it went up in 1932. But like the stain of a crime, the mural’s insurgent colors infiltrated through the overlying layer, so adding to its already burdened imagery a metaphor for cross-border seepage. Over the years, its botched defacement intensified rather than muted its accusatory power.
According to Judy Baca, the mural commissioned by the Plaza Art Center was supposed to depict a kitschy Mexican village scene and serve as a backdrop for a Bavarian beer garden owned by F. K. Ferenz, whom the Americanism Committee of the American Legion later identified as a Nazi sympathizer. Instead, over a period of just under two months, Siqueiros and a team of assistants created an 80-foot-wide image which focused on a crucified figure. The mural depicts a scene set in a Central American jungle encroaching upon Mayan ruins. In the center, in front of a decaying temple, a figure depends from a cross under the wings of an American eagle. The image brings to mind Pablo Neruda’s lines from “The United Fruit Co.”:
indians fall over
buried in the morning mist:
a body rolls, a thing
without a name, a fallen number
a bunch of dead fruit
spills into the pile of rot.
Except that in “América Tropical” the Indians don’t just quietly turn into compost and the Christian iconography of the crucifixion (with its implied promise of resurrection) is repurposed as a benediction of insurrection. Rather than the lachrymose figures that typically stand at the foot of the cross in conventional images of the crucifixion, Siqueiros painted armed guerillas emerging from the jungle and atop a platform that doubles as a preexisting doorway piercing the wall of the building.
The restoration of the mural by a team from the Getty Conservation Institute began in 1988 after decades of pressure from Chicano activists. Due to a bureaucratic tangle, the restoration project, which was to include the building of a shelter to prevent the mural’s further deterioration, a viewing platform to allow it’s full viewing (rather than the partial view from the street), and an interpretive center remains uncompleted. Finally, early this September, ground was actually broken, and if all goes well the project will be completed by 2013, a quarter century after it was started.
Given the political regression this country has suffered since the beginning of this project, there is the likelihood that the project’s completion will prove more controversial than its initiation. Back in the day when President Clinton tested the boundaries of permissible political discourse by apologizing for slavery (only to be pounced on by the likes of Tom “The Exterminator” DeLay for the supposedly treasonous implications of such an apology), it may well have seemed that the restoration of “América Tropical” might allow its message and subsequent censoring to be safely historicized as one of those events that can be regretted after sufficient time has passed to drain them of all significance save as markers of how far the country has come. Symbolic gestures of redress are cost effective. The Clinton administration specialized in them. It was the moment of cost-free diversity, concurrent with the massive reverse redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy begun under Reagan and continued under successive Republican and Democratic administrations. The policy was partially covered up by effusive official pieties about mutual respect and tolerance even as the promise of eradicating poverty was replaced, as Walter Benn Michaels has noted, by the transformation of poverty itself into another “culture” deserving of respect. (Let them eat reality shows!)
Post-9/11, however, and the license that event gave to every temporarily muzzled racist to exhale the fermented hate that had been building inside by redirecting it against Muslims and “Middle Easterners,” the ongoing atrocities of America’s potentially eternal war on terror have unintentionally restored to Siqueiros’s mural a charge and a topicality that may interfere with the work’s smooth insertion into the anodyne narrative of bad things that happened a long time ago. The crucified figure in the center of “América Tropical” (whose splayed arms and legs are a an “X marks the spot” that bludgeons home its centrality) may be an Amerindian but one can hardly overlook his resemblance to the tormented figures recorded for posterity by the phonecam-happy Abu Ghraib staff. The anonymous reader who responded to a recent Christopher Knight L.A. Times blog piece about the mural by complaining about the “$9 million to restore a mural depicting America as an ‘Evil Empire’” indicates the thrust of the conservative objections that will likely greet the unveiling of “América Tropical,” should it actually come to pass in our lifetime.
In the meantime, anyone who’s interested in Siqueiros’ activities during his all-too-brief but jam-packed stay in L.A. (the man was a dynamo) can absorb the information and artifacts from the period on view at the Autry National Center’s exhibition “Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied.” This show is timed to coincide with official celebration of the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of the Mexican revolution. (Siqueiros, a lifelong Communist, would likely have scorned the current Mexican government’s expressed appreciation for his contribution to Mexican national identity: His outspoken criticism of various post-revolutionary Mexican administrations earned him several spells in prison, and indeed was the cause for his brief local exile.) The exhibition brings together more than 100 paintings, drawings, mural sketches, and historical documents related to the three local murals (the only ones in the U.S.) that are the lasting traces of the artist’s stay, or at least the traces to which Siqueiros can be directly linked since his example was to inspire generations of Angeleno muralists long after he had gone back to Mexico.
While in L.A., Siqueiros executed three murals, only one of which, “Portrait of Mexico Today” (1932) survives and is accessible to the public (it was relocated from the Pacific Palisades former home of Siqueiros’ friend and film director Dudley Murphy to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2001). Like “América Tropical,” “Portrait of Mexico Today” is an uncompromisingly blunt denunciation of the distorting and corrupting influence American capital on Mexican politics. It portrays two desolate and destitute women sitting on the ground in the company of a half-naked child and flanked on one side by the bodies of shot workers, and on the other by the figure of the Mussolini-like Plutarco Elías Calles, a once revolutionary general and President of Mexico (1924-28) who had gradually transformed into a fascist strongman. Siqueiros pointedly depicted Calles as being in the pay of financier J.P. Morgan.
The third and last mural Siqueiros bequeathed to an ungrateful Los Angeles was “Street Meeting” (also known as “Worker Meeting”), which was undertaken as part of a mural painting class taught by Siqueiros at the Chouinard Art Institute. “Street Meeting” marked the first time an artist used a spray gun to create a mural directly on cement rather than as a fresco. It was also revolutionary in another way: it depicted a trade union militant in red shirt addressing an unmistakably multiracial audience, which at the time was as provocative as its proletarian advocacy. There are differing accounts of what happened to it, whether it suffered the same fate as “América Tropical” or simply fell prey to the elements. There have even been reports of traces of it being unearthed but nothing has come of them and it therefore counts as the one of the three murals that so far has proved completely irretrievable.
The Autry exhibition provides an opportunity - in the context of both the renewal of overt American imperialism and the domestic strain of this imperial burden at a time when vast numbers of Americans face the prospect of Depression-era immiseration - to rethink the connection between art and politics. The Greenbergian modernism that became canonical in postwar America dismissed all political art as kitsch and, like Siqueiros’s deportation from America, ejected entire strains of engaged modernist art from permissible discourse. Postmodernist critical approaches, on the other hand, have been so preoccupied with the anti-romantic and anti-humanist deconstruction of symbolism that they have helped create a generation of media-savvy artists who have little of consequence to communicate except their savviness. In the current circumstances, this makes a great deal of the art one encounters in galleries and museums seem almost psychotically removed from reality.
To be sure, Siqueiros’ model of engaged art had its limitations. By turns a Stalinist and a self-aggrandizing visionary, incessantly productive, addicted to Baroque not to say Mannerist hypergesturalism, he was just as capable of producing pointed oppositional art as overwrought, self-indulgent theatrics. His kind of grandiose cubo-surrealist pastiche can force even a non-Greenbergian to seek the cleansing solace of austere formalism. Precisely because the work he did in LA came close to guerilla art and had to be done quickly, with limited resources, and under the pressure of having to articulate a focused militant response to imperialism and racism, it constitutes some of his very best work. I’ll hazard that Siqueiros was at his best when he was crudest and subordinated his virtuosic inclinations to the discipline of producing legible propaganda.
The painterly indulgencies he could commit, on the other hand, are all too visible in the canvases concurrently on display at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) as part of the exhibition “Siqueiros Paisajista / Siqueiros: Landscape Painter.” The show is accompanied by a number of not-to-be-lightly dismissed scholarly appreciations of his landscape painting. But it seems to me crucial to recognize that the sacrifice of easel painting and the European preciousness attached to it, under the compulsion of the collectivist Marxist stance that Siqueiros adopted early on in his career, was what enabled him to rise to the heights he did as a mural painter. Pollock, who was briefly a student of Siqueiros when the latter gave a workshop in New York in 1936, had to make a similar sacrifice for different reasons. That Siqueiros continued to produce easel paintings alongside his mural production is not something to be held against him. He would not be the first artist to require a purgative outlet for habits and pleasures that had to be excluded from his more demanding and ambitious work. By the same token, I don’t think the MoLAA show makes a convincing visual argument for Siqueiros as a compelling landscape painter. But there are some oddities, and even outright gaucheries in these works that are worth a look.
[“Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Aesthetic” also gathers a selection of prints portfolios by the artist that is worth a visit at Jose Vera Fine Art, Northeast Los Angeles--Ed.]
Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal @2010