MoMA and the Mexican moment in New York


Art movements rarely conform to national borders; nor are they the result of artists’ efforts alone. Transnational networks of individuals and institutions often play an essential role in the research, interpretation and defense of radically new works of art.

This was never more the case than during the “Mexican moment” of the twentieth century, a period of intense cultural dialogue between Mexico and the United States, which began around 1920, after the conclusion of the armed phase of the United States. Mexican revolution, and lasted for about two decades. Centered on the Mexican Renaissance, a socially engaged cultural flowering widely recognized as a critical chapter in twentieth-century art history, this vast cultural phenomenon has been activated by artists, museum curators, gallery owners, writers. and publishers from both countries. Working in a variety of fields, from fine arts to crafts and from literature to journalism, these personalities have created and promoted an art that has pioneered a synthesis of ancient and indigenous traditions and modernist aesthetics. international.

In the 1920s and 1930s, three American cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York – were the most active centers of cultural exchange between Mexico and the United States. Together, they have served to assimilate contemporary Mexican art into the American mainstream, forming an arc from the avant-garde to the establishment. Yet what happened in Chicago and Los Angeles happened in New York in even bolder letters. New York was the epicenter of the nation’s art gallery scene. It was also the publishing capital of the country, encompassing mainstream publications as well as politically radical publications. Patrons of the city have provided essential funding for the promotion of modern Mexican art.

The principal of these patrons was the Rockefeller family. John D. Rockefeller, Jr, a descendant of the family business, sought to advance his broad economic interests in Mexican oil production, while elevating his family’s international cultural standing by championing cutting-edge art emanating from Mexico. These goals clashed in 1932 when Rockefeller commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a mural, “The Man at a Crossroads”, at Rockefeller Center (then under construction), to destroy the artwork when the he leftist artist inserted an image of Vladimir Lenin in his portrayal of a positive future.

Although Rivera was forced to destroy his mural for Rockefeller Center, he created an almost identical version that hangs at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

The Rockefeller family was also intimately involved in Mexican art through the activities of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who in 1929 co-founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Under the direction of its first director, Alfred H Barr Jr., MoMA had purchased paintings and works on paper by “los tres grandes” of the Mexican muralist movement: Rivera, David Alvaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. Two years before taking over as head of MoMA, Barr had met Rivera in Moscow as members of the international art world gathered to help prepare for the celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In 1932, on the strength of this meeting, the MoMA presented its second monographic exhibition (after an exhibition of the work of Henri Matisse), this one on Rivera. The exhibition set an attendance record for the new institution.

Six weeks before the opening of the exhibition, Rivera had traveled to New York as a guest of MoMA and worked hard with two assistants in the studio space of the museum itself, to produce five “murals”. portable ‘- freestanding, frescoed plaster units – on Mexican themes. (The one depicting Emiliano Zapata would become an icon in the museum’s permanent collection.) Rivera quickly created three additional panels depicting New York.

Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City
The Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City contains a copy of the Diego Rivera mural that Rockefeller destroyed.

Eight years later, in 1940, these works by Rivera were exhibited in the Museum’s flagship exhibition. Twenty centuries of Mexican art. Described in a press release as “the largest and most comprehensive Mexican art exhibit ever,” the exhibit was a collaboration between the museum and the Mexican government. It included 5,000 objects, ranging from pre-Columbian, colonial and modern art to folk and folk art, including pottery and masks. The exhibit occupied all three floors of the recently completed museum building in midtown Manhattan. It extended to the museum garden, where a Mexican-style market stood alongside reproductions of pre-Columbian sculptures on a monumental scale. An opening filled with stars caught the attention of the international press. The museum also commissioned conductor and composer Carlos Chavez to present a series of Mexican music concerts, including a piece inspired by the sounds made by ancient Aztec instruments. The museum’s ambitious venture was complemented by commercial events beyond its walls; reflecting the era’s American fascination with all things Mexican, Macy’s department store, Kresge’s five and ten-cent stores, and local New York vendors featured displays of Mexican paintings, furniture, and pottery in their stores. showcases.

The exhibit, for which there was a bilingual catalog, was a virtual analogue of the entire network phenomenon connecting the United States and Mexico. Of the nearly ninety contemporary artists represented in the exhibition, many had previously exhibited in the United States, collectively serving to exhibit Mexican art to a large American audience; many had in fact visited, lived, or taught in New York City, including Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros. Rufino Tamayo and the Mexican of French origin Jean Charlot, who participated in the exhibition, will then settle in New York. Leveraging his already considerable reputation in New York City as an illustrator for Vanity Show magazine, Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias played several roles in the creation of the MoMA exhibition. Not only did he loan parts of his important collection of pre-Columbian art to the exhibition, but he also organized his section of modern Mexican art and contributed an essay to the catalog.

New York Museum of Modern Art

While Twenty centuries of Mexican art was seen by some observers as a culmination of cultural exchanges between the United States and Mexico, others saw it as the beginning of the end. Journalist and arts promoter Anita Brenner, who had brought together influential artists and gallery owners, publishers, curators and collectors and had herself been part of a transnational community that supported avant-garde art and political causes of the left, wrote in the pages of Harper’s magazine that the involvement of the Museum of Modern Art – an institution she criticized for celebrating only the famous – marked a radical shift from experimentation to first-rate acceptance. The “Mexican moment” was soon to fade. He was overshadowed by the non-figurative, apolitical approach of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist Painters, which after World War II took the international art world and the Museum of Modern Art by storm.


You want to know more ? The authors will be giving an online course in early November; Click here to join: “The Mexican moment in New York”. This program is another feature of GothamEd, offering digital courses for the public year round with leading experts and academics in New York City history. It is presented by the Gotham Center, at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, for more than twenty years the principal academic institution devoted to the history of the city of New York. Untapped New York Insiders get 20% off classes at Gotham Center using code UNYINSIDER (and get your first month free with code JOINUS).


Then read about 8 historic New York City murals that have been discovered, saved, or at risk of being destroyed!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back To Top