Ellen Landau on Mexico and American Modernism

Mexico and American Modernism

Art historians are just beginning to uncover the influence of Mexico on American modernism. In looking beyond Europe’s effect on American modernism in the 20th century, Ellen G. Landau’s important new book, Mexico and American Modernism brings forth a piece of history long in shadow. She focuses on four crucial mid-century American artists—Philip Guston (1913-1980), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)—and draws crucial connections between these American modernists and their interaction with the Mexican muralists, expatriate Surrealists, and leftist political activists of the 1930s and 1940s.

Yale ARTbooks blogger Caroline Hayes recently posed a couple of questions to Ellen, who offered thoughtful answers.

Caroline Hayes
: How did this subject arise for you? I would love to gain insight into how this book came about. How did these connections form for you and come to create such a varying but intertwining picture of Mexico and American modernism?

Ellen G. Landau: I wrote about Pollock and the Mexicans in my 1989 Abrams monograph.  On the basis of this chapter, the director of the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf in the 1990s, Jurgen Harten, contacted me and asked if I would be one of an international group of art historians writing essays for a catalog to accompany a joint retrospective of Siqueiros and Pollock planned for 1995 in Germany.  Through this project I met a Mexican Siqueiros expert who invited me to see Siqueiros’s works in Mexico.  In the course of my research I discovered a Yale University Art Gallery/Smithsonian joint project called South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination and, perusing its catalog, realized that Noguchi and Guston had Mexican experiences about which I had not been aware.  I already knew that Motherwell spent 6 months there in 1941 with Chilean Surrealist Matta.  On a trip to Mexico I went to see the Noguchi cement mural in Mexico City and the Guston/Kadish mural in Morelia.  I immediately made visual and thematic connections between the former and Noguchi’s exposure to Martha Graham, with whose choreography I was very familiar from supervising a dissertation on American women painters and dancers.  Further digging led to my discovery that Noguchi’s sister was involved in New York socialist dance troupes, which led to my rethinking his unusually strident leftist and anti-fascist Mexico themes.  Research in the Reuben Kadish Papers in the Archives of American Art gave me access to installation shots of the Morelia mural, including the lower left post-Surrealist vignette, now severely damaged.  Seeing the pointed hats on the burning victims in the tacked-up cartoon focused my attention on a hidden Jewish message and I spent well over a year trying to identify the source.  I had originally intended 4 interesting, but different (and not necessarily connected) case studies but, after delving further into Motherwell’s Mexican experience with the Surrealists, I realized I could propose a more compelling, continuous narrative about how the epic, allegory, etc. had not been as firmly erased from Abstract Expressionism as typically thought.  The fact that these survived, in particular, in the work of my four extremely important mid-20th century American modernist artists led me to a conclusion that (for them) Mexican examples and experiences were critical.

: One thematic or perhaps methodological similarity that runs throughout the work of the American modernist artists in the book is an interest in and use of theatre. For Noguchi, the connection between theatre and his art is a very obvious one, considering his work with Martha Graham. In your analysis of Guston, you quote him saying, “The idea of evil fascinates me… I… tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan.” He called his particular works of the Klan as “self portraits.” So in that respect, he explores the power of acting as a useful tool of art-making. For him, I find a sort of redesign of history and tragedy (on both a personal and global scale) that one can also witness in classical (and many modern) theatrical productions. I am thinking of his post-surrealist still life panel from The Struggle Against Terrorism.

Next, there is the theatrical element of Mexican murals and their impact on American modernists–for example, their often Baroque-like compositions. Furthermore, for Pollock, his work is known to be a self-pronounced stage for the quest for identity, which as you interpret, is the case with all of these painters in varying ways.  But as John Berger realized, for Pollock it was a quest for identity indebted to the practice and appreciation of mural painting; the theater Pollock relied upon was “the inside walls of his mind.”

This hasn’t been a question but I’m more wondering if you could elaborate on this phenomenon.

EGL: I am not sure, Caroline, that I agree that theatricality (the “Baroqueness” of the mural by Guston and Kadish) and performativity (a concept often applied to Pollock) equate to “an interest in and use of theater” in any similar way to Noguchi’s highly influential stage designs.  It is interesting to me that you found theatricality a continuous thread that connects my four artists; to my mind, allegory is a much closer connector.  The story within a story integral to allegory allowed them to incorporate both personal and public identity issues into abstraction. Guston never acted out his imaginings about (and early experience of) evil that jump-started his work in the 1930s and to which he returned at the end of his career.  Certainly there is an element of theatrical tragedy in the Morelia post-Surrealist vignette (exemplified by the weeping mask) but it is unclear which of the two artists added that. Their falling giant is cinematic in that it is based on Siqueiros’s concept of polyangularity developed after learning to use a movie camera in Hollywood, and Guston did play bit parts in the movies.  But cinema and theater are different mediums with different forces at work for both actor and audience; yes, perhaps, these had an impact on Guston’s visual imagination, but in conjunction with a lot of other factors.  Pollock likened his working method/space to an arena in which he moved around, like a bullfighter.  There is also a difference between working on a stage versus moving about an arena.  You could argue that watching a matador or wrestlers in an arena is a theatrical experience, but performing for others was anathema to Pollock’s creativity.  Except for allowing Namuth to take photographs (he supposedly regretted this, which is why he started drinking again), it was actually critical to him that he work in solitude—no one watching, not even his wife. Therapeutically, he needed to become totally absorbed in his own world while he created.  After his public exposure in Life magazine, Pollock said he felt like “a clam without a shell.”  I guess I don’t see the “inside walls of his mind” as constituting a stage in the sense you are proposing. Motherwell claimed with pride that his Mexican wife was an actress, but (not unlike Guston) literature probably provided more of a stimulus to his pictorial ideas.

Ellen G. Landau
 is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University and the leading expert on Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. She specializes in 20th-century American and European art and theory.

Caroline Hayes  recently graduated from New York University with a degree in Comparative Literature and was a summer intern in Yale University Press’s Art Workshop.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.