A new exhibition at the Smithsonian reveals the intimate connection between Mexican modernist Rufino Tamayo and New York City.
In 1920s New York, Mexico was hot. While our southern neighbor had long been little more than a few shopworn stereotypes in the minds of most Americans, the Mexican Revolution of 1911–20 had generated a burst of enthusiasm for the vibrant new political and artistic culture that was being created there. The so-called Mexican vogue in the U.S., which lasted until World War II, was given a huge boost by Mexican artists who lived and worked in New York and got commissions to practice the new Mexican form of mural art in the city. The highest-profile of these pioneer expats was Diego Rivera, followed by José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, collectively known as Los Tres Grandes (the Big Three).
But there was another great Mexican artist living and working in New York during that time, Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991). Not a muralist but an easel painter, he was a quieter, perhaps less self-promoting figure than the others, and his international reputation didn’t really begin to build until the 1940s. Starting on November 3, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will broaden the discourse around this artist by presenting “Tamayo: The New York Years.” Running through March 18, 2018, the exhibition will display 42 major works to tell a double story—one about the influence the city had on the artist and the other about the influence the artist eventually had on the international art world via the New York School, otherwise known as the Abstract Expressionists.
Tamayo first visited New York in September 1926, for an extended stay of nearly two years. He was coming off a recent success in Mexico City, where he had mounted his own solo show in a vacant storefront and received major critical acclaim. The Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida wrote, “He is hardworking, studious, investigative, attentive to the problems inherent to the plastic arts, and, above all, perfectly receptive to his own self.” Most tellingly, Mérida observed that Tamayo had invented “a Mexicanism without the picturesque.” This comment was a clear, if somewhat veiled, reference to the muralist movement, which relied heavily on the glamour of exotic depictions of Mexican “local color” while using techniques that were almost wholly European. In Mérida, Tamayo found a kindred spirit, for he himself was out of patience with the muralist approach. In her essay for the show’s catalogue, E. Carmen Ramos, the Smithsonian’s curator of Latin American art, writes, “Tamayo embraced notions of arte puro, or pure art, which circulated in some Mexican avant-garde artistic circles that championed artists’ individual, rather than sociopolitical and collective, approaches to modern Mexican art. His aesthetic position led him to vocally contest—both in Mexico and the United States—the work of the muralists, which he rejected as folkloric and nationalist paintings of Mexican subjects rather than Mexican painting.”
Eventually, Tamayo would arrive at what he called “a new modality in Mexican painting,” but in 1926 that was years away. He was still finding his direction, and his original plan was to go to Paris. Since that was financially impossible, he chose New York instead, traveling with a musician friend, Carlos Chávez, and settling in Greenwich Village, then at the height of its bohemian fame. When he arrived, Tamayo spoke no English, but that didn’t stop him from rapidly inserting himself into a number of creative communities—one of Mexican intellectuals who hung out at the midtown bookstore run by poet Juan José Tablada; one of American artists who lived near Tamayo’s apartment in the Village, including Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Raphael and Moses Soyer, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi; and a circle of art dealers and impresarios including Walter Pach (who had organized the 1913 Armory Show), Carl Zigrosser of Weyhe Gallery, and future gallerist and Surrealist promoter Julien Levy, then working as an assistant to Zigrosser.
Among the Mexican intellectuals was the writer and artist Miguel Covarrubias, who was already becoming well known as a caricaturist. Covarrubias introduced Tamayo to the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, Frank Crowninshield, a passionate collector of African tribal art. Crowninshield saw a close kinship between African art and Mexican indigenous art, which contributed to his enthusiasm for Tamayo’s work and led him to write the catalogue text for a solo show that Tamayo had at the Art Center in New York in 1928. That was a nice piece of promotion for the young artist, but it was somewhat patronizing and inaccurate, relying on an essentialist racial dialectic to interpret Tamayo’s work. Since Tamayo was of Indian descent, Crowninshield opined that his work showed a “racial spirit” and was “not from the teachings of any master.” Covarrubias, a member of Mexico’s white upper class, was eventually to write an important book about the culture of the Zapotec Indians; his friend Tamayo was a real Zapotec Indian. However, he was by no means an untutored primitive. In Mexico City, he had trained at the conservative Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes and then taught art in primary schools using the drawing method established by the pioneering art theorist and educator Adolfo Best Maugard. And much of what Tamayo knew about Pre-Columbian art came not from his ancestors but from a stint drawing objects in the collection of the National Museum of Anthropology.
Armed with this background (though not unwilling to play along with the Yanquis’ desire to see him as an embodiment of Indian folk traditions), Tamayo set about visiting all the museums in New York and gorging on classic European and modern art. He also saturated himself in the living museum of New York itself, sketching and painting scenes that caught his imagination, such as Coney Island. One painting in the Smithsonian show, though made during Tamayo’s second, much longer stay in New York (1936–1950), conveys the impression the Brooklyn amusement park made on him. Carnival (1936) is a wild congeries of roller coasters, Ferris wheels, flags, and gaudily costumed performers all superimposed on each other in space-negating fashion so that color and expression are all. As Ramos points out, Coney Island reminded Tamayo of entertainment spectacles from back home, and the combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity made for an exceptionally strong painting.
This synthesis between elements the artist brought with him and elements he found in New York or through New York shows up again and again. Seashells (1929) is a still life that juxtaposes disparate objects, some natural and some industrial, in a manner similar to that of Stuart Davis. It also owes something to the paradoxical incongruities of stillness created by Giorgio de Chirico, whose work Tamayo first saw in New York and admired greatly. Academic Painting, with its references to the tools of European classical art, is particularly Chiricoesque. Influences from Picasso, Braque, and especially Matisse also came into Tamayo’s work during the late ’20s, again due to his exposure to their work in New York museums and galleries. This openness of Tamayo’s led to some critical misunderstanding, with one reviewer calling him more of a colorist than a nationalist.” But Tamayo’s national qualities were more subtle and required no direct quotation of traditionalist subject matter. For example, New York Seen from the Terrace (1937), gives us an inspiringly panoramic view of the city, but instead of the usual gray, the skyline is imbued with patches of vivid red against a pea-green sky, and two luscious-looking watermelon slices lie on a table in the foreground. This is New York with a transfusion of Mexican soul.
In the late 1930s, Tamayo’s star began to rise as American critical opinion, even among those who admired Mexican art, turned against the muralists, who had come to seem bombastic and passé. A critic for the leftist journal Art Front wrote that Tamayo’s art “soars above the work of most of his compatriots” and that his “is the most lyrical voice to come out of that country.” It appeared that Tamayo’s more apolitical, aesthetically oriented agenda was coming into its own. In the early ’40s, American museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Phillips Collection started acquiring his work, and he started becoming a celebrity of sorts. In 1947 Irving Penn took his picture for Vogue as part of series on figures who were helping turn New York into the world’s new cultural center.
At this point, Tamayo began to be an influencer of American art. The New York School artists, who were just then crystallizing what would come to be called Abstract Expressionists, found inspiration in Tamayo’s fresh, individualistic approach to traditional materials. Like him, they were interested in Native American myth, symbolism, and graphic methods, and like him they had little interest in deploying these elements in anything like a literal fashion. Although he personally had little connection with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb, his works were frequently shown alongside theirs in exhibitions. Gottlieb in particular was seen as having an affinity with Tamayo. In a 1945 article, Barnett Newman wrote, “Tamayo and Gottlieb are alike in that, working in the free atmosphere of the art tradition of the School of Paris, they have their roots deep in the great art traditions of our American aborigines. This artistic synthesis has permitted them to produce works that are making a powerful imprint on the art of our times, both in America and in Europe. Only by this kind of contribution is there any hope for the possible development of a truly American art, whereas the attempts of our nationalist politics and artists, in both South and North America, have failed and must continue to do so.” This was vindication not only for Tamayo’s art concepts but for his insistence that to come to its highest fruition, art had to free itself of politics.
Tamayo would always remain a figurative artist, though, and in statements made in later life he distanced himself from the Abstract Expressionists. His art was never one for coteries or movements, and after he left New York permanently in 1950, he and his wife settled in Paris rather than in Mexico. Nonetheless, he never forgot the crucible where his art was formed, and he was proud to say, “New York made me.”
By John Dorfman