Exhibition Essay by Diane Miliotes

José Clemente Orozco in the Rearview Mirror

By Diane Miliotes

Fig 1
Fig. 1 - Orozco Room (click to enlarge)

The idea of dedicating a New School exhibition to Re-Imagining Orozco at this tumultuous moment in time—one with apparently so many parallels to the early Depression era during which Orozco painted his murals at the school—seems entirely apropos. Seen from almost eighty years of distance, Orozco and his murals on the theme of universal brotherhood and future political avenues appear prophetic and disarmingly contemporary in their skeptical approach toward universalizing ideologies and the notion of linear human progress. [fig.1] While Orozco nurtured a utopian drive, he could never quite convince himself to be one, and he would perhaps not have been too surprised to find that many of the obstacles and struggles of his time still have correspondences today. Most of the artists contributing to this thought-provoking exhibition, organized by The New School Art Collection and the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons, appear to agree with Orozco’s assessment as it might apply to our present state of world affairs. Nevertheless, their work challenges us to re-engage with Orozco’s historical achievements and propositions at the same time that it serves as an invigorating reminder of what has indeed changed in the intervening years in artistic, technological, political, and social terms.i

Fig 2
Fig. 2 - The Struggle of the Orient, 1031, Orozco, fresco (click to enlarge)


Fig 3
Fig. 3 - The Table of Universal Brotherhood,
1031 Orozco, fresco
(click to enlarge)

When Orozco completed his murals at The New School in 1931, he not only sought to advance his career as a public artist in New York, his adopted home since 1927, but to place in conversation the choices, as he saw them, facing a world that had recently been plunged into crisis, from the economic and social meltdown of the Great Depression to the stirrings of fascism. His frescoes visualize these choices in both specific and oddly circumspect fashion. On the one hand, he offered viewers competing portraits of major political or revolutionary leaders, such as Lenin and Gandhi, while, on the other, his decidedly non-linear arrangement of panels forestalls any preferential reading of a particular political movement or a satisfactory resolution to the questions posed by his cycle. [fig. 2] Indeed the most celebrated panel, The Table of Universal Brotherhood, is only nominally utopian, registering Orozco’s ambivalent view of the possibilities for human collaboration. [fig. 3] Instead Orozco chose to shape a debative and purposely inconclusive visual statement that sought to incite a particular audience—of students, faculty, activists, thinkers, donors, and others associated with The New School, as well as a larger New York public—to grapple with questions surrounding their political present and future.

Fig 4  
Fig. 4 - Re-Imagining Orozco,
exhibition view
(click to enlarge)
 

It is in this spirit of thoughtful, engaged debate and collaboration that The New School Art Collection curators Silvia Rocciolo and Eric Stark have organized Re-Imagining Orozco. [fig. 4] Comprised by visual, textual, and audio contributions by invited artists, faculty, and students, the exhibition reopens, through a contemporary prism, a conversation begun by Orozco in his murals around the issues of revolution, utopian thought, and the political, as well as providing a platform for reconsidering the relevance of Orozco’s legacy. As part of the show’s conceptualization and practice, the curators have crafted an unprecedented intra-institutional dialogue within The New School that mirrors in many ways what Orozco likely wished to encourage in his intended audience. The exhibition itself enacts and materializes these multiple layers of dialogue and collaboration: among the curators, the principal contemporary artist Enrique Chagoya, and students and faculty from diverse administrative units around the school, including The New School for Social Research, Parsons Animation, Illustration, and Product Design programs, Lang College’s Public Art Squad, New School’s Jazz and Drama programs, among others. Moreover, Orozco, as inspirational counterpoint and interlocutor, haunts the gallery space in the form of large, strategically placed projections of his mural cycle. [fig. 5] Removed from their original context, the historical specificities of his frescoes are both dissolved and allowed free play within the installation, resonating with their appropriations and reinterpretations by the contemporary contributors.

Fig 5
Fig. 5 - Re-Imagining Orozco,
exhibition view
(click to enlarge)
Fig 6
Fig. 6 - Homage to Orozco # 2, 2010,
Chagoya, sumi ink drawings on paper
(click to enlarge)

Of these, Chagoya’s three Homages to Orozco, large-scale sumi ink drawings on paper, represent the most sustained and complex response to Orozco’s work and legacy. [fig. 6] In their scale and stark red and black palette they recall his works from the 1990s and late 2000s satirizing the Reagan and George W. Bush years, but they have the most in common with his series of “forgeries,” which channel the critical edge and historical resonances of other admired artists (like Goya and Guston). In such works Chagoya revises his signature “reverse anthropological” aesthetic approach that pits the images of a dominant culture against itself through the clash of the familiar and estranged, the riff and scramble of collage and appropriation. Like the “forgeries,” rather than working against the grain of a dominant cultural legacy, his Homages are largely an appropriation in concert with Orozco. This represents a subtle yet bold artistic move on Chagoya’s part since his encounter with Orozco here is not limited to The New School murals. It is also a confrontation with the cultural weight of Mexican muralism itself, a politically and artistically charged, as well as suffocatingly canonical, tradition from which Mexican artists of Chagoya’s generation have sought to distinguish themselves. Despite Orozco’s prominent place within Mexican muralism, the mordant aspects of his work have often made it stubbornly resistant to facile political instrumentalization, and Chagoya milks these critical and resistant qualities in his promiscuous borrowing from the artist’s repertoire, appropriating not only from his murals but from small scale drawings and prints, in which Orozco particularly excelled in caricature, expressionistic flair, and satirical bite. In some of Chagoya’s images one can finger the sources and their resonances, especially those from the important 1945 series La Verdad (Truth),ii while others are his own sly Orozco-style inventions whose references are nevertheless recognizable to the knowledgeable viewer. Chagoya exploits the caricatural and expressive freedoms allowed by this mash-up to meet Orozco on his own grand scale. At 92 x 140 inches these monumental drawings are the largest works he has made to date,iii and Chagoya not only extends some of them beyond their edges by painting directly onto the walls of the gallery but emphasizes the provisional, impermanent, spontaneous, and chaotic qualities of his ink medium to suggest what a revised notion of engaged contemporary “wall” painting might look like in conversation with the Mexican mural tradition.

Fig 7  
Fig. 7 - detail from Homage to Orozco #2,
2010, Chagoya
(click to enlarge)
 

Each of Chagoya’s drawings anchors an area of the installation, creating zones of dialogue with the projections of the murals, as well as other surrounding works. Homage to Orozco #2, Chagoya’s powerful contribution to the exhibition’s initial section, confronts alternating images of The New School panels Struggle in the Orient and Struggle in the Occident, which feature Orozco’s iconic representations of leaders of the communist, socialist, and pacifist movements. Elaborating on themes raised in these panels, particularly political ideologies and leader-mass dynamics in revolutionary movements, Chagoya’s Homage positions ineffectual, googly eyed figures of Lenin and Gandhi, respectively as supplicating calavera and as grinning head perched upon a single shapely leg, among the rude, guffawing masses (an iconographic appropriation of Orozco’s scathing print of the same name). [fig. 7] Balanced above them on a bloody soapbox towers a multi-layered medusa-like monstrosity, half-beast, half-human, a visualization of uncontrollable, unknowable destructive power. Based upon the drawing The Devil from the Verdad series, Chagoya transforms the serpent heads of the original into wildly writhing appendages, further underlining the figure’s threatening power as well as its references to pre-Hispanic art and myth. Around this idol clamor the unending masses, whose image Chagoya extends not only to the horizon but beyond the confines of the paper along the walls of the gallery in such a way as to include and implicate us as viewers. This sense of the inescapable, infinite, and cyclical, attributes also associated with the circular serpent forms that hover above and within the image, establishes a tone within the exhibition quite distinct from Orozco’s ambivalent yet open-ended murals. It is a tone nearing impossibility and verging on clear-eyed dread of both the present and the future.

Fig 8
Fig. 8 - Exhibition View
(click to enlarge)

Homage to Orozco #1, which includes Chagoya’s take on Orozco’s Table of Universal Brotherhood, dominates the adjacent gallery space, a large area of the exhibition that extends an invitation to consider in various ways the utopian proposition of Orozco’s panel. [fig. 8] Besides Chagoya’s work, it is occupied by a large projection of the Table panel itself as part of an animation created by the Parsons Orozco Animation Seminar; at the center of the gallery a gently glowing reconstruction of Orozco’s table, with the computer upon it set to the exhibition web page and blog, inviting a 21st-century version of participation; and the Utopian Timeline created by Lang College Public Art Squad, which offers an imaginative, and strangely hopeful, alternative history to that of the last seventy-nine years through a wry attentiveness to historic missed opportunities as well as to the challenges of an imagined world organized around equality.

Fig 9  
Fig. 9 - Orozco’s Table Re-Imagined,
Designed by TODA
(click to enlarge)
 

While Orozco’s panel, with its static gathering and open expanse of table occupied only by an uninscribed book, holds the viewer in skeptical suspense, Chagoya’s caustically comical Homage thrusts before us the grim reality of human fate and the seeming insurmountability of contemporary problems. [fig. 9] A dripping, oozing skull, a monumental calavera, symbol of ever-present and equalizing death, dominates the left half of the sheet and towers over the tiny figures gathered at the barely outlined table. The table itself and the contorted figure upon it, appropriated from Orozco’s Verdad series, dwarf Chagoya’s new representatives of universal “brotherhood:” Mao, Queen Elizabeth, and Washington on the right, and Andy Warhol, Stephen Hawking, and Dolores Huerta on the left, the latter group an unlikely contemporary trinity of art, science, and labor in emulation of the allegorical panel that opens Orozco’s mural cycle. [fig. 10] Like Lenin and Gandhi, the authority of each of these figures is undermined by the addition of googly eyes, making them appear apprehensive or absurdly insensible to the grotesque break dance of harsh reality that tries to attract their attention. This humorous, off-kilter touch makes such an unsparing vision bearable, an idea that Chagoya extends in further homage to the artist by surrounding the large drawing with a welter of Orozco-inspired student prints and small caricatures, the latter painted directly onto the wall in collaboration with student assistants.

  Fig 10
  Fig. 10 - detail from Homage
to Orozco #1
, 2010, Chagoya,
sumi ink on paper
(click to enlarge)

Nearby, Orozquian humor and satire as strategies of critique and productive dislocation are also mobilized, in a more technologically forward fashion, in Re-Imagining Orozco: Table of Universal Brotherhood 2010, an animation created by students in the Parsons Orozco Animation Seminar. While sharing with Orozco a belief in the cyclical nature of human suffering and striving and with Chagoya the intractability of global problems, the animators probe, and seek to rectify, the artist’s historic soft spots, as well as directing our attention to the follies of the present political moment, from the Gulf oil spill to the health care debate to tensions with Iran. In their updating of an all-inclusive table of world discussion, the animators begin their re-imaginings with a “table of sisterhood,” which soon multiplies into a mosaic of tables peopled by leaders, celebrities, writers, artists, and peacemakers from diverse walks of life and nationalities. These surfaces eventually evolve into a virtual “electronic grid” that references our radically changed notions of communication, collaboration, and community.

It is the improbability of building genuine community across class and other lines that animates Chagoya’s third and final Homage, placed adjacent to the projection of Orozco’s idealized panel Homecoming of the Worker of the New Day, as well as the faux museum shop featuring incisive creations by Product Design students. Chagoya’s drawing evokes one of Orozco’s caricatures of elites from the Verdad series, Poor and Rich, in which upper class figures share an unlikely embrace with the beastly and unclean. In Chagoya’s version, however, these creatures still harbor the remnants of class consciousness, borne in the innocuous form of playthings, Marx and Dalai Lama dolls, and over the entire group hovers a bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid, whose literal and metaphorical cleansing properties here extend far beyond the kitchen or crude oil spills. [fig. 11]

Fig 11  
Fig. 11 - Homage to Orozco #3
(click to enlarge)
 

This vision of a present in which old formulas no longer function, and in which humankind seems incapable of meeting the enormous task set before us by our own destructiveness, runs throughout the exhibition. Like Orozco, in the face of such circumstances these artists have refused to prescribe a future path. What they and the exhibition curators have done however, through exploring new aesthetic and technological avenues, is to underline the necessity for engagement, collaboration, and clear-eyed assessments. These goals were at the heart of Orozco’s enterprise. In restoring the artist and his work to the center of a contemporary public debate on the political function of art, this exhibition allows us to see Orozco reflected through a different lens at the same time that we turn to catch a glimpse of the creative potentials for the future.

i For a fuller analysis of this aspect of the murals, see Diane Miliotes, “The Murals at The New School for Social Research (1930-31),” José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934 (New York and London: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, in association with W. W. Norton), 118-141, esp. 139-141.

ii The series consists of approximately eighty works, most of which Orozco produced in July 1945 and showed in the third annual exhibition of the Colegio Nacional; Ernesto Lumbreras, “La Verdad, México, 1945,” in José Clemente Orozco: Pintura y Verdad (Guadalajara: Instituto Cultural Cabañas, 2010), 364. See also José Clemente Orozco, Serie “La Verdad” (Mexico City: Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil/Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes), 2004.

iii These are the dimensions of Homage to Orozco #1 and #2. Homage #3 is slightly smaller at 90 x 120 inches. Personal communication with the artist, Aug. 4, 2010.

Diane Miliotes is an independent art historian, curator, and educator based in Chicago. A specialist in art of the interwar years, and in particular modern art of Latin America, she currently lectures at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she organized the exhibition “José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican Broadside” (2006). She has previously taught and curated at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College. While at Dartmouth, she co-curated the international traveling exhibition “José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934” (2002-2003), and she is currently co-curator of “José Clemente Orozco: Pintura y Verdad” (2010-2011), a retrospective of the artist’s work that is now touring Mexico

 
Connect with the New School