José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) was a leading member of the Mexican muralist public art movement, along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. He completed his five socially-themed New School frescoes (a technique of applying pigment onto freshly-prepared plaster) in mid-January 1931, incorporating them into Austrian architect Joseph Urban’s radical and new international style building. Originally, the rooms they currently occupy were the public dining room and an adjoining student lounge. Today, they are the only permanent, public examples of this Mexican fresco form in New York City.
Alma Reed, Orozco’s art dealer, proposed to donate the project for only the cost of expenses. The New School for Social Research’s founding president Alvin Johnson wrote, “What could have been my feeling when Orozco, the greatest mural painter of our time, proposed to contribute a mural. All I could say was, ‘God bless you. Paint me the picture. Paint as you must. I assure you freedom.’”
Working with Lois Wilcox, his sole assistant, Orozco had just 47 days to paint the murals due to delays in the building’s construction. Five major works resulted: Science, Labor, and Art introduces the cycle (hallway); Homecoming of the Worker of the New Day; Struggle in the Orient; Struggle in the Occident; and Table of Universal Brotherhood (Orozco Room).
Embracing a larger theme of the “Delphic Circle,” or universal brotherhood, human imagery includes enslaved masses under British imperialism confronted by the figure of Gandhi, the socialist revolution in Mexico personified by the figure of the slain Governor of Yucatán, Felipe Carrillo Puerto and the Marxist revolution in Russia led by Lenin. Central on the rear wall, Table of Universal Brotherhood shows figures of two Asians, an African, a Sikh, a Tartar, a Mexican-Indian, an African-American, an American art critic, a French philosopher, a Zionist and a Dutch poet.
Dominated by an earthy red palette with shades of gray, black and brown, the works have a 14th century Giotto-like stylistic severity. Orozco experimented with “dynamic symmetry”, a technique that utilized geometric forms as a strategy for activating the compositional structure.
The murals, inaugurated on January 19, 1931, initially met with negative reviews. The public debate that followed (in part due to the inclusion of Lenin and Stalin, as well as the depiction of an African-American seated at the head of the Table of Universal Brotherhood) drew some 20,000 visitors in the first few months. In the 1950’s, at the height of the McCarthy era, the New School administration elected to cover the portion of the panel depicting Lenin and Stalin with a yellow curtain. After vigorous student and faculty protests, the administration restored the murals to their original state.
Orozco’s vision, in its uncompromising intensity and fervent political spirit, has remained intact over the years, notwithstanding the changing nature of artistic, political, social and institutional sensibilities.