The return of realism: Siqueiros and the Neo-Avantgarde (1958-1974)
Let us break all the chains-
Let us smash all mirrors-
Let us destroy all echoes-
Let us shatter the entire machine-
Otherwise our liberation will be a bitter delusion and our effort something stained with blood and dirt
David Alfaro Siqueiros,”Burning Embers”, 1965
During the 1960s and 70s, David Alfaro Siqueiros’s (1896-1974) career as a painter unfolded under tense circumstances amidst violent and traumatic episodes including his imprisonment in Lecumberri Penitentiary and the anti-war protests of the Vietnam War. His critical posturing was understood from two different points of view: on the one hand, he was seen as an agent of resistance and renewal in the field of art, a “subversive dialectic,” to use his own words; on the other, he was a living embodiment of the traditions of the atavistic old guard of politics, which had nothing to do with the anti-nationalist preoccupations of a newer generation of Americanized youth in Mexico. Caught somewhere between these two contrary outlooks, gripped in the clutches of the Cold War era, a sense of realism resurged in Siqueiros’s work in the guise of a dialogue that sought either to disqualify it—in favor of abstract art—– or defend it as an artistic playbook of political and aesthetic war tactics.
This realism boiled down to an analytical reinvestigation by Siqueiros of his own work and the iconography appearing in it, starting with the concepts of “public art” and “composition.” Two of his earlier murals suddenly became ominous symbols of aggression: América Tropical / Tropical America (1932), painted in Los Angeles only to be covered over with whitewash later that same year, and Cuauhtémoc Contra el Mito / Cuauhtemoc Against the Myth (1944), taken down violently in 1963 while the artist was still in prison. Revisiting the first work, he used it to produce a new composition as a message of support for the Chicano movement during the Sixties; taking up the second mural again, he chose to restore it by readapting it for the newly built Centro Urbano de Nonoalco-Tlatelolco. This act of returning to the same mural paintings by reproducing them in photographic format while simultaneously reconfiguring them according to his newest ideas of composition, successfully recast Mexican Muralism as a new strain of realism caught in the grip of turbulent moments of history, all for the purpose of establishing a critical pedagogy that would reveal Muralism as a utopian toolkit for Neo-Avantgarde artists.
On this quest to reinvent his work, Siqueiros would mentor, advise and collaborate with playwrights he met in prison, beat poets and poets from all over Latin America, Marxist writers and theorists, Chicano civil rights leaders, experimental artists and art students, photographers and documentary filmmakers. These young artists would later prove to be his comrades in arms at various moments in history, including the Mexican Railroad Workers’ Strike, the attacks on Cuba, and the People’s Democratic Movement in1968, yet they were also his immediate collaborators in prison as he worked as a set designer for the production La Marcha de la Humanidad / The March of Humanity at Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros.
The Return of Realism: Siqueiros and the Neo-Avantgarde is a reexamination of the museum holdings and documentary archives of the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros (SAPS), which also incorporates artworks and documents from other institutions including the Archivo General de la Nación and various private collections. This inquiry aims to offer a starting point and an invitation for others to explore the final decades of Siqueiros’s life as an artist from within the artistic context of his time. This analysis of the political turmoil in Siqueiros’s own life, his insistence on iconographic repetition, and his own discursive contextualization of his work opens the way for an increasingly complex critical study of the muralist’s final years of artistic production. This show is organized around particular turning points in the artist’s life, uncovering specific individuals with whom Siqueiros exchanged ideas, collaborated, or clashed along ideological lines. During these dark decades of repression and turbulence, realism returned as a blazing, live ember of the revolution.
Julio García Murillo