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Mexican Muralism Meets High Modernism in L.A.

Jackson Pollock, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Philip Guston: what were they doing together in Los Angeles in 1932? And no, this isn't the start of a "three famous artists walk into a bar" joke.

The short answer: school friends Guston and Pollock met Siqueiros -- and at least one of them assisted him -- when he painted three (possibly four) murals in L.A., including Olvera Street's controversial América Tropical.

The longer answer starts with Depression-era politics, including L.A.'s Red Squad, the KKK, and the Scottsboro Boys; travels through Siqueiros's influence on "Jack the Dripper"; and lands up with Guston's 1967 return to figuration.

Born Phillip Goldstein to Jewish Ukrainian refugees, Guston attended L.A.'s Manual Arts High School. Here, says his daughter Musa Mayer, he "finally discovered a friend whose interest in art equaled his own -- Jackson Pollock."

Along with classmate Reuben Kadish, Pollock and Guston attended daily art classes in the Manual Arts basement. Dissatisfied with the school's "elevation of athletic ability" over culture however, in 1929 the trio published a rabble-rousing broadsheet: "The power and might of a school lies in its student body. You are a sleeping gaint [sic]. AWAKE AND USE YOUR STRENGTH." They were promptly expelled.

With time on their hands, Guston introduced Pollock to the East L.A. Jewish Community Center. Here the teenagers heard talks on Communism, Modernism, and Mexican Muralism.

A product of post-revolutionary Mexico, Muralism had grown from the government's desire to generate a national visual identity, while communicating socialist ideals to a largely illiterate population. In contrast to the airy easel paintings of California Impressionism that dominated L.A.'s art scene, Muralism's Modern approach to form and commitment to comprehensibility exemplified the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics.

Guston and Pollock were gripped. While Los Tres Grandes -- Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco -- had yet to work in North America, the U.S. critics were paying attention. At his eldest brother's urging Pollock tracked down a Creative Art special issue in which Orozco declared the mural "the purest and strongest form of painting." And when Orozco painted Prometheus in Pomona in 1930, Pollock visited the fiery image, which he dubbed "the greatest painting done in modern times."

By now Wall St. had crashed and the Great Depression was intensifying an existing nationwide struggle between capitalism and its opponents. In "open shop" Los Angeles the LAPD's "Red Squad" and the L.A. Times, among others, paid "a host of spies, stool pigeons and informers...to ferret out the reds." Meanwhile, as unemployment reached 25 percent, workers swelled the ranks of both "the reds" and the Klu Klux Klan, which recorded over 10,000 members in Long Beach alone.

With white supremacism influencing various levels of local governance, a February 1931 INS raid near Olvera Street, which saw over 400 Mexican and Mexican American citizens deported, set the tone for the decade.

Into this volatile mix Siqueiros stepped in April 1932. Escaping Mexican government scrutiny of his pro-communist activities, he came to teach fresco painting at the Chouinard Institute. During a seven-month stay -- his visa extension was refused -- he worked on América Tropical, Workers Meeting at Chouinard, Portrait of Mexico Today in a Santa Monica home, and a largely forgotten unfinished image of "the ordered ranks of the international proletariat" for Marxist cultural organization the John Reed Club.

The frescos were controversial. Far from the "happy Mexico" scene its commissioners anticipated for example, América Tropical scathingly critiques U.S. colonialism; while Workers Meeting portrays "North Americans: Blacks, whites and Mexicans -- in a racially integrated group." Magnets to the ire of L.A.'s establishment, the murals were quickly covered with whitewash or false walls.

Assisting Siqueiros throughout was the "Mural Bloc," which included L.A. Library muralist Dean Cornwell, Reuben Kadish, and another Pollock brother, Sande McCoy. Guston -- by now a delivery truck driver -- joined the Bloc after work, whilst Pollock -- now a resident in New York -- hitched across the States to spend the summer in L.A.

Despite the brevity of Siqueiros's visit, his impact on the younger men was profound. It remained visible and direct for at least a decade. In November 1932 for example, with Siqueiros on his way to Argentina, Guston and the Mural Bloc painted portable frescos for a John Reed Club campaign in support of the Scottsboro Boys. (The Red Squad "destroyed every one," the night before an exhibition at Hollyhock House, including Guston's image of a hooded Klansman whipping a bound black youth.) Three years later, at Siqueiros's invitation, Guston painted a mural in Michoacán (with Kadish) that again featured hooded oppressors. While from 1935-1942 the Federal Art Project employed all three artists on various murals.

Although Guston and Pollock had both rejected representation by 1951, the "pure" Abstract Expressionism of their early maturity did not represent Siqueiros outgrown. Instead, the politically committed Guston maintained a life-long relationship with Siqueiros's intent, while Pollock drew ongoing inspiration from his technical innovations and experimental approach.

Philip Guston: "Drawing for Conspirators," 1930. | Source:Wikipaintings.org

The Pollock/Siqueiros connection is usually dated to Siqueiros's 1936 Experimental Workshop in New York, but Pollock's earlier exposure undoubtedly left its mark. As Joan Marter notes in "Abstract Expressionism: The International Context:" "technical as well as thematic echoes of Tropical America are clearly visible in such early 1940's transitional works as Bird." While the immersive dynamism of Pollock's later works resonates with Siqueiros's L.A.-inspired understanding of the mural as a "beautiful 'kinetic' phenomenon."

Unlike Muralism, which produced representations of a collective struggle for freedom, Abstract Expressionism approached the process of painting as an act of individual freedom. The division between the two movements was not, however, as clean as the Cold War CIA -- which covertly promoted Abstract Expressionism -- might have liked.

Guston in particular challenged the "art for arts sake" ethos: "I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol of our time should be celebrated as a freedom," he said at the height of his Ab. Ex. embrace. But it is his politically motivated 1967 return to figuration - and the reappearance of his hooded oppressors - that best refutes a tidy separation. As he explained in 1974: "The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man was I...going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"

At a 1960 panel discussion Philip Guston said: "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself...painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities', which forces painting's continuity." In a similar way Abstract Expressionism, the movement, was not autonomous. It arose from the context and influences experienced by its practitioners.

Which is a statement that seems redundant, until we consider how little significance has accrued to Siqueiros and Orozco's influence. Could it be that, in order for Abstract Expressionism to provide a "uniquely" North American "proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the U.S.," the Stalinist from Chihuahua and the Socialist from Jalisco had to be removed from the story?

What were Siqueros, Guston, and Pollock doing in L.A. in 1932? Exchanging ideas that would seed not only Abstract Expressionism but also -- considering the influence of Guston's late figuration -- Post-modernism. To quote Guston once more: "Oh it's all so circular isn't it?"

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