The Autry National Center will shed new light on one of the world’s most influential artistic developments of the 20th century—and bring attention to a critical but little-known moment in the growth of the Los Angeles cultural scene—when it presents the new exhibition Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied from September 24, 2010 to January 9, 2011.
Organized by the Autry National Center in partnership with Legacy & Legend Productions, with loans of artworks and materials from major public and private collections throughout the United States and Mexico, this groundbreaking exhibition focuses on a turning point in the career of David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), an artist who is world-famous (along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco) as one of the three great Mexican mural painters of the 20th century.
During the course of a seven-month stay in Los Angeles in 1932, Siqueiros painted three murals: Street Meeting, América Tropical and Portrait of Mexico Today. His aesthetically and politically challenging work met with resistance—Street Meeting and América Tropical were whitewashed shortly after they were created—and these three paintings were the only murals Siqueiros would ever make in the United States. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles murals proved to be decisive for Siqueiros in developing his concepts and techniques, and were equally decisive for generations of artists who followed in Los Angeles.
“The murals Siqueiros created during his time in Los Angeles have come to epitomize the historical mistreatment of art. Its destruction by civic leaders provides a contemporary lesson in the consequences of intolerance,” says Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied curator and exhibition originator Luis C. Garza. “Paradoxically, Siqueiros murals are much more than a symbol of artistic censorship and prejudice—for they have profoundly influenced the mural movement so interwoven into today’s Los Angeles, a city with over fifteen hundred public murals. This legacy in public art, despite its treatment, is considerable.”
The exhibition tells this story for the first time, using a mixture of more than 100 paintings, drawings, photographs, mural sketches, reproductions and historical documents, along with a video presentation and an accompanying publication.
“When Siqueiros dared to boldly challenge the officially sanctioned story of North America,” notes the Autry’s Vice President for Exhibitions, Jonathan Spaulding, “he inspired generations to reclaim their history and their voices within it. The Autry has a long and proud tradition of major exhibitions exploring the shared history and culture of the U.S. and Mexican borderlands. In this exhibition, we consider the ways that history, powerfully re-imagined, can reshape our future.”
The Autry’s presentation of Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied is part of Los Angeles’s city-wide commemoration in 2010 of the centennial of the Mexican Revolution and the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence.
“After decades of being hidden within the Placita Olvera buildings, the mural América Tropical is reemerging as is the presence of muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros in Los Angeles. We are delighted that his work and legacy will be exhibited by The Autry National Center as we commemorate the Bicentennial of Mexico’s Independence and the Centennial of the Mexican Revolution, both historical landmarks that were masterfully represented by Siqueiros,” said Consul General of Mexico in Los Angeles, Juan Marcos Gutiérrez González.
Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied will tell its story in four sections, each dedicated to a particular theme and period in the artist’s life.
The exhibition begins with Siqueiros’s formative years in Mexico featuring photographs of his family and school, artworks by a variety of artists reflecting the period of the Mexican Revolution, and materials relating to his early political activities. A member of the Mexican Communist Party, Siqueiros helped to found a union, the Syndicate of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, and its newspaper El Machete. As the Syndicate became more critical of the revolutionary government, it faced governmental threats to cut financial support for mural projects and El Machete—causing a feud within the members of the union and placing Siqueiros at the forefront of the controversy. His continued involvement in the union and labor activities led to jail and eventual exile to the United States.
This exile included a seven-month stay in Los Angeles explored in the middle section of the exhibition. The Los Angeles that Siqueiros encountered when he arrived in 1932 is profiled with historical and cultural materials documenting the city as it then existed, the modern cultural influence of Mexico (including the activities of Orozco and Rivera) and the events leading up to the creation of Siqueiros’s first mural in Los Angeles, Street Meeting. Painted on an outdoor wall of the Chouinard School of Art, one of the world’s leading visual art schools and forerunner of today’s California Institute of the Arts, Street Meeting depicted a militant union organizer addressing a multi-ethnic crowd on a Los Angeles street corner. Siqueiros was the first to use an industrial spray gun to paint the mural onto the cement exterior wall—a technique which would impact the work of future generations of mural and graffiti artists, and a pivotal influencer of the Chicano Art Movement.
The third section of the exhibition is devoted to Siqueiros’s most important work in Los Angeles, América Tropical. Located on historic Olvera Street, this seminal project proved to be crucial for Siqueiros, in terms of both technique and theme. Formally, the project prompted Siqueiros to take a more dynamic approach to painting large-scale works for outdoor viewers. Thematically, the central image—a South American Indian peasant, crucified beneath a North American eagle—crystallized Siqueiros’s subject matter, and linked it to a wider artistic and political culture that also will be documented in the gallery. Rounding out the story of América Tropical will be materials showing how the painting gradually bled through the whitewash, turning it into a ghostly and suggestive presence on Olvera Street, and how artists and activists campaigned for its restoration and how it is now being conserved by the Getty Conservation Institute.
The impact of Siqueiros’s Los Angeles work will be detailed in the denouement of the exhibition, demonstrating how his work has inspired artists from the 1930s to present day and contributed to the development of the modern mural movement, including the Chicano Art Movement of the 1960s, in Los Angeles and beyond.
Under the direction of Jonathan Spaulding, Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied is organized by the Autry National Center with a team of academic and cultural partners. It is curated by Luis C. Garza, the exhibition’s originator, and Lynn La Bate. Melissa Richardson Banks is the project manager. The team of academic advisors for the exhibition is comprised of William F. Deverell (USC), Judith F. Baca (UCLA), Max Benavidez (L.A. Public Media Service), Miguel Angel Corzo (La Plaza de Cultura y Artes), Irene Herner (author), Gregorio Luke (art historian and curator), Cynthia MacMullen (Museum of Latin American Art), Chon A. Noriega (UCLA and LACMA), and Armando Vasquez-Ramos (California State University Long Beach).
A companion issue of the Autry National Center’s Convergence magazine will accompany the exhibition. It features essays by Luis C. Garza, Irene Herner Reiss, and Lynn La Bate.
Image: David Alfaro Siqueiros – Budapest, Hungary-1971, Photo by: © Luis C. Garza
Autry National Center
The Autry National Center is an intercultural history center dedicated to exploring and sharing the stories, experiences, and perceptions of the diverse peoples of the American West. Located in Griffith Park, the Autry includes the collections of the Museum of the American West, the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, and the Autry Institute’s two research libraries: the Braun Research Library and the Autry Library. Exhibitions, public programs, K–12 educational services, and publications are designed to examine critical issues of society, offering insights into solutions and the contemporary human condition through the Western historical experience.
Weekday hours of operation for the Autryin Griffith Park location are Tuesday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The Autry Store’s weekday hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and the Golden Spur Cafe is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday hours for the museum and the Autry Store are 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The museum, the Autry Store, and the cafe are closed on Mondays. The libraries are open to researchers by appointment.
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