Back on Track

Siqueiros and new director Patty Ortiz get the rejuvenated Museo off to a good start.

For several reasons -- one being the Columbine High School tragedy -- Ortiz wound up wanting to come back to the art scene, and she took a position at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, where she worked from 1999 to late 2004. The Museo job was a great opportunity, but leaving the MCA was hard. "I could easily have spent the rest of my life at MCA, and the whole last week I was there, I would start to cry whenever I realized that I was actually leaving," Ortiz says.

Ortiz applied for the Museo job after members of the board approached her and requested that she do so. She was reluctant at first, because she's not fluent in Spanish and thought that might be a deal-breaker. Fortunately, it wasn't.

Siqueiros has been in the works for years, so it was just a coincidence that it came on line right as Ortiz was coming on board. "It was like the sky opened up," Ortiz says with a laugh.

"El Pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al Pueblo," 
by David Alfaro Siqueiros, acrylic-on-canvas study for 
the mosaic mural.
"El Pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al Pueblo," by David Alfaro Siqueiros, acrylic-on-canvas study for the mosaic mural.

Curator Alfonso Miranda Marquez organized Siqueiros, with the pieces on loan from the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City. The show unfolds in chronological order, with more than two dozen paintings, drawings and mural studies surveying David Alfaro Siqueiros's artistic development from the 1910s to the 1960s.

Siqueiros, born in Mexico in 1896, was one of los tres grandes -- the three great ones -- of modern art in Mexico (the other two being Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco). The three were known for their politically charged murals depicting events in Mexican history, and for their more than passing interest in communism.

Arguably the most politically active of the three, Siqueiros was repeatedly exiled for his activities and was even arrested and imprisoned at various times. He fought in the Mexican Revolution and in the Spanish Civil War, rising to the rank of colonel. He was involved in a plot to kill Leon Trotsky, a Russian Marxist who opposed Stalin.

Under Ortiz's direction, the interior of the Museo has been reconfigured, with the center of the space opened up. The walls have been painted a deep, rich charcoal gray with red accents, allowing the often vividly colored works to stand out strikingly against the dark walls.

The first piece in Siqueirosis one of the few that was installed out of date order, but I understand why the decision was made to do that, because it is a self-portrait. Done in charcoal on paper in 1946, "Autorretrato" is marvelous; stylistically, it suggests Picasso's realism, an important source for the Mexican muralists. The relationship of Siqueiros to European vanguard art is evident throughout the show, though he was chauvinistically Mexican and denied foreign influences.

Another piece that demonstrates Siqueiros's connection to the avant-garde in Europe is "El Pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al Pueblo," from 1952 to 1956, a perspective study for a mosaic mural that was ultimately installed on the exterior of the administration building of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico City. There are a lot of great things in this show, but this mural study is without a doubt the finest painting included.

Despite his left-wing political activity and his membership in the Mexican Communist Party, Siqueiros repeatedly came to the United States. In the 1930s, he lived and taught in Los Angeles and then in New York, where he opened his Experimental Workshop in 1936. At the workshop, he encouraged students, including Jackson Pollock, to use industrial paints that were sprayed, dripped and poured onto canvases tacked to the floor. These techniques fully anticipated Pollock's "action paintings." The Museo show includes only one example of Siqueiros's work of this type: "Accidente Controlado," which is undated but definitely was not done in the '30s; it's in acrylic and is more likely from the 1960s.

Siqueiros spent most of that decade in prison, where he continued to paint even though art supplies were hard to come by. The show includes a number of paintings he did in his jail cell; though representational, they also feature the drips, smears and runs of "Accidente Controlado." These pieces were done as studies for "The March of Humanity," the most ambitious project Siqueiros ever undertook. It is a multi-part mural on both the exterior and interior wall of a cultural center in Mexico City called the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros that was specially built to accommodate it. He worked on "March" until his death, in 1974.

In addition to the gorgeous Siqueiros, Ortiz quickly put together an adjunct show of Colorado artists who have carried the Mexican mural tradition to the area. In a small gallery, Ortiz hung mural studies by Bob Luna, Emanuel Martinez, Leo Tanguma and Carlos Frésquez. Ortiz plans to complement future traveling shows in the same way.

It's great to see the Museo running at full steam again, and trust me on this one: You do not want to miss Siqueiros: Spirit of a Revolutionary. It's absolutely sensational.

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