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  • The Siqueiros Experimental Workshop: New York, 1936Author(s): Laurance P. HurlburtSource: Art Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 237-246Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 09:28

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  • The Siqueiros Experimental Workshop: New York, 1936


    Fig. 1. David Alfaro Siqueiros, Tropical America, 17 x 80', Los Angeles, 1932. Photo from Siqueiros archives.

    The muralistic development of Siqueiros during the 1930s has been scarcely touched by scholarly investigation.1 I wish to examine in detail an important aspect of Siqueiros' artistic

    experimentation of the 1930s-his New York "Experimental Workshop" of 1936, which was an important step along the way toward the culminating work of this period, the Electri- cians' Union mural (Mexico, D.F.) of 1939-40. In addition to the importance of the technical experimentation of Siquei- ros' Workshop, my study will consider the Workshop's in- tense political commitment, so characteristic of the political involvement of the artist during the New Deal period.2

    The Experimental Workshop was a continuation of Siquei- ros' technical investigation of the '30s, which had the aim of

    creating a viable 20th-century revolutionary art form. Prior

    experiences had been the murals of the Los Angeles period (Fig. 1),3 the mural Plastic Exercise (Argentina, 1933), and his at times violent, running controversy on the problem of

    contemporary revolutionary art with Diego Rivera during 1934-35. At least a cursory examination of the 1933-35 period is necessary to place the activities of the New York Workshop into a more comprehensible context.

    After his deportation for political reasons from the United States in late 1932, Siqueiros-unable to return to Mexico because of the persecution of Mexican Communist Party members by the Calles-controlled administrations of the early 1930s-spent 1933 in Argentina and Uruguay. There, in a characteristic burst of artistic activity, Siqueiros lectured, had five one-man exhibitions of his work in Montevideo and Buenos Aires,4 and painted an important experimental mural.

    This mural, covering some 200 square meters and entitled Plastic Exercise, was painted in the cylindrically shaped bar of the Don Torcuato country house of the newspaper publisher Natalio Botana (Crftica, Buenos Aires). The work extended much of the technological experimentation of the Los Ange- les murals. Firstly, a five-man painting team (composed of

    Argentinian and Uruguayan artists), led by Siqueiros, used mechanical elements-such as spray guns, drills, cement

    applicators-exclusively on the mural. Both still and movie cameras were used to check the mural's preliminary compo- sition and for the necessary final readjustments. Colored mortar cement was applied to the floor and painted, and the entire effect of the mural was heightened by artificial light- ing. Finally, Siqueiros used silicate to retouch the "cement- fresco,"5 which was painted with nitrocellulose pigments (at this time used primarily in the automotive industry).

    A highly unexpected aspect of the mural (Figs. 2, 3) is that it is completely devoid of any social and/or political commen-

    tary; it was, in Siqueiros' words, a "fundamentally optical" experiment. Siqueiros saw the work only as an "initial contri- bution to revolutionary form," the "embryonic realization" of an art designed for the masses of the 20th century that would combine not only revolutionary content but also revo-

    lutionary form. Extant photographs (unfortunately few in number and of poor quality) give only a tentative impression of the mural. One forcefully encounters-rather than pas- sively sees-gigantic female nudes and strange monster- types in severely distorted postures. Siqueiros evidently had nudes pose on plate glass and photographed them in various

    SPRING 1976 237

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  • Fig. 2 and 3. Plastic Exercise, Don Torcuato, Argen- tina, 1933. Photo from Critica (Buenos Aires), 11-12- 1933.

    positions from different angles, and the results were.then projected onto the walls of the room.6

    Fully as important as the technical experimentation was the dramatic innovation concerning Siqueiros' conceptual ap- proach to the architectural environment of the mural. In an analysis of the room's geometrical structure, a "plastic box," to use Siqueiros' term, was created in which the entire archi- tectural space was considered to be artistically vital. Further, the logical progression of the spectator was the element used to determine the flow of the mural's composition. In this manner, one's viewing (or perhaps better, experiencing) of the mural was determined by his natural movement through the space of the mural's architectural environment. As Si- queiros said, in Plastic Exercise he was involved with the creation of active space, a "monumental dynamic ... poly- faceted ... in living action." Thus, there appeared for the first time in Siqueiros' work-however technically undevel- oped and artistically unsuccessful-the creation of a dynami- cally active mural composition in which the natural path of the spectator through the mural's environment "triggers" different points of view within the mural.

    After his expulsion from Argentina in late 1933 (again for leftist political activity), Siqueiros came to New York. In an interview shortly after his arrival (Art Digest, Feb. 1, 1934) he talked of team painting, the use of still and movie cameras to plan mural composition, and professed the desire to paint a "series of murals, preferably exterior," during his stay in New York. Although this venture did not materialize, Siqueiros did have his first New York exhibition in March 1934 at Alma Reed's Delphic Studios, in which he showed photos of his Mexican and California murals and easel paintings.

    The final event of note from this period was the publication of Siqueiros' onslaught on Diego Rivera, "Rivera's Counter- Revolutionary Road" (New Masses, May 29, 1934), which escalated the Siqueiros-Rivera controversy over the role of 20th-century muralism, Siqueiros advocating the rejection of the "archeological" point of view of Rivera and his followers and the adoption instead of the tools of modern industry as a more suitable technical base for the social function of con- temporary muralism. Siqueiros' harangue (ostensibly a criti- cism of the Rivera-Bertram Wolfe collaboration, Portrait of America, of 1934), in which Rivera was portrayed as a "mental snob," "saboteur of collective work," "official painter of the new bourgeoisie," and the like, was no doubt ultimately based on Rivera's expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party in 1929 and his subsequent support of Trotsky.7 The Siqueiros-Rivera "debates" on this matter-which generated much publicity, if they were lacking in substance-took place in Mexico, D.F., in August 1935.8 For a few days Siqueiros and Rivera traded denunciatory attacks and inflammatory rhetoric amidst the totally innocent trappings of the meetings held by the North American Conference of New Education Fellow- ship. The tempest soon subsided, and finally sputtered out with a signing of several "confessions" by Rivera in October 1935.

    Siqueiros arrived in New York in mid-February of 1936 as one of the official Mexican delegates to the American Artists Congress (see Fig. 4 of delegation members at Alma Reed's apartment; from left to right, Rufino and Olga Tamayo, Si- queiros, Orozco, Roberto Berdecio, and Angelica Arenal de Siqueiros).9 This period, as in the case of Los Angeles (1932) and Argentina (1933), was marked by another furious burst of artistic activity. Within two weeks Siqueiros had succeeded in organizing an "initial nucleus" of artists (Har- old Lehman, Sande McCoy, Jackson Pollock, Axel Horr, George Cox, Louis Ferstadt, Clara Mahl, Luis Arenal, Antonio Pujol, Conrado Vasquez, Jose Gutierrez, and Roberto Berde- cio) "ready to raise the standard of a true revolutionary art program," and the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop ("A Laboratory of Modern Techniques in Art") opened in April 1936 at 5 West 14 Street (Fig. 5, the Workshop with Siqueiros surrounded by his followers).10

    The activities of the Workshop, organized as a collective enterprise,1 were succinctly described in a contemporary article by Harold Lehman:

    Two main points were embodied in the Workshop plan: the Workshop should (1) be a laboratory for experiment in modern art techniques; (2) create art for the people. Under the first heading came experiment with regard to tools, materials, aes- thetic or artistic approach, and methods of

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