This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Mexican army’s defeat of French troops at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, known colloquially today as Cinco de Mayo. It is now commemorated far north of the border, as Americans have embraced the date as a colorful celebration of Mexican art, food, and music. In anticipation of Saturday’s sesquicentennial, we’re taking a look back at the fruitful relationship MoMA has enjoyed with Mexico’s art and its artists throughout the decades.
MoMA’s engagement with Mexican art dates back to the Museum’s earliest days. Its first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., had a keen interest in Mexican art, which was supported by gifts made in the 1930s by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the Museum’s founders—primarily paintings and works on paper by José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera, whom Barr first met in 1927 during preparations in Moscow for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The meeting proved to be a fateful one, and in December 1931, the Museum opened a monographic exhibition on Rivera that set new attendance records in its five-week run, and is currently being commemorated in MoMA’s exhibition, Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art. Rivera had been brought to New York six weeks earlier and given studio space within the Museum to produce five “portable murals.” These depicted scenes drawn from Mexican history, addressing themes of revolution and class inequity, including one of Agrarian Leader Zapata that was later acquired by the Museum and has become a landmark work in MoMA’s collection. Rivera later added three more murals based on scenes he had observed in New York City.
The exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art opened at MoMA on May 15, 1940. A press release from the time called it, “the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Mexican art ever assembled.” During the 1940s, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s son Nelson, then president of the Museum, continued to support the growth of MoMA’s Latin American holdings, including works by Mexican artists. In 1945, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., donated Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, her first work to enter MoMA’s collection. It was painted shortly after her divorce from Diego Rivera (they were remarried the following year), and shows her wearing what is presumably one of his suits, rather than the traditional Mexican dress she frequently dons in her paintings. MoMA currently has more than 1,220 works by Mexican artists in its collection, ranging from prints by José Guadalupe Posada from 1866 to contemporary works by Gabriel Orozco and others. Recent monographic exhibitions dealing with Mexico and its artists include Gabriel Orozco (2009–10) and Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception (2011).
This spring, the works of more than 60 contemporary Mexican designers are being introduced at the MoMA Design Store as part of its Destination: Mexico product collection available for a limited time. Visit one of the store locations or MoMAstore.org to learn more.