An Artist In America

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Well, I can tell you about that. It was in 1928,1 think, that Alma Reed opened the Delphic gallery in New York, largely to promote the work of the Mexican muralist José Clémente Orozco. I don’t know how far I should go with that, because the relations between Alma and Orozco, well, they were not just dealer and artist at all. At any rate, Clémente had seen my historical murals and liked them, and I was the only American artist he wanted in the gallery with him. So I agreed. The main problem was to find wall space for our murals, and it was Alma’s contention that we’d have to work cheaply at first to get started.

Did you agree with her?

No. But as it turned out, she was right. What happened was that when she heard about the construction of the New School, she went and negotiated a mural for Orozco and not me. Now, when this got out, there were a number of people, like Lewis Mumford and particularly Ralph Pierson, who was quite well-known in New York art circles, who were furious. Pierson himself went to Alvin Johnson, the director of the New School, and said it was an outrage that someone like me, who had worked so hard to develop a new American mural style, was to be excluded from the project. So Dr. Johnson promised me a wall to paint if I would work on the same terms as Orozco had.

What terms were those?

I worked for nothing. The New School paid the paint expenses.

Did this lead to a break with Alma Reed and the Delphic gallery?

Well, yeah. Not an open break, but it wasn’t pleasant anymore, and I quit her shortly after.

Did Orozco have any specific influence on you at this time?

None, except that I liked his work, and he liked mine, although I don’t think he did after my painting began to be highly localized. You see, Orozco, unlike Diego Rivera, always dealt in what are called universal symbols. Clemente’s original works, like mine, were very much influenced by Michelangelo. That’s probably why he liked my early murals.

In your murals, how do you decide which elements you want to include?

You mean the subject matter? Well, there are two different ways. In the historical murals the images are all based upon verbal accounts, of course. In the New School mural I had by then done so much sketching in the field that I was ready and anxious for an opportunity to put some of this new stuff into a form. I had already done one modern thing, called the Bootleggers , and I was more and more fascinated with modern subjects. So when the New School thing came up, Alvin Johnson and I decided to concentrate on contemporary America, and I had the material in my travel sketchbooks, all of it. It was simply a question of organizing it.

I know that Rita and your infant son, T.P., both posed for the New School mural, but !also noticed that in one corner panel you yourself are pictured talking to Dr. Johnson.

Yeah. We are both drinking whiskey, showing that we were what they called scofflaws during Prohibition. I recall that Johnson was a bit leery at first about the whiskey, but he was a man with a good sense of humor. As far as the artist putting himself in his painting, that’s not new. Giotto did it, Signorelli did it, lots of painters did it.

W hen the New School mural was unveiled in 1931, it raised a storm of protest from both radical and conservative art circles. Had you anticipated this kind of reaction?

Hell, no. I thought I had made something that was going to please everybody .

The conservatives didn’t like your use of contemporary subject matter, whereas the radicals were furious that there was no ideological protest in your mural. Were you under any kind of pressure to inject a Marxist viewpoint?

Oh, yes. Quite a bit—from my associates at the time and through my connection with certain Marxist groups like the People’s Art Guild and the Barnhouse group here on Martha’s Vineyard. I was, at one time, a quite convinced Marxist, but I never joined any of the societies or parties that were propagating those ideas. In fact, by 19281 had completely lost faith in the efficacy of Marxism in the United States.

You turned from Marxism in 1928? That was well before it became so fashionable for artists and writers. Was this because of your extensive family background m politics?

None of them had my kind of background. They were innocents. I had known enough politics to know that while Marxist theory was itself logical and quite convincing, there was always the political business, the question of power. And I was proved right later, with the rise of Stalin. Although you may have a theoretical good in mind, the means that are used to attain it have a hell of an effect on it.