A newly published book, Mexico and American Modernism (Yale University Press), caps the 31-year academic career of Ellen G. Landau, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University.
Landau, a faculty member in the Cleveland Museum of Art/Case Western Reserve University Joint Program in Art History, where she has taught courses on American and European modern art, already has another book on the way, and projects for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Denver Museum of Art in the works.
She has no intention of relinquishing her role as an art historian and scholar, although her academic role at Case Western Reserve ends with official retirement on June 30.
In Mexico and American Modernism, the culmination of a 10-year project, Landau expands the global perspective on Abstract Expressionism by shifting focus from predominantly Eurocentric influences to include those from the western hemisphere. She also examines how this influence reached New York City, which became the epicenter of American artistic innovation during the World War II.
Mexico and American Modernism, which evolved from early research started for her book Jackson Pollock (1989), uses a case study-approach to show the impact of Mexico on Pollock (1912-56) and three other prominent American abstract expressionists: Philip Guston (1913-1980), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), and painter and sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988).
All except Pollock spent at least six months in Mexico. Pollock only crossed the border for a day, but contacts in Los Angeles with Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, had an impact on the artist’s style that eventually gave rise to his mural-sized dripped paintings, Landau said.
Her book, Jackson Pollock, prompted an invitation to write an essay for a 1995 retrospective catalog on Pollock and Siquieros in Germany. Revising that contribution, Landau had one chapter of the book completed.
Before her new book, the main source for understanding the Mexican influence on U.S. art was the catalog that accompanied a 1993 Yale University Art Gallery exhibit, “South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination, 1914-1947.”
Viewing it, Landau realized that Pollock was not alone in having Mexican connections. While the exhibit “scratched the surface” of Mexico’s influence, she had a hunch there was more to tell.
A sabbatical grant in 2004 from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University afforded Landau the chance to explore Guston and Noguchi’s Mexican connections. Support from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed her time to write and complete the book in 2010-11. More recently, the Society for the Preservation of American Modernists and the Terra Foundation provided funding for her new book’s illustrations.
In Mexico and American Modernism, Landau primarily explores two important decades—the 1930s (Guston and Noguchi) and 1940s (Motherwell and Pollock)—although she fast-forwards her protagonists into their modernist futures in the book’s conclusion.
While Noguchi is known for sculptures, he designed sets for 22 years for the Martha Graham Dance Co. in New York, where his half-sister Ailes danced for a short time. Ailes was also a member of leftist dance troupes in Manhattan that considered dance a weapon in socialist struggle. These connections to bodily movement’s polemical potential are reflected in Noguchi’s astonishing cement relief History as Seen from Mexico, 1936 created for a Mexico City market.
“The little-known Mexican mural experiences of Noguchi and Guston both foreshadowed and nourished central tenets of their mature artistic production,” writes Landau.
Guston’s 1934-35 self-discovery trip south of the border, in part, was a flight from anti-Jewish sentiment in Southern California. In collaboration with artist Reuben Kadish, and at the suggestion of Siqueiros, he created “The Struggle Against Terrorism,” a mural in Morelia, the largest city in the state of Michoácan. Largely because of its anti-papist tone, beginning in the early ’40s, this mural was hidden behind a fake wall and accidentally rediscovered in 1974.
Landau said it presents a “terrifying spectacle of race-hatred and intolerance through the ages.”
After writing the first three chapters for her new book, she turned her attention to Motherwell. Initially bored with Mexico, Motherwell fell in love with the niece of a general during the time of the legendary revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. He had the opportunity to interact closely in Taxco and Mexico City with émigré surrealists, most notably Chilean artist Roberto Matta and Austrian-born Wolfgang Paalen, whose styles reappear in Motherwell’s early works.
Motherwell, like Paalen, wrote extensively on art after his return to the U.S., became one of the conduits through which surrealism from Mexico made its way into the New York School.
Landau’s new study brings to the forefront a somewhat different cast of characters than ones intent on privileging American painting’s European roots.
Allowing Mexico more standing in the story, she explained, highlights issues of ethnicity, marginality and inter-subjectivity, as well as social and political conscience. This helps provide a more nuanced way to understand, as Noguchi put it, the “humanly meaningful” goals of mid-century abstraction.