Arts & Theater

With new show, Crocker Art Museum widens its Mexican emphasis

Rufino Tamayo‘s “Laughing Woman” is part of the Crocker Art Museum’s “Arte Mexicano” exhibit. It was a controversial piece when the Crocker purchased it in 1965.
Rufino Tamayo‘s “Laughing Woman” is part of the Crocker Art Museum’s “Arte Mexicano” exhibit. It was a controversial piece when the Crocker purchased it in 1965. Crocker Art Museum

“Arte Mexicano: Legacy of the Masters” is a perfect complement to the Crocker’s large show of Latino art now installed on the museum’s third floor. It’s a smaller show that offers a slice of post-revolutionary Mexican art from 1920 to the present.

Organized by Mariah Briel, the show moves chronologically from the works of master muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros to contemporary works by Alejandro Santiago.

The pieces by the two early masters focus on scenes from Mexican life. Rivera gives us a small painting “El Dia de los Flores, Xochimilco,” a vibrant oil of a Mexican flower festival limned in intense reds, blues and violets. Siqueiros offers a dramatic painting of a crying woman who holds up her massive, work-worn hands as if in prayer or supplication. Both are strong works that mythologize the Mexican people.

Santiago’s works, which are installed at the end of the show, turn to political themes. “Apocalypse Oaxaca” is a mural-size painting memorializing a student protest. The powerful canvas resembles a cross between Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and a Jean-Michel Basquiat. Nearby are two sculptures from his “2501 Migrantes” series that address the flight of rural Mexicans to find work in big cities or in the United States. The expressionistic clay figures have a singed and battered look conveying the tribulations of migrant workers.

In between are works that exemplify disparate trends in 20th century Mexican art, from the European-influenced abstractions of Rufino Tamayo and Carlos Mérida to the Surrealist works of Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, Europeans who fled to Mexico during World War II.

Tamayo, whom I interviewed when he was in his 80s, is represented by an early, Cubist-inspired still life and the Crocker’s own “Laughing Woman,” which raised a controversy when then-museum director Frank Kent bought it in 1965.

A group of local citizens expressed their dismay at the purchase of the painting to then-Mayor James McKinney, writing: “The artist exhibits nothing, no skill, no talent, no imagination, no sense … who could foolishly waste our money on such trash?”

Today it is one of the Crocker’s most-prized acquisitions, for Tamayo was truly a giant of Mexican art. The painting is an abstracted female figure whose head floats above her body with a triumphant grin. In some ways it is a Mexican equivalent of Willem de Kooning’s formidable, voracious women. The Tamayo was done in 1950 close to the time that de Kooning returned to painting the figure. Unlike de Kooning, Tamayo created a work darker in color but lighter in spirit.

Varo is represented by two paintings of surreal figures that have a Gothic quality. In “Vampiros Vegetarianos,” a trio of elongated women with wings sip the juices of fruits through long straws. Below them are pets that resemble a cross between roosters and cats. It’s unremittingly strange, as is “Invocacion,” where a little girl who might have come out of an Edward Gorey drawing plays a horn and holds a green globe while scary, towering figures emerge from the walls behind her.

Surreal too, though less fanciful, is Manuel Gonzalez Serrano’s “On the Beach” a painting of a sleeping woman in a red dress reclining in a symbolic landscape scattered with sea shells and flowers. It will remind local viewers of works by John Tarahteeff.

Surrealism, abstraction and figuration vie with each other and are often hybridized in the remaining works in the show. Ricardo Martínez de Hoyos gives us a voluptuous indigenous woman whose figure dissolves into atmospheric auras in “Woman With Fire.” Alfredo Castañeda blends abstraction, surrealism and figuration in “Port of Veracruz,” an image of four men joined in some kind of strange amalgam of their bodies.

The show is enjoyable because it introduces many Mexican artists whose names are unfamiliar to North American audiences along with genuine Mexican masters. Briel, who is a curatorial assistant, has done a fine job in her first show for the Crocker.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Oct. 24 to correct the first name of Edward Gorey.

Arte Mexicano: Legacy of the Masters

When: Through Feb. 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O S., Sacramento

Cost: $5-$10; free for children 6 and younger and museum members

Information: (916) 808-7000;