(Siqueiros at Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara; Rivera at Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach) Coincidence is never accidental, and it does seem that a strange configuration (perhaps Comet Hale-Bopp) was involved in the simultaneity of exhibitions by two twentieth-century Mexican masters. "Portrait of a Decade: David Alfaro Siqueiros" and "Diego Rivera: Del Tiempo y Del Color (Of Time and Color)" raise timely questions about the individual and collaborative role of both artists in the rise of Modernism in America--perhaps because both shows were originated in Mexico. Octavio Paz stated over forty years ago in his polemical essay, "The Sons of Malinche," that "The European [substitute North American] considers Mexico to be a country on the margin of universal history and everything that is distant from the center of his society strikes him as strange and impenetrable." What these two exhibitions point out is that this interpretive filter of viewing everything beyond oneself as "exotic" or "other," even when it's just next door, seems (finally!) to be diminishing.
It is also extraordinary that each show takes place just north and south of Los Angeles, the U.S. repository of the Siqueiros aesthetic legacy and also a city whose major cultural institutions have consistently overlooked these masters along with their contemporaries. The reasons for that probably lie in the games of legitimacy that define the parameters of art history, and in the consistent focus by scholars, curators and critics towards Europe and European art in America.
Yet the benign ignorance with which the contributions of Rivera and Siqueiros have met seems all the more puzzling when considering these two exhibitions.
The Santa Barbara show, organized by the Museo National de Arte and curated by Olivier Debroise, focuses on Siqueiros' work of the 1930s. Many were produced while in residence in Los Angeles. Consisting of some eighty paintings, watercolors and woodcuts highlighted by Victima Proletaria (Proletarian Victim) , Niña Madre (Child Mother) , and Echo of a Scream , the painter's concentration on the polemical issues of the time--a decade that witnessed the rise of the grand evils of Fascist and Communist regimes--is clearly revealed.
Those circumstances were particularly meaningful to Siqueiros, not only because of the enormous influence that these ideas exerted in Mexico, but because of his travels and experiences. Mexico was among the few countries that experienced a social revolution in the early part of the century, and Siqueiros personally participated. He was involved with the Anarchists in Barcelona during the 1920's, and spent part of 1928 in the young Soviet Union. He played an active role as a union organizer. It is fair to say that the high drama that fills his life makes it easy to view this body of work as a mere reflection of the social and political preoccupations of this time. Yet what is revealed simultaneously by the selections on view here is Siqueiros' insistence on investigating and exploring the act of painting in and of itself, while confronting the influences of other aesthetic expressions, most notably the cinema.
As Mari-Carmen Ramirez states, Siqueiros introduced the term "Filmable
Art" or "Pictorial Cinematographic Art" around 1933, referring
to "art with the preconceived notion of being filmed." What this
referred to was his perception of montage as a device in mural painting,
along with "non-traditional technologies including photography, cinematographic
camera, air-brush or mechanical brush
What also seems evident, however, is that this idea must have been influenced by his stay in Los Angeles. Siqueiros came here to teach muralism at the Chouinard Institute which, of course, was a training ground for the Disney artists. He showed with Earl Stendahl in 1932 (part of this exhibition is reunited here). There are commissions and purchases from within the film industry--Dudley Moore, Tyrone Power, Ira Gershwin, Charles Laughton. It is moreover an aesthetic that he combines with other aspects of painterly exploration, figurative foreshortening adapted from Italian Mannerism and, as Debroise states, an intense exaggeration a la Georges de la Tour, particularly in his portraits.
It is the union of these techniques and materials, the impastos, the glazing, the obvious use of the spatula, the three-dimensional spatial experiments, a preamble to the conceptual, the constant experimentation with pyroloxin, and the painting surface itself (burlap, coconut fiber) that reveal the prophetic vision of the artist, his daring and his (as yet) unrecognized influence on the next two decades of painting in the U.S. Who did Jackson Pollack work with in New York in 1939?
Although smaller in scope (some 29 paintings and drawings), the Rivera exhibition, drawn from the collection of the Museum of Art of the State of Veracruz, spans five decades. It reveals the affinity with the aesthetic tendencies that defined his time. Two cubist works from the Paris years, Still Life with Bottle and Glass  and Montparnasse  initially reveal a full committment to the cubistic experiment, though the second already moves to a greater independence. While still adhering to the monochromatic palette associated with the movement, it gravitates towards a greater realism.
Two works on paper from the 1940's, Mujer con Morral [ca. 1945] and Padre con Hijo [ca. 1940] reveal Rivera's brilliant and intense sense of draftsmanship, a characteristic which in his best known works places him among the masters of the line in this century. Several of the portraits here --it should be noted that the majority of the paintings from this collection are portraits--demonstrate a psychological understanding of his subjects through modeling, posture and palette. It is surprising that so many of Rivera's works are portraits, and that they have been overlooked for so long. Ranging from those within his most intimate circle (his mother, two wives, Angelina Beloff and Lupe Marin) as well as apparent commissions, they reveal a sensititve, penetrating insight often all the more powerful by their relationship to prevailing painterly trends even while the painter maintains a distanced objectivity.
Products of their time and circumstance, informed participants of the ideas, concepts and moods that dominated their era, Siqueiros and Rivera emerge from these exhibitions much more fully formed, especially for the Southern California audience. This is hopefully indicative of a trend.