The Whitney Museum of American Art is reopening on Thursday, with new safety guidelines that will require visitors to purchase timed tickets in advance. By the time the museum announced its closure in March, our critics had reviewed two remarkable shows: the first New York museum exhibition of the still-mysterious painter Agnes Pelton; and a grand retrospective of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Below is an overview of those reviews, plus insights into another strong show at the Whitney, “Cauleen Smith: Mutualities.”
‘Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist’
This survey, extended through Nov. 1, presents the underappreciated but inimitable art of the American painter Agnes Pelton (1881-1961). It also offers a reminder that the history of modernist abstraction, and women’s contribution to it, is still being written.
Pelton’s exquisitely finished, otherworldly abstractions are the stuff of dreams, visions and mirages; they often came to the artist while she slept or meditated, and they arrived remarkably whole, as indicated by the sketches from her journal reproduced in the catalog, which originated, with the show, at the Phoenix Art Museum. (It was organized by Gilbert Vicario, chief curator there, and overseen at the Whitney by Barbara Haskell, with Sarah Humphreville.)
There is nothing quite like Pelton’s paintings in 20th-century American art. It is not just their much-admired spirituality that distinguishes them — their blend of theosophy, Buddhism, astrology and the occult was not unusual among artists of the moment. It is rather the insouciant ease with which her images navigate between high and low, making that spirituality widely available, if not irresistible.
Pelton belonged to the first generation of American Modernists — which included Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove — but not to their circle, which revolved around the advocacy and galleries of the impresario Alfred Stieglitz. Her mature style arrived after a series of efforts from the mid-1920s that read as mildly visionary Cubo-Futurist motifs: frazzled flowers and an incandescent fountain.
In the 1929 work “Star Gazer,” a multicolored bud stands like a pilgrim, offering itself to an azure vase, behind which brilliant red hills soften into the distance. A single star reinforces the symmetry of the scene. And then she does it again and again in deliriously perfect paintings like “Sand Storm” and “Messengers” (both from 1932) and “Even Song,” from 1934, in which an immense vase aglow with inner fire releases tendrils of smoke, flanked by two white shapes reminiscent of O’Keeffe cattle skulls.
After the last Pelton retrospective, 25 years ago, her achievement receded from view. That seems unlikely this time. The Whitney show underscores too tellingly the lesson of the Guggenheim’s Hilma af Klint exhibition, that the largely all-male narrative of modernist abstraction needs reworking, with much more credit to female artists and their implicitly feminist embrace of spirituality. Let’s put it this way: Hilma af Klint and Agnes Pelton did not act alone. ROBERTA SMITH
‘Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945’
This exhibition, on view through Jan. 31, represents a decade of hard thought and labor, and that effort has paid off. The show is stupendous and complicated, and lands right on time. Just by existing, it does three vital things: It reshapes a stretch of art history to give credit where credit is due; it suggests that the Whitney is, at last, on the way to fully embracing American art; and it offers yet another argument for why this country’s build-the-wall mania has to go. Judging by the story told here, we should be actively inviting our southern neighbor to enrich our cultural soil.
That story begins in Mexico in the 1920s. After 10 years of civil war and revolution, the country’s new government turned to art to invent and broadcast a unifying national self-image, one that emphasized both its deep roots in Indigenous, pre-Hispanic culture and the heroism of its recent revolutionary struggles.
The chosen medium for the message was mural painting, and three very differently gifted practitioners quickly came to dominate the field: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros: “Los Tres Grandes” — “the three great ones” — as they came to be known among admirers.
The exhibition’s opening gallery suggest a fiesta atmosphere, as do the paintings gathered there: Alfredo Ramos Martínez’s 1929 image of an itinerant flower vendor; a 1928 painting by Rivera of Oaxacan dancers in orchidaceous gowns; and, from the same year, a scene, in Rivera’s smooth-brushed, Paris-trained style, of women harvesting cactus by the American artist Everett Gee Jackson. (Barbara Haskell is the show’s originating curator, joined by Marcela Guerrero, Sarah Humphreville and Alana Hernandez.)
It was important for a nation that identified itself with populist struggle to keep the memory of that struggle burning. You see this in a large charcoal painting study by Rivera of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata trampling an enemy underfoot. And in an inky Siqueiros portrait of the same leader, looking as blank-eyed as a corpse. And in a spiky, depressed Orozco painting of the peasant guerrillas known as Zapatistas, their figures as stiff as the machetes they carry, locked in a grim forced march.
By the time these pictures were made in 1931, two of the artists were working primarily in the United States; Siqueiros would arrive the next year. Orozco came first, to New York in 1927. There he taught easel painting and printmaking to a rapt cohort of local artists before moving on to California to execute a mural commission for Pomona College in Claremont — a 1930 fresco called “Prometheus” that the teenage Jackson Pollock, then living in Los Angeles, saw and never forgot.
The exhibition’s final gallery is basically a Siqueiros-Pollock showcase. It’s set in New York, where, beginning in 1936, the two artists worked together as teacher and student. We see examples of the anti-conventional techniques the muralist developed: spraying, splattered, dripping paint — anything to make the results look unpolished and unsettling. And we see Pollock beginning to test out these unorthodoxies. It’s clear that even in the 1930s, he was on fire. And the evidence is that Siqueiros held the igniting match.
Did influence run both ways? Student to teacher? South to north and back? Undoubtedly. The result at the Whitney is a study in multidirectional flow, tides meeting and mingling, which is the basic dynamic of art history, as it is, or should be, of American life. It’s a dynamic of generosity. It gives the show warmth and grandeur. Why on earth would we want to stop the flow now? HOLLAND COTTER
‘Cauleen Smith: Mutualities’
The sumptuous 22-minute film “Sojourner” anchors this presentation of recent work by the Los Angeles-based artist Cauleen Smith, on view through Jan. 31. Though made in 2018, it’s a perfect piece to provide solace, perspective and inspiration amid the fraught situation of America today.
The film opens in North Philadelphia, with grainy footage of horses on an empty lot and a rowhouse where John Coltrane lived in the 1950s. Soon it takes in a Shaker cemetery in upstate New York, a community arts center and an activist rally on Chicago’s South Side and multiple California spots — a beach, poppy fields, the Watts Towers, the ashram founded by Alice Coltrane as Swamini Turiyasangitananda.
The camera settles into an extended sequence filmed in intense desert light at the found-object sculpture garden built by the artist Noah Purifoy in Joshua Tree, Calif.There, a dozen women wearing exuberant Afro-Bohemian styles tune into astral signals on an old radio, clasp hands to a reading of the Combahee River Collective Statement and process, bearing banners, toward a final exalted tableau.
The film’s coherence owes to its underpinning theme: how visionary practice overflows the boundaries of art, spirituality and politics, and gathers all these together when they’re exercised with generosity. Narrations of texts by Rebecca Cox Jackson, a 19th-century Black Shaker eldress, and words and music by Alice Coltrane are crucial to the weave. But this cumulative tour de force belongs to Ms. Smith, an experimental filmmaker at the pinnacle of her craft who has brilliantly paced many elements into a resonant journey in which the trace of fellow seekers, past and present, ultimately leads to freedom.
The Whitney has installed “Sojourner” appropriately, with its own room and a large screen. Another Smith film, “Pilgrim,” which revisits the ashram and the Shaker site in a melancholy register, suffers from its placement in a corridor that leads to the terrace. Also on view are Ms. Smith’s drawings of book covers; in this series, “Firespitters,” she celebrates books by some of her favorite poets and others that they, in turn, have recommended. A big show developing Ms. Smith’s vision across mediums — film, installation, performance, textile — is desperately overdue in New York. But “Sojourner,” a masterpiece, is essential balm and ballast for now. SIDDHARTHA MITTER
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan; 212-570-3600, whitney.org. Purchase of timed tickets in advance is required. (Admission is pay what you wish through Sept. 28.)