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  • Writer's pictureLisa Lehman Trager

Irene Herner talks about the life and artwork of D.A. Siqueiros

Updated: Jul 10

Writer and Professor at UNAM Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico


Siqueiros – The Mentor

Portrait of David Alfaro Siqueiros taken at his home in Cuernavaca. March 20, 1967. Photography: Hermanos Mayo. Silver on gelatin.  INBAL Collection-Siqueiros Public Art Room.
David Alfaro Siqueiros. March 20, 1967. Photo by Hermanos Mayo.

One of the greatest influences on Harold Lehman’s artwork was the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Known as one of the Los Tres Grandes, Siqueiros along with Diego Rivera and Jose Clement Orozco revolutionized art in the 1930s.  Not only was their leftist subject matter, celebrating the lives of Mexican workers and peasants seen as revolutionary, but so was their technique and approach of painting large scale murals on the walls of public buildings in both Mexico and the United States.

 

Lehman’s first exposure to Siqueiros was in 1932, when he along with about 20 other artists assisted him in creating his famous mural, America Tropical located at the Plaza Art Center in downtown Los Angeles. Lehman then became one of the six Bloc of Painters who used the theme of social justice to inform the public of political issues of their time.  Later in 1936 in New York City, Lehman joined forces with Siqueiros once again to help him create the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop, with the sole purpose of experimenting with “new theories of composition in the plastic arts and modern methods of working collectively… to find the technique of our time.”

 

Background

Professor Irene Herner.  Photo by Elir Negri.
Professor Irene Herner. Photo by Elir Negri.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Irene Herner, one of the world’s leading experts on the life and artwork of David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Her lifelong admiration for the artist began at an early age, while still living in her parent’s home in Mexico.  Her parents, Oscar and Trude Herner, were art dealers who represented Siqueiros at their Galerias Iturbide.  


In 1960, Siqueiros was still considered “Mexico’s No. 1 leftist (and No. 1 artist.)1” Even though the President of Mexico at that time, Adolfo López Mateos was considered sympathetic to Fidel Castro, he did not hesitate to take a hard stance on leftists in his own country.  He sentenced the 65-year old Siqueiros to 8 years in Mexico’s federal penitentiary for “social dissolution” due to his involvement in worker and student demonstrations.  While in jail, his wife, Angelica Arenal asked the Herners to try to sell the artist’s work.  Until the paintings were sold, they hung in their home. As Herner explained, “These paintings had a lot of influence on my mind without looking at them directly they looked at me.”

 

When Siqueiros was released from prison in 1964, her father invited him to visit at their home. Herner describes one of her earliest memories watching Siqueiros paint a mural at the Castle of Chapultepec,

 

I would spend hours watching him paint his story of the Mexican Revolution, at the mural of the Castle of Chapultepec.  He would show me photographs that he was using to document his work, the photos were stained with blots of paint that dripped from his hands, as I half-listened when he explained his method of polyangularity (multiple angularity.)

 

Years later, Herner, a Ph.D. professor and full-time researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico would re-explore the man and his work in her book, Siqueiros, from Paradise to Utopia. Among the people Herner interviewed for this book was Harold Lehman.


 

The following are highlights from my conversation with Professor Herner:


Lehman Trager: Why is Siqueiros relevant today?

 

Herner: Being born in 1896 and dying in 1974 Siqueiros is a way of looking at the 20th century.  A representative of the world at that time. On one hand he was a nationalistic artist. He was a soldier in the Mexican Revolution and Spanish Civil War.  He was a devout Communist, and all his life was an activist in support of trade unions and working people.

 

As an artist, his monumental style was born out of mixing imagery from ancient Pre-Colombian sculpture, the Renaissance masters, and 20th century modern art.  This mix became a very specific monumental style which he began between 1921-31. 

 

Then in 1932 he moved to the United States and became a pioneer of street art in Los Angeles.  Later in New York he became a pioneer of action painting. 

 

He was a revolutionary in life as well as art. 

 

Lehman Trager: He was also the only Mexican muralist to integrate the Mexican Communist perspective of showing indigenous people not in an idealized way from folklore but empowered. His famous mural, America Tropical was whitewashed because in 1932 its message of anti-imperialism was seen as so radical.  Although Siqueiros was commissioned to paint an idealized version of a “tropical America,” instead, his mural revealed a more disturbing view.


For me … 'America Tropical' was a land of natives, of Indians, Creoles, of African-American men, all of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments.

David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1971

From documentary by Jesus Trevino

David Alfaro Siqueiros. America Tropical Mural. Olvera Street, Los Angeles Photo by Credit: Robert Garcia Copyright: Creative Commons Non Commercial Attribution
David Alfaro Siqueiros, America Tropical Mural, Olvera Street, Los Angeles, California

Lehman Trager: It took 80 years for it to be restored in 2012. How can art be used today to bring about social change?

 

Herner: There is a confusion between activism and being a political artist. Siqueiros was a political artist, and his art is an expression of the politics of the 20th century.

 

Lehman Trager: When did your interest in Siqueiros begin? 

 

Herner:  In 1993, while working as a researcher and professor at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico I was intrigued with a fantastic study done by Siqueiros for the mural El Pueblo a la Universidad La Universidad al pueblo, which is located at the University.  When I went to see his archives at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, his former home, I found them in a terrible state.  They had been abandoned. It made me want to rescue this great artist who was so forsaken because of his political ideas.

 

It’s an archive that’s been difficult to rescue because his political activities have been so overwhelming. His creative style has been difficult for the public to understand as it included influences from Pre-Columbian sculpture to the great Renaissance masters, as well as 20th century modernist painters. 

 

When he went to Los Angeles in the 1930s he also began to integrate the language of construction and machine aesthetics into a new vocabulary and method for artists.  This is what he taught the young artists like your father who worked with him on the mural America Tropical and later at the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop.

 

Lehman Trager: Yes, if I may quote your book :

 

At the beginning of the 1930s muralists became readily integrated into machine aesthetics, into the forms and rhythms of the myth of progress. They found that, despite the cultural differences between their country and North America, the Paradise of progress had been globalized in the model of the American Dream. 

Irene Herner

Siqueiros - From Paradise to Utopia


Herner: He also introduced techniques from film – and even Disney animation into the language of painting.

 

Lehman Trager: That’s something I learned from watching your videos. I love the one, which shows the effect of movement as you walk through the mural. The perspectives and the actual images change as you walk below it. How has this passion for the work of Siqueiros manifested in your projects about him?

 

Irene Herner's book, Siqueiros from Paradise to Utopia.
Irene Herner's book, Siqueiros from Paradise to Utopia.

Herner:  It took me quite a few years to write the first book, Siqueiros el lugar de la utopía (Siqueiros the Place of Utopia.)  The first edition was published in 1994.  The second one,  Siqueiros del paraiso a la utopia (Siqueiros from Paradise to Utopia) was published in 2005 and then again in 2010 in English.  Then I did a video series on Who Was Siqueiros – with subtitles in English with 19 chapters. I’m working on making the entire video series available to the public. 

 

Lehman Trager:  Tell me about the new book you’re writing.

 

Herner:  There are so many fake Siqueiros works in the market.  Over the years, I’ve been called by many collectors and art dealers, and places like Christies to document his work.  In the last 30 years I have documented more than 200 undiscovered works by Siqueiros. The new book, Siqueiros Documentado (Siqueiros Documented) is going to focus on 57 works that people don’t know about because they’ve been in people’s private homes.  It will come out later this year.

 

Irene Herner interviewing Harold Lehman. 1994. Video courtesy of Irene Herner.
Irene Herner interviewing Harold Lehman. 1994. Video courtesy of Irene Herner.

Lehman Trager:  You interviewed my father at his home in Leonia in 1994 as part of your research for the second book.  What stands out about your meeting with him?

 

Herner: The two things that stand out about meeting Harold was his eagerness to help and answer questions about working with Siqueiros and his passion about that period.  I’m so glad I got to meet him.

 

The first person who talked to me about your father was Ellen Landau.  In 1994, I went to visit her when I was co-curator preparing for an exhibition of Siqueiros and Pollock in an exhibition in Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Germany.  She took me to her study where she talked to me about Lehman, Guston, and Kadish.  One of the things I wanted to find out was the relationship between Siqueiros and the American artist.  I had found all these images in the archives that had to do with action painting and building materials, cinema, etc.  Then I went to New York and met with Robert Storr, at the time the chief curator in the department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. He said, “There’s still an artist who’s alive who participated in the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop – Harold Lehman.”

 

I looked him up in the telephone book and called him.  He invited me to meet with him, so me and videographer, Jack Seligson went to Leonia to meet with him!

 

Harold Lehman discussing his work in the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. Video courtesy Irene Herner.
Harold Lehman discussing his work in the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. Video courtesy Irene Herner.

Lehman Trager: The video interview you did with my father was very emotional for me to watch as it opens with an extreme close-up of my dad. It’s like he’s standing there in front of me!   One of the things that was fascinating was him showing you a tool he kept in the basement from the Siqueiros Workshop – a cutal!   As explained by my father, the cutal was a tool used to cut simple geometric shapes, which were used with a spray gun to introduce 3-dimentionality to the large paintings with revolutionary themes being created in the Workshop. I remember seeing it in my parent’s house.  If I had known the history of this tool, when I sold my parent’s house, I would have kept it!

 

In your interview with my dad, he talked about how he helped Siqueiros create the Experimental Workshop and how the drip technique evolved.  Here’s a snippet from that interview where he’s describing the Workshop:


Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. Photo courtesy of Lehman Estate.
Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. Photo courtesy of Lehman Estate.

We went to the Ballentine Paint company on 135th St with Siqueiros to get automotive enamel and lacquers.  He concentrated on the lacquers with the lacquer thinners, which is how he created the effects.  The thinner was used to dissolve the paint.  We never knew what we’d come up with.

 

We experimented on big  ¾” plywood panels and worked on the floor.  That’s where horizontally started. The paint came in quart sized cans.  We punched a hole in the top of the can and poured from that hole onto the canvas.   Had a river of paint coming out of the can. Each one of us would take a different color and pour on the board.  Then we’d pour the lacquer thinner, which would dissolve the paint and cause all kinds of effects. “Marvelous!”  Siqueiros would say, “We’ll do something with that.”

Harold Lehman

Interview with Irene Herner. 1994

 

Lehman Trager:  In an interview with Archives of American Art, my dad talked about how “Siqueiros was always interested in experimentation.”  In your interview with him, he said, “Being a revolutionary artist he never looked back, he was always looking forward.”

 

Herner:  Not sure if that is so because Siqueiros was very knowledgeable and very cultivated. He had extreme knowledge of traditional art and was an art lover.  He knew a lot about Renaissance and Baroque art, was fond of Rembrandt, he knew a lot about modern art, and knowledgeable about Cubism, he was friends with George Braque in Paris, and interested in Pre-Columbian sculpture.  He was a very knowledgeable artist, with the knowledge of a historian.

 

Lehman Trager:  I think what my father meant is that even though he was very knowledgeable and appreciated the classics, when it came to his own art, he was always about building upon it and moving forward. 

 

Herner: The most important thing to Siqueiros was to do art that got to the people.  An art that was as widespread as advertisements.  He was fascinated with machine aesthetics and the power of mass media.  He wanted his art to be mechanically reproduced. 

 

This is also why we did the video series on Siqueiros, because we realized that his desire to reproduce and digitize the original works looked as good, as poetic, and politically relevant today as when he first created them.  Siqueiros created his work with the thought of being photographed, filmed and animated. It’s pretty impressive to see how the work still resonates today.

 

Lehman Trager:  My dad credits Pollock as the only artist who participated in the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop who got it.  Who got the point of experimentation with paint. Lehman said:  

Jackson Pollock and Harold Lehman working together at the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. Photo courtesy of Ellen Landau.
Jackson Pollock and Harold Lehman working together at the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. Photo courtesy of Ellen Landau.

It is very odd and interesting that it was the most inarticulate member of the group who could hardly say one sentence after the next expressed in his work the advanced notions of the experimental workshop. The more realistic oriented dropped and immediately they left. Yeah. So what it shows is that it's not the literary idea that was being projected in the shop, but was the artistic experimentation, which came out of those ideas.

 

Herner:  He got it but denied it. 

 

Lehman Trager:  Tell me more.

 

Herner:  He got the know-how.  Jackson Pollock learned from Siqueiros to use the paint can, drip, and all the materials they used with machines.  Ten years later, he started doing this, but didn’t finish it off.  Siqueiros did that as the first step in the process, but then he developed the figurative figures from it.  He developed the figures from the abstract.  Pollock did it without developing the images.  Siqueiros called the work that they did with dripping paint from the cans, “controlled accidents.” Like in surrealism.   Pollock said he didn’t believe in the accident -- but died in an accident.

 

Lehman Trager:  Siqueiros used the accident to inspire the figurative.

 

Herner:  Not only inspire… The figures came out of this abstract experimentation.  This is the interesting part.  Siqueiros did this unconscious work, like a surrealistic artist.  It’s not by chance that his painting Collective Suicide was part of a Surrealist exhibition 1936-37 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  He did all this as part of the surrealist atmosphere of the time.

 

Lehman Trager: What did Siqueiros think about the WPA

 

Herner: Siqueiros did not mention this, but I can tell you that George Biddle, a friend of President Roosevelt, was the one who introduced him to the Mexican mural movement. Biddle sparked FDR's interest in backing an arts initiative under the New Deal, leading to the establishment of the Federal Art Project.

 

Lehman Trager: Yes, and it was this program, which helped put artists back to work.  Was FDR concerned with the subject matter of the murals or socialist themes?

 

Herner: In the beginning, in the early 1930s the Mexican murals were very well received.  Only later were murals by Rivera destroyed, for example the one at Rockefeller Center in New York due to the inclusion of an image of Lenin.  You must remember in the beginning of the 1930s people weren’t punished in the United States for being affiliated with the Communists.  On the contrary, Roosevelt was an ally of Stalin until 1939. 

 

Siqueiros was working with the Communist party and even did portraits of Earl Browder and James Ford who were running as candidates for President and Vice President in the 1936 election. Your father shared photos of the paintings done of them as part of the Siqueiros Workshop.

 

Lehman Trager – In the late 1940s my dad told the story of how he and Pollock came to blows in the Cedar Tavern in New York City over the future of art.  My father was not a fan of abstract expressionism and refused to change his style. Unfortunately, history proved him wrong. 

 

Herner: I don’t think you can say wrong.  He was not successful later on because of the circumstances.  During the cold war, the whole push was for abstract art because of its contrast with the socialist art in the Soviet Union. 

 

Neither Siqueiros nor your father was ever a Soviet social realist.  However, the attitude of that time, from a political standpoint, was to promote abstract art.

 

As Clement Greenberg the American art critic wrote,

…it is true that once the avant-garde had succeeded in "detaching" itself from society, it proceeded to turn around and repudiate revolutionary as well as bourgeois politics…. Hence it developed that the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to "experiment," but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture mottling in the midst of ideological confusion and violence. "Art for art's sake" and "pure poetry" appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague. 2

 

Herner: Once abstract expressionism took hold, it was quite a difficult situation for many artists who were realists even if they didn’t have anything to do with socialism.

 

 

References

  1. Time Magazine, Mexico: Artist in Jail. March 23, 1962.

  2. Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture, Critical Essays. Beacon Press. (c) 1969, 1981.


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