Art and Politics
As fascism swept through Europe, an organization known as the American Artists’ Congress (ACC) was formed in February 1936 by a group of artists in New York. Its goal: to promote their cause through artful projects and combat the rise of this political regime. Its slogan: “Against war and Fascism.”
ACC’s first session also took place that February, featuring a presentation from a devoted communist whose name you may recognize: David Alfaro Siqueiros. The Mexican muralist’s art carried a strong message for social justice — which may be why his speech during the session, titled “The Mexican Experience in Art,” addressed more than just fascism.
At this time, Siqueiros had been evoking some of the most radical mural painting techniques since the early 1930s, according to an article by Artsy. Instead of using traditional “pigment-and-plaster fresco methods” like his peers, the muralist opted for automobile lacquer applied from a commercial spray gun and quick drying cement.
“For Siqueiros, revolutionary ideas required revolutionary techniques and materials,” writes Jon Mann in the article. “You simply couldn’t make a moving work of political art in the modern era with the same techniques used by religious practitioners in 13th-century monasteries.”
The artists present at the ACC session seemed to like Siqueiros innovative methods, too. Shortly after this meeting, they would help him establish another politically charged group of artists, dubbed Siqueiros Experimental Workshop.
Making Moves through Art Experimentation
The Siqueiros Experimental Workshop, reports Mann, was referred to by its founder as a “Laboratory of Modern Technique in Art” with a mission to teach artists “radical new methods and materials.” Siqueiros’ artful experiments proved to inspire one member and emerging Abstract Expressionist in particular, Jackson Pollock.
“Before he was ‘Jack the Dripper,’ the Western-‘cowboy’-turned-New-York-intellectual, or Life magazine’s proposed ‘Greatest Living Painter in the United States,’ the young Pollock was a follower of the Mexican muralists who were working in the United States during that decade,” explains Mann in the article. “Growing up in California, he saw Diego Rivera’s murals in San Francisco and traveled to see José Clemente Orozco’s Prometheus mural at Pomona College in 1930.”
With this in mind, it isn’t all that surprising that Pollock would find himself a member of the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. He and the other students would work together to make large public artworks for the anti-fascist cause.
One such project was for the May Day parade of 1936, for which Pollock helped work on an armature of an allegorical float.
“The Workshop’s embodiment of Wall Street capitalism shows the figure’s head topped with a swastika and holding in his outstretched hands emblems of the Republican and Democratic parties (thus symbolizing Wall Street control over the U.S. political system),” explains workshop historian Laurance Hurlburt. “A gigantic moving hammer adorned with the Communist hammer and sickle, which represented the unity of the North American people, smashed into oblivion a Wall Street tickertape machine, spewing the tape blood-like over the capitalist figure.”
Although the workshop produced many political projects, it also helped the member artists fine tune their skills in abstraction.
The Drips of Pollock’s Abstract Pond
Known for exploring many unconventional art techniques, Siqueiros truly inspired his members to think outside the traditional art box. His Collective Suicide, for example, was made from rather unusual materials at the time, such as airbrush paint, stencils and fast-drying commercial lacquer typically associated with cars.
What’s more is that one artist of the workshop, according to the Museum of Modern Art, remembers applying this paint in either thin glazes or thick gobs by pouring, dripping, splattering and hurling it at the surface.
Does this sound similar to what would become a signature technique for Pollock’s art? We may never know for sure, but it certainly sounds like the techniques explored in the workshop helped to shape Pollock’s artistic style — despite the fact it was only open for less than a year.
Siqueiros, reports MoMA, closed the workshop in late 1936 to join the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) to fight against fascist forces.
Do you think the revolutionary Siqueiros inspired Pollock’s trademark techniques? Let us know in the comments below!