Camilo Egas (Ecuadorian, 1889–1962) was born in Quito and as a young man studied art in Rome and Madrid. After returning from Europe in 1926, he played a pivotal role in founding the Indigenist movement in Ecuador, launching the country’s first art periodical, Hélice, and connecting his interest in Andean themes and the struggles of indigenous people to Marxist politics. The very next year, however, he moved to New York, where from 1932 until his death he taught at The New School for Social Research. Egas became director of the Art Workshops in 1935 and later served as director of the Art Department. Faculty hired during his tenure included Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Lisette Model in a period that helped to shape the school into a home for emergent modernisms. In 1939, Egas painted a mural for the Ecuadorian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, and in 1943, at the federal government’s request, he taught a tuition-free New School class titled The Plastic Arts and the War.

Color treatment of dance studio at 66 West 12th Street. Watercolor by Joseph Urban, c. 1929–31. Courtesy Joseph Urban Archive, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University and The New School Archives and Special Collections

In the early 1930s, in the flurry of commissions for 66 West 12th Street, Alvin Johnson invited Egas to produce a painting for the anteroom of the dance studio, an unusual circular space on the lower level for which Joseph Urban had devised a color scheme of orange, royal blue, emerald green, and yellow. Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey would each work there, but Egas took Ecuadorian folk dance as his theme. Unveiled to considerable acclaim in a period when Latin American artists were lionized—if not fetishized—in progressive American circles, Ecuadorian Festival was reviewed in the American Magazine of Art, Art News, the New York Evening Post, the New York Sun, and the New York Times. Nevertheless, this view of muralism as uplifting, educational, and/or an art of popular resistance led to a corollary neglect of Egas’ work in the later twentieth century, as conceptualist, performative, and multimedia art practices took hold. Following Egas’ death in 1962, his painting languished; in the early 2000s, it was concealed behind a protective temporary wall. 

In recent years, conditions have again changed. A reappraisal of Latin American modernisms has been furthered by a new generation of scholars, and the landmark exhibition Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis, organized in 2010 by Deborah Cullen at El Museo del Barrio, looked closely at both Ecuadorian Festival and José Clemente Orozco’s Call to Revolution and Table of Universal Brotherhood. In 2011, curators Silvia Rocciolo and Eric Stark oversaw the painting’s restoration and, the same year, included it in the exhibition (re) collection, organized by Rocciolo, Stark, and John Wanzel at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons. Following (re) collection, Egas’ commission was installed in the lobby of Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall, where it remains.

Camilo Egas