José Clemente Orozco (Mexican, 1883–1949), along with his peers Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros—los tres grandes—came to prominence in the 1920s in post-revolutionary Mexico, when the influential secretary of education, José Vasconcelos, instituted a national literacy program supported by the commissioning of murals for public buildings. The American press began to discuss the muralist’s work, which also influenced the development of the Works Progress Administration’s mural program, and Orozco lived for several years in the United States. During this time, he executed three commissions in the context of higher education: Prometheus at Pomona College in 1930; his five-panel suite at The New School, completed in 1931; and Epic of American Civilization, installed in 1934 at Dartmouth College and recently designated a National Historic Landmark.
Breaking ground for new construction was risky in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. Undaunted, university president Alvin Johnson sought to make 66 West 12th Street into a center for modernism, “broadly defined as artistic creativity, social research and democratic reform”; architect Joseph Urban promised a building that could “house an idea.”1 Into this mix stepped Alma Reed, a journalist who had established the Delphic Studios gallery on 57th Street. A dedicated supporter of Orozco’s art, Reed urged Johnson to commission a work from the artist, who proposed to donate his labor for the cost of expenses alone. Johnson was easily persuaded. “What could have been my feeling,” he wrote, “when Orozco, the greatest mural painter of our time, proposed to contribute a mural to the New School. All I could say was, ‘God bless you. Paint me the picture. Paint as you must. I assure you freedom.’”2 Delays in the building’s construction meant that Orozco and his assistant Lois Wilcox had just forty-seven days to complete the cycle, which was designed for the dining room and adjoining student lounge.3
Call to Revolution and Table of Universal Brotherhood centers on revolutionary figures, from Gandhi to Lenin to Stalin to the assassinated governor of Yucatán, Felipe Carrillo Puerto (who had been Reed’s fiancé). The central panel, Table of Universal Brotherhood, presents figures representing ethnicities—two Asians, an African, a Sikh, a Tartar, an indigenous Mexican, and an African American—along with recognizable individuals, including an American art critic, a Dutch American poet, a Zionist painter, and a French philosopher.4 Seated around a table, they call to mind the League of Nations (founded in 1920), not to mention the New School community who would have gathered in the room to eat. The confraternity of the Delphic Circle might be invoked as well, since several of those depicted were members, as were Reed, Thomas Hart Benton, his wife, Rita Piacenza Benton, and Orozco himself.
The murals, unveiled at the building’s inauguration, initially met with skeptical reviews. Yet a groundswell of publicity, stimulated by excitement about Urban’s modern structure, brought some twenty thousand visitors to the school in the first few months. The positioning of an African American at the head of the Table of Universal Brotherhood and generalized curiosity about Orozco and his fellow muralists no doubt contributed to this public attention as well.5 After Rivera’s unfinished mural cycle at Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934—Rivera, like Orozco, had made Lenin’s portrait prominent—Call to Revolution and Table of Universal Brotherhood became the only surviving example of a site-specific Mexican fresco in New York. At the height of the McCarthyist Red Scare, the cycle’s explicit politics occasioned further controversy, and school administrators covered the panel depicting Lenin and Stalin with a yellow curtain. Protest by students and faculty eventually convinced them to remove this fig leaf.
Political quarrels were not the only adversity faced by the Orozco murals. Wear and tear took a toll as well, despite the fact that, in the 1980s, constituents both within and beyond The New School campaigned for their preservation—including, once again, Mayor Ed Koch, who “personally intervened to stop the sale of the mural cycle to the Mexican government.”6 A comprehensive restoration was undertaken (funded partly by the sale of the Benton murals), and by 1995, the Orozco Room had become a showplace of The New School, dedicated to hosting special events.
Orozco’s achievement has been celebrated in several recent exhibitions. In 2010, El Museo del Barrio presented Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis, dedicating a gallery to The New School for Social Research and the influence of Orozco and Egas.7 The same year, New School Art Collection curators Silvia Rocciolo and Eric Stark organized the exhibition Re-Imagining Orozco at the Sheila C. Johnson Design center at Parsons School of Design (then called Parsons The New School for Design). Featuring large-scale drawings by Enrique Chagoya commissioned for the occasion, along with a selection of mixed-media works by students and faculty, Re-Imagining Orozco presented a “collective, community-wide response to the murals as a platform for contemporary exploration of sociopolitical art practices.”8
- Peter M. Rutkoff and William B. Scott, New School: A History of The New School for Social Research (London: Collier Macmillan, 1986), 38. Urban quoted in Wolff, Thomas Hart Benton, 200.
- Alvin Johnson, Pioneer’s Progress: An Autobiography (New York: Viking Press, 1952), 328.
- A renovation in the 1950s relocated the library and reconfigured the building’s layout, with the result that the Orozco murals are now on the building’s seventh floor instead of its fifth. See Reinhold Martin’s essay in this volume.
- The critic was Lloyd Goodrich, the poet was Leonard Charles Noppen, the Zionist artist was Reuven Rubin, and the philosopher was Paul Richard. See Diane Miliotes, “The Murals at the New School for Social Research (1930–31)” in José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927–1934, exh. cat., ed. Renato González Mello and Diane Miliotes (Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art/Dartmouth College, 2002), 121.
- Miliotes, “The Murals at the New School for Social Research,” 128.
- Wall text accompanying the exhibition (re) collection, organized by Silvia Rocciolo, Eric Stark, and John Wanzel for the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons, 2011. See https://www.newschool.edu/university-art-collection/re-collection (accessed June 4, 2018).
- The exhibition was organized by Deborah Cullen, director of Curatorial Programs at El Museo del Barrio (October 17, 2009–February 28, 2010). See http://www.elmuseo.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Nexus-NY-Press-Release.pdf (accessed June 4, 2018).
- The exhibition was organized by Deborah Cullen, El Museo del Barrio, 2010. See http://www.elmuseo.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Nexus-NYPress-Release.pdf (accessed June 4, 2018).