12
12
Rufino Tamayo
(1899-1991)
AMERICA
Estimate
7,000,0009,000,000
LOT SOLD. 6,802,500 USD
JUMP TO LOT
12
Rufino Tamayo
(1899-1991)
AMERICA
Estimate
7,000,0009,000,000
LOT SOLD. 6,802,500 USD
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Latin American Art

|
New York

Rufino Tamayo
(1899-1991)
AMERICA

vinylite and sand on canvas


signed and dated O-55 lower right
13 ft. 2 in. by 45 ft. 10 3/8 in.
(4.02 by 14.23 m)
Read Condition Report Read Condition Report

Provenance

Bank of the Southwest, Houston
Sale: Christie's, New York, Important Latin American Paintings, Drawings and Scultpure, May 17, 1993, lot 30, illustrated in color
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Exhibited

Mexico City, Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, América-Exhibición Especial, December, 1955, n.n.
Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art, 1995-2008 (on loan)

Literature

"Auge del Arte del Sur: Pinturas y esculturas de la América Latina conquistan a los yanquis," Life en Español, June 18, 1956, illustrated
José Gomez Sicre, 4 Artists of the Americas: Roberto Burle-Marx, Alexander Calder, Amelia Peláez and Rufino Tamayo, Washington D.C., 1957, Pan American Union, p. 84, illustrated
Paul Westheim, Tamayo: una investigación estética, Mexico, 1957, Artes de México, illustrated in color
Octavio Paz, Tamayo en la Pintura Mexicana, Mexico City, 1959, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Dirección General de Publicaciones, p. 61, no. 128, illustrated in color on the frontispiece
Alma Reed, The Mexican Muralists, New York, 1960, Crown Publishers, Inc., pp. 146-147, illustrated in color
Antonio Rodríguez, Historia de la Pintura Mural Mexicana: El Hombre en llamas, London, 1970, Thames and Hudson, n.n., illustrated
Emily Genauer, Rufino Tamayo, New York, 1974, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., no. 22, illustrated
Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic (exhibition catalogue), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1979, discussed p. 232
Octavio Paz and Jacques Lassaigne, Rufino Tamayo, New York, 1982, Rizzoli, discussed p. 32
Tamayo (exhibition catalogue), Museo de Monterrey, Monterrey, 1986, discussed
Hans Haufe, "Indian Heritage in Modern Mexican Painting," Images of Mexico: The Contribution of Mexico to 20th Century Art (exhibition catalogue), Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; Messepalast, Vienna; Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art, December 5, 1987-October 30, 1988, p. 82, illustrated
José Corredor-Matheos, Tamayo, New York, 1987, Rizzoli, discussed p. 29
Judith Alanís and Sofía Urrutia, Rufino Tamayo, una cronología/1899-1987, Mexico City, 1987, Editorial Esfuerzo, n.n., discussed
Ramón Favela, "Los murales de Rufino Tamayo, en los Estados Unidos," Rufino Tamayo: 70 años de creación (exhibition catalogue), Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Internacional Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, December, 1987-March, 1988, discussed p. 68
Paul Westheim, "Rufino Tamayo: una investigación estética," Rufino Tamayo Pinturas (exhibition catalogue), Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, June 29-October 3, 1988, discussed pp. 61 and 64
Patricia C. Johnson, "'America'/Firms Plan to Remove Tamayo Mural," Houston Chronicle, October 9, 1992, discussed p. 1
Bethany Tarbell, "The Market," Art & Antiques, May, 1993, p. 25, illustrated in color
Patricia C. Johnson, "'America' Goes on the Block," Houston Chronicle, May 2, 1993, discussed p. 13
America, a Mural by Rufino Tamayo, New York, 1993, Christie, Mason & Woods International, Inc., illustrated in color and on the cover
Francisco Reyes Palma, "Exodos y travesías de la pintura mural mexicana," México en el Mundo de las Colecciones de Arte, México Contemporáneo 2, Mexico City, 1994, pp. 268-269, illustrated in color
Jaime Moreno Villareal, "El hombre en el umbral," Los murales de Tamayo, Mexico City, 1995, Américo Arte Editores, discussed p. 33
Juan Carlos Pereda and Martha Sánchez Fuentes, Los murales de Tamayo, Mexico City, 1995, Américo Arte Editores, pp. 136-139, illustrated in color
Raquel Tibol, "Los murales de Rufino Tamayo," Los murales de Tamayo, Mexico City, 1995, Américo Arte Editores, discussed p. 22
Janet Kutner, "Tamayo companion piece goes on display at DMA," The Dallas Morning News, February 22, 1996, illustrated
Patricia C. Johnson, "Art heads south, uh, north: City loses when mural by Mexican master resurfaces in Dallas Museum," Houston Chronicle, March 24, 1996, p. 12, illustrated
Stanley Marcus, "Huge painting is a coup for museum," The Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1997, discussed p. 13A
Xavier Moyssén, "Revisión a Vuelo de Pájaro," Tamayo, Mexico City, 1998, Américo Arte Editores, discussed pp. 75-76
Tamayo: su idea del hombre (exhibition catalogue), Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Internacional Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, August 26-October 31, 1999, discussed
Fernando del Paso, "El Tiempo Encantado de Tamayo," Tamayo, Mexico City, 2000, Américo Arte Editores, discussed p. 19
Ingrid Suckaer, "Tonalidades Biográficas de Tamayo," Tamayo, Mexico City, 2000, Américo Arte Editores, discussed p. 199
10 maestros de la plástica mexicana, Mexico City, 2003, ICA Fluor, discussed p. 152
Diana C. Du Pont, Tamayo: a Modern Icon Reinterpreted (exhibition catalogue), Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara; Miami Art Museum, Miami; Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, February 17, 2007-January 21, 2008, pp. 238-239, illustrated in color
Mary K. Coffey, "'I'm not the Fourth Great One' Tamayo and Mexican Muralism," Tamayo: a Modern Icon Reinterpreted (exhibition catalogue), Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara; Miami Art Museum, Miami; Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, February 17, 2007-January 21, 2008, discussed pp. 259-264

Catalogue Note

In June of 1954, the Bank of the Southwest in Houston, Texas, triumphantly announced in the newspapers the groundbreaking of the largest modern building in the American Union. Among its spaces it featured a monumental 6,200 square-meter lobby. The colossal building project was conceived by architect Kenneth Franzheim, who thought the lobby's central space should be grandly adorned with a mural by New York artist Dean Cornwell.

When this decision was shared with interior designer Hans Knoll, who had been commissioned to decorate the interior of the building, he thought that Cornwell's painting was too conservative for a building that was so modern in every detail. Knoll, along with the bank's director Randolph Bryan, decided to hire Rufino Tamayo to create an imposing mural to decorate the most important space in the building.  

America was executed without the help of assistants in five months of constant and disciplined work. Tamayo worked shifts of more than eight-hour days, seven days a week. Many of the technical aspects of this work, such as the linen canvas woven into one piece, and the identification of an adequate paint medium for the format, had already been resolved. A few years earlier, Tamayo had completed the murals—Mexico Today and Birth of our Nationality, which he painted for the vestibule of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the emblematic building of the arts of Mexico.

Given the monumental dimensions of the mural, Tamayo had to look for an appropriate place to set up an improvised workshop for the creation of the colossal painting. He relied on Nabor Carrillo, then President of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, to lend him the institution's enclosed court. Once finished, America was exhibited in the vestibule of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, from December 1-15, 1955. After the painting was shown to the Mexican public, the mural was carefully rolled up and shipped to its destination in the city of Houston. It wasn't until April of 1956 that the public was able to appreciate the painting in all its splendor as the focal point of the Bank of the Southwest. The North American public's reaction toward the painting was one of wholehearted and enthusiastic acceptance.  

In spite of taking a narrative risk in the usual format for public art, Tamayo wanted to prove that large-format painting isn't rhetorical by nature, and that it isn't condemned to be a political medium but can be a poetic manifesto. This is how Tamayo himself described the symbolic meaning of the monumental canvas that represents America, the mural with which he ratified his permanently divergent position toward modern Mexican muralism:

The figure in the lower half of the composition represents America. She's surrounded by water to emphasize her geographical situation. Because of her large proportions, this figure communicates the idea of abundance, our continent's main trait, which is also represented by the fish, a symbol of abundance in the sea, by a plant, symbol of the wealth of the land, by an oil geyser and a water fountain, symbols of subterranean resources. In the upper half of the mural, there are two figures embracing that symbolize the melting pot of the two main races in America, whose cultural contributions spiritually enrich them. The white figure on the left is the white race, and next to it is the cross, a symbol of the Western culture. The dark-skinned figure on the right is the indigenous race, whose contribution is represented by the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, a symbol of pre-Colombian culture. I painted the great figure of America white and brown to indicate that within her the two races and cultures intermixed to create her greatness. The movement of these figures, and their expression of joy, signify activity and at the same time happiness for all the material and spiritual wealth.

Thus, without resorting to political proclamations or arguments, he achieved with America one of the strongest, life-affirming and poetic paintings in the history of Mexican muralism. The iconography of this magnificent painting has its origins in various sources consulted by the painter in order to achieve powerful personifications of concepts like continent, race and abundance. One must consider that Tamayo could have taken into account the European engravings of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, in which America is depicted as a woman, often wearing an imperial crown and an abundant head of hair, as in fact occurs in the mural of America. Tamayo depicted the conquest of the natives of America as integration and not as a dramatic conquest. At the same time, he visually conceptualized America as a live and telluric land, "red" as Antonin Artaud had described it when he visited Mexico and discovered the work of María Izquierdo, and as he had also discussed with André Breton. It's interesting to note that Tamayo refers to the entirety of the American continent, and not just the territory of the United States, thus alluding to the hemisphere's territory, but more concretely to the vast extensions of land and the abundance of natural resources in Mexico, Central and South America, although paradoxically destined to decorate one of North America's most emblematic locations—a bank, symbol of the financial culture of the United States.

The vibrant and contrasting colors of America are a worthy expression of one of the best stages of Tamayo's mature style, in full command of his faculties as an outstanding colorist. Here Tamayo's use of color is expressed with his biggest virtues: a powerful contrast between colors; the exploration of delicate ranges and opulent tonalities, and a fully harmonious relation between color and form to achieve a composition that brings about a true masterpiece.

Tamayo's idealization of America turned out to be optimistic and utopian, as somewhat logically accords an artist who experienced first-hand the horrors of World War II. His reflection on the continent that had supplied nations in conflict with food and fuel still remained an "open barn" in the post-War era, but now at the service of the progress of nations. This painting can be considered one of the most significant works, not only of Tamayo's muralistic production but also of all painters that worked within that aesthetic discipline.

Juan Carlos Pereda, art historian, Mexico City

 

In a 1953 interview with the art critic Bambi, Rufino Tamayo famously exclaimed: "I'm not the Fourth Great One." Responding to attempts by the Mexican state's cultural apparatus to position him within the pantheon of Mexican Greats—los tres grandes, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—Rufino Tamayo insisted: "I'm neither the fourth, nor am I great. . . . I am the first in a new modality of Mexican painting that attempts a universal voice, instead of limiting itself to that chauvinistic painting that we could well call 'the School of Huipanguillo.'"1 This claim, often reiterated throughout his career, typifies Tamayo's rye sense of humor, as well as his struggle to distinguish his mural practice from the folkloric Social Realism of the "Mexican School of Painting." Tamayo's "new modality" involved the promotion of "pure painting" or a poetic approach to realism over and against the political figuration of his peers. América (1955) embodies Tamayo's "new modality" and reveals his allegiance to the pure plastic values of vanguard formal experimentation along with his unwavering commitment to abstract figuration.2

The 1953 interview was occasioned by Tamayo's completion of two permanent murals (The Birth of Nationality [1952] and Mexico Today [1953]) at the Palace of Fine Arts, the most important venue for showcasing Mexican art and the location of important earlier commissions by Rivera (Man at the Crossroads [1934]), Orozco (Catharsis [1934]), and Siqueiros (New Democracy [1944-5]).  Tamayo's inclusion within the Palace represented his official embrace by a government that had denied him public commissions since 1933.  It also corresponded with his triumphant homecoming as an internationally acclaimed artist after a decade of self-imposed exile.  Like Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros before him, Tamayo sought recognition and work in the U.S. when state patronage dried up. However, unlike los tres grandes, Tamayo garnered acclaim within the transatlantic art world because his work represented an alternative to what was deemed the provincialism and political dogmatism of art of the left. 

While best known for his easel painting, Tamayo executed numerous murals throughout his career.3 His earliest frescos reveal an artist struggling to reconcile his aesthetic convictions with the demands of public art. By 1950, however, his murals represent a confident intervention into the discourses of cultural nationalism. In particular, he offered an alternative perspective on mestizaje, the legacy of the Conquest for modern Mexico, and aesthetic Indigenismo, or what Tamayo disparagingly referred to as "skin deep Mexicanism."4 Marking the emergence of his mature style, his murals of the 1950s abandon the fresco medium in favor of Vinylite, a synthetic paint, on canvas.  This change in materials freed his conceptual programs from an engagement with their architectural support (a hallmark of Mexican Muralism), thus reclaiming easel painting for public art after its denunciation in the radical fervor of the post-Revolutionary period.  Tamayo's mature murals should be viewed, therefore, as part of the heroic painting influenced by Picasso's Guernica (1937) and heralded in the "triumph" of the New York School after World War II. However, unlike the Abstract Expressionists, Tamayo rejected total abstraction and allied himself with the aesthetic legacy of the School of Paris while remaining engaged thematically, but not exclusively so, with Mexican culture and history.

América derives from the period between 1955 and 1971 when Tamayo's mural career took off with high-profile commissions at home and abroad for corporate, federal, and international agencies. One of five murals Tamayo painted within the U.S. and its territories (Nature and the Artist: The work of Art and the Observer [1943], Hillyer Art Library, Smith College; Man [1953], Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; Prometheus [1957], University of Puerto Rico; and Brotherhood [1968], United Nations, New York), América is the largest (thirteen by forty-five feet), and the only work to address a Mexican theme. The work reveals Tamayo's mastery as a colorist, as well as his life-long dialog with Picasso's formal experiments.  This is particularly evident in his cubo-surrealist analysis of the figure and rendering of space, as well as in his incorporation of sand into the surface of the work.  Recalling Picasso's use of sand and collage, Tamayo's technique partakes of the avant-garde desire to eschew illusionism by emphasizing the materiality of painting, while also nodding toward mural art's origins in fresco, a medium formed of the fusion of sand-based masonry and ground pigment.

América was commissioned in 1955 by the architect of the Bank of the Southwest headquarters in Houston, Texas and installed in 1956 in the lobby of the modern skyscraper.5 Given its location in Houston, a "gateway" between Mexico and the United States, Tamayo took the opportunity to present a hemispheric vision of the Americas rooted in the Conquest and subsequent fusion of Occidental and Indian culture.6 A nude "America" reclines amid a rubble-strewn landscape anchored on the left by the Spanish cross and on the right by Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of Pre-Columbian cosmology and a bringer of enlightenment. "America" stretches in a gesture of happy repose; fish swim and corn thrives under the glow of a tropical sun. "America's" white and sienna body forms a fertile soil that gives rise to a Grecian female figure and a dark-skinned male warrior, thus reflecting the dual racial and cultural heritage of the Americas.

Unlike his earlier mural cycle in Mexico's Palace of Fine Arts, where he characterized the Conquest as a brutal imposition of a phallic Occidental culture upon a feminized indigenous world, Tamayo reverses these codes in America. Here, he presents Western culture as a passive white woman, perhaps a reference to antique statuary, and the Christian cross lies flat, as though leveled by the warrior. Quetzalcoatl surges forward echoing the punching fist of his dark-skinned human counterpart. Both recall the violent torque of Tamayo's figures in canvases like Cosmic Terror (1954) or The Tormented Man (1949). However, rather than spiraling within a vortex of existential terror, the figures in América threaten to burst into the viewer's space.  The feathered serpent's fanged jaws open in a scream like one of Tamayo's howling dogs from the early 1940s, insinuating a note of atavism within an otherwise optimistic take on America's violent origins.

Tamayo's subtle reversal of the gendered hierarchy and power dynamics implicit in his earlier murals signals a shift from the phantasmal to the ferocious in his portrayal of Pre-Columbian culture and its modern legacy. Like Siqueiros's fetishization of the militant Cuauhtémoc during this period, Tamayo too seems to have become fascinated with the raw strength of the ancient Aztecs. In this respect, his murals from the 1950s and 60s participate in an official valorization of the splendors of México-Tenochtitlán as the historical precedent for the contemporary nation-state. The Mexican government institutionalized this ideology in 1964 when it inaugurated the new National Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park. Tamayo executed a massive mural commemorating the epic battle between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca for the lobby of this building (Duality [1964]), thereby securing his reputation as Mexico's most important public artist.

Tamayo's success at this time was no coincidence, for he was both a skilled painter and an excellent self-promoter.7 He positioned himself as the lone warrior for non-polemical art, and as such he was perfectly situated within the complex cultural and political negotiations between Europe, the U.S., and Mexico during the Cold War. Throughout this period, intellectuals and cultural technocrats in Mexico had to negotiate the Manichean standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States along with an international cultural order that equated realism with oppression and abstraction with freedom.  They did so by seeking to depoliticize the realism that characterized Mexican modernism and arguing for an alternative kunstwollen (will to form) that was rooted in a distinct but no less spectacular antiquity than the European vanguards.8 This reconstruction of Mexicanidad invoked a racialized spirit of resistance to Imperialism, whether Soviet Socialism or the hegemonic claims of the U.S. within the hemisphere.

Tamayo, who claimed to be a "full blooded" Zapotec Indian, became the emblem of Mexico's alternative modernity. Critics in the United States—such as Clement Greenberg or the artist Barnett Newman—had been praising Tamayo's painting since the 1940s.  Distinguishing him from the "professional patriots" of the Mexican School, they saw affinities between the "basic terror [and] brutality of life" expressed in his art and the concerns of the nascent New York School.9 Likewise, he appealed to the French, struggling to maintain a foothold within an art world increasingly centered in the Americas.  For them, Tamayo opposed the Stalinism of his peers, and his allegiance to the School of Paris made him more attractive than the Abstract Expressionists.  And for the Mexicans, he represented a viable alternative to the stigmatic socialism so closely associated with national culture at a time when the government sought to present a more cosmopolitan face.

América, much like Orozco's Epic of American Civilization (1932-34) at Dartmouth College, signals an important turning point in the artist's career.  Working at the peak of his powers as a painter and interpreter of Mexico for the world, Tamayo executed a work that properly understood should be considered alongside Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (1950) or Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimus (1950-51). As an alternative but equally historically significant attempt to limn a "universal" art from American sources without falling into the traps of nationalism or the parochial concerns of contemporary politics, Tamayo's mural reveals the rich diversity of the human tradition in post-war art, along with Mexico's substantial contributions to that tradition.  

--Mary K. Coffey, Assistant Professor of the Modern Art of the Americas, Department of Art History, Dartmouth College

1 Bambi (Cecilia Treviño de Gironella), "Yo no soy el Cuarto Grande," Excélsior, September 9, 1953. Translation from original Spanish, "Ni soy cuarto, ni soy grande. . . . Soy el primero de una nueva modalidad de la pintura mexicana que trata de tener una voz universal, en lugar de limitarse a esa pinture chauvinista que bien podriamos llamar 'la Escuela de Huipanguillo.'"

2 Diana C. Du Pont, "'Realistic, Never Descriptive': Tamayo and the Art of Abstract Figuration," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, ed. Diana C. Du Pont (Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2007), 31-107.

3 Mary K. Coffey, "'I'm Not the Fourth Great One': Tamayo and Mexican Muralism," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, 247-267.

4 Rufino Tamayo, "El Nacionalismo y el movimiento pictórico," Crisol 53 (1933): 276.

5 "Arte de México en Arquitectura de EE. UU.," Novedades, June 24, 1956.

6 Catherine Louden, "Tamayo in Texas," The Houston Post, July 15, 1956, 29.

7 Anna Indych-López, "'None of Those Little Donkeys for Me': Tamayo, Cultural Prestige, and Perceptions of Modern Mexican Art in the United States," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, 343-365.

8 Olivier Debroise, "Reaching Out to the Audience: Tamayo and the Debate on Modernism," in Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, 380-391.

9 Barnett Newman, "The Painting of Tamayo and Gottlieb," La Revista Belga (April 1945), reprinted in Joan O'Neil, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (New York: Knopf, 1990), 76.

Latin American Art

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New York