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Los desempleados (The Unemployed) is a rare and powerful early work by José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949); one of only nineteen street scenes painted in New York during the period of 1928-1932. While some of these easel paintings have been generally regarded by historians as creative exercises for future larger scale works, the present picture presents a fully autonomous and self-contained composition—a definitive canvas by one of Mexico’s most celebrated muralists.
In his autobiography, Orozco called New York an “imperial city.” It was among New York skyscrapers, that Orozco first “encountered the modern, urban, thoroughly anonymous, even alienated crowd,” arguably the most poignant quality of the modern era. (2) In Los desempleados, three massive manly figures confront each other. Lacking any individuality, their concealed gaze prevents them from connecting to each other or the viewer. Wearing hats and monolithic gray coats, they succeed in imposing their robust physicality while disguising their humanity. Conceived as automatons, these novel creatures seem to exist solely for the glory of the modern city. This modern-day sense of detachment is equally apparent in Winter (1932), another outstanding painting from this series currently in the collection of the Museo Carrillo Gil in Mexico City. (Fig. 1)
Painted circa 1929, Los desempleados embodies the New York collective psyche after the stock market crash of October 29. Profoundly somber, the picture alludes to the intense disillusionment brought forth by the sudden collapse of economic certainty. Metropolitan life, once lionized as the American way of life and an icon of modernization, gave way to massive angst. Executed in zinc white and ivory black, Los desempleados is one of the last surviving examples in private hands from this compelling period in Orozco’s production; a time of great professional success when he rose to prominence and solidified his position along fellow Mexican muralists Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974).
1. Clemente Orozco, quoted in A. Anreus, Orozco in Gringoland: The Years in New York, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2001, p. 21.
2. Ibid., p. 51
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