Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2016
Mark Rosenthal, ed. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit Exh. cat. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2015. 248 pp.; 125 color ills.; 48 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300211603)
Exhibition schedule: Detroit Institute of Arts, March 15–July 12, 2015
Diego Rivera. Detroit Industry, north wall (detail) (1932–33). Fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts.

The story told through this exhibition begins and ends in the Garden Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) where in 1932 the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera executed a monumental set of wall paintings to celebrate the city’s industrial spirit against the backdrop of the devastating Great Depression. Just months before the arrival of the muralist and his wife, Frida Kahlo, the city had considered closing the museum and selling its artworks, but this commission was part of a larger set of efforts to restore Detroit’s identity. Rivera’s splendid Detroit Industry murals make this show, curated by contemporary specialist Mark Rosenthal, uniquely site-specific; at no other venue in the world could the narrative of Rivera and Kahlo’s epic year be presented, and at no more of an appropriate historical moment than now. In the wake of Detroit’s recent Chapter 9 bankruptcy which again threatened the DIA’s renowned collections but ended with a comprehensive restructuring plan—the “grand bargain”—in late 2014, Rivera and Kahlo have once more helped Detroit get back its groove.

The exhibition itself actually opens not in the Garden Court but rather in the galleries, and with a wall-sized photograph of the newlywed Mexican artists sharing a kiss by the courtyard scaffolding; the image is a visual and conceptual enticement consistent with (just-retired) DIA director Graham Beal’s self-professed interest in presenting human stories to engage a general audience rather than emphasizing more scholarly art-historical narratives. This makes the show an unmistakable crowd-pleaser, but it also means that biography often overshadows historical and cultural details, particularly in regards to Kahlo whose work is the popular draw. An audio tour featuring just seventeen artworks largely supplants the spread of more extensive wall texts and individual labels that one might expect in a show of nearly seventy works by both Rivera and Kahlo produced just before, during, and in the years following their time in Detroit. The voices of Beal, Rosenthal, and a number of other experts from a variety of fields provide engaging perspectives on a clear narrative, but also leave many of the rich artworks unaddressed. An accompanying catalogue featuring eight essays provides more information about the artists, their subjects, and the larger historical context.

A clear highlight is the revelation of the process by which Rivera ultimately produced Detroit Industry. This includes his interactions with the city and museum, as well as with its ambassadors: among them, then-DIA Director William Valentiner, who invited Rivera, and Edsel Ford, who bankrolled the murals. Rivera spent his first months absorbing and sketching especially the River Rouge complex in nearby Dearborn, which became his principal inspiration; this was the heart of the Ford Motor Company, where Edsel’s father Henry made manifest his vision of the standardization of production for the Model A, and consequently created a model for modern factories worldwide. Rivera was enthralled by the machinery and by the throngs of laborers he saw as working in harmony with innovative technologies; the finished car itself makes only the most fleeting appearance in the final murals, as Rivera reveals his real fascination with the process of production rather than with the product.

Appropriately, Rivera’s massive preparatory drawings for the murals—the largest almost thirty feet in length—occupy a substantial portion of the gallery spaces, demonstrating the intense observation that went into his own process, well before he ever scaled the scaffold. These rarely seen cartoons are the subject of two essays in the catalogue, providing detailed analyses of the subject matters, materials, and techniques. Other works are a reminder that his Detroit period comes amid major mural commissions in San Francisco (completed), Chicago (scuttled), and, most famously, New York (destroyed); while in Detroit, Rivera created the detailed drawings for the ill-fated Rockefeller Center mural Man at the Crossroads (1933). The show’s larger contextual lens considers Rivera’s evolution over time, with varied styles and subjects including his picturesque Flower Day (1925) and the expressive Dance in Tehuantepec (1935), both of which illustrate his persistent reverence for indigenous Mexico and its popular traditions.

While Detroit was Rivera’s commission, it is Kahlo’s work that initiates the exhibition and is poised to provide the compelling personal narrative on which the curatorial vision depends. Her 1931 painting Frieda and Diego Rivera first confronts viewers with a portrait of the couple as a study in contrasts, with him as the gargantuan painter who dominates his comparatively diminutive wife in her now familiar woven rebozo and full skirt. These formal contrasts seem to corroborate the slogan of the exhibition’s national ad campaign: “He carried a pistol; she carried a flask. He drank for recreation; she drank for relief. He painted his heritage; she painted her reality.” On the other hand, the spare frontality of the double portrait also suggests a relationship not exactly “explosive” (also from the ads) with constant reactive synergy so much as the union of two distinctive people more often simply operating in the same space. Nevertheless, the work helps to frame one of the show’s dominant but overly simplified narratives: whereas Rivera is the only one holding a palette in 1931, Kahlo will truly realize her identity as an artist in Detroit.

Twenty-three works by Kahlo are featured in the exhibition, including a handful created during her time in the Motor City. This includes Henry Ford Hospital (1932), a surrealist depiction of her physical and emotional traumas following a pregnancy loss, and Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932), whose title alone suggests a sense of divided identity also expressed elsewhere in her art. With such works, the exhibition proposes, Kahlo becomes self-actualized: according to Rosenthal, when she arrived in Detroit, she was “a complete unknown” (18), but “her metamorphosis started while she was in the hospital” after which she “[stages] her rebirth as an artist” (60). A change indeed appears evident as the last gallery comes alive with many dramatic later-period works such as The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1940), a contemporary transformation of the traditional Mexican ex-voto used here as an indictment of the social values that would provoke such a tragedy.

The narrative claims that this artistic growth was rooted in 1932; however, Kahlo’s developing profile was a good deal more complex, with artistic and personal explorations beginning well before Detroit. Beyond this exhibition, works like Kahlo’s fascinating Café de los Cachuchas from 1927 (identified in the catalogue with the historically imposed but inaccurate title Pancho Villa and Adelita) suggest her connections with growing avant-garde circles in Mexico. Likewise, Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931) depicts the horticulturalist, whose widow Kahlo had befriended in California, as a human-plant hybrid, perhaps a meditation on a corporeal duality akin to her own European and Mexican heritage. In fact, this painting initiates FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life, a concurrent exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden (May 16–November 1, 2015), which offers an image of the artist not defined by biographical details—like her marriage or the streetcar accident—but rather as an intellectual in her own right, with an early interest in playing with ideas grounded in her spatial and cultural connections to Mexico.

In Detroit, the key biographical detail around which Kahlo’s transformation is shown to revolve is the pregnancy that has received substantial attention. In a show that eschews generous labeling, a large freestanding wall providing contradictory details surrounding the pregnancy stands out. A timeline of events suggests legitimate confusion over whether or not her hospitalization was the result of a miscarriage or an abortion, a question complicated, as Lisa John Rogers has written, by the way a related lithograph displayed in the same room has been labeled over time (“‘Abortion,’ ‘Miscarriage,’ or ‘Untitled’? A Frida Kahlo Lithograph’s Complicated History,”, April 29, 2015: But if anything is clear from the information provided there and in the catalogue essay by Salomon Grimberg, it is that Kahlo herself did not particularly wish to clarify the situation for the general public. This is a woman, after all, who had already begun to manipulate dates on her artworks, rework details from earlier pieces, and change her own name depending on circumstances. Her deliberate staging of word and image ought to remind us that the reality which she claimed to be painting was expertly constructed. It also bears noting that the traumatic experience in Detroit was neither her first nor her last pregnancy loss. Another truth: Kahlo’s intimate stories draw us in, and at the DIA, her works offer one bridge to the emotionally less available Rivera. They also sell at the gift shop, through which you must exit to get to the grand finale.

Detroit Industry proclaims Rivera’s own inspired way of reaching people, across time and through pictorial and real space. In the Garden Court, Rivera manages to resolve the many contradictions of his commission: a set of monumental modern murals on serene marble walls of a Beaux-Arts structure, the depiction of mile upon mile of factory in a single tightly contained courtyard, and a subject matter driven by the artist’s Marxist perspective but underwritten by capitalist dollars. The north and south walls are the showstoppers here, conveying a totality of the Motor City industries, the intense movement of laborers working back to back in an unrelenting forest of machines and among the technologies of modern science, but not in the chaotic jumble that one might expect; instead Rivera’s vision coincides remarkably well with that of Henry Ford at the River Rouge, where orderly production sequences create an efficiency that the artist uniquely renders above the bodies, sweat, and din.

Rivera’s spatial compressions produce unexpectedly harmonious polyscenic narratives, like the individual components of the assembly line precisely choreographed to produce something greater than the sum of their parts. This describes too the images from Rivera’s own preparatory drawings which only truly come together here to create an even grander narrative, with the allegorical representations above the laborers revealing the nascent transfer of energies from the raw materials that ultimately give rise to this Machine Age. As the only part of the exhibition that still remains at the DIA, and at an original cost of a mere ten thousand dollars, Rivera’s Detroit Industry may well be that city’s grandest bargain ever.

Delia Cosentino
Associate Professor, History of Art and Architecture, DePaul University