MEX/LA: Mexican Modernism(s) in Los Angeles 1930-1985

September 18, 2011 – February 5, 2012

Curated by Rubén Ortiz-Torres in association with Jesse Lerner, the exhibition MEX/L.A.: “Mexican” Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930-1985, focuses on the construction of different notions of “Mexicanidad” within modernist and contemporary art in Los Angeles. The period from 1945 to 1985 is attributed as the time when Los Angeles consolidated itself as an important cultural center. However, this time span excludes the controversial and important presence of the Mexican muralists and the production of other artists such as Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock who responded to their ideas and later influenced other artists in New York and throughout the United States.

MEX/LA: “Mexican” Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930-1985 is an exhibition that intends to tell a history of L.A. or of Mexico that often has not been seen as neither and yet it is important and both. Like any other history, it is partially true and forgets.This history is a fragmented and contradictory one with different points of view that often clash and differ but are necessary pieces of an incomplete puzzle. It is a history that looks at the past to construct a future because ultimately there is a present that allows us to make it possible. Some of this history is known and yet it is necessary to make evident since it is often forgotten and still challenges certain assumptions of how and when Los Angeles became an important art center. It was in the 1930s when José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros produced their murals in the L.A. area, stirring big controversies and influencing American artists.This exhibition is also an opportunity to instigate the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach to recognize itself not just as an importer of an “external” culture, but also as part of the production of it from an inside. It is not a history of a “periphery” around a “center” or of a “minority” in a place where there is no center and does not have a clear majority. It is an exhibition about the uneasy relations between the old and the new and the north and the south. MEX/LA is an exhibition about conflict, misinterpretation, appropriation, fascination, resilience and more. It is an exhibition that recognizes that the history of art is a creation and therefore an art project in itself.

We talk about “modernisms” referring to the new and a sense of vanguard in a historical frame. We refer to “Mexico” as a point of departure but not necessarily of destiny and of “Los Angeles” as a critical point at the edge of this construction, which makes it more complex. MEX/LA is not an ethnic show but rather one that addresses cultural constructions and exchange as part of the modern experience. We are interested in the idea of “nation” as a form of expression and self-determination and not of exclusion. This idea does not exist in opposition to modern internationalism but it is rather an intrinsic part of it.

The exhibition, in a way, is like the city of Los Angeles itself. Like a modern collage it is a fragmented juxtaposition of simultaneous, clashing and contesting representations and misrepresentations that do not quite integrate but talk to each other and together form a whole.Through different media as varied as painting, film, photography, animation, street art, fashion, car customizing, music, architecture, etc., different systems with their particular notions of art, aesthetics and culture collide like tectonic plates in a seismic zone.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, curator
and Jesse Lerner, associate curator

High and Low?

What is high and low? Who defines this?

The criterion to define high art and low art is a political one. It responds to different class and cultural values. Southern California is the capital of film, television and in that sense, of popular culture. It is often difficult to divide or disassociate high art from it. In contrast, Mexico’s popular culture is also a product of traditions from its pre-Columbian past and contemporary folklore, and is not necessarily considered part of a “low” culture.

The artists of the Mexican revolution tried to vindicate the popular forms of expression of the lower classes and indigenous people of Mexico and their histories, mixing folk and pop as well. Not only did artists pay attention to popular culture but also popular culture paid attention to art as well. Hollywood often saw and responded to art. The paintings of Diego Rivera were used as props in film noir to denote the political affiliations and morals of the characters that collected them. The Walt Disney Animation Studios and Warner Brothers were influenced by Mexican art in the creation of some of their cartoons, for example. One of the most experimental films produced by Disney was The Three Caballeros. This film was influenced not only by the Mexican School but also by Surrealism. Early television and new forms of recording music allowed new experimentation. In the sixties, pop artists paid attention to mass-produced culture to question the subjectivity and singularity of the artist in the modern world. After the Civil Rights Movement, some artists made political and critical commentaries and questioned the values of a consumerist society, using the language of pop art. Some Mexican and Chicano artists used and compared different notions of popular and national culture as well, as in the case of Yolanda López and Adolfo Patiño.

Time frame 1930-1985

According to the Getty’s initiative, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, Los Angeles consolidated itself as an important cultural center from 1945 to 1980. However, it was in the 1930s and before World War II when David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Alfredo Ramos Martínez and other Mexican artists came to Los Angeles and Californian artists traveled south of the border and/or looked at the Californian past for inspiration. It was in this period in Los Angeles when the contact between Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, Reuben Kadish, among other artists, and the Mexican muralists would change not just the art in California but eventually the art in New York, the Americas and the world.

But this story starts before; when in 1847 the United States occupies by force the territories of the Southwest, including Southern California, striping its original settlers and their descendants of their rights, language and land. Or perhaps it starts even before that, with the conquest of indigenous people by European settlers. After World War II, Modernism would have an opportunity to materialize with its promise for a better world. However, repression heightens, particularly during the Cold War, with the prosecution and censorship of artists and intellectuals, until this could not be tolerated anymore. While interventionist policies were failing in Vietnam, people of color mobilized in a Civil Rights Movement that would open spaces for expression and self-determination which would also result in the production of new art. MEX/LA’s time frame ends in the mid-eighties to include Chicano art production in L.A. that affected or influenced later art movements in the nineties.

Click here to see a Time Line


Modernity is referred to and criticized as a utopian idea based on the notion of progress and the new. Nevertheless, there are “isms” within modernity that question and sometimes oppose this idea of utopia and progress, such as Dadaism and Surrealism. The so-called “Mexican School” has been criticized for incorporating indigenous content and references, to its utopian project. Chon Noriega, for example, affirms that Chicano art is “an orphan of Modernism.”

Modernity has been understood in opposition and often as an antidote to nationalism, but the idea of the State-Nation is a modern invention. The Mexican Revolution preceded the Soviet one, and neither, as modern experiments, succeeded to materialize their ideals and created new problems with their solutions. We also understand Modernity as an enemy of history and the past. However, history has more to do with the present than with the past. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles del Río de la Porciúncula has forgotten most of its letters and now it is only “L.A.” We brag about an amnesia that forgets about an inconvenient past where everything is to be done and to be written. As much as we try, we cannot separate Los Angeles from Mexico or Latin America geographically, politically, ethnically or culturally. The purpose of the construction of a “Mexican” identity in the South of California is not to consolidate the national unity of a post-revolutionary Mexico, but to recognize and be able to participate in an international reality, with all its contradictions and conflicts that this entails. The art produced in Los Angeles is not divided in pure spaces such as high culture or popular culture, painting, conceptual art, minimalism and pop, community and avant-garde, or Mexico and the United States. More than a cultural center, the city is a critical point at the edge of chaos, where complexity is at its maximum level.

In this exhibition, Modernism refers to the reinvention, transformation and experimentation in the arts that may not be completely separated from the past or from popular culture, but could be connected to both.

Chicano(a) Artists

In 1847, the city of Los Angeles and the Southwest were occupied by force. The original settlers lost their land and were denied their language and basic rights. However, Mexican labor was needed and used, and thus, the struggle continued. During the 1960s, César Chávez organized the farm workers and the people of Mexican descent in the United States (who called themselves Chicanos) in favor of their self-determination. During that period, artists used their art to support the cause and define themselves. Murals and graphic art work were used to reach a broader audience but other experimental strategies were used as well.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Mexican and Chicano artists like Louis Carlos Bernal, Adolfo Patiño, Felipe Ehrenberg, Roberto Gil de Montes, Ricardo Valverde, Graciela Iturbide, Mónica Mayer, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, among others, were in contact with each other. Art groups in Mexico such as Suma, Grupo No and Proceso Pentágono followed collective art production by groups like Asco from Los Angeles.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a scholarly catalogue with color and black and white illustrations, published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, with essays by Mariana Botey, Olivier Debroise, Jennifer Flores Sternad, Harry Gamboa Jr., Renato González Mello, Anna Indych-López, Josh Kun, Jesse Lerner, Ana Elena Mallet, Cuauhtémoc Medina, Rubén Ortiz-Torres, Catha Paquette, and Denise Sandoval.

The exhibition MEX/LA: “Mexican” Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930-1985 is presented by The Getty Foundation, The Walt Disney Company, and Wells House Hospice. Additional support is provided by the Robert Gumbiner Foundation, Arts Council for Long Beach, City of Long Beach, Verizon Wireless, and MOLAA’s Annual Exhibition Fund. MEX/LA: “Mexican” Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930-1985 is a part of Pacific Standard Time which is an unprecedented collaboration ofmore than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California, which are coming together to tell the story of the birth of the LA art scene. Initiated through grants from The Getty Foundation, Pacific Standard Time will take place for six months beginning October 2011. Pacific Standard Time is presented by Bank of America.


Sunday, December 4, 2011, 2:00 – 4:00pm
Free Admission to Museum and event

2:00 - 3:10pm - Josh Kun and Little Willie G, performance and discussion of the music
3:15 - 4:00pm - Concert featuring Rubén Guevara & the Eastside Luvers

MEX/LA: Photography and Film 1930-1985

Thursday, January 12, 2012, 7:30 - 9:00PM
Free Admission to Museum and event

December 3-4, 2011

Visit participating Pacific Standard Time institutions in Orange County on Saturday, December 3 and in Long Beach on Sunday, December 4 for special days full of programming, tours, and more! Visit museums and galleries throughout Orange County and Long Beach to see artworks by some of the most important and visionary artists from Southern California who ushered in thought-provoking trends and changes to the art world. These exhibitions are part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. This unprecedented collaboration, initiated by the Getty, brings together more than sixty cultural institutions from across Southern California for six months beginning October 2011 to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. art scene.
Saturday, December 3: Orange County

Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University

Everyman’s Infinite Art by Harold Gregor
>> Map it
Free admission
10:30 a.m.: Curatorial walk-through
Laguna Art Museum
Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971
>> Map it
Half-priced admission ($6)
12:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m.
Behind-the-scenes tours with exhibition curator Grace Kook-Anderson
Orange County Museum of Art
State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970
>> Map it
Half-priced admission ($6)
In conjunction with the exhibition , family activities will be held throughout the day. Additional programs include:
12:00 p.m.: curatorial tour
1:00 p.m.: artist talk with Illene Segalove
2:30 p.m.: artist performance with Susan Mogul
3:00 p.m.: curatorial tour
4:00 p.m.: screening of Susan Mogul’s Woman’s Building and Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Women / Art / Revolution.
University Art Galleries, University of California, Irvine
The Radicalization of a '50s Housewife: A Solo Project by Barbara T. Smith
>> Map it
Free admission
3:00 p.m.: Curatorial walk-through
The Penthouse Gallery, South Coast Plaza
On Display in Orange County: Modern and Contemporary Sculpture
>> Map it
Free admission
4:30 p.m.: Refreshments, hors d'oeuvres, and guided tour of sculptures on public display
Bus Tour
South Coast Plaza has generously donated two buses for a tour of the five institutions. Join the free chartered bus tour to Pacific Standard Time arts institutions in Orange County. Seats are on a first come, first served basis and space is limited! If you are unable to participate in the bus tour, you are encouraged to visit each institution on your own!
>> Click here for more information about the Orange County bus tour

Sunday, December 4: Long Beach

Long Beach Museum of Art (LBMA)
Exchange + Evolution: Worldwide Video Long Beach 1974–1999
>> Map it
Free admission
All day screenings of Joan Jonas’ I Want to Live in the Country (And Other Romances)
Gallery tours offered at 11:00 a.m., 11:30 .am., and 2:15 p.m.
Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA)
MEX/LA: Mexican Modernism(s) in Los Angeles 1930–1985
>> Map it
Free admission
Exhibition tours offered at 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 4:00 p.m.
2:00–3:10 p.m.: Josh Kun and Little Willie G performance
3:15–4:00 p.m.: Rubén Guevara & the Eastside Luvers concert
University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach
Peace Press Graphics: 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change
>> Map it
Free admission
Extended hours: 11:00 a.m. -7:00 p.m.
Exhibition tours at 2:00 p.m., 3:45 p.m., and 5:00 p.m.
4:00-7:00 p.m.: The Zachary Ginder Duo performs live jazz
5:00-6:00 p.m.: Lou Reed Event Ticket Drawing
6:00-7:00 p.m.: Closing reception with wine refreshments and cocktail snacks
Bus Tour
Three Long Beach bus tour loops will be offered free of charge courtesy of the County of Los Angeles. Two begin and end at the UAM, and one begins and ends at MoLAA. Tour bus seating is on a first come, first served basis. Please arrive 15 minutes prior to departure to ensure your place on a bus. Seating is not guaranteed. For those boarding a tour bus from the UAM, complimentary parking passes will be distributed. For more information on parking at CSULB, please call 562.985.5761. If you are unable to participate in the bus tours, you are encouraged to visit each institution on your own!
>> Click here for more information about the Long Beach bus tour
Long Beach / Orange County Focus Weekend Map


Tour buses generously provided by:

Free admission sponsored by: