Art from a Land of Sun and Shadows

BY SAMUEL HUGHES

 

Iwish I could have gone with Harry Pollak W’42 and his late wife, Sharley, when they visited the studios of Alfredo Zalce and Juan O’Gorman and the other Mexican artists whose work they collected. I picture them stepping out of the hot sun of Morelia or Mexico City and into the quiet, earthy places where the art is made and the imagination is strong and the smell of paint and linseed oil mixes with that of coffee and corn masa
   “I preferred to buy that way, actually,” says Pollak in a telephone interview. “I went to the artists’ homes on numerous occasions, and made friends with some of them. I was usually invited for lunch. I think they really felt complimented that somebody was interested in their work.”
   Since Mexico is not an option right now, and the auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s are too rich for my blood, I’ll go instead to the Arthur Ross Gallery, where “Travels in the Labyrinth: Mexican Art in the Pollak Collection” is being exhibited from September 1 through December 9. (The title was inspired by an essay in the show’s gorgeous catalogue, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.) The traveling exhibition, which first opened at the Naples Museum of Art in Florida, consists of more than 100 works of art—painting, sculpture, and drawings—most of them powerful, vibrant, mysterious. After it leaves Penn, it will travel to the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University in Kansas.


  
As the works shown on these pages indicate, the range of styles and subject matter by the 46 artists is impressive: from the earthy scenes of Gabriel Fernández Ledesma and Alfredo Zalce to the wry cubism of Rufino Tamayo to the sculpture of Armando Amaya and Alfredo Castañeda. Not to mention the engaging retablos, or ex votos—simple, compelling paintings of divine interventions in the lives of ordinary people, accompanied by a hand-written description of the event by the anonymous artist.
   For a variety of reasons, most Americans know little about Mexican art beyond a few big names: typically Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and maybe David Siqueiros, who was such a powerful influence on Jackson Pollack; or Gerardo Murillo, the legendary “Dr. Atl”; or José Clemente Orozco. But for art-lovers to overlook the rest of the spectrum, says Pollak, is a big mistake.


  
“They’re missing an awful lot. Not taking anything away from the greatness of Rivera and Tamayo et cetera, but there are others just as important.”
   Thirty-five years ago, when the Pollaks began to collect art in a serious way, they decided to confine themselves to Mexico.
   “I really liked the Mexicans the best,” says Pollak, “because they were recognized world figures in the world of art and my feeling was that they were extremely cheap. I had a lot of reasons to believe that.”

 


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Left: Mother and Daughter, 1923, by Gabriel Fernández Ledesma; below: Visit to the Imprisoned Farmer, 1930, by David Alfaro Siqueiros; and Young Girl with Ears of Corn, 1938, by Diego Rivera.

 


 

 

 
Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 8/24/01