It’s part of the LSU Museum of Art’s collection and has been displayed in a few exhibits through the years. But that was before Katie Pfohl became museum curator in 2013, so she didn’t know about the painting until she explored the collection.
Which led to an investigation of other possibilities, for the portrait was a door of sorts, with Durieux giving a face to an era of New Orleans artists who forged a connection with Mexico that was sometimes as political as it was artistic.
The result is the museum’s exhibit, “Mexico in New Orleans: A Tale of Two Americas,” which runs through Aug. 30.
The show is the first major museum exhibit to explore the artistic exchange between Louisiana and Mexico from the 1920s through the 1950s. Yet this show is as much about Pfohl as it is about the artists. It was nothing less than an adventure for her to bring together, but little did she know this effort would be her last for the museum.
She will leave the LSU Museum of Art on May 8 to take a job as the New Orleans Museum of Art’s curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Still, Pfohl’s immediate focus is on the collection of some 80 artworks she’s collected for “Mexico in New Orleans.”
The show even includes a traditional Mexican dress worn by Durieux while visiting south of the border, though not the exact dress she wears in Rivera’s portrait, the inspiration for this show.
“The dress is on loan from the LSU Textile and Costume Museum,” Pfohl says. “It’s similar to the one she wore in the portrait. And that portrait is so incredible. I stumbled on it one day, and I started doing research. No one had ever told this story before, so I started going to public and private collections to find works to tell it.”
Pfohl learned that a series of Mexican art exhibitions in the 1920s and ’30s brought the art and culture of modern Mexico to Louisiana. In the midst of this, the New Orleans Times-Picayune proclaimed Rivera “the greatest painter on the North American continent” and encouraged Louisiana artists to take counsel from modern Mexican art.
Along with Durieux, such Louisiana artists as William Spratling, Alberta Kinsey, Conrad Albrizio, Knute Heldner, Colette Pope Helder and Boyd Cruise began traveling to Mexico to learn from top artists Jose Clemente Orozco, Ruffino Tamayo, Carlos Orozco Romero and, of course, Rivera.
Durieux was born in New Orleans and directed the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Artists Project in Louisiana in 1929. She taught art at LSU from 1943 to 1964, where she developed the technique of electron printmaking with radioactive ink.
Her Mexico connection is illustrated here by her lithographic caricatures of everyday Mexican people, along with her painting, “Café Tupinamba,” depicting four cartoonish men drinking at a round table.
William Spratling’s history also is significant here. He began teaching in the Tulane University School of Architecture in 1921. He spent his summers between 1926 and 1928 lecturing at the National University of Mexico’s Summer School, and, in 1931, he reestablished the silver industry through his workshop, Taller de las Decicias. Spratling’s decision to settle in Taxco was influenced by the political and social atmosphere after the Mexican Revolution.
“It was an incredible time,” Pfohl says. “Mexico was a new place with a free way of thinking, and these artists were getting ideas, realizing how art can speak to social issues.”
Samples of Spratling’s silverwork, including jewelry, are included in the exhibit. The show also features a drawing by Rivera, along with two 9-foot Mahogany woodcarvings by Mexican-born artist Enrique Alferez, who lived and worked in New Orleans.
And this exhibit’s story wouldn’t be complete without the work of African-American artist Elizabeth Catlett. The Washington, D.C. native taught at Dillard University in New Orleans in 1941. She received a grant to study in Mexico in 1946 and was barred from entering the United States because of her political activism and ties with some of Mexico’s communist-leaning artists.
“This has been one of the most exciting exhibits I’ve worked on since I’ve been in Louisiana,” Pfohl says. “It has so many incredible works from private and public collections that haven’t been shown in a long time, and it offers new insight into the international origins of Louisiana’s distinctive art and culture.”