Miguel Covarrubias enjoyed transcultural encounters and exchanges in the cosmopolitan centers of Mexico City, New York, and Europe, where he met and exchanged ideas in a global network of modernists such as Georgia O’Keeffe. Famous for his caricature studies, he was also an accomplished painter, set designer, and book illustrator. Less well known are his consummate skills as an art historian, curator, cartographer, ethnographer, and documentary filmmaker, as well as his direction of programs in museum studies, dance, and the excavation of cultural sites in Mexico.
Miguel Covarrubias: Drawing a Cosmopolitan Line, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, establishes the importance of Covarrubias’s broad-ranging and significant contributions to modern art. The book includes an extensive selection of this prolific artist’s compositions in graphite, watercolor, and oil paint, as well as illustrations from his scholarly publications. Four accompanying essays consider Covarrubias’s artistic practice and contributions to the richness of modern art. They discuss his lifelong habit of moving between modern cities and remote sites of ancient cultures, which engendered a strong cosmopolitanism in his work; his role in promoting the art of the Americas, from ancient Olmec works to contemporary pieces, through curatorial efforts in New York and Mexico City; the large-scale mural maps Covarrubias made for the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair that bring his anthropological, ethnographic, and geographic interests together with cartography and blur lines between landscape and culture; and his substantial scholarship on the indigenous arts of North America.
To draw as Covarrubias draws, one has only to be born with a taste for understanding everything.
The exhibition Miguel Covarrubias: Drawing a Cosmopolitan Line is tightly focused on the intersection of the diverse interests of a dynamic artist who enjoyed transcultural encounters and exchanges. In the cosmopolitan centers of Mexico City, New York, and Europe, he met and exchanged ideas in a global network of artists, writers, scholars, and intellectuals whose varied projects were embraced within a capacious view of the modernist enterprise. His lifelong practice of moving between modern metropolises and ancient cultural sites inspired his art and scholarship. He crossed creative disciplines and genres as easily as geographic and social boundaries throughout a highly productive career as a contributor to stylish publications in New York and an author who researched, wrote, and illustrated ethnographic publications, all while maintaining a prolific studio practice. Yet, Covarrubias's reputation in North America is most often limited to his lively caricatures of famous figures, and he remains outside the canonical history of American modernism, despite his immense body of work, his creative presence in the modernist circles of New York City in the 1920s and 30s, and the modern perspective he brought to the history and art of Mexico during the 1940s and 50s.
This exhibition and catalogue present Covarrubias's artistic, literary, curatorial, art historical, and anthropological accomplishments as a single body of work. The complexity of his interests best expresses his modernism, even as the very diversity of those interests complicates an easy fit within the discourse of modernism. The goal of this exhibition is not to redefine or correct his place in art history but to broaden our sense of modernism. It seeks to elucidate the scope of Covarrubias's work as part of a transcultural exchange facilitated by travel between his home in Mexico City to diverse destinations such as New York and Bali, where he established deep and lasting connections.
The exhibition and catalogue draw attention to the limitations imposed by rigid distinctions between the categories "high" art and "popular" arts that obscure Covarrubias's contribution to modernism. New York City during the 1920s was a site of cultural exchange with few limitations. Frank Crowninshield, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art and the editor of Vanity Fair, epitomized the energetic mix of high and low culture. Crowninshield reviewed Covarrubias's caricatures with the same critical language he used to discuss modern art. Further, he explored the beneficial influence of popular arts on the "high" arts in the pages of his stylish magazine. Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, credited Vanity Fair for his interest in contemporary art. Author and cultural critic Carl Van Vechten praised Covarrubias's drawings in his preface to The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans, declaring, "At the present moment, Miguel Covarrubias is about as well known in New York as it would be possible for any one to be."
Yet, Covarrubias's fame did not secure him a lasting place in the history of art alongside friends and colleagues such as O'Keeffe, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and René d'Harnoncourt, though he was often associated with them during his lifetime. For example, in 1929, Covarrubias received a commission from the New Yorker to create a drawing of O'Keeffe that would accompany a review of her artwork by Robert M. Coates (plate 2). It was not a small matter to the artist's husband Alfred Stieglitz, the famous avant-garde photographer and gallerist, who anxiously anticipated the upcoming review and caricature in a letter to O'Keeffe, dated June 21, 1929. He wrote: "The article is to appear July 6.--I fear to see it." In letters from the years that followed, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe noted Covarrubias's career achievements and exchanged information about him. In a letter to O'Keeffe dated April 3, 1933, Stieglitz wrote that he had attended the ceremony at which the younger artist received a Guggenheim fellowship.6 That fellowship supported the research that set a new and expansive path for Covarrubias as he published Island of Bali in 1937.
Not only were the distinctions between "high" and "popular" arts less rigid, fine art and "commercial" art were also more closely aligned during the 1930s, when the new field of advertising could attract modern artists to create imagery for marketing campaigns. O'Keeffe, Covarrubias, and Isamu Noguchi all accepted offers from the advertising agency representing the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole) to create art for their magazine advertisements. Charles T. Coiner, art director for N. W. Ayer and Sons, recalls his inspiration to commission artwork from well-known artists: "So that a woman, when she thought of Dole, would think of the romance of the Hawaiian Islands as well as a food item." O'Keeffe created twenty oil paintings inspired by the commission, but only two were reproduced in advertisements. Stieglitz, however, exhibited all of them at his gallery, An American Place. More recently, the paintings were included in the exhibition Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai'i Pictures, organized by the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Each essay in the catalogue engages a specific aspect of Covarrubias's creative life to illuminate the range of his artistic and intellectual interests and to establish his contributions to the richness of a modern art practice. In "Placing Miguel Covarrubias's Modernism: Mexico, New York, and Bali," I examine Covarrubias's lifelong practice of moving between modern cities and ancient cultural sites, places where he observed an intersection between urban modernity and the living cultures of these regions. His travels began in 1923 with his move to New York City and continued throughout the 1930s as his life and art were transformed by his experience in Bali. I argue that during that period, Covarrubias initiated a body of work influenced by his diverse experiences and expressing a modernism best defined as cosmopolitan.
Alicia Inez Guzmán's essay, "Miguel Covarrubias's World: Remaking Global Space at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition," focuses on the six large-scale mural maps that Covarrubias painted for the San Francisco World's Fair in 1939. An integral component of his larger oeuvre, these murals are the linchpin between his anthropological forays in the South Seas and his later work in North and Central America, which took place before and after the 1939 Exposition, respectively. At the same time, they reference his earlier caricature work in New York. She also examines the geopolitical claims of both the murals and the fair, focusing on their mutual turn away from Europe just as World War II was on the horizon.
The third essay, "Miguel Covarrubias and Twenty Centuries of Pre-Columbian Latin American Art, from the Olmec to the Inka" by Khristaan D. Villela, discusses Covarrubias's contribution to studies of the art of the Americas, from his early championing of the ancient Olmec civilization to his activities promoting popular arts in New York and Mexico. From the 1920s until his death in 1957, Covarrubias played a signal role in increasing popular understanding of these cultures, ideas that were eagerly absorbed by American modernists.
Finally, Janet Catherine Berlo's essay, "Transgressing Borders: Miguel Covarrubias and the Development of Native American Art History," discusses Covarrubias's substantial scholarship on the indigenous art of North America. From his work in the 1940s on El Arte Indígena de Norteamérica(1945), Mexico's first museum exhibition of Native North American art, to his influential book The Eagle, the Jaguar and the Serpent (1954), Covarrubias was in the forefront of appreciating the importance of this work for a modern audience. These essays make visible Miguel Covarrubias's extraordinary contributions that expanded American modernism.
We are proud to present this exhibition and catalogue as part of a renewed interest in the artwork of Miguel Covarrubias. We congratulate the California African American Museum on the breadth of their 2012 exhibition, The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by Color, Shaped by Cultures, curated by Mar Hollingsworth. Together, our exhibitions offer a broader understanding of Covarrubias's contributions to the artistic and intellectual discourse of modernism shared among a wide-ranging and cosmopolitan group of artist friends in the early twentieth century.