Streams

At the Queens Museum: Luis Márquez In the World of Tomorrow

In 1940, a prominent Mexican photographer shot striking and idiosyncratic images of New York and the World's Fair. You'll have to hurry to see them—they're only on view through next week.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011 - 12:00 AM

WNYC

If you think that the 1939 World's Fair is well-trod history, think again. In a curious exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art, curators Itala Schmelz and Ernesto Peñaloza of the National Automomous University in Mexico City have put together a highly intriguing visual chronicle of the fair (and New York) as seen through the lens of one of Mexico's more unusual lensmen: Luis Márquez, a former silent film actor-turned-photographer who was as known for his vanguard Modernist images as he was for producing some spectacular kitsch.

The multi-pronged show in Queens tackles Márquez's diverging visual styles as seen in the photographs that he produced during his lengthy stay in New York in 1940. The city, at the time, was at the high point of an intense "Mexicanist" period, having—over the course of a couple of decades—played host to high-profile visiting artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In May of 1940, the Museum of Modern Art opened its blockbuster "Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art" exhibit (for which you can download the original press release here). Macy's showcased Mexican art in its windows, in a month-long event called "Mexico in Manhattan." In all circles, there was talk about everything Mexican.

Márquez had honed his skills as a photographer during the '20s and '30s, a period during which globally important figures in Modern photography were convening in Mexico: Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti and Edward Weston. He was particularly renowned for his idealized, sympathetic portraits of the country's indigenous people. (If you speak Spanish, the Mexican daily El Universal has an excellent biographical article on the artist.) When he arrived in New York, Márquez immediately fell in love with the city, shooting its architecture, its light and its shadows in a way that rendered bits of the municipal infrastructure into works of geometric abstraction. But as a featured artist of the Mexican pavilion at the World's Fair in Queens, he was also required to sell the idea of Mexico as friendly neighbor and tourist destination to the American public.

And sell he did. Unlike his graceful, abstract shots of New York City, the World's Fair pictures are an array of far-out juxtapositions: folk dancers in indigenous costume striking poses amid the futuristic Star Trek architecture of the World's Fair. Many of the images look as if they could have been stills used to advertise early Mexican cinema, with men in ornate charro (cowboy) outfits flirting with women in frilly, embroidered skirts. Others show figures clad in traditional Tehuana or Poblana indigenous dress—hamming it up in front of the General Motors pavilion and the ball-shaped Perisphere. The scenarios are corny and downright bizarre—but as a document of their time, fascinating. As Peñaloza and Schmelz note in the exhibit's accompanying essay:

Although the great Mexican muralists, who had invented their own aesthetic, were thrilling the New York art scene with their modernism and originality, their communist tendencies and political activism impelled the Americans to search for the more picturesque and folkloric Mexican style of someone like Márquez, who used no protest slogans or subtexts of emancipation. So while the murals of Rivera and Siqueiros that were commissioned in the U.S. were erased, in 1963 Luis Márquez was invited to design Mexico Street in Disneyland.

This may have been a boon to Márquez's earning potential, but not necessarily to his artistic legacy. "The World's Fair photos erased the reputation he had earned for his more remarkable earlier photos," explained Peñaloza, during a visit to the Queens Museum of Art last week. "A lot of his work was eventually forgotten. In fact, a lot of the images on view here have never been seen before."

Well, it's now been unforgotten and the images can be seen at the Queens Museum. Kudos for pulling back the curtain on a quirky-fascinating period of New York City and the continent's history.

"Luis Márquez In the World of Tomorrow" is on view at the Queens Museum of Art through next Sunday, March 13.

Márquez's more avant garde pictures are studies in form, light and shadow. New York City's landscape brought out this instinct in striking ways, such as this image of the GE logo reflected on glass.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Queens Museum
Márquez's more avant garde pictures are studies in form, light and shadow. New York City's landscape brought out this instinct in striking ways, such as this image of the GE logo reflected on glass.
Once he got around to the world's fair, however, Márquez gave up the abstractions in favor of bizarre juxtapositions (futuristic architecture + folk dancers) that read as kitsch.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Queens Museum
Once he got around to the world's fair, however, Márquez gave up the abstractions in favor of bizarre juxtapositions (futuristic architecture + folk dancers) that read as kitsch.
Another image of a folk dancer taken at the fair, in front of the General Motors pavilion — photographed at some point in 1940.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Queens Museum
Another image of a folk dancer taken at the fair, in front of the General Motors pavilion — photographed at some point in 1940.
The World's Fair images get downright hokey, but as a document of New York, the fair and U.S.-Latin America relations, they are downright irresistible.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Queens Museum
The World's Fair images get downright hokey, but as a document of New York, the fair and U.S.-Latin America relations, they are downright irresistible.
A dancer in Tehuana dress hams it up in front of the Trylon and the Perisphere.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Queens Museum
A dancer in Tehuana dress hams it up in front of the Trylon and the Perisphere.
Proving that the U.S. can do statuary as crazy as anything out of Fascist Italy: A night-time image by Márquez of some of the fair's most iconic structures at night.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Queens Museum
Proving that the U.S. can do statuary as crazy as anything out of Fascist Italy: A night-time image by Márquez of some of the fair's most iconic structures at night.

Tags:

More in:

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.

Sponsored

About Gallerina

Carolina A. Miranda is a regular contributor to WNYC and blogs about the arts for the station as "Gallerina." In addition to that, she contributes articles on culture, travel and the arts to a variety of national and regional media, including Time, ArtNews, Travel + Leisure and Budget Travel and Florida Travel + Life. She has reported on the burgeoning industry of skatepark design, architectural pedagogy in Southern California, the presence of street art in museums and Lima's burgeoning food scene, among many other subjects. In 2008, she was named one of eight fellows in the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program for her arts and architecture blog C-Monster.net, which has received mentions in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In January of 2010, the Times named her one of nine people to follow on Twitter. Got a tip? E-mail her at c [@] c-monster [dot] net

Feeds

Supported by