Some of the realist and expressive visual language employed by the artists of the progressive, mid-century printmaking collective, the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), and currently displayed in the exhibition What May Come: The Taller de Gráfica Popular and the Mexican Political Print, may seem familiar to Chicagoans. With the 55th Street Metra underpass panel reproductions of works by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs and the countless Works Projects Administration-funded murals featured throughout the city, one is hard-pressed not to notice a very real connection in visual language between the Mexican printmaking collective and the Chicago artists of the time. It was the state-sponsored murals of José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siquieros, and Diego Rivera after all, that inspired the WPA federal-funded murals seen throughout Chicago and cemented a real interest in intercultural exchange and collaboration among artists, galleries, and arts-based institutions in Chicago and in Mexico.
The over 100 works on display in What May Come represent only a fraction of the Prints and Drawings Department’s rich collection of TGP prints, drawings, ephemeral handbills and newspapers, and portfolios. And since for the most part these works were collected and exhibited at the Art Institute during the 1930s and 1940s, What May Come seeks to not only bring the art of the influential collective to Chicago’s attention, but to also delve into the strong connection between the Mexican collective and Chicago artists, gallerists, and curators. This connection emphasized the intercultural exchange made possible by the opening up of Mexico in the post-revolutionary 1920s and 1930s, as well as the shared anti-fascist and pro-worker sentiments of the artists.
It is in looking through hundreds of letters of correspondence, departmental and board meeting minutes, bills of sale, and more from the Art Institute’s institutional records that the TGP’s international relations and activity truly came to life for the exhibition staff. Although a previously understood notion, these archives further illustrated the attraction that the TGP artists’ progressive, leftist politics, collective approach to work, and promotion of the democratization of information for all peoples held for an international assortment of artists and thinkers of the time. Famed Swiss Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer and French-born artist Jean Charlot are just two of the many individuals to actively involve themselves in the cooperative workshop, with a number of Chicago artists finding similar reasons to visit or seek out work with the TGP.
One of the galleries in the exhibition explores this connection explicitly, featuring works by Eleanor Coen, Max Kahn, Elizabeth Catlett, Mariana Yampolsky, and John Wilson. There were all individuals who had a strong connection to Chicago and who sought artistic stimulation and political refuge in the collective at some point during the mid-twentieth century. Their works further illustrate the aesthetically and politically informed dialogues taking place at the time between the Chicago-based and Mexican artists, with the TGP having a profound influence on much of the art produced. This influence was a direct result of the Chicago artists’ visits and correspondence with the TGP, as well as the collective nature of the TGP’s working environment. One example, Catlett’s And a Special Fear for My Loved Ones from the I Am the Negro Woman series (immediately above), first executed between 1946 and 1947 during her time in Mexico, echoes some of the more politically and socially engaged themes of the TGP. Though the topic of racially driven lynchings is more culturally specific to the United States, the TGP-shared message against oppressive violence is clear. There is also a shared visual language that was distinctly influenced by the expressive realism found in the dynamic and sculptural lines of TGP founder Leopoldo Méndez.
It is just across the gallery from these works, that visitors can explore the TGP’s strong connection to the Art Institute of Chicago that was initially sparked by the various Chicago artists’ interactions with the collective as well as the enthusiasm of museum curators Carl Schniewind and Katharine Kuh. Kuh acquired and exhibited modern Mexican art, further solidifying Chicago’s role in the intercultural exchange between Mexico and the United States. Additionally, exhibitions such as the 1946 TGP group show at the Art Institute cemented the TGP’s broad oeuvre for the United States public as not only politically engaged ephemera, but rightfully so, as works of fine art. A letter exhibited here from Méndez to Schniewind, found in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries’ institutional archives, expresses the collective’s great appreciation for the TGP show held at the museum in 1946. The letter goes on to address the curator’s desire for additional prints, with Méndez gladly offering Schniewind new editions from the workshop for the museum’s collection. It is this letter, placed among works by Chicago artists in What May Come, which provides visitors with an intimate insight into the amicable working relationship of the Art Institute and the TGP—a relationship which played a large role in not only the history of the TGP, but in Chicago’s own art history.
Overall, this period of time was marked by great cross-border correspondence, cooperation, and exchange among American and Mexican individuals and organizations. And although McCarthy-era politics unfortunately slowed this exchange down during the 1950s, it is with great thanks to the largely positive Chicago-TGP relationships of the 1930s and 1940s, that the Art Institute is so fortunate to currently have on view such a rich collection of one of the most influential, politically engaged artist collectives of the twentieth century.