By Adam Zucker (2019)
During the 1940s, there was a creative zeitgeist between Irving Kriesberg and Jackson Pollock, two proponents of post-WWII Expressionist painting. Pollock's circular painting, aptly titled Circle (c. 1938-41), and Kriesberg's series of 'wheel' paintings (c. 1946-1948) share specific affinities that speak to each artist's interests connecting Expressionism with non-European modes of art.
Within these works, Kriesberg and Pollock employ a visual vocabulary that pays homage to the mystical and emotive energy of pre-Columbian culture, Mexican Modernism, and Jungian psychology. There are allusions to alebrijes (whimsical creatures from Mexican folk art c.1940s) and deities from the Mesoamerican pantheon like the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. The shape of the circle is a reference to the cyclical nature of time and importance of the sun in many religious beliefs. It is also symbolic of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung's use of the mandala as a universal way to access the subconscious.
Pollock's Circle is a semi-abstract painting that portrays his Surrealist and Mexican Modernist influences. For example, the serpent forms are recognizable symbols from Mesoamerican art. The palette and handling of the paint makes connections to Jose Clemente Orozco, whose murals embody ancient, pre-Colonial, and Modern Mexican culture. Circle was one of the last blatantly figurative images prior to Pollock's development of his signature drip and splatter style, although he returned to the figure in later ink drawings.
Pollock was personally connected to the Mexican Modernist influence on American avant-garde art, although he didn’t actually go to Mexico. In the 1930s, David Alfaro Siqueiros ran an experimental workshop in a studio space in New York City’s Union Square and Pollock was one of his protégés. In his workshops, Siqueiros encouraged material based explorations such as dripping, pouring, and splattering paint onto canvas, which clearly had an impact on Pollock’s signature process of action painting.
Kriesberg’s connection to the Mexican Modernist movement began when he lived in Mexico from 1941 to 1944. While he acknowledged his status as an outsider, he immersed himself in learning the intricate and sophisticated styles of Mexican Modern art and local indigenous culture. Most notably, he joined Taller de Gráfica Popular, a print workshop populated by artists who were largely active in proletariat, socially engaged politics. His ‘wheels’ series manifested shortly after returning from Mexico, and they show that he clearly still had Mexico on his mind.
The 'wheels' evoke Surrealist and Mexican Modernist aesthetics to depict contorted human, animal, demonic, and angelic figures suspended in mid air across the round picture plane. These figures can be deciphered as a fusion of comic book characters, Greek mythological figures, and Mesoamerican deities. In Angel with Medallion, a being similar to Mictlāntēcutl, the Aztec god of death, is situated within the womb of an angel. In light of World War II, this painting expresses the horrors and indignities of humanity.
The drama and sorrow within Jose Clemente Orozco's Prometheus (1930) is evident in Kriesberg's poignant Profane Love or the Fall of Man (1946) featuring a deposed man whose mortal actions cause his demise.
Orozco was one of Kriesberg's foremost inspirations and the Mexican Muralist's style was a springboard to Kriesberg's own personal style of Figurative Expressionism. Throughout the 1940s, Kriesberg utilized a warm organic palette and abstract cubist forms akin to Mexican Modernism, while constructing his own narratives using Old Testament stories as content.
The concept of Kriesberg's 'wheels' sets them apart from Pollock's "Circle," since Kriesberg considered his paintings to function off the wall, and share a sense of movement akin to animation. A majority of the circular paintings have been altered so that they can rotate on a turntable, thus creating an illusion of sequential motion. These paintings caught the eye of Marcel Duchamp, who was also making circular rotating artwork.
While it is uncertain as to whether Kriesberg and Pollock knew of each other's circular paintings, they exhibited together in 1952 in the landmark show 15 Americans curated by Dorothy C. Miller at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.