"Radical Muralism in Three Dimensions: A Close Look at Siqueiros' May Day Political Float," by Abbey O'Brien


"Radical Muralism in Three Dimensions: A Close Look at Siqueiros' May Day Political Float," by Abbey O'Brien

On May 1, 1936, the streets of Manhattan’s garment district were flooded with over forty thousand Leftist sympathizers in observance of the annual May Day Parade for workers. Many of those involved in the procession carried banners or created ephemeral performance pieces to advocate for worker’s rights. None of these projects, however, were quite as dramatic as the piece that radical Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros and his Experimental Workshop designed for the parade. Siqueiros’ May Day Political Float violently attacks American capitalism and European fascism through its depiction of both a Wall Street tickertape machine and a Nazi swastika symbol on the head of a capitalist figure that holds a donkey and elephant in each of his hands. The three-dimensional Float advocates Communism through the form of a moving hammer that repeatedly smashes the tickertape machine and sprays blood-colored streamers all over the face of the capitalist figure. This piece was theatrical, revolutionary, violent, and a feat for a group of painters at Siqueiros’ Experimental Workshop.

Siqueiros’ Float would certainly have caused a stir in the United States, for at the time, the CPUSA was advocating for less violent artistic imagery in an attempt to make their cause more palatable to a wider audience. Clearly, the Float is the antithesis of the subtle, peaceful imagery that was being advocated for, yet there remains little to no record of the reception of this object. Even in texts that survey Siqueiros’ career and his time in the United States, the Float is merely glazed over in discussion of the artist’s stylistic evolution. It becomes of interest, then, why so little attention has been paid to this dramatic and controversial work of art.

Focusing primarily on Siqueiros’ writings from the 1930s and the trajectory of his career, this study will demonstrate the importance of the May Day Political Float to both Siqueiros’ oeuvre and to American art history. The Float undoubtedly encapsulated Siqueiros’ artistic goals of collective work, experimentation with innovative materials, and reaching a mass audience, but it also marks a moment in history in which American (U.S., Mexican, and Latin American) artists creatively collaborated on a public, ephemeral, and revolutionary work of art. Under the belief that the significance of this endeavor cannot be overlooked any longer, this study will give the May Day Political Float the second look that it very much deserves.

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  • HAAARCH!!! 2015
  • Undergraduate Work