The Orozco Room

What could have been my feeling when Orozco, the greatest mural painter of our time, proposed to contribute a mural. All I could say was, ‘God bless you. Paint me the picture. Paint as you must. I assure you freedom.’

– Alvin Johnson

When the building at 66 W. 12th St. was in construction, in 1930, director Alvin Johnson sought commissions by some of the world’s famous muralists of the day to grace its walls. Jose Clemente Orozco, Thomas Hart Benton, and Camilo Egas painted walls of the new building gratis, accepting a prominent platform for their work in the experimental school that harbored and the modern arts. (The works of Orozco and Egas remain at the New School; the murals of Thomas Hart Benton are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The Mexican Muralist Movement, which started in the 1920s and ended around the 1960s, was mainly comprised of works by three artists: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueriros. Viewed as the fathers of the Muralist Movement, they flourished as artists and created mural after mural, many of which were commissioned around the world, with one key commissioner being Jose Vasconcelos (Rochfort, 1993).

In January 1931, the New School for Social Research welcomed the frescoes of Jose Clemente Orozco, a world-renowned muralist. As elaborate and stylistically rich as the murals are, the painting process of this project is both surprising and impressive. Orozco had a period of forty-seven days in which he had to complete the whole project, as he was working alongside the construction of the new building.

The five murals beautifully come together to convey a conversation of tense political and social expressions towards the revolution. “Science, Labor and Art” is the first mural seen in the hallway leading to the Orozco Room, where the four remaining murals fill the walls of the room: “Homecoming of the Worker of the New Day,” “Struggle in the Orient,” “Struggle in the Occident,” and last but not least, “Table of Universal Brotherhood.” As an expressionist painter, Orozco incorporates a rich but deep neutral color scheme within each fresco with the occasional pop of blue and green tones (Smith, 1988). The murals are extremely expressive, as you can even see some of his strokes that flow within the combination of both organic and geometric shapes and figures.

The Orozco Room is truly unique mark in the historical relationship between the two cultures as well as the history of New York City, as the murals inside are considered the only “permanent, public examples” of this fresco style in the city. They have been described as a prime example that gives “the city a firsthand experience of the Mexican mural renaissance,” as they heavily convey the “contrast in historical references to revolution, oppression and the struggle for freedom with an idealized depiction of the brotherhood of man” (Smith, 1988).

In this video, “If the New School Murals Could Talk,” we interviewed 4 murals “in person”: those in the Orozco Room, the mural by Camilo Egas in the lobby of 55 W 12th titled “Harvest Festival,” Kara Walker’s “Event Horizon,” and Sol Lewitt’s “Wall Drawing #1073: Bars of Color,” both located in 55 W 13th St. We also interviewed the Thomas Hart Benton murals “by telephone.” We wanted to conduct standard-style television interviews with the mural itself, giving the art “a voice” and allowing it to tell its own story. This is intended to be a subtle critique on the way the New School’s history is often interpreted by others to represent their own goals, i.e. “The New School has always been a liberal institution,” instead of letting the facts speak for themselves. We are attempting to let the art collection finally “speak for itself.”

For more in the New School Archives on the mural collection, see New School mural commission documentation, 1931-2010.