covarrubias: the art and life of a polymath

| 22 Jan 2019 | 12:21

Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) was one of the 20th century’s preeminent Mexican artists, arguably best known in the U.S. for his brilliant caricatures and friendship with The Line King himself, Al Hirschfeld, who died in 2003. The two met at a party on West 55th Street in 1924 and became studio-mates, first at 110 West 42nd Street and then at the American Radiator Building on West 40th Street.

Almost 100 years after that fateful meeting, Covarrubias is the subject of a handsome, under-the-radar show at Throckmorton Fine Art in midtown, where 60 oil paintings, gouaches, watercolors, drawings and lithographs are on view and on sale, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $325,000. The cache comes from the estate of Rosa Rolanda, Miguel’s wife of 27 years, and the collections of Covarrubias biographer Adriana Williams, gallery president Spencer Throckmorton and art dealer Pablo Goebel.

Hirschfeld may be much better known, but as Throckmorton says, “Covarrubias influenced Hirschfeld to start doing character drawings. He influenced Hirschfeld because he had his own distinctive style, and he kept to it. He never changed it. Miguel was doing it first.”

Hirschfeld said the duo started “a mutual admiration society.” In his book, “The Hirschfeld Century” (2015), David Leopold writes that “Miguel was a natural talent. Al would later say wherever there are pyramids, there is good graphic art. Mexico’s rich history of graphic art helped to form Miguel’s point of view ... His use of line almost exclusively to model his subjects would become an important ingredient to Hirschfeld’s early style.”

The works on display “cover all the periods that he worked in,” Throckmorton says, “from the Bali series to the Mexican series to the New York series, the Harlem series and his early work here with ‘Negro Drawings,’” his 1927 homage, in book form, to the Harlem Renaissance.

Gallery director Norberto Rivera says of the artist’s modest reputation in the U.S.: “Diego [Rivera] overshadowed him, but he’s coming to light now. We’re noticing a lot more of his works coming up for auction.”

Indeed, one of his most celebrated works, “The Tree of Modern Art — Planted 60 Years Ago” (1933), a genealogical tree of the modern art movement, sold at Sotheby’s recently for $312,000. In 2011, his Bali painting “Offering of Fruits for the Temple” (1932) was auctioned at Christie’s for a record $1,022,500.

Born in Mexico City to an upper middle class family, Covarrubias was a larger than life figure, a polymath who traveled in elite circles and inspired his friends and associates with his enthusiasm for, well, everything.

A gifted draftsman with no formal art training, he was an illustrator, a caricaturist, a painter, an anthropologist, an archaeologist, an art historian, a set designer, a writer, a curator, an educator, a dance choreographer. Above all, he was a bon vivant who, with his wife Rosa, a dancer and food enthusiast, entertained Nelson Rockefeller, John Huston, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Langston Hughes, Dolores del Río and so many more.

The couple knew everybody, and everybody was drawn to them. As Williams writes in her biography “Covarrubias” (1994) about their Mexico City residence, Number Five Calle Reforma: “Many believed this period [1930s and 1940s] was Mexico’s artistic Golden Age, and Number Five served Mexico City’s intellectual and artistic membership as a gathering place, much the way the Algonquin Hotel served New York’s, or Virginia Woolf’s home served London’s, or Gertrude Stein’s did Paris’s.”

In New York, where Miguel arrived in 1923 at age 19, he produced hundreds of caricatures for Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker, Time and Fortune, catering to the smart set with images of celebrities, politicians and influencers like FDR (for a Vanity Fair cover in 1934), critic/photographer Carl Van Vechten, Laurel and Hardy, and a shimmying Josephine Baker. All are on view here, along with a tiny caricature of the artist himself with Rosa.

When Covarrubias married Rosa in 1930, they honeymooned in Bali. The artist became so enchanted with the Indonesian island that he returned in 1933 to further immerse himself in the art, history, religion and folkways of the place, for the purpose of writing a book. “Island of Bali,” an exhaustive text, was published in 1937 and includes 90 drawings and five paintings by the artist. The gallery is featuring around a dozen works from this period.

“He made Bali important. His book was the beginning of tourism for Bali,” Throckmorton says.

Covarrubias spread himself thin, so thin that it may explain why he doesn’t have better name recognition here, Rivera says. After Bali, he delved deeply into the study of Mesoamerican art, with a focus on the Olmecs. His research and drawings led to “Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec” (1946), among other authoritative works on native cultures.

In deference to his talent and scholarship, the Museum of Modern Art invited Covarrubias to curate the modern art section of its 1940 landmark show, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art. As Rivera notes, “He loved to work, he loved to paint, but he also loved to promote everyone else’s work. He shared the limelight and helped bring attention to a lot of artists.” Now it is his turn for some much-deserved attention.