John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956

Martha Richardson Fine Art, Boston is pleased to announce the September 15th opening of an exhibition “John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956,” a collection of paintings, drawings and prints from this important and formative period in the artist’s life. John Wilson’s artistic development and his achievements are profoundly intertwined with his compassion for the oppressed and his commitment to social progress. Observing and experiencing injustice himself, John Wilson devoted his considerable talents to addressing the painful realities of racial prejudice and social disenfranchisement.

During Wilson’s studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he graduated with the highest honors in 1945, the young artist discovered the work of the Mexican José Clemente Orozco.  Through Laurence Schmeckebeir’s 1939 publication Modern Mexican Art and an exhibition of contemporary Mexican artists at the Fogg Art Museum, Wilson was introduced to Orozco’s powerful imagery.  The Mexican’s deep connection to the plight of the underclass was an important revelation for Wilson.In Orozco, he found for the first time an artist whose work, both in form and content, paralleled his desire to create compelling images that exposed the oppression experienced by African Americans. 

Orozco was both a muralist and a print maker and Wilson now understood the power of these forms of public art; murals could be seen by the masses and prints allowed for the broad distribution of imagery.  After graduation, he was awarded the prestigious James William Paige Traveling Fellowship by the Museum.  Although Wilson preferred to use the grant to study in Mexico, he was directed to travel to Europe to continue his artistic studies.  He moved to Paris and worked in Fernand Léger’s studio, which proved to be a formative experience. Under Léger, Wilson expanded upon the formal lessons learned at the Museum School and further explored elements of composition: line, shape, color, and form. Léger’s use of geometric shapes and Cubist concepts in particular influenced Wilson’s intensely humanistic work. Wilson’s portrayals of those left behind by society, to which he brought this newfound understanding of the power of abstraction and visual reduction, became more recognizable as symbols of those causes he increasingly sought to illuminate. Léger’s leftist politics, proletarian subject matter and belief in making art broadly accessible both reinforced and expanded Wilson’s artistic philosophy.

After returning to America, Wilson participated in the “Third Annual Atlanta University Exhibition of Paintings, Prints and Sculpture by Negro Artists of America,” the only national exhibition for African-American artists at that time (organized by Hale Woodruff, 1942-1970). He continued to show at Atlanta University and was awarded numerous honors. In 1950, another of Wilson’s works was included in the “Young American Painters” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. That year, Wilson received the John Hay Whitney Fellowship, enabling him and his wife Julie to move to Mexico City where he studied mural painting at the Esmeralda School of Art.

In Mexico, as in Paris, Wilson felt free of the racial prejudice that he experienced in the United States. However, he was keenly aware of, and increasingly disturbed by, news reports from the States, including pervasive persecution of African-American men.  As pointed out by Rebecca M. Schreiber,  “Many of the African American visual artists, including Elizabeth Catlett and John Wilson, created pointed accounts of U.S. racism in their work in Mexico.  Their representations of the racial brutality, in the form of lynching and other instances of racial violence, challenged the ways that the United States portrayed itself as a beacon of freedom during the early Cold War era (Cold War Exiles in Mexico, 2008, p. xiv).  A number of the works in the exhibition deal directly with these themes. Lynching and Mother and Child, two oils that relate to Wilson’s 1952 mural The Incident, are on view. The large-scale mural, now destroyed, depicted a father protecting his wife and child as they witness the lynching of an African American by the Ku Klux Klan. The murdered man’s body is broken and his bare and twisted oversized foot is pushed out towards the viewer in sharp contrast to the expensive shoes worn by the killers.  Also included is The Trial, a lithograph in which a young black boy stands before three white judges, wearing theatrical masks, looming menacingly above.

The Trial was printed at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop), an artist’s printmaking cooperative founded in Mexico City in 1937 by Mexican artists Luis Arenal and Leopoldo Mendez and American artist Pablo O’Higgins.  Mexican and other like-minded American artists, such as Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, were producing prints of socially conscious subjects at the TGP.  As an artist with a message, Wilson was attracted to the possibilities of reaching a wider audience through the distribution of prints.

The current exhibition includes at least one impression of every print made by John Wilson in Mexico.  Among the selection of lithographs is Mexican Woman, La Calle, Mother and Child, Campesinos and Trabajador.  Trabajador is an image of a bricklayer, and according to Stacy I. Morgan, this print demonstrates “both the modernist economy of form that one finds in the Blvd de Strasbourg and the special concern with working-class citizenry that characterized the artwork of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. In this lithograph, Wilson takes special care to articulate the skill and precision with which the craftsman executes his task by granting prominent size and detail to the figure’s hands.” (Rethinking Social Realism, African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953, 2004, p. 135).

Wilson returned to the States in 1956, first to Chicago where he produced illustrations for a packinghouse workers union, then to New York.  In New York, Wilson taught at various schools and continued to make prints, now at Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop, a non-profit cooperative on the West Side of Manhattan.   In 1964, he returned to Massachusetts to accept the position of art professor at the School of Fine and Applied Arts at Boston University.  He served as a consultant to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston during the founding of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. Wilson’s works were included in the 1970 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exhibition “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston,” in the 1987 retrospective exhibition of his work at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Arts and in many other exhibitions at major institutions.

John Wilson’s time in Mexico, and in particular the powerful lessons drawn from Orozco, continue to inform not only his prints and drawings, but also his sculpture.  Wilson’s monumental bronze Eternal Presence and many of his prints and drawings reference the colossal Mesoamerican Olmec heads unearthed in south-central Mexico.

Recent museum exhibitions, such as In the Spirit of Resistance, African-American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School and Mexico and Modern Printmaking, a Revolution in the Graphic Arts, 1920 to 1950, explored the visual impact of the Mexican artists upon John Wilson and the other ex-patriot American artists working there. As noted above, Rebecca M. Schreiber and Stacy I. Morgan examine the broader historical context and influences upon those African-American artists who chose to move to Mexico during the turbulent times in America. The paintings, drawings and prints that Wilson produced in Mexico continue to be studied and exhibited by both historians and art historians.

Martha Richardson Fine Art is located at 38 Newbury Street.  For further information, please call us at 617-266-3321 or visit the Exhibition page of our website at