You already know Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are the most famous artists from Mexico. They are two of the most famous artists in history from any country. Mexico, of course, has a vast art history beyond the mid-20th century power couple.
Begin your recognition of artists from Mexico starting with these important figures.
José Guadalupe Posada
José Guadalupe Posada (b. Aguascalientes, Mexico, 1852; d. Mexico City, 1913), a tireless producer of caricatures and satirical imagery for the penny press that were one of the most popular forms of media in his homeland, has been widely recognized as “the foremost caricaturist, the foremost graphic artist” in Mexico for more than 125 years.
Posada built his career in an era of political repression and lived to see the profound social changes brought by the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Posada’s pictorial contributions to broadsides, or ephemeral news sheets, provided a daily diet of information and entertainment to a public for whom images needed to tell the story since literacy was not widely prevalent during the late nineteenth century. Posada’s highly varied images in the popular press included noticias illustrating lurid crimes, current scandals, and other sensational stories, but these constitute only a part of his extensive output. Reused and reprinted, sometimes until the printing blocks and plates wore out, his beloved illustrations also encompass religious subjects, ballads, and children’s books and games.
Posada is best known for his sheets of calaveras (skeletons), which figured in popular rituals around the Mexican celebration of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), but were also adapted into satires of political figures and other individuals. Whether playful or trenchant, vernacular or surreal, Posada’s imagery continues to delight, and it still inspires the work of many illustrators working today.
José Guadalupe Posada was only in his mid-thirties when his illustrations and caricatures won recognition as the preeminent graphic art of Mexico. Born in the provincial town of Aguascalientes, Posada demonstrated talent as a printmaker from a young age.
His career took him first to León (Guanajuato) and then to Mexico City, where he was closely associated for more than two decades with the Vanegas Arroyo print shop, a mainstay of the penny press. Posada produced thousands of images for broadsides during a time when literacy was not widespread, which meant that images held outsize importance in telling a story.
Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros
Along with Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco (1883 – 1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (b. 1896, Chihuahua; d. 1974, Mexico City) combine to form what is known as los tres grandes or “the three greats” of Mexican modernism. Across murals, paintings and prints, los tres grandes – and Kahlo – have come to define what “Mexican Art” is and looks like to much of the world.
Mexico has the longest printmaking tradition in all the Americas—dating back to 1539. Spurred by the Mexican Revolution of 1910, artists from Mexico initiated a golden age of printmaking in the 1920s and lasted through the 1940s. Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros were at their peak during these years.
The subsequent generation of Mexican printmakers—the artists who founded the collaborative print workshop El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) in 1937—illustrate the lasting influence of los tres grandes and include masterful lithographers Jesus Escobedo, Leopoldo Mendez, and Francisco Mora (more on him later). Like “the three greats,” these artists continued to explore the history and aftermath of the Mexican Revolution.
RELATED: Judy Baca’s The Great Wall of Los Angeles carries on tradition of los tres grandes.
A contemporary of los tres grandes, Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) also brought major prestige to artists from Mexico during the mid and late 20th century. Unlike Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, however, Tamayo’s work was overtly political. Tamayo combined his Mexican heritage with avant-garde Modern art movements – particularly Cubism and Surrealism – to create a unique visual language which remains cutting edge to this day.
Beyond his art making, his influence on art in Mexico includes establishing the Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca to display his collection and founding the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, the contemporary art museum featuring an extensive collection of work by modern and contemporary international artists.
Of Otomí ancestry, Octavio Medellín was born in the city of Matehuala, San Luis Potosí, Mexico (1907-1999). In the wake of the violence of the Mexican Civil War, he immigrated with his family to San Antonio, Texas, in 1920. Working a variety of jobs to support himself, he began studying art in his spare time, eventually leaving San Antonio in 1928 to study briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The following year, he journeyed to Mexico City, where he explored Mexican Modernism, encountering important artists such as José Clemente Orozco and Carlos Mérida, but also traveled on foot through the rural countryside of the Gulf Coast.
Returning to San Antonio, he became a rising star in that city’s art scene, producing sculptures in wood, clay, and stone. In 1938, with the support of art patron Lucy Maverick, he traveled to Yucatán to study the Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá, inspiring an important group of drawings, prints, and decorative objects featured in the exhibition.
Following his return to the United States, Medellín became a prominent figure in the Texas art scene, first in San Antonio and then in Dallas, where he lived until he retired to Bandera, Texas, in 1980.
RELATED: Explore Jesse Treviño’s San Antonio.
Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo
Lola Álvarez Bravo (b. Jalisco 1907; d. 1933) married Manuel Álvarez Bravo in Mexico City in 1925. Manuel introduced his wife to photography, but, as is often the case, the husband’s career took precedence over the wife’s. When the couple separated in 1934, her creativity was free to blossom.
A keen observer of people with a deft eye for composition, Lola Álvarez Bravo captured an everyday Mexico, unposed, unpretentious, unguarded.
Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s (1902-2002) work centered on, “representing the cultural heritage, peasant population, and indigenous roots of the Mexican people in the face of rapid modernization.”
María Izquierdo (b. Jalisco, 1902; d. Mexico City, 1955) is not among the famous artists from Mexico, but she should be. It has been provocatively stated that, “Frida Kahlo pushed her to obscurity.”
Decide for yourself.
Sofía Táboas (b. 1968) is an artist based in Mexico City whose work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in Mexico and internationally, including site-specific specific pieces and public art installations. Táboas has been an influential figure for her own and subsequent generations.
One of the founding members of the Mexico City artist space Temístocles 44 in the 1990s, she is an instructor at La Esmeralda and SOMA and remains committed as an artist to the continued development of art in Mexico.
Among a generation of artists who have come to define Mexican contemporary art of the 21st century, Sofía Táboas investigates both natural and man-made space, and how it is built and transformed, thought about, and perceived. These ideas are explored in her sculptures and installations, which utilize materials such as artificial and live plants, mosaics, pool equipment, construction materials, plastic, light bulbs, and fire.
Her works create thresholds and boundaries between elements that may be incongruent or seemingly irreconcilable, serving to reinvent the borders of the public and the private, the inside and the outside.
Táboas is recognized for deftly manipulating space to create interactive structures and contexts where materials can be interpreted in new terms.
Miguel Covarrubias (b. Mexico City, 1904; d. Mexico City, 1957) drew caricatures for “Vanity Fair” and the “New Yorker” magazines. He willed his exceptional collection of pre-Columbian art to the Mexico City National Museum of Anthropology.
Einar and Jamex de la Torre
The Torre brothers were born in Guadalajara in 1960 (Jamex) and 1963 (Einar). Their family moved to California in 1972. Their vibrant, exuberant, large-scale “signature style featuring mix media work with blown glass sculpture and installation art” has increasingly become a staple of museums and exhibitions around the U.S.
Gonzalo Lebrija (b. 1972) lives and works in Guadalajara, Mexico. Widely exhibited, he has had solo exhibitions at Havana’s Palacio de las Bellas Artes in Cuba, the Museo de Arte de Zapopan in Mexico, the 13th Istanbul Biennale, and The Center for the Arts, Monterrey, Mexico.
Lebrija employs photography, video, sculpture, and painting to frame familiar objects or activities, sometimes altered only slightly, to imbue them with poetic and symbolic force.
His works are generally unified by his search for evidence of higher meaning or transcendence. At times, he finds this transcendence through stasis: Cuban cigar smokers captured in a moment of repose offer a counterpoint to the agitated state of a modern, consumer-oriented society.
He also finds extraordinary meaning in heroic figures like charros, traditional Mexican horse riders, with their majestic costumes and their virtuoso rope work. Gonzalo Lebrija is always looking for moments of interruption, breaks in our everydayness, events that introduce into modern society a sense of the miraculous.
Frieda Toranzo Jaeger
Toranzo Jaeger’s (b. 1988, Mexico City) seductive paintings and constructions collapse traditional depictions of hyper-sexualized femininity—often employed to market the masculine appeal of a vehicle—and reclaims the latent power of the car as an embodiment for unrestrained female sexuality. By using the visual vocabulary of slick cars and the forms of the female body create compelling metaphors that shift gender and power roles.
Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico
Elizabeth Catlett first visited Mexico in 1946 thanks to $2,000 from a fellowship. The fellowship provided money to travel anywhere in the world she wanted to study. Paris was her first choice, but two-grand wouldn’t stretch that far.
She was instantly inspired.
Catlett returned to the U.S. for a couple months before moving back to Mexico – Cuernavaca, 60 miles south of Mexico City – for good in 1947.
Catlett was introduced to printmaking in Mexico by her second husband, artist Francisco Moya. After a brief marriage to the artist Charles White, Catlett and Moya embarked on a 55-year relationship that would see them inspire each other to create their best work and life.
“She was taken by the environment in which politics and art were so merged and how art, at the time in Mexico City, was at the service of politics,” Humberto Moro, SCAD MOA adjunct curator and co-organizer of “Elizabeth Catlett: Points of Contact,” explained of Catlett’s love affair with the city. “She encountered (arts collective) Taller de Gráfica Popular (The People’s Print Workshop), a printmaking workshop which was active for almost 45 years. She became almost a second-generation Taller de Gráfica Popular with her new partner Francisco Mora who was a painter and an excellent printmaker.”
Catlett advocated tirelessly on behalf of the disadvantaged, the poor, minorities and women on both sides of the border.
“(Portraying) the commonalities between Mexican working class people and African American people of hard labor, child labor, homelessness, hunger, mothers caring for their children and the beautiful physical attributes that until then were stigmatized as something as undesirable as to what artistic aesthetic should conform to be,” in the words of her granddaughter.
Catlett recognized this which is why in 1962 she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen. Doing so was also necessary for her to participate in Mexican politics. This resulted in her being kidnapped – in front of her children – by both the U.S. and Mexican governments according to Moro. Remember, this period was the Cold War and an educated expat Black woman espousing “radical” ideas about social and economic equality was considered very dangerous – still is.
Catlett had her U.S. citizenship restored in 2002.
Surrealists in Mexico
A fascinating period in world art history developed when many leading Surrealist artists fled Europe for Mexico on the eve of World War II. Among them were Alice Rahon (French), Remedios Varo (Spanish), André Breton (French) and Leonora Carrington (English).
Many of these artists were already personally acquainted with Rivera and Kahlo from the couple’s extensive travels in Paris and Europe.
Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000) was born in Mexico City to a Hungarian Jewish father and German mother. He played an important role in the mid-Century Modern and Surrealist art scene in Mexico City, having returned there after living abroad for many years.
This exciting moment in time has been widely written about.
Where to see artwork from Mexico in America
Mexican, Mexican American and Chicano artists are seeing their opportunities for representation increase greatly in America. Here are five places to start your exploration.
Actor, comedian, entrepreneur… and art collector Cheech Marin has his own museum in Riverside, CA. “The Cheech” opened in June of 2022 and displays Marin’s best-of-kind collection of Chicano art, amassed over almost 40 years. I spoke to Marin about the collection and museum when it opened.
El Museo Del Barrio
Founded in 1969 with a purpose to collect, preserve, exhibit and interpret the art and artifacts of Caribbean and Latin American cultures for posterity, New York’s El Museo del Barrio has become the nation’s leading Latinx and Latin American cultural institution.
International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago
The ILCC focuses more on performance art and film than visual art.
National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago
The first Latino museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood southwest of downtown houses one of the largest collections of Mexican art in the U.S., nearly 18,000 items spanning ancient Mexico to the present. Admission is always free!