Friday, October 11, 2013

Marius de Zayas, The Mexican Who Discovered Modern Art

By Claudio Iván Remeseira Follow @HispanicNewYork | Posted on March 9, 2013, at 9:23 a.m. ET. Last Updated, October 11, 2013, at 5 p.m. ET

Marius de Zayas (Photo by Alfred Stieglitz) 1913. Archive of Marius de Zayas, Seville, Spain
One hundred years ago, a groundbreaking exhibition marked the introduction of American audiences to modern artthe Armory Show. "The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution,” an commemorative exhibition that opened on Thursday night at the New-York Historical Society, is an extraordinary window into the continuing significance of that event.
Although not one of the organizers of the original show, photographer Alfred Stieglitz is widely regarded as the man who paved the way to it through a series of pioneering exhibitions of European artists such as Matisse, Cézanne and Picasso. Those individual exhibitions, held at Stieglitz’s 291 Fifth Avenue gallery (known simply as “291”), provided the very first opportunity to see those artists’ work on this side of the Atlantic.

What is less remembered is the name of Stieglitz’ key collaborator in those years, Mexican artist, writer, and gallerist Marius de Zayas. “During the second decade of the 20th century, de Zayas and his good friend and associate Alfred Stieglitz did more [to bring modern art] to the public’s attention than any other men of their generation,” writes Francis M. Naumann in his introduction to How, When,and Why Modern Art Came to New York (The MIT Press, 1996).

“Stieglitz has been given more attention than de Zayas because the latter played a secondary role in introducing modern art to America,” said Naumann in an email interview for this story. “De Zayas was always content with this role, and never really made any effort to challenge the precedence of Stieglitz. Throughout his life, he spoke affectionately of the older dealer, whose accomplishments he openly acknowledged and genuinely admired.”

Yet the average art history college student would hardly know that this collaboration even existed. “Marius De Zayas has certainly been sidelined by the mainstream story of American modernism,” says Deborah Cullen, Director and Chief Curator of Columbia University’s Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. “This happens to so many cultural figures for so many reasons, not the least of which is certainly ethnicity. However, if you scratch the surface of the 1910s, 1920s and later you will find de Zayas popping up everywhere. And it would seem that in many cases, his Mexicanidad helped him.”

Naumann disagrees with the suggestion that de Zayas’ marginalization in U.S. art history was due to his nationality. “He was an exceptionally intelligent and sophisticated man whose foreign background was found, if anything, appealing and attractive to most who encountered him,” he adds.


Marius de Zayas Enriquez y Calmet was born in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1880. Named after one of the characters of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, his life was certainly a novelesque one. His father, the poet and journalist Rafael de Zayas Enriquez (1848-1932), was part of the country’s wealthy political elite. Marius had a polished artistic training, which included long sojourns in Europe, and began drawing caricatures of national personalities for his father’s paper. At 26 he was doing the same for Mexico’s leading newspaper, El Diario.

Despite having been for decades a supporter of Mexican strongman Porfirio Díaz, in 1907 de Zayas senior fell out with the regime and went into exile with his family. Established in New York, Marius got a job as cartoonist at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and started writing chronicles on the city’s theatrical and artistic life for América, a Spanish-language magazine published by his father.

Marius’ cartoons called the attention of Stieglitz, who invited the young expatriate to exhibit his work at 291. The first show, in  1909, went almost unnoticed, but  the second one, the following year, was a smashing success. The exhibition consisted of some 100 tridimensional cardboard caricatures of the most prominent New Yorkers of the time parading along Fifth Avenue, with a sketch of the Plaza Hotel and Central park in the background.


In October of 1910, de Zayas and his father took a year-long trip to Paris. Mexican historian Antonio Saborit suggests that this trip could have been prompted by de Zayas senior’s desire to put more distance between him  and Porfirio Díaz’s spies, who have been following his family since their arrival in New York. (The “Porfiriato” collapsed in May 1911 with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, and President Díaz would end up living his last years in the French capital, just a few blocks away from the de Zayas).

While in Paris, Marius volunteered to scout new talent for Stieglitz gallery. He did much more than that. Along with Walter Pach—one of the organizers of the Armory show—and a handful of other American and European artists, he helped cement the link between the then art world capital of the art and the emerging new art power of the Western Hemisphere, New York. 

He was one of the first people to get first hand exposure to Cubism, African art, and avant-garde artists like Pablo Picasso, on whom he wrote the first significant article ever published in the U. S. (first in Spanish at América, then in English at Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work). He also helped arrange the first Picasso American exhibition, that took place in 291 the in 1911. The fact that he could communicate with the artist in Spanish was one those instances mentioned by Cullen in which de Zaya’s cultural background actually played to his advantage.

Upon his return to New York, de Zayas continued to work as caricaturist, have a third exhibition at 291, edited the magazine of the same name launched by Stieglitz (“the most advanced and lavish art magazine of its time,” says Naumann) and collaborated with other artists and writers in different projects, including two short-lived art galleries.

In the early 1920s de Zayas moved to Europe, where he would remain until the end of WWII. Back in the U.S., he established with his wife in in Stamford, Connecticut, then in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he died in 1961.

In the late 1930, legendary MoMA’s director Alfred H. Barr Jr. to write a memoir on the beginnings of contemporary art in New York. It took de Zayas two decades to complete it, and was published posthumously almos forty years after his death, in 1996.

A shorter version of this story was published at ABC News - Univision.

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