American Art: Mary K. Coffee, Feeling Brown or Acting White?: Spectacles of Racialized Performance…

… and Pain in José Clemente Orozco’s U.S.-based Prints


Mary J. Coffey

In this essay I undertake a speculative reading of two lithographic prints made by the Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco during his second and longest stay in the United States, between 1928 and 1934. The first and last prints he made during this sojourn both represent spectacles of performance and pain associated with the public life of Blackness. Using affect theory to read the formal and iconographic cues in these prints, I suggest that they reflect the artist’s complex relation with the U.S.-American “color line.” Rather than assuming Orozco’s images reflect a White subject position, I explore the ways they intimate what the performance studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz theorized as a “sense of brown.”


“… In his archival research on lynching in the West, Gonzales-Day has shown that mob violence and racial terror were national, not merely regional, problems. Moreover, in the Western United States, the primary targets were Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. The hundreds of lynchings in the formerly Mexican territories of Texas and California were routinely covered in the Spanish-language press and condemned by high-profile Mexican intellectuals whose writing Orozco would have known well. Scholars today estimate that more than five hundred Mexican Americans were lynched or murdered in Texas alone during the first two decades of the twentieth century.69 Gonzales-Day notes that vigilante violence against Mexican Americans was likewise widely recorded in the Anglo press in their day, but that they have been “erased” from history and public memory over time. Unlike African Americans in the South and Midwest, Mexicans in the West and Southwest were in a more ambiguous racial category then in forma-tion. “Mexican” sometimes designated an ethnicity and at others a nationality, regardless of a person’s citizenship status. Therefore, Mexican victims might appear in the legal record as “Californios,” “Tejanos,” “Sonorans,” or “Spanish.”70 Gonzales-Day’s research suggests that the Black/White binary most scholars assume when discussing the subject/object relationship in lynching photographs and anti-lynching art needs to be nuanced to encompass the more ambiguous racial status of those who were lynched in the West. Returning to Orozco’s lithograph, I note that while he based the image on a well-known case of the lynching of an African American man in Texas, and clearly labels these bodies as “Black” in his title, the racial identity of the figures is, in fact, ambiguous. Having erased all signs of individuality from his figures, Orozco presents them as colored but without the physiognomic signifiers that other artists, such as Paul Cadmus, Hale Woodruff, or Eitaro Ishigaki, used to distinguish White oppressors from their Black victims. Orozco’s treatment of Hughes’s form is more akin to Noguchi’s controversial sculpture Death (Lynched Figure) (fig. 11). Noguchi also attempted to departicularize Hughes’s tortured body…”

To read full visit American Art Journal

To learn more about Gonzales-Days “erased drawings” visit the “Another Land” exhibition page on this site.

Or see his commissioned Artist’s Project for The Journal of the Archives of American Art also on this site.