The Mexican Who Discovered Modern Art

PHOTO:  Portrait of Marius de Zayas, Painting by Picasso on the bottom right and African masks hanging on the left.

This week marks the centennial celebration of the Armory show, the groundbreaking exhibition that introduced the American public to modern art. The name most associated with the show is that of photographer Alfred Stieglitz. In a series of exhibitions at his 291 Fifth Avenue gallery, known simply as "291," Stieglitz provided Americans with their first opportunity to see the work of European artists such Matisse, Cézanne and Picasso on this side of the Atlantic.

But Stieglitz's key collaborator in those years, Mexican artist and writer Marius de Zayas, played an equally critical role. It was de Zayas, for instance, who arranged the first American exhibition of Pablo Picasso's work, held at 291 in 1911. He also persuaded Stieglitz to put on the Armory's first major exhibition of African art, and ultimately became an important gallerist in his own right. "During the second decade of the 20th century, de Zayas and Stieglitz did more [to bring modern art] to the public's attention than any other men of their generation," wrote art dealer and scholar Francis M. Naumann in his introduction to "How, When, and Why Modern Art Came to New York," de Zayas's memoir of his early years in New York written at the urging of legendary Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Yet de Zayas's role in introducing modern art to America remains largely unknown. Deborah Cullen, Director and Chief Curator of Columbia University's Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, says that de Zayas "has certainly been sidelined by the mainstream story of American modernism." Cullen, a former chief curator of El Museo del Barrio who did research on de Zayas's personal files, says numerous cultural figures have fallen into this type of obscurity. It happens for many reasons, "not the least of which is certainly ethnicity," she says.

De Zayas's Mexican heritage, however, appears to have been an advantage for him. "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," said Cullen.

"He was an exceptionally intelligent and sophisticated man whose foreign background was found, if anything, appealing and attractive to most who encountered him," said Naumann via email.

It was as a boy in Mexico that de Zayas's attraction to art began. Born Marius de Zayas Enriquez y Calmet in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1880, he enjoyed rigorous training in art growing up, including long sojourns in Europe. His father, the poet and journalist Rafael de Zayas Enriquez, was part of the country's wealthy political elite, and eventually de Zayas began drawing caricatures for his father's paper. By the time he was 26, he was a caricaturist for Mexico's leading newspaper, El Diario.

Not long after, his father, a long-time supporter of Mexican strongman Porfirio Díaz, fell out with the regime, and the family went into exile, arriving in New York in 1907. De Zayas got a job at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and wrote chronicles on the city's artistic life for América, a Spanish-language magazine published by his father.

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