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.Alfred Stieglitz 1915
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.

De Zayas's witty cartoons caught the attention of Stieglitz, who invited him to exhibit his work at 291. The first show, in 1909, went almost unnoticed, but the second one, the following year, was a huge success. The exhibition presented some 100 tridimensional cardboard caricatures of the most prominent New Yorkers of the time parading along 5th Avenue, with a sketch of the Plaza Hotel and Central park on the background.

In October 1910, de Zayas took a year-long trip to Paris to scout new talent for 291. It was in Paris that he discovered the bold new experiments taking place among Europe's avant-garde. He was one of the original happy few who got first hand exposure to Cubism and met Picasso. He also became acquainted with the poet and art collector Guillaume Apollinaire, who introduced him to African art, which had a deep influence on Cubism. Along with Walter Pach—one of the organizers of the Armory show—and a handful of other artists, de Zayas began to cement the link between the then-capital of the art world and New York, the emerging art power of the Western Hemisphere.

Part of that work included promoting Picasso, whose genius de Zayas had recognized immediately. "Pablo Picasso … finds himself in the first rank among innovators, a man who knows what he wants, and wants what he knows, who has broken with all school prejudices, has opened for himself a wide path, and has already acquired the notoriety which is the first step towards glory," de Zayas wrote in the first significant article on Picasso ever published in the United States (first in Spanish at América, then in English at Stieglitz's journal Camera Work). He also arranged the landmark Picasso show at 291.

De Zayas eventually opened his own gallery in New York, which he used to passionately promote the art he loved. In the early 1920s, de Zayas moved to Europe, where he would remain until the end of WWII. After the war he moved back to the United States. He and his wife made their home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he died in 1961.

While de Zayas may not be as well-known as his collaborator Stieglitz, his contributions to the development of modernism in the United States are not entirely forgotten. The latest example is "African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde," a show running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 14. One section is devoted to de Zayas's influence. "Describing himself as a 'propagandist for modern art,' de Zayas promoted little-known art forms in his New York gallery through innovative juxtapositions and thought-provoking exhibitions, impacting several of the most adventurous collections of the era," says Yaëlle Biro, the curator of the show.

What de Zayas didn't do was promote himself. "He never really made any effort to challenge the precedence of Stieglitz," wrote Naumann in an email.

His influence, however, is nonetheless still evident for those who know where to look for it.