Miguel Covarrubias: The Most Interesting Man in the World?

I can’t say for sure, but I doubt he preferred Dos Equis.

Last week I had the privilege of assisting the Museum’s Registration and Curatorial Departments in the installation of Miguel Covarrubias: Drawing a Cosmopolitan Line, which opened to the public on Saturday.  Aside from learning about the ins and outs of exhibition installation, such as removing and replacing labels, repacking artworks for shipping, and unpacking and installing incoming loan works, I also became intimately familiar with a few of the works of an artist whom I have found to be a severely underwritten figure in relation to the modernist movement.

I say that I personally find Miguel Covarrubias to be underwritten due to the fact that I did not once hear his name mentioned at length in four years spent obtaining an undergraduate Art History degree.  That designation does not seem fitting for an artist who was connected with a figure as notable as Georgia O’Keeffe, whom Covarrubias met in Taos, New Mexico in 1929.  The two would come to work in the same circle of artists and later traveled together in Mexico.  Soon after their meeting, Covarrubias even paid tribute to O’Keeffe by featuring her as the subject of a caricature in a 1929 issue of The New Yorker.  It is also in his native Mexico that Covarrubias first met such influential figures as Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, with whom he became lifelong friends.

Outside of his body of artistic work that covered multiple media, Covarrubias was an accomplished commercial illustrator, with his work appearing in many publications related to the New York Jazz scene.  He immersed himself in the culture of Harlem while in New York City, where he befriended key figures of the Harlem Renaissance such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.  Covarrubias also designed sets for numerous theater productions, leading him to cross paths with celebrities like playwright Eugene O’Neill and film star Lillian Gish.

Later, Covarrubias was granted a Guggenheim fellowship for which he completed an extensive ethnography of the cultures of the island province of Bali in Indonesia.  His ethnographic and anthropological work would eventually lead him back to Mexico, where he published analyses of pre-Columbian Mexican cultures, most prominently that of the Olmecs.

Finally, Covarrubias collaborated with Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as a curator for the Museum’s 1940 exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art.  He was in charge of the contemporary portion of the exhibition.

Despite Miguel Covarrubias’s fame during his lifetime, his contemporary recognition as a major contributor to the modern art movement, and the culture of the first half of the twentieth century as a whole, is underwhelming.  Was the prolific Covarrubias, an artist, an illustrator for masters of American literature, an anthropologist and ethnographer, a world-traveler, a curator and art historian, and a consort to iconic actors, playwrights, and musicians, The Most Interesting Man in the World?  Perhaps, but if you’d have asked him, he would likely have been too busy hosting Nelson Rockefeller at his home in Mexico City to share his thoughts on the matter.

If my abridged retelling of Mr. Covarrubias’s life has piqued your interest, don’t miss your chance to view the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s exhibition Miguel Covarrubias: Drawing a Cosmopolitan Line, open now through January 18, 2015.  Further reading can also be found in Adriana Williams’s biography of Covarrubias, titled Covarrubias, available from the University of Texas Press.

Stay thirsty (for knowledge), my friends.   

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern

Thank you to Carolyn Kastner, Curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, for her assistance in the writing of this entry.

For references and more information on Miguel Covarrubias, see The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s Catalog for Miguel Covarrubias: Drawing a Cosmopolitan Line, edited by Carolyn Kastner, University of Texas Press, 2014 

Photo: Artstor