Enter the permanent collection galleries on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and among the first pieces you’ll encounter is a pair of Frida Kahlo self-portraits, executed in her signature magic-realist style. In one she poses with a pet monkey (Fulang-Chang and I, 1937); in another she has shorn hair and wears a man’s suit (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940). The paintings hang in a room filled with works by early modern masters such as Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, and assorted European Surrealists. To see Kahlo’s work in this room is to think that her place in art history is secure. But, as Guardian critic Adrian Searle wrote in a review of the artist’s work, her status as a cult figure “makes looking at her art a complicated business.”
Over the last three decades, Kahlo has morphed from obscure Mexican painter to popular saint. Her many self-portraits have influenced artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Yasumasa Morimura. Her life story—the near-fatal bus crash that left her body shattered at age 17, her first paintings made while recovering from her injuries, her tumultuous marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and her numerous affairs with both women and men (including Isamu Noguchi and Leon Trotsky)—has provided fodder for novels, feature films, and documentaries. And her iconic figure, with thick eyebrows, braided hair, heavy jewelry, and traditional Mexican dresses, has been emblazoned on every kind of merchandise, from candles to men’s ties and even tequila, as part of what Searle calls the business of “Kahlobilia.”
This “Fridamania” has diminished Kahlo’s standing in art circles. In 2005, a critic for the Sunday Times of London attributed her fame to the fact that she was a bisexual Mexican woman with a disability—the sort of artist “that a modern teaching program at an American university finds most desirable.” Others simply roll their eyes. Recently, when I told a fellow art writer that I was working on a story about Kahlo, she replied, “You know, I kind of cringe when I hear the name.”
An exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, however, seeks to restore Kahlo’s artistic legacy. “Sometimes, someone becomes so ubiquitous, they become invisible,” says MCA curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm. “She’s been so overshadowed by her celebrity that her work has become lost. Academia isn’t taking her seriously. People think, ‘She’s on a million postcards, so how avant-garde is it to do a show of her work?’”
“Unbound: Contemporary Art after Frida Kahlo,” which runs through October 5, aims to put the emphasis back on Kahlo’s achievements by showing her paintings alongside work by contemporary artists. “Frida Kahlo was dealing with issues not only of the physical state, but the psychological and the emotional,” Rodrigues Widholm explains. “She was playing with the fluidity of gender. She was addressing issues of nationality and the construction of identity. She consciously chose local forms, but it was all steeped in the international language of art.” She adds, “She continues to be relevant and prescient.”
Kahlo’s paintings were well received during her lifetime (in fact, she was the first 20th-century Mexican artist to have a work acquired by the Louvre), but her reputation faded after her death in 1954. By the 1960s, she had been relegated to the status of art-historical footnote.
However, at the end of the 1970s, that would begin to change. Fred Tomaselli is a New York–based painter whose kaleidoscopic works depict hallucinatory inner worlds. As an undergraduate in Southern California in the ’70s, Tomaselli was researching a paper on the Mexican muralists Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros when he stumbled upon a reference to Kahlo. “She was completely ignored at the time. It was all about the ‘big three’—they were the only guys in the big history books,” he recalls. “But I became enamored with these small personal dramas that Kahlo was putting into her work.” Kahlo’s inward focus was something that resonated with him and would later become a salient feature of his own work. “When I first discovered her, I felt I kind of owned her because she was a secret,” he recalls. “Then, in a matter of years, she was all over the place.”
The rediscovery of Kahlo’s career coincided with a period when feminist scholars were bringing greater attention to the work of women artists. In 1978, the first U.S. museum retrospective of the artist’s work opened at Chicago’s MCA. To be sure, Kahlo’s reappearance wasn’t hailed as a second coming. A male critic for the Chicago Tribune described the show as destined to “satisfy none but the most caterwauling feminist.” Regardless, by the mid-1980s, Kahlo’s star was ascendant. Mexican director Paul Leduc made a feature film based on her life, and a member of the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of art activists, took Kahlo’s name as her pseudonym. Perhaps the biggest boost to her popularity, however, was the publication of Hayden Herrera’s 1983 book, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, a 500-page tome that introduced the artist and her work to a wider audience.
By the late ‘90s, the world was awash in Kahlo books bearing titles such as The Brush of Anguish and Pain and Passion. A raft of exhibitions followed. “Too many shows are all ‘Frida’ or ‘Frida and Diego,’” says Ilene Susan Fort, who cocurated an exhibition of Surrealist art by women at the L.A. County Museum of Art in 2012. Titled “In Wonderland,” the show brought together works by figures such as Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington, as well as Kahlo, and was an opportunity to see the artist’s work in a fresh light. Part of the reason that Kahlo exhibitions often strike a single note, says Fort, is “her work is almost never put in a larger context.”
There have been others who have tried to reclaim Kahlo’s art from her biography. In 1999, historian Margaret A. Lindauer published Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo, a book that recast Kahlo as a determined artist, not simply a sufferer with a bad husband and a lot of health problems. And artist Judy Chicago and art historian Frances Borzello, in their 2010 book, Frida Kahlo: Face to Face, discussed Kahlo’s painting in relation to topics such as female self-portraiture and industrialization. In the introduction, Chicago writes: “Imagine a biography that examined the career of Jackson Pollock…in relation to the ups and downs of his marriage with fellow artist Lee Krasner—inconceivable, yet usually unquestioned with Kahlo.”
Similarly putting Kahlo’s art in a larger context, the MCA is showing two of her paintings from 1946—La Venadita (Little Deer), which shows her as a wounded deer, and the more disturbing Arbol de la Esperanza (Tree of Hope), a double self-portrait of the artist sitting with a back brace in her lap and lying mutilated on a hospital gurney—in conjunction with more than three dozen works made by other artists in the last 25 years. The exhibition, which includes art by Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman, Sanford Biggers, and Gabriel Orozco, among others, is divided into four categories, each representing a theme in Kahlo’s art that has particular relevance to contemporary artists: gender, national identity, politics, and the body. After decades of Fridamania, Rodrigues Widholm is hoping that viewers will understand how radical an artist Kahlo was—especially when it came to depicting women’s bodies. “The painting of physical, biological experiences of women—reproduction, abortion, miscarriages,” she explains, “Kahlo put that top of mind.”
Kahlo is important to many contemporary artists, whether as an influence or as a cautionary figure. Marnie Weber is an L.A.-based artist whose work—a mix of sculpture, photography, and performance—describes a surreal universe inhabited by anthropomorphized animals and little girls. Weber often incorporates images of herself in her pieces, but they usually show her wearing an expressionless white mask. In Weber’s case, the way Kahlo’s persona overshadowed her art (more than a third of Kahlo’s paintings are self-portraits) has served as a lesson in what to avoid. “It’s important for me that the work not be about myself per se, but instead an extension of my imaginary world,” explains Weber. “It’s about creating a scene rather than filling a story with characters.”
It’s a question other artists struggle with, too. Shirin Neshat is known for dreamy videos that explore the position of women in contemporary Muslim societies. She regularly employs herself as a subject. “But it’s not a self-portrait,” she explains. “My work is not autobiographical like Kahlo’s. But, still, I find it impossible not to have my work seen as a projection of who I am, as a woman and an Iranian.” Even so, she admires the way in which Kahlo made herself into an icon. “I have the big earrings, the makeup, the hair, the eyeliner I like to use,” she says. “So many Western artists, they might have incredibly expressive work, but you meet them and they’re kind of bland, always in jeans. It’s like they’re afraid to make a statement with their bodies.”
It is the way Kahlo represented her physical pain, showing her body cut and bleeding or opened up to reveal a broken column for a spine, that most resonates with some artists. “When you think of the AIDS crisis, of artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Catherine Opie, I think the traumatized body becomes very relevant to what’s going on,” says Rodrigues Widholm. Opie, the Los Angeles photographer whose most notorious images are of friends in L.A.’s gay and lesbian S&M communities, is represented in the MCA show. Like Kahlo, Opie has made self-portraits, most famously with the word “pervert” carved into her chest. Opie says she finds Kahlo’s work appealing because “there’s a certain abject quality in the way that she represented the body, the way that she’s willing to represent the body being open.”
With the reevaluation of Kahlo’s work, some artists see an opportunity to reconsider other aspects of her legacy. Mexican-born Hugo Crosthwaite, who divides his time between Tijuana and Brooklyn, makes inky drawings of imaginary realms that fuse pre-Columbian contemporary and comic-book art. Crosthwaite says that Kahlo represents an image of Mexico that is easy to digest for viewers from the U.S. and Europe—exotic, but not too. The look that Kahlo—born to a German father and a mother of indigenous and Spanish descent—made so famous was appropriated from the Indian women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. “Kahlo painted herself in the Tehuana outfits, with the monkeys and the fruit,” explains Crosthwaite. “But in her paintings, we’re not looking at a Tehuana with the accoutrements of her culture. We’re looking at a European face in folkloric dress.” Crosthwaite chuckles, “Kahlo is very much a contemporary artist; she was doing what Richard Prince is doing.” He adds, “She’s grabbing something in the culture and adopting it for her own means.”
To appropriate symbols in that way takes power—more, perhaps, than many of Kahlo’s biographers have given her credit for. Rodrigues Widholm says that in Kahlo, she sees a spirit of “rebellion and honesty”—an artist who, in her self-portraits, looks back at the viewer with a defiant glare. A single exhibition likely won’t kill the market for Frida Kahlo coasters and fingernail decals, but for those with Frida fatigue, it is an occasion to reconsider her paintings. Kahlo’s proto-feminism and emphasis on the body has directly inspired artists such as Mendieta and Kiki Smith. And her highly cultivated persona could serve as a template for contemporary performance art. “It’s time to unbind Kahlo from all the celebrity and the kitsch, from Diego Rivera,” says Rodrigues Widholm. “Really, this is about art that unbinds us from expectation and tradition and oppression.” Standing apart from all the merchandise is an artist, one who remains revolutionary.
Carolina A. Miranda is an independent journalist based in Los Angeles. She blogs at C-Monster.net.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 84 under the title “Saving Frida Kahlo From Her Own Celebrity.”