"My Work is Painting:" Politics and Apocalypse in the Art of Rufino Tamayo

Caelen Trujillo

Florida State University

Art historical analysis of Rufino Tamayo’s work has principally focused on the artist’s commitment to the plastic qualities of art and use of indigenous Mexican imagery. There is a prevalent belief that Tamayo’s art is devoid of political meaning, unlike the art of the Muralists that he opposed—a belief that is in line with statements made by the author himself. In a 1990 interview with the New York Times, he stated, “…My only commitment is to painting. That doesn’t mean I don’t have personal political positions. But those positions aren’t reflected in my work. My work is painting.”[1] In other words, Tamayo asserted that his political views were not reflected in his work and that he was committed only to the practice of painting itself and nothing more. Subsequently, there is a lack of material on Tamayo’s art in relation to socio-political climates, with scholars taking Tamayo’s apolitical claims at face value. I argue that Tamayo’s work, despite his intentions, does impart political messages and engage with global events. As a case study of the relationship between Tamayo’s art and politics, this paper will analyze the Apocalypse de Saint Jean series of prints in relation to the Cold War and Mexican politics. Attention will be given to the socio-political trends which may have affected Tamayo’s art, the political function his art has served, and the significance of the themes in Apocalypse de Saint Jean in the context of global events. By exploring these works of art, Tamayo’s personal history, and the socio-political history of the long sixties, this paper will shed light on the ways Tamayo’s art has engaged with politics.

To begin, the politics of artmaking in post-revolutionary Mexico must be considered. In the aftermath of the revolution, the Mexican government funded the painting of large murals on public buildings, which promoted political messages, historical traditions, and a sense of cultural identity. Artists of the early Muralist movement, such as Diego Rivera, often imparted socialist themes in their work and depicted scenes of labor. These government-funded murals came to be incredibly successful and popular, inspiring both Latin American and North American artists. However, Rufino Tamayo’s art emerged as an ideological opposite to Muralism at this time. While both Tamayo and Muralists used pre-colonial symbols and scenes in their paintings, Tamayo was staunchly against using those things for political purposes. As Muralists focused on narrative and moralistic depictions, Tamayo found more importance in the formal aspects of painting and embraced the European practice of easel painting.[2] This belief is expressed in his own words: “…It seems to me that to pretend that [painting’s] value is derived from other elements, particularly from ideological content which is not otherwise related to plastic content, cannot but be considered a fallacy which can temporarily deceive the unwary, but which Time, ruthless enemy of everything specious, will undertake to refute.”[3] To Tamayo, the value of painting was not in the messages it imparted but instead in its pure visual form. This statement falls in line with the abstract expressionist view of the plastic qualities of art, and indeed, Tamayo came to be inspired by abstract expressionist artists when he moved to New York City in 1926, feeling that Mexico restricted artmaking too much.

While it might appear that Tamayo’s opposition to Muralist art is simply a difference in values and philosophy, it is in fact politically charged. As early as 1929, Tamayo came to be seen by anti-revolutionary critics as a new leader of Mexican art and a symbol of anti-revolutionary beliefs.[4] Because his art served as a foil to the revolutionary Muralist style—embracing the plastic and abstract, in contrast to the narrative and political—it was a perfect political tool. To those with anti-revolutionary beliefs who saw Tamayo’s art, the act of being apolitical was in of itself a political statement. Tamayo’s interest in abstract expressionism also had political implications even if the interest was grounded in nonpolitical sentiments. While abstract expressionism did have an international reach, it was perceived as a largely American style and most notably played a role in the Cold War. Exhibitions of abstract expressionist art were held abroad after American insecurities over the reach of the Soviet Union, in which the artworks were upheld as evidence of American freedom and an antithesis to the more homogeneous Soviet realism.[5] Tamayo’s view of abstract expressionism supports its framing as a style representative of freedom. When speaking on his experience in New York, he states that the city taught him “what art was” and he expresses that “liberty [is] the most fundamental element of art.”[6] The appeal of abstract expressionism’s heterogeneity in contrast to Muralism’s more uniform qualities mirrors the Cold War conflict of abstract expressionism versus Soviet realism. Considering Tamayo’s statements and his opposition to government-sanctioned art, it is very likely that his interest in abstract expressionism reflected his political views on the connection between cultural values and art.

The Apocalypse de Saint Jean prints offer a case study of how politics may have been reflected in Tamayo’s work. The four lithograph prints that will be the focus of this analysis depict the four horsemen of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. Each print is done in Tamayo’s typical expressionist style, with the forms of rider and horse alike abstracted to simple shapes. The colors are sparse but vibrant, as seen in Capítulo X’s use of blue and red in framing the white horseman.[see pdf for image]

The four prints were published in a book along with other works and accompanied by text from the Book of Revelation.[1] Though the topic of the four horsemen is well-known in Western media, the subject is not typical of Tamayo’s work as he mostly depicted pre-colonial Indigenous symbols rather than Christian ones. Choosing to depict chaotic scenes of apocalypse at this time could be Tamayo engaging with the global anxieties of nuclear war. The Cold War’s key conflicts centered around nuclear weapons, and with tensions rising from the fifties to the sixties, the start of a nuclear war felt very possible to many people. Nuclear disaster is often referred to as a secular apocalypse, but the concept of end-times has close connections to Christianity. The Book of Revelation is a prophecy of the end of the world, and an extremely influential Christian scripture in North America. There is no doubt that many people saw global tensions as a sign of this prophecy coming to fruition. A. G. Mojtabai observed this same belief in her exploration of a rural town housing nuclear weapons, where residents attributed any possible nuclear disaster to Revelation’s Armageddon.[2] Fundamentalists have interpreted verses from the scripture as predictions of nuclear technology and radiation, in particular Revelation 8:10-8:11: “The third angel blew his horn. A large star fell from heaven. It was burning with a fire that kept burning like a bright light. It fell on one-third part of the rivers and on the places where water comes out of the earth. The name of the star is Wormwood. One-third part of the water became poison. Many men died from drinking the water because it had become poison.”

The Cold War was also seen as an apocalyptic-like conflict between good and evil, with the United States as a “fantasy of a nation” fighting against the “evil” of communism.[1]

The prints were made in 1959, a time at which Mexico was in a complicated position amid the Cold War. Mexico held contradictory relationships with both the United States and the Soviet Union. During the Cuban Revolution, it was clear that Mexico supported Cuba, but at the same time, it opposed Cuba in order to maintain good relations with the United States.[2] Mexico became a chief concern of the United States because the Mexican government could benefit greatly from a relationship with the Soviet Union, but Mexico continued to claim to hold neutrality for both sides. Despite this claim, public reception of the Soviet Union was taking a positive turn in 1959 as young students and workers turned to leftist ideologies. That year, the same year Tamayo created Apocalypse de Saint Jean, the Soviet Exhibition was held in Mexico City. The Soviet Union’s technological achievements were shown to the Mexican public—and those technological marvels included atomic reactors. The exhibition was received by large, excited crowds, and an interest in Soviet media and culture persisted.[3] Though Tamayo was living in Paris at this time, it is not unlikely that he had the politics of his home country on his mind—and not only that but the political concerns of the world, as the Cold War brought with it the threat of nuclear disaster. I would also like to recall the parallels between the Cold War art conflict and Tamayo’s own grievances with the Mexican government, which may have made this event even more of a concern to him. [see pdf for image]

Three years after the creation of Apocalypse de Saint Jean, Mexico would have a much more dangerous encounter with nuclear technology during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where it would paradoxically act as a supporter of both Cuba and the United States. When considering the connections between nuclear technology, the Cold War, and his home country, along with the prints’ depiction of the Book of Revelation and its association with the nuclear apocalypse, it becomes a much more likely interpretation for these prints to be grappling with the subject of Christian apocalypse in relation to possible end-times. The prints depict the four horsemen in an unsettling fashion, where the diagonals of the figures’ positions imply motion but the simplification of them into rigid shapes implies stillness, creating a sense of dissonance. In Capítulo X, the figures seem to be in motion, but the background contains them in a single blue rectangle, whereas the red and black surface beneath them seems to become a wall directly before them. The hurried and chaotic motion seems to be pointless as the composition gives the figures nowhere to go. Overall, the print is unsettling and confusing, imparting the fear and confusion that comes with a possible nuclear war.

Many aspects of Rufino Tamayo’s art and history are intertwined with politics despite his claims of having an apolitical practice. His very origins as an opponent of Muralism turned him into an anti-revolutionary figure, whether he wanted it or not. His interest in and thoughts about abstract expressionism reveal the politically charged nature of the style he chose. Finally, his engagement with apocalyptic themes in Apocalypse de Saint Jean connects to the Cold War and Mexico’s involvement in it. Though Tamayo sought to create art free of politics, acknowledging his art’s relationship to the events of the sixties is necessary for a deeper understanding of it. Rufino Tamayo’s work does not just engage with Mexican subjects through plastic qualities, but also through being influenced by and influencing Mexican politics—and the politics of the world.



  1. Mark A. Uhlig, “From Exile to Idol: Rufino Tamayo at 91,” New York Times, December 27, 1990, 14.
  2. Rufino Tamayo. Films On Demand. 1989. https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=104919&xtid=2187.
  3. Bernard S. Myers, “Tamayo versus the Mexican Mural Painters,” College Art Journal 13, no. 2 (1954): 102. https://doi.org/10.2307/773513.
  4. Myers, “Tamayo versus the Mexican Mural Painters,” 102.
  5. Eve Cockroft, “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War,” Artforum 15, no. 10 (June 1974): 39–41, Reprinted in Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, ed. Francis Frascina (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 129.
  6. Mark A. Uhlig, “From Exile to Idol: Rufino Tamayo at 91,” New York Times, December 27, 1990, 13.
  7. Princeton University Graphic Arts Collection, “Tamayo’s Apocalypse de Saint Jean,” August 6, 2015.
  8. A. G. Mojtabai, Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas (Syracuse University Press, 1997)
  9. Kathleen Stewart and Susan Harding, “Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis,” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1999): 293.
  10. Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser, In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War (Duke University Press, 2008).
  11. Eric Zolov, The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties (Duke University Press, 2020), 61.

Works Cited

Image Appendix

Tamayo, Rufino. Capítulo X. 1959. Lithograph, 35 × 27.5 cm. Art Institute of Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/17837/conquest-from-the-apocalypse-of-saint-john.

The Hermanos Mayo. Exposición Soviética Inauguración. 1959. Photograph. Hermanos Mayo Collection, Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City.


Cockroft, Eve. “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War.” Artforum 15, no. 10 (June 1974): 39–41. Reprinted in Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, ed. Francis Frascina (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 125–133.

Joseph, Gilbert M. and Spenser, Daniela. In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War. Duke University Press, 2008.

Mojtabai, A. G. Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas. Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Myers, Bernard S. “Tamayo versus the Mexican Mural Painters.” College Art Journal 13, no. 2 (1954). https://doi.org/10.2307/773513.

Princeton University Graphic Arts Collection. “Tamayo’s Apocalypse de Saint Jean,” August 6, 2015. https://graphicarts.princeton.edu/2015/08/06/tamayos-apocalypse-de-saint-joan/.

Rufino Tamayo. Films On Demand. 1989. https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=104919&xtid=2187.

Stewart, Kathleen, and Harding, Susan. “Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis.” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1999): 285–310.

Uhlig, Mark A. “From Exile to Idol: Rufino Tamayo at 91.” New York Times, December 27, 1990.

Zolov, Eric. The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties. Duke University Press, 2020.

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