Love for her style has inflated the standing of her art all out of proportion, and in recent decades it’s become an article of faith that Kahlo was a more important painter than her acclaimed husband, indeed one of the indisputable greats. This is — well, not true, sorry! In Brooklyn you’ll find some engrossing self-portraits, including MoMA’s severe “Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair,” but Kahlo also painted half-competent still lifes, gross Stalinist agitprop, and ghastly New Age kitsch — including this show’s “The Love Embrace of the Universe …,” a world-spiritualist tableau featuring a lactating Mother Earth that would make Deepak Chopra blanch. I’d name many other Mexicans, men and women, who drew more productively on surrealist, folk and indigenous vocabularies to force a new art after the revolution, including Rivera, the wily modernist Dr. Atl, the Mexico-based Englishwoman Leonora Carrington and the ripe-for-rediscovery Alice Rahon.
Yet Kahlo was a pioneer in self-disclosure, a national advocate and an essential social connector, brokering introductions between Americans and Europeans and the local avant-garde. She posed constantly for the best photographers, including Tina Modotti, Carl Van Vechten, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. Her real accomplishment, this show proposes, was a Duchampian extension of her art far beyond the easel, into her home, her fashion and her public relationships. Which makes her, for good and ill, a figure right for our time — and also complicates the easy opposition between her Communist convictions and today’s global Frida industry.
Kahlo was born in 1907 in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City, in a newly built house called the Casa Azul. At 6, she contracted polio. At 18, a trolley car rammed into the bus she was riding; the accident shattered her spine and reduced her right leg to bits. Her father, Guillermo, a photographer who specialized in architectural documentation, took a formal, Europeanized portrait of her a few months after the accident, which appears in the first gallery here. She wears a long, dark silk dress and clasps a book in her hands; her hair is pulled back, her mien is stern. Her right leg, agonizing her, lies half-hidden.