Welcome to the website of artist Philip Stein, aka Estaņo / 1919 - 2009.
Assistant to David Alfaro Siqueiros from 1948 to 1958
An interview with American Artist, Philip Stein - aka Estaņo
Interview with Philip Stein conducted by artist Mark Vallen on February 2004.
Statement by interviewer, Mark Vallen - "Philip Stein, also known as Estaņo, was a living link to one of the world's most influential artistic schools, the Mexican Muralist Movement. Stein's passionate and detailed biography of David Alfaro Siqueiros was based on the first hand experience of having worked alongside the maestro for ten years as an assistant artist. The Mexican Cultural Commission proclaimed Stein's, Siqueiros - His life and Works, the definitive biography on the great revolutionary artist. But the book is also an invaluable tool that leads to a complete understanding of the Mexican Mural Movement, what led to it, what sustained it, and its impact on world history. An unrepentant radical living in reactionary times, Stein reminded us all that the muralists were actually political militants who held uncompromising opinions on art and everything else. Like it or not, Stein delivered his view of history as only an active participant can. A fabulous artist in his own right whose paintings have been collected and shown around the world, I am honored that Estaņo consented to this exclusive interview with me."
Painting by Philip Stein
Painting by Philip Stein
Quetzalcoatl - Estaņo 1977
Acrylic on Masonite

Question) The Muralistas and their works were an inspiration to people all over the world. There is no doubt that the Chicano Arts Movement of the 1970s was profoundly influenced by the Mexican School of painters. In your view, what is the actual legacy of the Mexican School and what can today's young people learn from it?

Answer) Certainly the murals in Mexico plus the works of the Big Three ("Los Tres" - Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco) in the United States were a powerful inspiration to the young artists of the U.S. The Chicano Art Movement understood and felt deeply the social commitment that the Mexican muralists had instilled in their art and they, the North Americans, attempted in no uncertain way to move forward on the road that had been shown to them by the Mexicans. This has been the legacy of the Mexican School. Art as a weapon has been the basis of the innumerable street murals of the Chicano Art Movement.

Question) The post modern school now dominating the international art world has given us an inward-looking and socially disconnected art. Today a pile of rocks, fecal matter, or an artist screaming at a wall are considered valid works of art. Do you see post modernism as a legitimate artistic discipline or as a fraud ripe for overthrow?

Answer) Post modernism is a movement of extreme decadence and hopefully it will be thrown into the garbage heap along with the Bush administration. Post modernism is very much a logical part of our decaying social system and unfortunately will remain with us until the death throes of the system runs its course. As for realism in painting - it is a profoundly human pursuit, and as much a makeup of the human being living with reality that the human with artistic talent and feeling will in the most natural manner always attempt to explain this reality in aesthetic terms.

"Post Modernism is a movement of extreme decadence and hopefully it will be thrown into the garbage heap along with the Bush administration."
Painting by Philip Stein
Painting by Philip Stein
Prometheus - Estaņo 1981
Acrylic on Masonite

Question) You became involved with the Mexican Muralists in 1948 when you moved to that country and became an assistant painter to Siqueiros. During that decade you helped him paint some of the greatest murals of the period. You also met with other practitioners of a socially engaged public art, what you call the "Mexican School" of painters. Who were some of the other noteworthy artists you had the opportunity to meet or work with?

Answer) Siqueiros was the generally accepted leader of the mural movement. He possessing an advanced political militancy and would organize and rally the painters and sculptors of the movement for any action that would require their solidarity, usually directing some grievance or injustice to the government. So Siqueiros along with myself were often in the company of the artists of the Movement.

Orozco had died in 1949 but Diego Rivera was very active. He and Siqueiros were usually at the head of any protests and I was very often in their company. Swirling around the movement too I was often in the company of the muralists and sculptors of that period such as, Juan O'Gorman, Pablo O'Higgins, Luis Arenal, Fredrico Canessi the sculptor, Francisco Zuņiga, Jose Chavez Morado, Pancho Mora, Elizabeth Catlett and Leopoldo Mendez of the Taller Grafica Popular. These are a few of the names that I can recall having had contact with.

Question) Siqueiros is widely regarded as having been a "political artist". His detractors call him a polemicist or propagandist, but I think his artistic vision and technical skills were every bit as potent as his politics, perhaps more so. Obviously there was an activist side to his character, but the term "political artist" can be used in a disparaging way meant to dismiss works not sanctioned or condoned by the mainstream. What are your views
regarding the relationship between art and politics?

Painting by Philip Stein
Stop the War - Estaņo 1976
Acrylic on Masonite
Answer) Siqueiros' art and his politics were homogenized, that is, the bulwark of the greater proportion of his painting. His portraits were just that and there were landscapes and some playing around with abstractions. The great challenge for Siqueiros was to paint politically outspoken themes in an intensely aesthetic manner. One could cite the gory & blood-dripping themes by the painters of the Renaissance for the politics of the Catholic Church. This latter obviously proves the power of art even when it concentrates on such
mythological ideas as promulgated by religion.
"When an artist is having a problem in seriously seeking a meaningful basis for their artistic endeavors they could consider it a stroke of good luck if they should stumble on to the Mexican Mural Movement."

Question) One of the things I find most striking about the Mexican School and those associated with it is the profound internationalist and bicultural sentiment of the artworks and their creators. You are a perfect example of this. An Anglo born in Newark, New Jersey, you became so enamored of the muralist movement that after traveling to Mexico you changed your name to Estaņo. Exactly how did you come to
take that name?

Answer) When an artist is having a problem in seriously seeking a meaningful basis for their artistic endeavors they could consider it a stroke of good luck if they should stumble on to the Mexican Mural Movement. When my wife and I arrived in Mexico back in 1948 I honestly can say I had practically no knowledge of the existence of the Mexican muralists. After stumbling upon it I embraced it totally for it solved the problem of the basis of my art. My painting name Estaņo I did not choose as a sign of my being immersed in Mexico. It was actually thrust upon me by Siqueiros as he thought it was easier for him to say "Estaņo" than to pronounce "Stein." So there it was - Siqueiros had this name placed on the plaques that are attached to a number of his murals.

Question) Pablo Picasso once said, "If everyone would paint, political re-education would be unnecessary." That's a marvelously complex thought. It naturally implies that political theory and action is fundamental to making social change, but at the same time infers that art offers another path. Picasso was inviting people to consider art is a primary force in human relations capable of transforming society. Do you credit art with
actually possessing that much power?

Answer) An example of the positive power of art is today being exercised by the calls being put out to all artists to prepare their art to be used as a weapon on the streets to attack Bush on March 20th, 2004, the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and to use art in an attempt to close down the Republican National Convention in New York City in August, 2004. Street theater, giant puppets, paintings and innumerable uses of the creative arts for political action as artists fight for a cause.

"Torture of Cuauhtemoc" mural painting detail
"Torture of Cuauhtemoc" mural painting detail
Torture of Cuauhtemoc (detail) Estaņo worked with Siqueiros in 1951 to paint this mural of the last Aztec Emperor.

Question) You live in New York City and so are intimately familiar with the unforgettable horror of the Sept. 11th terror attacks. It has been said that 9-11 "changed the world forever" and that "nothing would ever be the same again." Yet with few exceptions artists and art institutions go on as they did before, producing and showing works that are mute when it comes to social realities. How do you think today's artists should be responding to the world crisis?

Answer) There is no doubt that the world is facing its greatest crisis of survival, the blame for which can easily be placed at the doorstep of the U.S., the world's most dangerous imperialist power. There is a certain helplessness one feels before such an overwhelming evil power and as the British scientist Martin Rees has warned, this may be our final hour. I do live near where the twin towers once stood and what is now known as ground zero. Two evenings a week, Gertrude (the artist's wife) and I with a handful of others stand vigil in front of a large sign stating "Peace Vigil at ground zero." Here we hand out leaflets against the war and the hopeful sign is that a large percentage of the passersby eagerly accept our peace propaganda. But in general there has not yet appeared a groundswell of artists to help in fending off the oncoming disasters we face, but it is growing. Small efforts are being made but we are all at the moment quite helpless. The big test will be the effort to oust the criminals in the White House. About this I feel some optimism, and that artists will act up.

Here let me cite the words of an editor of Pravda.ru who wrote on Feb.13th, 2004, "It is time to acknowledge that America is in the grip of an evil so corrupt, so infectious, and so devious that it already may be too late to find a cure. We now have a nation where outrage resounds and the halls of Congress thunder with 'indignation' because an overrated singer exposed her overrated breasts during an overrated football game. Yet similar outrage is not expressed over the deaths of hundreds of American and British soldiers, and thousands of Iraqis, all caused by outright lies now being whitewashed as 'intelligence' failures."

"For whatever reason I was stumbling by myself and being drawn into the unsettling life of the artist and started teaching myself to paint"

Question) You taught yourself oil painting in your teens and right out of high school you were an apprentice painter in a New York scenic studio producing scenery for the stage. What inspired you to become an artist and who were your early influences? What can you tell us about what transpired in your life before you became involved with the Mexican
Mural Movement?

Answer) As a child growing up on the teeming streets of the Bronx in New York City and Newark, New Jersey I was unaware of the difficult times and the chaos of the economic life during the period of my earliest youth, that of the 1920's. My mother, born in England, but coming here as a child, and my father born in New York City, struggled greatly to survive in a brutal economic environment. But as a child I thought that the financial difficulties my parents were always facing was the normal way of life in the narrow orbit of the two cities in which I grew up. Indeed it probably was, in this freewheeling savage environment. We had moved to at least a dozen different flats by the time I reached my early teens.

It was in elementary school that I realized I felt a strong attraction to things of beauty and to things artistic, to which I would have to include girls. Miss Smith, my grammar school art teacher, was my favorite and while in her class I won a prize in a citywide art competition for elementary school children. I don't remember now if it was the first prize but I was eleven years old. So under a very economically difficult home life, it was the early thirties and the depression was in full swing, that I found the attraction to art offered comfort and pleasure. While in high school I spent time looking at the art in the Newark Museum of Fine Arts and was drawn to paintings in galleries around Newark that I had wished to own. For whatever reason I was stumbling by myself and being drawn into the unsettling life of the artist and started teaching myself to paint.
Photo of Philip Stein
Estaņo in 2004

By 1938, finished with high school and starting to study architecture at night at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, an uncle who was a scenic artist in the theatrical studios of New York brought me into the studio to work as a paint boy setting up the tempera paint palettes for the artists and cleaning up the studio. This was artistically stimulating work, some of the greatest Broadway shows were being painted and designed for by the top scenic designers of New York. Scenic designers such as, Robert Edmond Jones, Jo Mielziener, Lee Simonson, Aline Bernstein, Boris Aronson, Harry Horner, etc. This atmosphere plus the dramatic mural-like nature of the huge backdrops could only capture the fancy of an aesthetically inclined young student. It would be ten years yet before the same student would find himself caught in the magnetic field of the Mexican mural painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. But much was yet to transpire before that peak was reached.

With the advent of World War II business was dropping off in the Broadway theaters forcing me to seek a job in the war factories and so for nine months I became a welder in a steel plant making depth charges. Here I felt I was not doing enough to stop Hitler, and so on the 27th of April 1942, I enlisted in the army. It was during my stint in the army that I was trained to be a meteorologist and was assigned to be a weather forecaster in the 8th Air Force and the 9th Army, both in the European theater of operations. But I should not forget to mention that before going overseas and while stationed with the Air Force at Napier Field in Dothan, Alabama, that Gertrude Goodkin, the one I loved and whom I had met two years earlier on New Year's Eve of 1940, traveled by train from Newark to Alabama where we were married on March 19, 1943. On May 16, 1943 I was headed on my way to Europe, and on that night Gertrude was able to be present at the airfield in Presque Isle, Maine to say our goodbyes as I climbed the steps of the DC 4 to be away for two and a half years.

Aside from my military duties in Europe my concentration on art engrossed me fully. Throughout our campaign across northern Europe I was able to scrounge painting materials and art books in the wreckage of the German cities. Moments were found to practice painting as had been the case when I painted the portraits of the Captain and men of our weather squadron. Moving with our mobile weather station attached to the headquarters of the 9th Army, under the command of General William Simpson, we finally reached the end of the war. In May 1945, we met the Soviet Army at the Elbe River. The Soviet General and the soldiers, male and female, were invited to a festive celebration at our base camp. I finally arrived back in the US on November 11,1945.

Painting by Philip Stein
Painting by Philip Stein
Mars - Estaņo 1968
Pyroxylin on Masonite

Resuming work painting theatrical scenery in New York I was able to take advantage of the GI educational bill and attended art classes at night at the New School where on one occasion Jose Clemente Orozco visited our class. Our settling in New York was cut short when in April 1946 I had to leave my job in the theatrical studio and with Gertrude move to Los Angeles to stay with my mother who was ill. I transferred to the Los Angeles scenic artists union 644 and went to work for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood while Gertrude found some office work. My mother's health deteriorated rapidly and in October of 1946 she died. All this was leading up to our Mexican experience which did not transpire until April 1948. In the meantime trouble was brewing in Hollywood. By October 1946 the great Hollywood film strike had shut down the studios while we walked the picket line for well over a year. The strike was carried on with great militancy by union members, scenic artists, carpenters, electricians, and others - all members of the progressive coalition of workers, called The Conference of Studio Unions.

The strike reached a fever pitch of action when one of the largest mass arrests of workers in the country took place. At one point two burley LA cops grabbed me and after one had claimed I had attacked him I was locked up in Lincoln Heights for 3 months. The bitter struggle ended with the crushing of the Conference of Studio Unions and no jobs for the workers. Gertrude and I hung around Hollywood for a while, producing the one-man show of the great Viennese actor Theodore, and though I designed and painted the scenery for a Los Angeles production of Moussorgsky's opera Boris Godounow, the general lack of jobs after the strike was the initial cause of my decision to go with Gertrude to Mexico and concentrate on my art studies with the help of the benefits still due me from the GI Bill. I still had three years to my credit and in Mexico we could live on that.
"The great Hollywood film strike had shut down the studios while we walked the picketline for well over a year. The strike was carried on with great militancy by union members, scenic artists, carpenters, electricians, and others..."
Painting by Philip Stein
Mother & Child
Estaņo 1990 Acrylic

The School of Fine Arts of San Miguel de Allende was accredited to enroll US veterans of World War II. Gertrude and I arrived in San Miguel in April, 1948 and settling in this idyllic colonial town in central Mexico, little did we suspect how short-lived the tranquility of painting in this Arcadian setting would be. At least not until October did the tranquility dissipate. For in October 1948, Siqueiros and his wife Angelica arrived in San Miguel charging the atmosphere with certain electric vibrations.

It had been the policy of the school to bring Mexican and other Latin American maestros for short periods of teaching to the school and that was what brought Siqueiros to San Miguel. This was when I first came in contact with Siqueiros. But the first experience of feeling the effects of Siqueiros came after a series lectures, on five consecutive days, that he presented, speaking in English, to the assembled art students, mostly North American World War ll veterans during that month of October 1948. He spoke of the history of the Mexican Mural Movement, its social responsibility and how it compared to the School of Paris.

The effects of these lectures on the students destroyed their hallowed beliefs centered in abstract individualism. This led to the urging by the students that Siqueiros paint a mural on some available walls of the school. Siqueiros accepted the idea, for in that way the students could learn the fundamentals of Siqueiros' technique of mural painting. I was among the 12 members of the mural team that was formed. After this initial experience of working on the mural of San Miguel de Allende which was to portray the life of General Ignacio Allende, who was born in San Miguel, and which for various reasons was never finished. Gertrude and I moved to Mexico City where I continued to work with Siqueiros. I enrolled in the Escuela Esmeralda of INBA thus assuring the continuation of my GI education grant. When this grant ran out after three more years Siqueiros entered this cost in subsequent mural contracts and I was able to be paid as I had been under the GI Bill.
During that period encompassing ten years I had only worked with Siqueiros on his murals.
Painting by Philip Stein
Pensive - Estaņo 1986

Question) You were born in 1919 and so witnessed much of the turmoil of the 20th Century. During World War II you served in the U.S. Army in the European theater of operations. Afterwards you worked closely with the giants of Mexican art. Now at the beginning of the 21st Century you have a website where your artworks are presented to the global community. Can you comment on the importance of digital technology and how you came to embrace it?

Answer) One thing I could say about Siqueiros is that he was always keenly interested in any new modern technique or method that would help him to realize the goals he sought in his creative endeavors and I dare say that if computer development had reached the stage back in the 1960's that it has today he would have embraced it in order to exploit its vast possibilities for assisting him in his art research and politics. I came face to face with the computer rather late. Finally in 1998 when I was 79, I decided, 'Yes, let's see what the computer is about'. So I prepared to enter the 21st Century "wired." It was an invaluable and enriching experience. Bolstered with volumes of literature of how to master the medium, I managed to create a website devoted to my painting, connect with internet art galleries, and all the rest, the research, the art history, the political connections. All terribly time consuming - but well worth it.
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