Foremost Mexican muralist, easel painter and graphic artist; he began as a student of agriculture and architectural drawing, turning to painting in 1909. During 1910-17 he did scenes of sordid genre and Mexican Revolutionary content, and from 1922 to 1927 frescoes in the National Preparatory School, the House of Tiles (now Sanborn’s) and the Industrial School at Orizaba. This early work shows generalized Renaissance forms, to which is added an increasingly emotional element through Revolutionary material used in the impressive symbolic sense that characterizes his work from then onward. His style developed monumentality, strength and, later, Expressionistic force. Color at first was subdued, structure and compositional arrangements rigidly controlled; later he would become more fluid and dynamic. From 1927 to 1932 he was in the United States, doing frescoes at Pomona College, California, the New School, New York, and Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. For the most part, these show a new quality, a looser drawing and a higher degree of symbolic and emotive content with a growing Expressionistic intensity, but they are still basically three-dimensional and figurative in form.
In 1934 begins the period of his great murals in the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City, and the Governor’s Palace, the University, and the Orphanage, Guadalajara. Orozco now emerges as the pre-eminent painter of the Mexican mural movement, his influence extending also into the graphic arts. His works of this period show a new, flaming symbolism, often with powerful diagonal thrusts, and a looser, more graphic style; his Expressionist manner becomes fully developed. Dark contours, white highlights and dramatic reds combine with a swirling movement of figures in dynamic groups in which individual shapes are distorted. We are frequently struck by Orozco’s distinction between the anonymous and even dangerous mass of people and the idealistically conceived individual. Orozco’s art at this point is visualized in historical and didactic terms, yet working toward a humanistic idea, a compassion for mankind.
In 1940 he did frescoes in the Library at Jiquilpan with gigantic black-and-white drawings on the side walls and a colored painting at the far end. In the same year, the portable Dive Bomber mural for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, shows signs of the development of mechanical symbols; i.e., man crushed by the machine and the aggression of the machine in war. The murals in the Mexican Supreme Court (1941) symbolize Mexico’s natural resources and the moral power of justice. His unfinished murals in the Church of Jesus Nazareno, Mexico City (1942), with their visionary and apocalyptic subject matter, reveal Orozco as a prophet of our anguished times. He makes use here of abstract explosive forms. His open-air mural in the amphitheatre of the National School for Teachers (1947) is an abstract summing up in machinistic terms of the history of Mexico. This was one of the most positive indications of a new direction for the painter; but he died two years later without fulfilling it. In 1948 he did a mural in the National Historical Museum, Chapultepec Castle, showing Juarez and the Reform, and another in the Chamber of Deputies, Guadalajara. Between 1940 and 1949 Orozco’s easel painting grew in a restless Expressionist style comparable to his murals. In 1946 he received the National Award of Arts and Sciences and the following year was honored by a retrospective exhibition in the Palace of Fine Arts. His death in 1949 was a day of national mourning for Mexico.