Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jill Krementz covers Diego Rivera at MoMA

"An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can't feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn't capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won't put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn't a great artist."
– Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art
November 13, 2011-May 14, 2012


Diego Rivera is considered the greatest Mexican painter of the twentieth century. Born in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1886, he studied painting at an early age and in 1907 moved to Europe. It was while studying the Renaissance frescoes of Italy that Rivera found his medium. He returned to Mexico with a vision of what he could do with the fresco, combining it with his strong belief in public art.

By 1931, Rivera was the most visible figure in Mexican muralism, a large-scale public art initiative that emerged in the 1920s in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. MoMA wanted to give Rivera his first full scale US exhibition. But his murals – by definition fixed on a single site – were impossible to transport for exhibition. MoMA solved this problem by bringing the artist to New York for six weeks and providing him with a makeshift studio in the museum's original building.

MoMA's exhibition of Diego Rivera was curated by Leah Dickerman.
Rivera worked around the clock with three assistants, producing "portable murals," (large block of frescoed plaster concrete, and steel) for the New York installation. Only five were completed in time for the show's initial installation, but Diego continued to work completing three more murals, the new ones depicting labor in construction in Depression-era New York. The new ones were added for the duration of the exhibition's run.

Now, for the first time in 80 years, five of the eight "portable murals" (freestanding frescoes with bold images addressing the Mexican Revolution and Depression-era New York) that Rivera created for the 1931 exhibition can be seen once again in an exhibition organized by curator Leah Dickerman.

In addition to the murals, weighing as much as 1,000 pounds, the exhibit includes three eight-foot working drawings, a "portable mural" made in 1930, as well as smaller drawings, watercolors, and prints by Rivera. On display in the glass display cases are relevant scrapbooks, magazines, letters, and photographs. There are also materials related to Rivera's infamous Rockefeller Center mural, a project he began to discuss while in residence at the museum. If you want to refresh your memories on the Rockefeller Center debacle, I suggest Frida, the 2002 biopic by Julie Taymor (portraying the marriage of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera) as well as the excellent book Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel Okrent.

Diego Rivera died in 1957 in Mexico City at the age of 70. The artist had a huge impact on America's conception of public art as a vehicle for promoting social justice.
In the lobby, before going up to the second floor Gallery: Susan Morris, who helps the Ford Foundation with its art collection and has just finished shooting a short film with architect Kevin Roche. Nicholas Ruiz, 23, who works in MoMA's special events department. He always designs a special tie commemorating the event on which he is working--in this case the opening night party for Diego Rivera.

His tie is a fresco with limestone backing. "You can't buy it yet, but hopefully soon."
Vogue' s Anna Wintour was strolling by having just had a meeting about an evening honoring Pedro Almodóvar, which she was co-chairing. Nicholas Apps, MoMA's director of special events in the film department, was accompanying Anna out of the building.
Entering the exhibition.
Leah Dickerman, who organized the exhibition and authored, with Anna Indych-López, the show's exhibition catalogue. Curatorial Assistant Jodi Roberts, a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, who told me: "I started working last February on this exhibition."

Ms. Roberts also contributed to the show's catalogue. In Ms. Dickerman's words ... "Most of all, I have relied on Jodi Roberts: her scholarly knowledge, determined research, and good judgement show themselves on every one of the pages."
Five of these eight murals are in MoMA's exhibition. The remaining three are represented by drawings.
Indian Warrior, 1931
Fresco on reinforced cement in a metal framework

Of all the panels Rivera made for The Museum of Modern Art, Indian Warrior reaches back farthest into Mexican history, to the Spanish Conquest of the early sixteenth century. An Aztec warrior
wearing the costume of a jaguar stabs an armored conquistador in the throat with a stone knife. The Spaniard's steel blade—an emblem of European claims to superiority—lies broken nearby. Jaguar
knights, members of an elite Aztec military order, were known for their fighting prowess; according
to legend, their terrifying costumes enabled them to possess the power of the animal in battle. The panel's jarring vision of righteous violence offered a Mesoamerican precedent for Mexico's recent revolution as well as its continuing struggles.

The details of Aztec culture in the image reflect Rivera's extensive study of pre-Columbian art, of
which he was an avid collector. At the same time, Indian Warrior demonstrates the artist's inti-
mate knowledge of European artistic tradition. The conquistador's sharply foreshortened body
and carefully modeled armor recall works by Renaissance masters, which, along with the materials and techniques of fresco painting, Rivera studied firsthand on an extended trip to Italy in 1920.
John McPherson

"If you put me around art I smile because I've been painting for 60 years. I've been working at MoMA for 20 years but have been coming here since the late fifties when I was an art student.

When I studied at the San Francisco Art Institute there were Diego murals on the wall. He's so prolific.

For MoMA to have both de Kooning and Rivera at the same time is really extraordinary. They're two very different painters: de Kooning was experimental, figurative and abstract--and Rivera strongly figurative with a political agenda. They are two of the greatest artists of the 20th century."
Installation photograph showing
freestanding murals.
John Zeaman, an art critic who often writes for the Bergen Record, with Anthony Santuoso. Mr. Santuoso is an artist and a teacher. "I like Rivera's revolutionary spirit," said Santuoso. "It's very timely what with OWS to see his take on the abuses of capitalism."
Emiliano Zapata, a champion of agrarian reform and a key protagonist in the Mexican Revolution, here leads a band of peasant rebels armed with
provisional weapons, including farming tools. With the bridle of a majestic white horse in his hand, Zapata stands triumphantly beside the dead body of a hacienda owner. Though Mexican
and U.S. newspapers regularly vilified the revolutionary leader as a treacherous bandit, Rivera immortalized Zapata as a hero and glorified the victory of the Revolution in an image of violent but just vengeance.

Rivera's depiction also departs from portrayals of the rebel propagated by Zapata himself. An expert horseman, Zapata consistently presented
himself as a charro, a cowboy whose flamboyant dress—tight pants and a vest with silver ornamentation—signaled an elevated class status in Mexico. Rivera's vision of Zapata as a humble peasant offers a sympathetic portrait of a folk hero tirelessly devoted to agrarian reform.
  Agrarian Leader Zapata, 1931
Fresco on reinforced cement in galvanized-steel framework
Detail of Zapata.
You will need to walk around and look at the back of the Zapata fresco before you continue looking at the rest of the exhibition. It's somewhat confusing unless you know about this ahead of time. Now you do.
Back of Agrarian Leader Zapata, 1931

Because of the time it takes to prepare fresco panels for painting, Rivera needed to set preparations in motion in advance of his arrival in New York, just six weeks before the opening of his exhibition. He relied on the help of Clifford Wight, who had been his assistant on his San Francisco mural projects of 1930–31.

Wright coordinated the fabrication of sturdy, slablike backings for the fresco mortar—metal structures covered with cement. Here, the arcing gestures used to trowel on the cement are in evidence, moving from right to left and top to bottom.

The diamond shape and horizontal lines visible through the rough surface trace the panel's inner metal framework. Prompted by the desire to create a freestanding mural that could be included in a temporary exhibition, Rivera married the traditional medium of fresco painting with the materials and techniques of modern construction.
X-rays of Agrarian Leader Zapata, 2011
Department of Conservation, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

This is the third component of the Zapata mural. These X-rays reveal the internal skeleton of one of Rivera's portable murals for the first time. A metal armature composed of horizontal and diagonal bars, iron mesh, and a rigid steel outer frame provides a torque-resistant support for multiple layers of cement and fresco mortar.

This framework allowed the artist to free his murals from the wall, but it certainly did not make them easy to move. With the largest weighing nearly a thousand pounds, they presented a stiff challenge to the organizers of Rivera's 1931–32 retrospective: as reported in the New Yorker, it took six men to haul the enormous slabs from the artist's work space on the sixth floor of the Museum building to the galleries on the twelfth floor.
The Uprising, 1931
Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework

The woman with red hair is Anny Aviram, a conservator in MoMA's Conservation Department, who worked on the murals.

In The Uprising, a woman in modern dress with a baby at her hip and a man dressed like an urban
worker fend off an attack by a uniformed soldier. Behind them, a riotous crowd clashes with more
soldiers, who force demonstrators to the ground. The location is unclear, though the figures' skin
tone implies that the scene is set in Mexico or another Latin American country. In the early 1930s, an era of widespread labor unrest, images of the violent repression of strikes would have resonated with both U.S. and Latin American audiences.

In his early mural projects Rivera had focused on images of peasant labor; after a trip to the
Soviet Union in 1927, he increasingly employed urban industrial imagery to envision class revolution on an international scale. The red banners and clenched fist that rise above the crowd in The Uprising offer internationally comprehensible signs of workers' resistance. For left-leaning artists in New York, Rivera's frescoes for The Museum of Modern Art provided a powerful model of modern, socially engaged mural painting with content rooted in Marxism.
Glenn Lowry, Vicky and Marcos Micha, and Leah Dickerman. Mr. and Mrs. Micha Levy are standing in front of the Rivera mural they loaned to the museum.
Curator Leah Dickinson points out the rows of sleeping men in the middle of Frozen Asset.
Frozen Assets, 1931–32
Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework

In Frozen Assets, the most ambitious and most controversial of Rivera's New York–themed panels, the artist coupled his appreciation for the city's distinctive vertical architecture with a potent critique of its economic inequities.

The panel's upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable skyscrapers, most completed within a few years of Rivera's arrival in the city. In front of them are cranes and the steel frames of buildings in progress—emblems of New York's frenzied construction boom. Passengers wait for an elevated train on a crowded platform.

In the middle section, a steel-and-glass shed serves as a shelter for rows of sleeping men, pointing to the dispossessed labor that made such extraordinary growth possible.

Below, a bank's waiting room accommodates a guard, a clerk, and a trio of figures eager to inspect their mounting assets in the vault beyond.
Paul Jackson, MoMA's press officer working on this exhibition. Kim Mitchell, MoMA's Chief Communications Officer.
Margaret Doyle, MoMA press officer, who, with Mr. Jackson, is also working on this exhibit. Rebecca Taylor, recently appointed Communications Director at MoMA's PS1.
Electric Power, 1931–32
Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework

Situated below a view of New York City's jagged skyline, a steel-and-cement power plant interior
dominates this composition. While there were no major hydroelectric plants in sight of the city when Rivera made Electric Power, the technology was a major topic in the United States: the Federal Power Act was revised in 1930, and construction began on the Hoover Dam in 1931. Rivera peeled back his plant's facade to bring the workers—deep in the inner workings of its machinery—into the space of the viewer, exposing the human labor that powers the modern city. Trailing cords and metal masks emphasize the bonds between machines and the workers who use them. Electric Power captures Rivera's excitement at witnessing industrialization in the United States firsthand. He retrospectively described his time in the U.S. in the early 1930s as a "crucial test," saying that "unlike Mexico, [it] was a truly industrial country such as I had originally envisioned as the ideal place for modern mural art."
Additional Works
The Rivals pictures a fiesta in Tehuantepec, an area in the south of Mexico that Rivera first visited in 1922 at the suggestion of his most important patron, José Vasconcelos, Mexico's minister of education. The region's distinctive culture soon became one of Rivera's favorite themes, an emblem of the continuity between indigenous culture and modern Mexico. In typical Tehuana costume, the women at the festival wear brightly colored skirts and blouses. Two suitors in traditional hats face off at lower left. Skirmishes between members of rival Zapotec and Mixtec indigenous groups were not uncommon at such gatherings.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the founders of The Museum of Modern Art and an important collector of Rivera's work, commissioned this canvas as part of a significant purchase of paintings and sketches that helped defray the cost of the artist's trip to New York in 1931, for his exhibition at the Museum. Rivera likely made the work while on board the steamship Morro Castle, in a space made available by the captain. A few weeks later The Rivals appeared in his retrospective at MoMA.
The Rivals, 1931
Oil on canvas
 
Market Scene isolates a detail from Rivera's 1930 frescoes at the Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca, an epic history of the Mexican state of Morelos.
The work shows an Indian woman and child offering a tribute of fruit and fish to a Spanish conqueror. Seen from behind, with their feet tucked underneath them, the figures assume a
pose Rivera often used to suggest the subjugated position of Mexico's native people. He made the work at the request of Elizabeth Morrow, wife
of the United States ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, who had commissioned Rivera's Cuernavaca mural cycle before finishing his Mexican tour of duty.

This was Rivera's first attempt to create a portable mural. His experimentation may have been prompted by his upcoming retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, which was then in the early stages of planning. He was keenly aware that knowledge of his work was limited by the impossibility of exhibiting his murals, which were central to his reputation. The artist's innovative
response—a freestanding fresco panel—allowed for the exhibition and sale of his mural work.
  Market scene, 1930
Fresco on reinforced cement in a metal
framework
Cartoon for Liberation of the Peon, 1931
Charcoal and graphite on paper mounted on canvas

In this full-scale working drawing for the portable mural Liberation of the Peon, Rivera developed a harrowing narrative of corporal punishment. A laborer, beaten and left to die, is cut down from a post by sympathetic revolutionary soldiers, who tend to his broken body. Peonage—a form of indentured servitude established by Spanish colonizers, forcing natives to work the land—persisted in Mexico into the twentieth century. In its finished form the mural offers a rationale for the Mexican Revolution in the injustice of earlier social and economic conditions.

Rivera used drawings like this to work out the compositions of his murals. In both study and fresco, he focused on the relationship between the figures in the group and the limp body of the peon, a composition evoking Christian imagery, specifically the lamentation over Christ's body after his crucifixion. Rivera shared this strategy of transforming religious imagery into revolutionary narrative with many Mexican muralists during the movement's early years.
Cartoon for Agrarian Leader Zapata, 1931
Charcoal on paper

The surface of a fresco panel dries quickly, so the artist must have a clear vision of his or her composition before applying pigment to the wet plaster. Rivera developed his images on paper then transferred them to or replicated them on the mural's surface. He pinned precisely scaled cartoons, like this study, near his fresco panels to help determine the exact proportions of the final work.

Here, bold strokes contrast with quick, sketchlike marks to create an image that corresponds to the finished fresco with great accuracy. Rivera lavished attention on the face of his subject, revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, distinguishing it from those of his followers through dramatic modeling. Changes in the positions of his followers' feet reveal the acute attention he paid to less conspicuous areas of the composition.
Moscow sketchbook, 1927
Watercolor, pencil, and crayon on graph paper

The sketchbook Rivera made during his 1927–28 trip to Moscow reflects both the thrilling pageantry of the mass celebrations staged for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution and more quotidian details of Soviet life. Beginning with a series of domestic scenes, Rivera's drawings follow a family as it prepares for the day's festivities. Outside the home, they focus on the spectacle of the events—colorful banners, posters, and floats—and capture the city's famous landmarks, including Lenin's tomb and St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square. Rivera's principal interest, though, was the crowd: men and women, children and the elderly, and soldiers and civilians move through the street en masse. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller later bought Rivera's sketchbook for an impressive $2,500, helping to fund his trip to New York in November 1931 for his exhibition at MoMA. She donated it to the Museum in 1935.
Three drawings from the Moscow sketchbook, depicting a family preparing for the day.
These are among my favorite drawings in the exhibition.
Sylvia Renner works in MoMA's Development Office (fundraising). Heidi Speckhart and Clair Huddleston also work
in Development.
Stefano Ortego from the Mexican Cultural Institute.
Walter Robinson, editor of Artnet Magazine. It was a warm day and I know from past years, that Walter's fan is a reliable sign of high barometric pressure. "I'm part of the 99%," he quipped after seeing the Rivera show.
Sarah Jarvis, who works in MoMA Communications. My assistant Maria Escalante in front of her favorite Diego Rivera.
MoMA's Michelle Elligott, head of archives.

"There was lots of archiving in this show. We had all the correspondence between Rivera and Alfred Barr and all the planning documentation from 1931 that goes into the installation of a show. More importantly, we had the installation photographs, which include portraits of Diego painting the portable frescoes."
There is a free-standing vitrine with various ephemera related to Rivera. Here you see a scrapbook with news clippings about Rivera's exhibition at MoMA, 1931-32.
Rivera's exhibition catalogue inscribed by Alexander Paine to Abby Rockefeller. Mr. Paine was one of the exhibition's organizers and Rivera's agent.
Cover of Fortune Magazine (with an illustration of Moscow's Red Square by Rivera). Krasnaia niva (Red field), no 12, 1928, with cover illustration by Rivera.
Additional works include Market Scene, which depicts an Indian woman and child offering a tribute of fruit and fish to a Spanish conqueror. This work, from 1930, was Rivera's first attempt to create a portable mural.
The set of five lithographs is based on details from Rivera's mural cycle at the Ministry of Education in Mexico City (1923-28) and the portable mural Agrarian Leader Zapata (1931).
Sketches of New York
Construction Sites, 1931–32
Ink, charcoal, and watercolor on paper

While working on his portable murals for MoMA, Rivera made sketching excursions to construction sites throughout the city. Using a limited palette of red, orange, and yellow, he edited the details of his settings dramatically, creating compositions of dynamic horizontal, vertical, and diagonal bands that betray little information about the places they depict.
Foundry Worker, New York, 1931-32

Even his view of New York City is distilled to the beams (painted in rust-proof red) and cranes that denote its massive growth during the early 1930s.
Man with Hat and Gloves, 1931-32 Construction Worker, New York, 1931-32
Painting the Bridge, New York,1931-32

Rivera's approach directs attention to the workers, who appear active, effective, and monumental even when nestled inside the awe-inspiring construction projects of the period.
View of Skyscrapers, New York, 1931-32.
Pneumatic Drill (cartoon for Pneumatic Drilling), 1931
Charcoal on paper
This is one of two large scale cartoon drawings for two of the murals not in the exhibition.

The day after Rivera arrived in New York City, the New York Herald Tribune reported on his plans to "paint the rhythm of American workers." The city was in the throes of one of the greatest construction drives of all time, made possible by the armies of surplus labor available during the Depression. The figures in the foreground here use a pneumatic drill and jackhammer to bore into Manhattan's granite foundation. Rivera viewed this alliance between man and machine as a kind of natural force: "We are the catalysts that transform the raw materials of the earth into energy," he observed. "We are a continuation of the geologic process."
The rotund figure seen from the back may be a disguised self-portrait (common in Rivera's murals), here identifying the artist with the laborer.

Rivera later identified this scene as depicting preparations for the construction of Rockefeller Center, a group of buildings in midtown Manhattan, at the time the largest building project ever funded wholly by private capital.

Already in discussions about making a mural at Rockefeller Center, the artist was granted special access to its construction site, which he studied carefully and sketched.
Preliminary design for Man at The CrossRoads, 1932
Pencil on paper

Rivera submitted several drawings for approval before starting work on his mural at Rockefeller
Center. Already in this design, given to Abby and Nelson Rockefeller, Rivera offers an allegory between competing social systems—Communism and capitalism. At the center, an international
medley of workers stands in front of a fantastic television machine that illuminates a celestial
panorama. On either side, masses of figures busy themselves with work and leisure activities. Projections on the left feature soldiers in gas masks and men huddled in soup lines. Matching screens on the right broadcast a mass demonstration in front of what is unmistakably Lenin's tomb in Moscow and a row of fleet athletes at a starting line. In his proposal for the commission, Rivera described the drive of humankind toward what he envisioned to be a "more complete balance between ... technical and ethical development."
Lucienne Bloch
(American, born Switzerland. 1909–1999)
Rivera's Man at The Crossroads in progress, Rockefeller center, New York
1933, Gelatin silver prints

Bloch, an artist and photographer who helped Rivera prepare his murals for The Museum of Modern Art, also worked with him at Rockefeller Center. As tensions brewed over his mural's provocative subject matter, Bloch and the rest of Rivera's team grew nervous. Disregarding orders from the building's guards, Bloch heid her camera under her jacket and snapped pictures covertly.

Her photographs of Man at the Crossroads are invaluable records of the work, which was destroyed in 1934.
It was probably the portrait of Lenin that was the deal-breaker.
Rockefeller Center press release about the destruction of Rivera's mural, 1934.
Press clippings about Rivera's work at Rockefeller Center.
Letter from Nelson Rockefeller, May 4, 1933, expressing his concern about portrait of Lenin in
the mural.
Letter from Hugh Robertson to Diego Rivera, May 9, 1933.
Rivera before his painting Agrarian Leader Zapata in his studio at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1931. Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Rivera painting Liberation of The Peon in his studio at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1931. Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son.
Director Glenn Lowry welcoming guests to the press preview.

"The original MoMA show," he reminded us, "and the Rockefeller mural were two projects deeply intertwined under the sponsorship of the Rockefellers."

"Diego arrived in New York City from Mexico by steamship with Frida for the 1931 exhibition. The panels were ready and waiting for him in an empty studio on the 6th floor of the nearby Heckscher building ... The New Yorker's Talk of the Town and the New York Herald Tribune both covered the December 31st opening."
As you can see, there was quite a turnout.
"Diego completed eight panels. Five are on exhibit here. Two remain in Philadelphia. One is missing and if anyone can find it ... they get a bottle of tequila."
Ignacio Deschamps, Chairman and Ceo of BBVA Bancomer; Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican Ambassador to the United States; Carlos Phillips, Director of the Museo Dolores Olmedo; and Carlos Sada, Consul General of Mexico.
A conversation between curator Leah Dickerman and Glenn Lowry.

Part of the conversation focused on how Diego Rivera had the social facility that enabled him to sip tea with the Rockefellers while pushing his agenda for the greatest public art work that was ever initiated in this country.

"He tried to push MoMA into an uncomfortable place, which is what all great artists do."
Exhibition catalogue on sale in MoMA's gift shop. The catalogue has been authored by Leah Dickerman and Anna Indych-López with contributions by Anny Aviram, Cynthia Albertson and Jodi Roberts. Included is a chronology of the artist's life and work, focusing on the events that led to his New York show.

148 pages, 84 color and 84 black-and-white illustrations; $35 hardcover.
There was a special evening opening of the Diego Rivera exhibition
for invited guests.
Young women wearing sashes promoting the underwriting bank stood at the entrance to the exhibition. Elena Bennett is from Mexico. Rochelle Sonnenberg is an arts management consultant. She was wearing her twin sister's Betsy Johnson dress.
Tom Whelan (Investment management, Augusta Advisors) was standing in the long line outside the exhibit's entrance. Mr. Whelan passed the time reading a newly purchased catalogue conveniently available at a small kiosk.
Haberdasher Andrew Eastman. "Amongst other things, I'm a tailor and a designer." Angeline Chidowore, wearing Fendi, used to be a runway model. Ms. Chidowore is from Zimbabwe.
Katya Knupfer and her husband Stefan Knupfer are from Germany. Before moving to New York where they now live, they lived in Detroit. "Rivera has a big mural at the Detroit Institute of Art. It's of an assembly line and was commissioned by Henry Ford." Zarela Martinez and her namesake restaurant, Zarela, are Manhattan institutions, responsible for exposing this city's diners to Mexican cuisine.
MoMA's Ann Temkin with her husband,
Wayne Hendrickson.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in New York City.
Photograph in the catalogue from The Rockefeller Center Archives.

Every good composition is above all a work of abstraction. All good painters know this. But the painter cannot dispense with subjects altogether without his work suffering impoverishment.
– Diego Rivera

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.