January 2021

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City

© Banco de México Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico D.F. / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

photo: Geigenot / flickr

Dear Friends of Diego,

“It’s a hard time to be a mural,” one San Francisco fresco lamented to another. “Yeah,” cried the other, “It’s not paranoia, if they are actually out to get you!”

The three Diego Rivera murals are among San Francisco’s crown jewels. Nowhere else, outside of Mexico City, is there such a collection of the master’s frescoes. People come from all over the world to stand in awe before the vibrant colors; colors as rich as the day they were painted. Now Diego’s mural at SFAI is dodging bullets. To bail out the fiscally-troubled Institution, the idea has been floated of selling the mural to an LA museum owned by George Lucas.

James Oles, curator of Diego Rivera’s America, a 2022 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, described “The Making of a Fresco” as uniquely site-specific. Rivera and the patrons, engineers, and laborers who created the work, appear on and around scaffolds dividing scenes of local manufacturing and infrastructure, with a worker towering in the center like a skyscraper.”

Removing a fresco mural that is painted on a furred-out wall is not easy. The mural was painted on this extra wall to create an airspace and protect the mural from the moisture that might seep through the concrete structural wall. Art conservators point out that fresco plaster is brittle and even our Pan American Unity mural, supported by rigid steel frames, requires delicate handling.

Since Diego and Frida’s stays in San Francisco were significant, SF supervisors have stepped in and unanimously initiated a “Landmark” designation for the mural. SFAI is asking, “Please not yet.”  An ideal solution suggested is to get the mural externally endowed in-place. Are there any “angels” out there?

The Victor Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School and even the name of the school have been under attack for quite a time. The GWHSAA CEQA Lawsuit against SFUSD In defense of the murals may be heard this April. Now, out of Left field, comes this defense of the school name. The issue will air soon.

The UCSF Bernard Zakheim murals have found an interim solution to avoid destruction, but the definitive plan to relocate them and how long they would be stored are unresolved. They too were painted on furred-out walls. The GGIE’s Covarrubias maps are a glaring example of great murals currently in storage.

The University of California is the landlord of among others; the SFAI Rivera mural, the Zakheim murals, Rivera’s Still Life with Blossoming Almond Trees fresco at UCB’s Stern Hall, and the Reuben Kadish mural currently being restored at the old UC Extension in the Haight. It had been in the queue to be restored for a while. Our friends at the Living New Deal have mapped local WPA-era art.

Stewardship is a serious obligation since artworks often transcend generations.

Here is an example of a 583-year-old Italian mural being professionally restored.


Focusing on the long-range picture, like eroding infrastructure, has been a problem in our relatively young country. Outside my window, a year’s work in the street’s bowels has wrapped up. Waste pipe replacement is not glamorous. Lots of monies were spent and yet the street now looks pretty much the same. However, we pass on something good to future generations. It’s not all about us.

For every example of wilderness prudently set aside for posterity, there are examples of pristine refuges being exploited, exacerbating the major problem in our future: climate-change. As our country creates a Space Force, we lose sight of the fact that we already are the crew of a spaceship…Earth. The Star Trek’s crew would never do what we do daily to our only ride through the cosmos. Creating colonies on other planets is not a  substitute for an enlightened understanding.

Our myopic thinking has created an official history, which is more romantically self-serving, than accurate. As the historical pendulum swings, one outcome is the 1619 Project. Questions come to mind as I consolidate 25 years-worth of research to pass on. What were Diego and Frida thinking when they became Stalinists late in life? After getting Trotsky asylum in Mexico, they witnessed public hearings about the USSR charges against him. They were intimately familiar with Stalin’s “downside.” (Trotsky had plenty of blood on his hands, too. Ironically, some of his papers are held at the conservative Stanford Hoover Institution.) In our mural in  1940, Rivera had grouped Stalin with totalitarian leaders Hitler and Mussolini.

The Whitney’s Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-45 still has plenty of information on-line: an audio guide and YouTube videos. Here is also a PBS piece on Los Tres Grandes.

Cultural Heritage Imaging is finishing incorporating information gleaned in the preparatory mural conservation into the photogrammetry files.

SFMOMA’s work to move Pan American Unity mural continues as plans are approved and the infrastructure is built. They announced:

“This spring, SFMOMA…will also welcome Diego Rivera’s dazzling 1940 mural The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent — better known as Pan American Unity — which has undergone a meticulous restoration and relocation. It will be installed in the free Roberts Family Gallery space until its new permanent home at City College of San Francisco is completed.”


CCSF recently cancelled the contract with the designer-builders of the new Diego Rivera Theatre and new ones are not yet chosen. This upset the synchronicity of the new home’s readiness when the mural returned from SFMOMA in 2023. Art experts have stated that the less the mural is handled, the better.

Now CCSF  will prioritize the construction of the new theater’s mural space to be able to accept the mural, even if the theater is not fully complete. The panels will be able to be mounted as soon as they arrive from the museum. An example, which the SFMOMA-CCSF team visited in 2019, is the Museo Mural Diego Rivera which was built around a mural bolted to the floor slab, still encased in protective crating. (CCSF kept our mural crated for the first 20 years of its existence.)

The murals, created by Picasso and the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar, were removed from the Norwegian government building in Oslo last summer       Photo: © Adrian Bugge.

This is an example of the infrastructure required to move large murals. This large art piece may not be as delicate as a fresco because it hasn’t been covered.

The upper panels for our mural are about 15 feet square and must be moved vertically in protocols set by the engineers in 1940. The crated panels were designed to be the largest able to still cross the Bay Bridge upright.




This Picasso photo puzzle has stumped experts. Can you help solve it? | The Art Newspaper

Along with Picasso (right), André Derain’s dog Sentinelle is the only other subject in this photo whose identity historians are certain of

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Michèle Bellot © Alexandre Zinoviev.

Retratos de Diego Rivera y Angelina Beloff, realizados en Madrid en 1915.


This certainly looks like photos of Diego and Angelina Beloff at this time as seen in these 1915 photos in Madrid. In addition to Picasso they hung out with a pretty heady group. A great friend of Rivera’s was Amedeo Modigliani. His Antonia (1915) has recently had a rigorous examination and re-evaluation.

A new Frida show is set to open at a community college in Glen Ellyn in June in a deal brokered with  Carlos Phillips Olmedo, son of Dolores Olmedo and director of the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico. (Carlos chatted and shared some of his excellent tequila with me at the opening of SFMOMA’s 2008 “Frida” exhibit.)

In Paris there is currently an exhibit of photos of Frida by Lucienne Bloch.

In the 1930’s it would appear that Isamu Noguchi was the only one of Frida’s male paramours, who was not married. She was “the other woman” for the rest. Noguchi has become the first Asian-American to have work in the White House collection. His Ceiling and Waterfall for the Lobby of 666 Fifth Avenue recently was de-installed and is in storage awaiting another venue.

PBS aired Josephine Baker: The Story of an Awakening.  Frida reputedly had a fling with her in early 1939 in Paris. Some have expanded the “fling” into an “affair.” But, Frida wrote that she wasn’t in Paris that long and was ailing in a hospital until Marcel Duchamp and Mary Reynolds rescued her.

For those of you, like me, who get mired in the minutia, here is an article on the Record Keeper’s Rave and the Archives hashtag party.