March, 2024

Dear Friends of Diego, 

As I watch the mural being de-installed, it is hard to believe that the mural’s 30 month stay at SFMOMA is over. Many on this team worked on installing the masterpiece. The world-class, multi-talented team is exactly what the mural merits. From the heady day of its unveiling, the mural has been showered with love by the over 600,000 visitors who have stood in awe of Rivera’s brilliance. After 80 years the mural finally got the exposure, it deserved. To put the number of SFMOMA visitors in context, a little history.


 Upper Panel 1 being lowered. Photo: Will Maynez


Almost immediately after his arrival on June 5, 1940, Rivera decided to make the mural much larger by adding two panels at either end to those 6 panels he had contracted to paint.

Rivera’s contracted for this 6-panel mural. Photo: Ansel Adams, c. June 5, 1940


Seven weeks later, on July 25 Rivera had the scaffolding taken down to unveil the full-scale sinopia preparatory drawing on 10 panels. [Note: the lower edge of the mural is 14′ off the ground. Pflueger planned to mount the mural over the books in the new library’s reading room. Unfortunately, this would have made the mural visually inaccessible, and tours would have been difficult in a quiet reading room. At the Golden Gate International Exposition’s “Art in Action” program, since Diego was 30′ above, Miné Okubo demonstrated at ground level how to paint a fresco (at 2:12). In the sinopia drawing, Rivera had not yet included Timothy Pflueger in the lower center. Trotsky had not yet been assassinated, so the bloody murder weapon was not in Stalin’s hand.]

Sinopia drawing c. July 25, 1940. Unknown GGIE photographer. 


If he started painting his fresco by July 29 after the scaffolding was re-erected, Diego would have only painted half the mural on September 29, when the GGIE’s second season closed. Now, Rivera and a small crew worked in the dank airplane hangar and painted the second half of the mural without an audience. They had a small hot plate to keep their hands warm against the chilly fall weather on the bay. 


Francisco Eppens Helguera commented, “What always impressed me the most about Diego— he replied, after a long silence— was his capacity to work. He could paint for hours on end, with unbelievable stamina.” Diego finished and signed the 22′ x 74′ mural, 1628 square feet, on November 29, 1940, the date of an evening private viewing. How many attended is unknown, though the SFAI archives has lists of invitees. Diego’s list had Hollywood people, but who knows which ones came. In any case the numbers were modest.


The finished mural finally opened to the public a couple of days later on December 1:


“The occasion was a preview of Diego Rivera’s vast, super colossal, and possibly slightly dizzying fresco mural,” “open house a great success”, “more than 1,000 motorists,” “Silent memorial service for the GGIE…,” (SF Exam, 12.2.40, p.8)


So even the crowds of the public showing were modest, maybe several thousands. Perhaps, only 5,000 saw the finished mural before it was crated. The mural went into storage for 20 years. Architect Timothy Pflueger, who died in 1946 and Diego Rivera, who died in 1957, never saw the mural again.


Over the 60 years the mural was in the lobby of the little theater at CCSF, visitors numbered in the several thousands. Lacking signage, the mural was hard to find on campus and only die-heart Rivera fans made the long trek to City College. Even then, quite often the mural was not publicly available. College theatrical and musical performances were a modest, periodic draw. Outside school groups came at their own initiative. The mural had been woefully underappreciated and Diego’s daughter, Lupe, pointed it out, often. In 2017 when the CCSF interim Chancellor asked me to hear SFMOMA’s offer, then museum director Neal Benezra enticed me by promising that the mural would “never ever be little-known” again. He was true to his word. However, the mural’s long-term stewardship is the looming question. Even while in storage, the mural will require periodic inspections. It is imperative that protocols be put in place by the College to maintain the mural’s current pristine condition.


The mural’s stay at SFMOMA ended January 21, but it went out with a bang. Repeat visitors were numerous and some people said that this was their 5th visit. Having the mural publicly accessible for free was a big draw. On the last Saturday one woman told me that she left LA at 6 am to not miss another chance to see the masterpiece. Diver Helen Crlenkovich’s daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter came.  Daughter Bari Lee had already come by several times from Santa Cruz. (Pflueger took Rivera to see the diver practicing at the Fairmont Hotel’s Terrace Plunge, now the Tonga Room.)


The resurgence of the Moscone Center, just down Howard Street from the museum, was an unexpected boon. For a couple of years, a variety of professional groups came by to see the mural, while at their international conferences. The papers reported 12,000 architects came to one conference. In addition, psychiatrists, computer game developers, cyber security professionals, and others came by to see the mural during their visit to San Francisco. The mural was a goodwill ambassador for the city. The quantity of foot traffic gave the mural world-wide exposure. Thousands of students came through SFMOMA’s outreach.


The litigation between SFMOMA and CCSF was resolved amicably. (SFMOMA and CCSF Joint Press Statement.) The mural was prepared for the move to CCSF as conservators protected vulnerable edges with cyclododecane. This wonderful concoction eventually sublimates without leaving any traces on the mural panels. The first panels arrived at CCSF on March 9 and the whole mural is scheduled to be delivered by the end of the month.  Crated for travel, the upper panel weighed 14,000 pounds, the lower panel 6,000 pounds (per the crane operator). The mural will be in storage for an unknown period awaiting the long-delayed construction of a new home on the west campus of City College.


Among the visitors, each came with their own understandings and viewpoints, their own intellectual bandwidths. One of the lessons learned from the mural’s stay at SFMOMA is that every history comes with an agenda, normally advantageous to the storyteller. Two visiting young Russian couples had been taught that the USSR entered the war in June 1941. They hadn’t learned that Stalin had been allied up to that point with Hitler through the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact.  Similarly, many people here don’t know about the Nazi influence in this country, the milieu in which Diego was painting, or of the US incursion into Japan in the 1850’s, the seeds of which resulted in the war in the Pacific.
Other Rivera murals


I have been in regular contact with the librarians/archivists of the San Francisco Art Institute, whose historical papers had been moved in proximity to SFMOMA. Finally, word on the future of SFAI’s campus has arrived.


“Those questions were largely answered Thursday when a newly formed nonprofit, composed of prominent local arts       leaders and backed by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, purchased the 93,000-square-foot campus through a limited liability company, BMAI LLC, for roughly $30 million, or $322 per square foot. The property was previously valued at $40 million, sans the Rivera mural.” (SF ChronicleHere’s an SFGATE article. The great thing is that the mural had been conserved just before SFAI closed. Once the infrastructure renewal has happened at the site, the mural will be ready to be seen. Here’s a NYT article.


Here is a 2016 documentary about Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals by Julio Ramos, emeritus professor at UCB. The Detroit Institue of Arts was just named the best museum in the country by USA Today.


Here is a link to school curriculum around Diego Rivera (an alert, not an endorsement). Our work got a plug as “this amazing website, also offered is a scavenger hunt worksheet for out mural.


Frida News


This is a big month for Frida.  Diego y Yo (1949) just sold for $34.9M. Amazon’s Frida, which premiered at Sundance, opened this month.  Some have commented on Frida’s art being depicted with animations. It’s almost like a life drawing class of Frida. Each documentary takes a different angle and sadly San Francisco gets short shrift in this one. Given that there are a few unique stories that might have fit nicely into the work, it was a deficiency for me.  Diego left all of his and Frida’s artistic intellectual property rights to Mexico. The documentary credits are extensive, including, surprisingly, me. The Frida Kahlo Foundation claims all the other rights to Frida and is taking on Amazon products about Frida. (There has been no definitive word about whether the BBC2 will do a Becoming Frida, Season 2.)


Other Notables


The milieu that Diego and Frida inhabited is start-studded. One of Diego’s great friends in Paris was the Italian Modigliani. Tragically, Diego would be in Italy studying artists like Giotto and how to paint frescoes, when Amedeo died.


Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is referenced in lower panel 2 with the cannon turrets, bayonets, and mother with dead child. Eisenstein’s forays into Hollywood let him meet Chaplin and Disney.

Sargent Johnson executed reliefs of athletes for Architect Timothy Pflueger, both at Washington High School and on the old gymnasiums at City College. Currently there is an exhibition of him at the Huntington. At City College, when the old gymnasiums were demolished, the Sargent Johnson bas-reliefs were cut out and stored on campus, hopefully, awaiting the opportunity to be repurposed.



Harry Parker III has passed away. For the opening of the new DeYoung Museum in 2004, Harry traveled to Veracruz, Mexico to borrow an Olmec head for the inaugural season. While there he was offered an authorized Olmec head reproduction for San Francisco. He directed Mexico’s gift to CCSF, where it sits in the Frida Garden, adjacent to the mural. It will be relocated as CCSF’s Ocean Campus is reconfigured as the new buildings go up.


Michael Strunsky, nephew of Ira Gershwin, ran the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust in San Francisco. At a tour of the mural, his wife Jean alerted me to some interesting items they had in their collection, housed near SFMOMA.  Michael Owen, their archivist, had studied at CCSF’s Library program.  Over the years the Trust had been very generous in sharing copies of artifacts/photos and anecdotes with me. Many became integral parts of my Gershwin play. Michael Strunsky shared with me that George Gershwin was so devastated by the poor reception for Porgy and Bess that he considered giving up music to just paint. This certainly colored his encounter with a group of Mexican artists like Rivera, Siqueiros, and Covarrubias in November 1935. Soon, some of Gershwin’s musical works, like Rhapsody in Blue will enter the public domain. The Gershwin Collection is at the Library of Congress and this year’s Gershwin Prize was awarded to Elton John and Bernie Taupin.