“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

February 2018

French artist JR’s artwork on the U.S.-Mexico border

French artist JR’s artwork on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tecate, Calif., (Guillermo Arias / AFP / Getty Images)

Dear Friends of Diego,

The last few weeks have been a great time for meeting visionary artists & activists.

“At the end of 2016, inspired by the murals of Diego Rivera, French artist JR decided to imagine how a whole neighborhood could be represented through art.” (From pamphlet for Les Bosquets 2017)

Recently at SFMOMA’s invitation, I did a tour of the City Club’s Allegory of California mural for JR. He and his crew are creating a San Francisco Mural to capture the whole city. He invited me to be photographed against a “green screen” at his studio with a colorful prop, a reference to one of my favorite Rivera murals. We chatted over chocolate cake and he elegantly autographed a copy of JR: Can Art Change the World? The book and JR have given me the same thrill I got in 2006 engaging with muralists at Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin’s International Mural Painting Encounter in México City. The celebratory work of artists from all over the world is life affirming.  As we work conserving and exhibiting our masterpiece, it is gratifying to believe in a future for murals. Maybe, art can change the world. One mural at a time. French director Agnès Varda and JR’s delightful, Oscar-nominated documentary Faces, Places is currently playing.

SFMOMA had previously requested a Pan American Unity mural tour for JR, but I was in LA. My longtime friends Angela (an actress, original Zoot Suit) and Rene (retired community college professor) put me up. Over several evenings, with eyes-closed, they listened to me read my play; giving me vital feedback.  We had a great time at LACMA’s Found in Translation show along with their friends, artists & activists Juan “Johnny D.” González and Irma Beserra Núñez. They are a living legacy of the East LA Chicano art movement, who are dedicated to public service. Juan had a 1970 graphic map of East L.A. murals in the LACMA exhibit. The UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center has recorded  27 hours of his oral history. At LACMA our Rivera mural was represented by four preliminary drawings (SFMOMA) and an iPad slideshow of mural images we had furnished. This is the second consecutive LACMA exhibit showcasing our mural.

Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico at the Skirball Cultural Center was exceptional. We were enthralled by the focused depiction of an era and the personalities who made it special. Curator Laura Mart said that, unfortunately, the show will not travel; so don’t miss it while it’s up until February 25th. She has shared a copy of a dated, 8-page letter of which I wasn’t aware from Frida to Anita; sent from San Francisco’s St. Luke’s Hospital. Another “push pin” for the chronology!

The museum generously let me park my car there past closing time, while my new friends Juan and Irma gave me a tour of some East LA murals. One of Juan’s pieces is the acknowledged first Chicano mural in East LA. The traffic is a subject unto itself.

On an historic January 3rd the CCSF team assembled with SFMOMA staff, art mover Scott Atthowe, and conservator Anne Rosenthal to take an initial joint look at how to move the mural. (Anne, Scott, and structural engineer Jim Guthrie comprised our 2011 mural assessment team.) The most important part of the coming 2020 project will be to cure the tag that the mural is little known.

Had a wonderful phone conversation with Cynthia Boissevain, who now lives in Wales. As pointed out last time, as an eleven year old in México City she heard George Gershwin play and sing all of Porgy and Bess at the 1935 party her mother threw for him, the subject of my play. Cynthia related that Frida was an amazing women, who didn’t let on about her pain. She said their Paseo de la Reforma home is still there because it is part of the national patrimony. Just what I needed; an excuse to go to CdMx.

Saw Gary Oldman’s Oscar-nominated performance as Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” The newly-appointed British prime minister is desperately trying to divert the momentum of the Nazi avalanche. The suspense is palpable as we wonder how anybody can slow the German juggernaut, let alone arrest it. Yet, now we know it happened. Historian Victor Davis Hanson in The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won makes a case that the Axis defeat could have been foretold. In late spring 1940 he would have been hard pressed to get bettors on that scenario.

Hedge-hopping towards San Francisco in early June, Rivera paced airport lounges reading about the Dunkirk evacuation to save the surrounded British army in France. With Paulette Goddard’s help he was fleeing Stalinist assassins. Diego stippled our mural with the tension everyone felt awaiting the Nazi’s seemingly inevitable victory. Rivera loved the movies and the old movie weekly serials always ended in a cliffhanger.

Another classic example of the vagaries of history is George Gershwin’s fateful November 1935 trip to México, arriving bruised by the poor Broadway reception for Porgy and Bess. (He never lived to see his vindication.) The time spent socializing with Diego and Frida (he took color photos of them) radicalized his politics and affected the budding painter in him. This eerily evocative self-portrait was done upon his return to NYC.

George Gershwin Self Portrait

Self-Portrait, 1936, Library of Congress

Infatuated with Paulette Goddard in Hollywood in early 1937, Gershwin encouraged her to go to México to get her portrait painted by his friend Diego. (If the disillusioned Gershwin had not forsaken NYC for Hollywood, he might have had immediate treatment for the belatedly diagnosed brain tumor, which killed him suddenly in July. How much more exquisite music would we have had?)

When Paulette finally arrived in 1940, Diego was divorced from Frida, but slated to marry his model Nieves Orozco. In an 2006 interview, Nieves told me that the amorous Rivera burned his bridges when Paulette showed up. If Porgy and Bess had opened to good reviews, Rivera might have married Nieves and never remarried Frida. Would Frida be as famous today? Or would she be just a “footnote”; another of Diego’s wives, like painters Angelina Beloff and Marevna?  Like Chaos Theory, it demonstrates the outrageous ramifications of just a slight change in how the cosmos plays its cards. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union posits just such an alternate reality; history’s zag, instead of zig.

Prior to their 1940 remarriage, Frida had only two solo shows. The first was the 1938 Julien Levy Gallery show in NYC (Per Hayden Herrera’s Frida, “Julien Levy wrote me a letter saying that someone had talked to him about my painting…” Might it have been Gershwin, Julien Levy’s friend?) The botched 1939 Andre Breton brokered show in Paris was salvaged by Marcel Duchamp and Mary Reynolds, but was not widely known. Might Frida have become like artists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo; very much admired, but not international icons?



December 2017

Dear Friends of Diego,

Last Friday, December 8, was Diego’s 131st birthday. Today his beloved San Francisco gave him a terrific present.

Two local treasures, symbiotically founded in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art & City College of San Francisco, unveiled a Memorandum of Understanding for a major collaboration. To anchor a blockbuster 2020 SFMOMA exhibition, Rivera’s America, City College will lend the museum our 22 foot high x 74 foot long Pan American Unity masterpiece.


In 1940 it was the museum’s first director, Dr. Grace Morley, who in Mexico City personally invited Diego Rivera to paint a mural in San Francisco for the College. Instrumental in the founding of the museum, architect Timothy Pflueger, who had worked with Rivera in 1931, traveled to Mexico on behalf of the Golden Gate International Exposition and his Art in Action program to get Rivera’s signature on a hand-written contract.  Albert Bender, a founding patron, had been brokering Rivera’s work in San Francisco since 1926. A dear friend of Diego & Frida, he donated their first pieces to the fledgling museum, which in addition to paintings has 100 drawings by the master Mexican muralist.

Meeting at the proposed display site, SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra assured CCSF Chancellor Mark Rocha that after this show, the mural will never ever be little known again. Curated by James Oles and SFMOMA’s Caitlin Haskell, the exhibition, focused on Rivera’s mural work, will run from October 17, 2020 to January 31, 2021. Though the show will subsequently travel, the mural will not.

The collaboration is a transcendental nexus in the College’s stewardship of a mural, which could last hundreds of years. It has been said that the colors in a true fresco continue to get more vivid for the first 100 years. In return for the loan, the museum will generously underwrite the complete conservation of the mural  on its 80th birthday. The museum will additionally underwrite the eventual installation of the mural in the lobby of the Performing Arts & Education Center that City College plans to build on the west side of Phelan Avenue. This location, across the street from Timothy Pflueger’s Science Building, will finally fulfill Rivera and Pflueger’s vision: that the mural should be seen in its entirety from outside through a glass façade. The SFMOMA siting will be a titillating preview.

A central theme of the mural is Dualidades (dualities) or Yin Yang. In May when the idea was first pitched to me by SFMOMA principals, I was both elated and saddened. The offer was clearly a dream come true, but only last January my steadfast Rivera partner Julia Bergman had passed away. She shares a birthday with Diego, but wouldn’t get to see the fruition of our 20 years of work. Now, I choose to believe that Julia is still, as always, looking out for the mural, pulling strings from the “other side”. Thank you, my dear friend.

To aid the mural’s conservation, its Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) photogrammetry work will be indispensable. Here’s the link to the video of a CHI presentation at the NCPTT 3D summit. It explains scientifically the detail captured in this work.

The moving job will be handled by our good friends at Atthowe Fine Arts Services with whom we have a long-time relationship. They installed our Olmec head in 2004. Then, Director Harry Parker III of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who brokered the deal to get City College the head, assured me that they were the best art movers around. Scott Atthowe is a member of our mural’s assessment team. Recently at CCSF, while re-installing  Aristides Demetrios’ sculpture Sentinels (restored by the SF Art Commission), he said he would postpone his retirement for our unique project, moving a 20 ton work of art. If you come to campus, also see the conservation that the SF Art Commission did of Benny Bufano’s sculpture St. Francis of the Guns. Its theme is more topical than ever.

December 8th also commemorated Diego and Frida re-marrying in San Francisco’s City Hall in 1940.

Diego Rivera by Amedeo Modigliani (1914)

Diego Rivera by Amedeo Modigliani (1914)

Holly Schuman visited the mural on a late October Saturday afternoon, hanging around after catching the tail end of my talk to Dan Hess’s Junior State of America students. She volunteers at the Skirball Cultural Center, which I plan to visit for Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico. (CCSF’s Leslie Simon said the Skirball show is great.) Holly mentioned that she had bought a book on Amazon, which she had never gotten around to reading. After chatting, she thought I should have it and graciously mailed me Life with the Painters of La Ruche by Marevna, Diego’s common-law wife in Paris and mother of Marika. The book recounts first-hand stories of the painters who inhabited this “beehive” in Montparnasse. She related that on a blackboard in his studio Rivera diagrammed structural analysis of Cezanne paintings. Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse, Cocteau and others formed a rapt audience. Marevna’s insights are provocative and singularly illuminating. The book has yielded wonderful nuggets to spice my play.

This month poet Judy Halebsky and I will read my play about George Gershwin, Rapsodia en Azul (An American in Mexico). Public readings will follow next year. That’s Diego Rivera with Cynthia Boissevain in the photo below, which I just got from her son, writer Nick Madigan. As an 11 year old sitting on the stairs, Cynthia heard the composer play all of Porgy and Bess at her mother’s 1935 party, the subject of my play. She has a strikingly similar profile to her mother Estrella Elizaga. The Rivera painting in the background, In Venum Veritas, was painted in 1945 and installed at the bar of the Hotel Reforma. It was de-installed in 1947. So Cynthia must be about 21-23 years old here. Nick is arranging for me to interview her.

Diego Rivera and Cynthia Boissevain

Photographer unknown.

For many years we have known that Diego Rivera and Mexican muralism were the basis for the 1935 genesis of the WPA’s expansive muralism program. Now the exact documentation has surfaced.  On page 2 of the newly digitized AAA diary of George Biddle, he floats the idea of a U.S. muralism program, like Mexico’s, to his schoolmate FDR on May 9, 1933:

“Dear Franklin:

…..There is a matter which I have long considered and which some day might interest your administration. The Mexican artists have created the greatest national school of mural painting since the Italian Renaissance. Diego Rivera tells me that it was only possible because Obregon allowed artists to work at plumber’s wages in order to express on the Government’s buildings the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution.” (Full text and FDR’s reply on AAA link above.)

Rivera, Siqueiros, and others founded the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, whose egalitarian sentiments stated that all labor was honorable; that the work of a plumber was as valuable as that of an artist.  Rivera expressed this sentiment at the bottom of mural Panel 2, where he depicts himself painting in blue working clothes in solidarity with the fresco plasterer, working ahead of him. (Note: Soon after on May 22, 1933, Rivera was paid in full and expelled from the Rockefeller Center, site of his controversial mural. When Rivera’s mural was destroyed in February 1934, the Coit Tower mural artists went out on strike.)

The DeYoung’s Raquel Garcia del Real rgarciadelreal@famsf.org forwards this message:

We would like to invite you to help us spread the word about Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.  Our doors are open to community groups and cultural organizations working with underserved communities who would like to book a group visit free of cost.  Groups of 4 or more people will receive free admission when they book directly with me.   Please pass my email on to groups for whom the admission cost might be a barrier to seeing Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, and I will gladly make the arrangements. [For those of you who are not familiar with Teotihuacan, check out the DeYoung’s digital stories.]

As the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution is being observed, some people have been unable to, as Vladimir Putin suggested, “Get over it!” Director Ralph Lewin’s Mechanics Institute hosted Yuri Slezkine, author of the new epic The House of Government, in conversation with the Stanford Hoover Institute’s Bert Patenaude (Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary). The scintillating talk was a reminder that though history is mainly depicted as broad landscapes, it is real people and their idiosyncrasies, who steer the lurching historical jalopy down a rutted road. The Rivera research has yielded numerous examples, i.e., Diego and Frida’s lives might have been substantially different if George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess had opened to good reviews. Bert and I, who met some years back on a speakers’ panel at UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies, chatted about the reappearance of the Trotsky murder weapon. He told me about a new Russian TV series about Trotsky, which is described in an article in the New Yorker. In his introduction Bert zealously plugged the very well received Slezkine book, but couldn’t outdo his previous “sales job.” I ended up buying two copies of his Trotsky book because it came out under a different title in Britain.

A belated Thanksgiving; thank you all for your support, now and over the years. Cada día es un regalo,


October 2017

Jean Franco as Frida

Jean Franco as Frida. Photo by Wesley Miller, 2017.

Dear Friends of Diego,

ALERT: Rick Tejada-Flores’s, My Bolivia, will be on KQED World on October 8 at 7 pm PACIFIC. Rick’s works include PBS Masters Rivera in America and Orozco, Man of Fire. (The collection for Rivera in America is now housed at Washington University in St. Louis. Though Rick had generously offered it to us, we did not have the facilities to archive and share it with scholars.]

Rick wrote that he may have sent a “cartoon” for the Treasure Island mural image to the Archives of American Art. Rivera’s assistants, like Emmy Lou Packard, created the “cartoons” to transfer mural images to the wet fresco plaster by pouncing the perforated tissue paper with a rosin bag. We’re working to track it down.

Special thanks to Michele McKenzie, CCSF’s Media and Electronic Resources Librarian. She tracked down the elusive Walls of Fire: Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros DVD and will acquire a copy for use by CCSF classes. Thanks to all of you who offered suggestions. (Serendipitously, Michele worked with Rick Tejada-Flores as an archival researcher on The Fight in the Fields.)

In limited release Dolores, the 2017 documentary about Dolores Huerta is a powerful, moving, and frank depiction of the tribulations this great woman suffered for the farmworkers. She sacrificed a spleen and four broken ribs to an SFPD baton in 1988. In the past she has spoken to our students at the Diego Rivera Theater.

Happy belated birthday, September 27, to our dear friend Don Cairns. Emmy Lou Packard’s son is the little boy in the front of the mural.

Just back from a visit on the autumnal equinox to Spain and Portugal. The Museu Picasso in Barcelona was a favorite, especially his collection of obsessive riffs on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. Unfortunately, the Galeria Joan Gaspar was not open during my stay. It’s home to Picasso’s Self Portrait as a Suitor, a drawing which has Diego Rivera approaching him. James Oles used it in his catalog essay for LACMA’s Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time.

Before going to Barcelona, I re-read the wondrous The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón; something I’d done the last two times I’d gone to that magical city. At Antonio Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, under construction for 135 years, it was fun trying to locate the now-installed, apse sculptures I’d sketched while living in Spain in the later 70’s. Then, I just wandered about the “gargoyle” strewn grounds, often drawing while seated on a giant granite snail. Now, 40 years down the road, it’s all guards and metered entrances, which sell out before noon. There’s an elevator in an 185 foot spire Carmelita and I climbed more than once.

The cathedral construction is a metaphor for the work being done around our mural; a masterpiece which may last hundreds of years. The people who poured the cathedral’s foundation were never destined to see the spires rise. The many existing spires will be dwarfed by the yet-to-be-built center spire, scheduled for completion by 2022. I hope to see the mural to its new home. (Losing Julia Bergman, my dear friend and 20 year Rivera partner, earlier this year has been very sobering.)

CCSF’s Chancellor Mark Rocha is moving forward on the College’s plans for the Performing Arts Education Center and on significant offers of help with the mural move to this new site.

Within hours of sending out our last missive, Larry Heilman wrote me that as a 4 year old in 1940 he was at a Mexico City bullfight, where Paulette Goddard received flowers from a matador. Larry’s father filmed it and we’re trying to find and post that film, which should be with his nephew here in the Bay area.

My friend Rafael Castilla wrote:

Thank you for including me in the distribution of “Friends…” I read it always with so much interest…you make the best news about “El Gordo” (Diego R.). I called him “El Gordo” because during my last years in Mexico City, somehow there were times I was kind of close to María Félix, and that was the way she referred to Diego…”El Gordo”. You know they were very good and close friends. However apparently Maria took good care not to let him go ahead with his desire/love for her. He was really madly in love with her; but she was a lot younger and had many other men (especially richer) around her. However she knew how convenient it was for her having him as a friend. She once declared “El Gordo estaba muy enamorado, pero no tenia ‘billete’”. (“Rivera was very much in love [with me], but he had no money.”)

Quite a while back at the Trotsky Museum in Mexico City, Esteban Volkov told me how the murder weapon that killed his grandfather had surfaced on eBay. It was quickly unlisted. Now it seems the historic weapon, a piolet, has surfaced again; this time destined for a spy museum in Washington, D.C. It is a shame the weapon will not reside at the scene of the crime.

At the 15th anniversary party for Cultural Heritage Imaging, I met Layna White, SFMOMA’s Head of Collections, Information and Access. We hope to store a copy of CHI’s finished Rivera mural photogrammetry file there for posterity. SFMOMA already houses over a 100 Rivera drawings, several of our mural.

The DeYoung’s Teotihuacán: City of Water, City of Fire show is open. LACMA’s Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico 1915-1985 show, part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA is also open, as is Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico (Here is more background on that show).

Longtime volunteer Maureen Bourbin is transcribing the recently acquired Dudley Carter audio cassette interview, a gift from artist Emmanuel Montoya. Thanks to CCSF’s Kwame Evans and Dana Galloway for their technical help in making a digital copy. The audio and transcript will be posted on our website’s Dudley Carter page, now being developed.

Recently, filmmaker Wesley Miller was at the mural during 12 days of local shooting for what will be a 3 minute video for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. The video is based on a letter Frida sent to Emmy Lou Packard. Jean Franco stars as Frida in the video.  I will post the link as soon as the work is public. After the shoot was over Jean and I ate a pilgrimage meal at the Cathay House on California Street. Diego and Frida may have had one of their last meals in San Francisco there in late December 1940. Having just re-married at City Hall, they left separately for Mexico City by the end of the year, never to return to the U.S.

Diego and Frida at Cathay House

Recent Friends of Diego missives are archived at: “Friends of Diego Newsletter”