“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

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”



August 2017

Estrella Boissevain, Photograph for Vogue, New York, 1938 by HorstEstrella Boissevain, Horst P Horst photo for Vogue magazine, 1938

Dear Friends of Diego,

ALERTS: The August 12th benefit opening of Cherrie Moraga’s The Mathematics of Love at the Brava Theater supports the Chicana/Latina Foundation.

In anticipation of the DeYoung’s Teotihuacán: City of Water, City of Fire show opening September 30, now is a good time to enroll in Art 105 in our CCSF Latin American and Latina/o Studies with Dr. Edgar Torres, mi amigo and truly one of City College’s treasures.

We were excited at the end of June to pore over a Diego Rivera mural drawing at SFMOMA with curators James Oles, Caitlin Haskell (Edvard Munch – a great show), and Michelle Barger, Head of Conservation. We inspected the 13 foot, original 5-panel concept drawing for Pan American Unity that Rivera abandoned very soon as he made more precise drawings. Re-inspecting the drawing I’d first seen in November 2015 with SFMOMA & LACMA curators, helped refine my imagery chronology. I will see James Oles in Mexico City in November. [It was a surprise to see that the open space, which I’ve looked out on for years behind the Hotel Catedral, was the site of an Aztec Ball Court!]

As part of the Getty initiative’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA some smaller SFMOMA Diego Rivera mural drawings are being loaned to LACMA for their Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico 1915-1985 show. A tip of the hat to my friend John Crosse for bringing me into the mix a few years back. In an embarrassment of riches, though LACMA has invited me to the September 2017 opening, I will be in Barcelona paying a working visit to the  Museu Picasso and the Galeria Joan Gaspar. (The Galeria is home to Picasso’s drawing Self Portrait as Suitor, which has Diego Rivera in the distance walking toward Picasso and which according to Picasso’s biographer John Richardson speaks to their sexual rivalry.) When I return in October, I also plan to see Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico. Here is background on that show.

In 1935 Estrella Elizaga (1938 photo has her reverting to her first married name) hosted a Mexico City party for George Gershwin, the subject of my play, Rapsodia en Azul: An American in Mexico. (I’ve finally finished the first draft). Recently Estrella’s grandson Nick Madigan was in town, so we got together. A contributor to the NY Times, he’s writing his grandmother’s biography. To help me with my play, a couple of years ago he generously gave me anecdotes of this phenomenal women who counted Charlie Chaplin, Diego Rivera, and Marlene Dietrich among her friends. Now an ageless 93 year old, Nick’s mother Cynthia as an eleven year old heard Gershwin perform all of Porgy and Bess for the party guests. Nick is putting me in touch with her and getting me the address of their Mexico City house on Paseo de la Reforma.

Working with Michael Owens at the Gershwin Trust we have facilitated the Museo Casa Estudio getting a selection of the George Gershwin photos taken there in 1935. Importantly, this will support redundancy in people who know this important story.

Thanks for all your help finding a copy of the Walls of Fire DVD. So many of you came up with libraries housing the work. I’m still looking to buy a very hard-to-find copy. Siqueiros’ painting of “Gershwin in Concert referenced in that film shows up in this video (~ 1:47) about Paint the Revolution; at its last stop, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

CCSF Music Department Chair Madeline Mueller made my day by telling me she had acquired some new Emmy Lou Packard papers. They will be a welcome addition to our archives.

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

Had a nice visit to the mural from my friend Maria Pinedo, a founding artist at the Galería de la Raza, and fabulous papel picado artist Beatriz Vasquez, newly arrived to San Francisco on a fellowship. Lunch at Gallardo’s was a treat for us all. (I always take home the extra house-made tortillas to make quesadillas.)

Mexican Consulate news: The Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra performed in July at Davies Hall. Their first act included Revueltas, Arturo Márquez, and a Javier Álvarez piece with Tambuco, whom I’d seen perform at San Ildefonso in March.

Their second act, very dear to my heart, was Aaron Copeland’s Salón de México and Gershwin’s Catfish Row suite from Porgy and Bess. The Consulate’s extensive July Mex Am Festival programming included Everybody Loves Somebody at the Roxie with filmmaker Catalina Aguilar Mastretta in attendance.

Longtime volunteer Maureen Bourbin has become a helpful investigator for the Rivera Project. She found a contact at Christie’s auction house to forward our request to the anonymous owners of Rivera’s Encuentro Tropical, the painting for the Dude Ranch in Pleasanton, CA. Here is commentary she found for the 1999 auction: (Picture is from catalog.)

One of the auction’s highlights is Lot 30, “Encuento Tropical,” by Diego Rivera (1886-1957). This 41 1/2-by-78 3/8-inch oil on canvas was commissioned in 1944 for the Celebrity Bar at the Old Hearst Ranch in California. The work shows the new owners of the ranch who were converting it into a luxury resort on either side of the artist. The ambitious estimate is $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $442,500 including the buyer’s premium to a European private collector. (By Carter B. Horsley) [Other pictures of the work appeared in our last issue.]

Encuentro Tropical – Christie's Catalog, November 1999

Maureen also followed up on Rivera and his Masonic connections. He may have been a Rosicrucian instead/also. We are trying to get permission to use a photo she found of Rivera in semi-Egyptian garb. It seems, however, Rivera denied he’d been a Rosicrucian when he re-applied for entry into the Communist Party in 1954. He depicted himself as a “mole” collecting information, according to Raquel Tibol in The Snake Appeared! Diego Rivera and the Rosicrucian’s.

The new film Dunkirk is about the evacuation of stranded British troops, pushed to the northern coast of France by the Nazis. This event has always been visceral to me because its last day, June 4, 1940, was the day Rivera himself was “evacuated” from Mexico, crossing the border with Paulette Goddard on his way to San Francisco. Rivera was reading the Dunkirk headlines while waiting in the airports. They added urgency to his mural message: the US must get into the war against the Nazis.

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