“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

Dia de los Muertos 2022

José Guadalupe Posada Gran Calavera Eléctrica

Dear Friends of Diego,

Dia de los Muertos (Tue, Nov 1, 2022 – Wed, Nov 2, 2022) is my favorite Mexican holiday because it nourishes and refreshes our ties with nuestros antepasados, those who have gone on before us. The mural’s Yaqui deer dancers daily invoke part of my heritage.  Working with the mural has instilled a kinship with those who created it in 1940; those who welded the frames, slaked the plaster’s lime, ground the colors, and painted a work that everyday glows still brighter. The conveyor belt bracketing the right side of the mural, like the Mayan calendar, is a metaphor for the cyclical nature of time. Our mural watch is part of a continuum of those who have and those who will care for it over the coming centuries; we will become the antepasados.

Set on Dia de los Muertos, the new San Diego Opera El Ultimo Sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego) opened October 29. It’ll be at the San Francisco Opera next June. Hopefully, some tie-in with our mural can be arranged. Diego and Frida live on in these and their works. (The Mexican government is investigating the burning of a Frida drawing to create an NFT.)

Ken Burns’ 3-part documentary The US and the Holocaust reminds us of those lost in WWII in the camps and other killing fields.  Episode 2 depicts our country’s social and political milieu in which Rivera was immersed as he created our mural. You cannot understand the mural without being conversant with newspaper headlines of the time. Diego was a Mexican Paul Revere crying out that “The Nazis are coming; the Nazis are coming;” it’s his grito. The US’s isolationist policies seemed logical to many, if you ignored the fact that the world was smaller. Charles Lindbergh, soon a Nazi sympathizer, had flown the Atlantic solo in 1927. In 1931 you could fly from San Francisco to New York in 27 hours. Even the Bay area was smaller because of the two new bridges cinching in the bay. The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island celebrated the new bridges and was home to the China Clippers, flying boats which could leap-frog the Pacific.

In Pan American Unity Diego was arguing that in a smaller world at war, there was no place to hide. As Californians have found, you cannot stay “neutral” in a forest fire. That your part of the forest is not currently ablaze, will be scant consolation when the wind invariably shifts. Rivera was a few chess moves ahead, advocating that our country check the seemingly unstoppable Nazis, still allied with Stalin’s USSR. (A year later, four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on us.) Lamentably, our country’s consensus to not accept refugees-especially Jews and people from the “wrong” countries-didn’t reflect well on a “nation of immigrants.” Healing that attitude is still a work in progress.

My father and uncle came back from defending our country in the Pacific and in Europe in WWII, only to find that schools were still segregated for Mexican-Americans. There was a disconnect between responsibilities and rights. Having been temporarily stationed as a Marine in the south in 1966, I saw, first-hand, segregation and the shocking “Jim Crowe” restrictions on Black people. As a 19 year old, I suddenly realized someone else would decide if I could drink from a “Whites Only” water fountain. It became not merely a philosophical, but a visceral part of my education; something I never would have learned if I had gone directly to college. More lessons awaited me soon, much further away. These racial divides were also manifest in “hidden” redlining policies. At a high school reunion last month, a few discussed the “redlining” in my Southern California hometown. Mexican-Americans could only live in the “north end” if they stayed on their side of the railroad tracks, the Colonia, where my grandparents Manuelita and Abelardo Ordoñez lived. Not long ago, the California Historical Society presented: Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America – YouTube. Longstanding societal ills will never be resolved if the situations which bred them are not sunshined. (The California Association of Realtors has recently apologized about this issue.)


Reminder: Jean Franco and I will perform our 45 minute one-act play “Frida: March 1941 Interview” on Diego’s birthday, Thursday December 8 at 6 pm in SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery. The play is set in México shortly after Frida and Diego remarried. The play, like the mural, is free to the public. (For the last year Jean, who plays “Frida,” has been living in México, so we’ve started our rehearsals via Zoom.)


Like the recent asteroid shot, Paulette Goddard was the “bombshell” aimed by George Gershwin that deflected Diego’s trajectory.  Paulette appeared in México to get her portrait painted at Gershwin’s suggestion and a smitten Diego (divorced from Frida) abandoned his announced marriage to Nieves Orozco, the Desnudo con Alcatraces. Paulette predictably moved on. When Frida fled to San Francisco after Leon Trotsky was assassinated, Diego was available to remarry her in San Francisco’s City Hall on his birthday. A “Fred Astaire”- precise choreography seems to determine these interactions. But what might have happened if Porgy and Bess had instead opened to good reviews and Gershwin had never exiled to Hollywood and met Paulette? In New York, his brain tumor might have instead been diagnosed and successfully healed. We might have had another 40 years of Gershwin music. And what might have happened to Diego, Frida, and Nieves? In quantum mechanics many possibilities exist until the wave function collapses and there’s a single outcome.


For hardworking immigrants with Hollywood hopes, the Frida Kahlo Theater is a space to learn and dream – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com).  Having grown up in my late director “Uncle Mike Maynez’s” Plaza Players theater, this article resonated. My plays are a homage to him, who made my world blossom. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the UNAM’s team chemist coming to analyze the plaster and pigment for our mural move was named Miguel Angel Máynez, like my uncle, and hailed from my grandmother Herminia’s hometown of Valle de Allende, Chihuahua. When I suggested that we might be related, he enlightened me, “It’s a small place, we’re all related.” The two degrees of separation that has blessed the Rivera research, had me working with an unknown primo! Off to the side Rod Serling opined, ”The cosmos is a small barrio and we’re all vecinos.”


Opening at the Noguchi Museum: In Praise of Caves: Organic Architecture Projects from Mexico by Carlos Lazo, Mathias Goeritz, Juan O’Gorman, and Javier Senosiain (October 19, 2022–February 26, 2023). Juan O’Gorman designed Frida and Diego’s Casa Estudios, where George Gershwin hung out and took pictures in November 1935. They were built with funds Diego was paid on his first US pilgrimage to San Francisco.


Our Canal Arts friends have an exciting project, The People of the Canal; A Story of Thousands of Years. They propose to create “over two miles of the San Rafael Shoreline Path, an interactive timeline, a history of the people and their relation to the land and water, in the voices of its occupants, through archeology, written and spoken evidence, and creative imagination.” “The fiscal sponsor that manages tax exempt donations in general support for The Canal Arts’ work is Marin’s 95 year old, and oldest, arts organization, Marin Society of Artists.”


Here is an NPR follow-up on the controversy over the Victor Arnautoff murals at Washington High School. James Oles, the curator of Diego Rivera’s America said that the issue drew world-wide attention. The Living New Deal will be hosting a benefit screening of Town Destroyer at the Roxie Theater on November 10 at 6:45 pm. (Note: there are benefits in the previous days for this film about the Washington HS murals by Victor Arnautoff.)


There is no further word on when the SFAI mural will be available to the public.


Mural visitor stories:

Peter Albin (the bass player for Big Brother and the Holding Co, Janis Joplin’s original band) came by SFMOMA and we had a chat. He is a cousin of puppeteer Ralph Chessé’s family. The puppeteer is mentioned in John Weatherwax’s 1931 short story about Frida, The Queen of Montgomery Street (pages 22-25). He performed at 728 Montgomery, just up the block from 716, Ralph Stackpole’s studio, where Diego and Frida were staying. Frida loved being near Chinatown. Their entourage walked in the rain to see the puppet show. (When I went by, I found 728 no longer exists, likely folded into 730.)


Julie and Charlie from the East coast came by the mural with an interesting offer. She had an Anton Refregier painting, My Critics, and wanted to donate and put it up near his Rincon Annex murals. Hooked Julie up with my friends at the Living New Deal.  Project Scholar Gray Brechin has written about the controversy at the Rincon Annex murals, which is the subject of the offered painting. Our mural’s primary assistant Emmy Lou Packard helped save the murals from Refregier’s critics. (Emmy Lou’s granddaughter Shannon, whose profile is a spitting image of her grandmother’s, recently came by to visit the mural. In the 2015 performance of our Interview with Frida, Shannon and her son did a “magical realism” walk-on, appearing as Emmy Lou and her son Donald Cairns, the little boy in the mural, who is Shannon’s father.)

My Critics by Anton Refregier, photo by Julie


Lindy and David, who are working on a documentary about Leon Trotsky, came by and we compared notes and anecdotes. Later, Lindy sent me the photo below, which I absolutely love. Somewhere Diego is smiling.

Unknown photographer at Secretaría de Educación Publica. Posted on Facebook by Marcela Davison Aviles


Had an interesting conversation with a local architect about the Rockefeller Center mural. He thought a Rivera piece still existed on the ceiling of “30 Rock.” I assured him that Rivera’s mural had been destroyed and that he hadn’t painted on the ceiling. In researching the issue, I found that Spanish artist José Maria Sert, whose 1937 American Progress replaced Rivera’s Man At the Crossroads, was a fascist follower of Francisco Franco. In Sert’s ceiling mural called Time, a vortex of circling planes seems an ominous testimonial to the Luftwaffe’s April 26, 1937, bombing atrocities on Guernica in Spain’s Basque region. Sert’s mural, painted on canvas in Paris, was installed at “30 Rock” in December 1937. Had Sert seen Picasso’s Guernica, displayed at the Exposition Internationale, held from 25 May to 25 November 1937 in Paris? The irony of a communist Rivera, being replaced by a fascist artist speaks to the temper of the times. Fear of an atheistic communism drove many agendas, sometimes creating perverse alliances. The fascist past is not so far removed as Italy just commemorated the 100th anniversary of Mussolini coming to power. (Diego, though, would have appreciated all the scaffolding in this mural.)


While writing this newsletter, it was appropriate that one of the mural visitors was Cianna Stewart, who writes Dying Kindness, the “podcast for people who are going to die someday.” Just seems like the mural visitors keep getting even more interesting. The interactions at the mural reflect all the wonderful possibilities this masterpiece can generate with robust foot traffic. The mural has never been so well displayed in its entire 82 years of existence. (At SFMOMA the mural is one foot off the ground; at the 1940 Art in Action the mural was 14 feet off the ground, as it was going to be displayed in City College’s new library. Rivera was so high up that Miné Okubo demonstrated the fresco technique at floor level.) Come see the mural (for free) and SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera’s America, which will only be up until January 2, 2023.



Photo: Will Maynez

A new 6’ x 20’ mural reproduction has been mounted in the CCSF Chef’s Table at the Pierre Coste Dining Room. Come have lunch and enjoy the mural. The reproduction is dedicated to my late friends Tannis Reinhertz, past chairperson of the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies Department, and Librarian Julia Bergman my partner for 20 years on the Diego Rivera Mural Project. They were instrumental in erecting the original piece in 1997 and were renown champions of the College. This piece was funded by the CCSF Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies Department and the Foundation of City College of San Francisco Diego Rivera Mural account.

The hi-res image was printed by Magna Chrome on aluminum, is UV resistant, and can be cleaned. This is a milestone in that it replaces the now faded and warped reproduction I put up for Tannis in 1997, my first Diego Rivera related project. At the time with Julia’s financial backing, it necessitated getting the mural panels photographed and the resulting film digitized and stitched to create a 250 MB “Mother” image file of the mural. That digital file was the largest I’d ever seen and the concept of storing it was daunting. Today, Cultural Heritage Imaging’s 8.06 gigapixel photogrammetry file of our mural is being stored at Stanford. We pass this image forward to future stewards of the mural.


Cynthia Boissevain has passed away. Her mother Estrella Elizaga hosted the party in Mexico City for George Gershwin in November 1935, which is the subject of my play. In a 2018 phone call from Wales, Cynthia told me that as a young girl she secretly sat on the stairs and heard Gershwin play Porgy and Bess on her mother’s piano. Her son moved her back to México so she could spend her last days in her favorite place.


We remember my “Mission homey” architect Timothy Pflueger. He lived his whole life in a house that’s just around the corner from me in San Francisco’s Mission district. We have been the grateful recipients of his wonderful architecture and his friendship with Diego and Frida.


We note the passing of dear Ruth Gottstein at 100 years old. Ruth was the sister of our late friend CCSF instructor Masha Zakheim, whom my Rivera partner Julia Bergman and me, called the “Voice in the Wilderness” for her earlier efforts on behalf of the Rivera mural, when others didn’t care. Their father Bernard Zakheim was an artist and Ruth is the little girl in the sailor suit in his Coit Tower mural, The Library. His History of Medicine in California murals were recently uninstalled at UCSF.


My late wife, Carmelita Mae Alvarez, who though she’s gone, left me her smile. Descanse en Paz, Mi Amor.



September 2022

Making of A Mural at the SF Art Institute, June 24, 2022


Dear Friends of Diego,

The San Francisco Art Institute has closed after the proposed union with the University of San Francisco fell through at the altar. Had lunch with my art conservator friends, who luckily managed to get Diego Rivera’s fresco conserved before the doors closed. The mural with the dimension bending trompe l’oeil faux scaffolding becomes even deeper with the lifts and tables in this image. As we await a resolution to having the mural publicly accessible, there is some consolation in knowing that the mural has been lovingly attended and is in fine condition. Visited with the SFAI librarians/archivists, who curate the very important library with records dating to the early art scene in San Francisco. Hopefully, some way of getting them back to their important work will be found soon. SFAI Librarian/archivist Jeff Gunderson mentioned a possible solution, when he visited SFMOMA recently. SFAI archivist Becky Alexander has just written an article for Acid Free magazine (Los Angeles Archivists Collective), “The Cosmos Loved Us: Julia Bergman, Will Maynez and the Diego Rivera Collection.”


SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera’s America exhibition has opened to great attendance and increased foot traffic for the mural. The documentary Diego Rivera: Moving A Masterpiece is looping in the second-floor coffee shop, which overlooks the mural. Though, I’ve seen the new show multiple times, my favorite was an early sneak peek with SFMOMA guest curator James Oles, SFMOMA’s curator Maria Castro, and Beverly Adams, New York MoMA’s head curator of Latin American art. Their commentary was very illuminating, and I have taken advantage of the information in giving tours to friends and family. A favorite piece is Desnudo con Alcatraces featuring the late Nieves Orozco. In a 2006 interview at the mural, she told me that she posed with her back to the audience because she was pregnant. The exhibition features some earlier pieces Rivera re-purposed to fill up the acres of Pan American Unity. (The Community Living Campaign hosted a Zoom where we spoke about some of these images and other aspects of Diego Rivera’s America.) Some examples of re-purposed images are the man with jack hammer, references to the Ford Motor assembly line, women with backstrap looms, and the gas suited figure with his foot ensnared in a “bear trap.” Especially significant was the swastika tattooed arm with dagger being restrained by a muscular arm. In the exhibit work, the Nazis were being restrained by the Russians in 1933-34. But in 1940 with Stalin and Hitler on the same side, it was the isolationist US which Rivera felt had to restrain the Nazis. This was one year before the US entered the war.

There is an irony in a Mexican communist finding that his natural ally was the United States. But Rivera was pragmatic and would not be restrained by some pointless orthodoxy. In June 1941 (Six months after the mural was finished), Germany invaded the Soviet Union as Rivera had predicted, and formerly isolationist US communists were now clamoring for the US to save Mother Russia.  Stalin was now the Allies’ “Uncle Joe.” When Hitler declared war on us on December 11, 1941, the “America Firster’s” isolationist stance evaporated, but left a smell. [See Dr. Seuss’ October 1, 1941, cartoon below and more of his currently topical cartoons]. Overcoming the combined industrial might of the US and the USSR was unlikely. Within 6 months, Hitler’s overreach had ensured that Germany would eventually lose the war.

Creator: Seuss, Dr. Publisher: PM Magazine Date: October 1, 1941


The SFMOMA art conservators invited me into their studios a couple of times to see Rivera’s “Stern fresco” (Still Life and Blossoming Almond Tree) as it was being conserved before it was installed in the show. It was created for Rosalie Stern (widow of Sigmund Stern) at her Atherton (SF peninsula) home but eventually moved to Stern Hall at UC Berkeley.

Photo courtesy of SFMOMA conservator Ellie Ohara

On the left side the image of Walter Haas, Jr. kneeling had a different look. Remembering an Elise Haas oral history, we were able to confirm that Walter only wanted into the mural belatedly and had to be added. One of a series of Ansel Adams photos (included in the exhibit), showed Walter being painted last. To me it seems, Rivera had used a slightly brighter palette and put Walter in a sharper focus than the children in the foreground [left to right, “Dega” (Rhoda’s imaginary friend), Peter E. Haas, and Rhoda Haas.] Elise, daughter of Levi-Strauss owner Rosalie Stern, was the children’s mother. A favorite essay about this mural is Alegoría Californiana by UC Berkeley emeritus Spanish/Portuguese professor Julio Ramos.


Oral interviews are so important, and we note the passing of Mary McChesney, whose interviews with WPA era artists are such an essential resource. Leaving a record for those that follow is the counterpoint to honoring los antepasados. We become the ancestors. Her personal oral interview resides here.


Had a delightful visit with Lucienne and David Allen up in Mendocino. Her grandparents were Rivera’s assistants Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Pope Dimitroff. In 1993 they executed this Diego Rivera Theatre sign in fresco, and here are videos demonstrating the technique they learned from Diego. Here is a 1964 interview with Lucienne Bloch conducted by Mary McChesney.


SFMOMA has booked Jean Franco and me to perform our one-act play “An Interview with Frida” on Diego’s birthday, Thursday December 8 at 6 pm in the Roberts Family Gallery. Like the mural, the play is free to the public.


The Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience exhibition opening was very well attended. The comprehensive show displayed the many hats Emmy Lou wore as a social activist, mentor, and artist. It was a pleasant surprise to see that Roberto Martinez, one of the team that moved the mural to SFMOMA, is now the Richmond Art Center’s Exhibitions Director. Though the show has closed, here is an article which appeared in Mission Local.


Some mural visitors: neighbors of Emmy Lou Packard’s family home in Berkeley, where Diego hid after Trotsky’s assassination; Timothy Pflueger’s great nephew and his daughter; students from SFAI and a Marin school, who were doing murals at SFMOMA based on the themes in Pan American Unity; and a parade of visitors from all over the world. An associate of the San Diego Opera, which is currently staging El último sueño de Frida y Diego, suggested that I should meet the director. This work is co-produced by the San Francisco Opera, which will stage it next June, while the mural is still at SFMOMA. Our mural is finally getting the exposure it has always deserved. It is a living, breathing work of art and many intoxicated viewers are making repeat visits.


“My mural which I am painting now–it is about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent, that is all. I believe in order to make an American art, a real American art, this will be necessary, this blending of the art of the Indian, the Mexican, the Eskimo, with the kind of urge which makes the machine, the invention in the material side of life, which is also an artistic urge, the same urge primarily but in a different form of expression … it is about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent.”


Have had an interesting correspondence with Abby Sher, producer/director of a 1982 documentary on Canadian sculptor Dudley Carter, who is featured three times in the mural. (She is looking for a venue to screen her work.) City College owns three pieces by Carter: Big Horn Mountain Ram, The Goddess of the Forest, and The Beast. (Recently, a member of a family, who knew Dudley Carter and have one of his totems on their property, visited). Like Frida in our mural, Carter spoke to American art. When Dudley told Frida that he was honored to be in the mural by her, she replied that no, the honor was hers to be near him.


Here in the Fine Arts Building, there is a man carving wood. This man was an engineer, an educated and sophisticated man. He lived with the Indians and then he became an artist, and his art for [sic] was like Indian art—only not the same, but a great deal of Indian feeling had passed into him and it came out in his art. Now, what he carves is not Indian any more, but his own expression—and his own expression now has in it what he has felt, what he has learned from the Indians. That is right, that is the way art should be. First the assimilation and then the expression. Only why do the artists of this continent think that they should always assimilate the art of Europe? They should go to the other Americans for their enrichment, because if they copy Europe it will always be something they cannot feel because after all they are not Europeans.

— Diego Rivera


Ran across an interesting article on Pedro Diego Alvarado, Diego’s grandson by his architect daughter Ruth. Diego would have loved that the article appears in Garden & Gun magazine. The Mexican artist loved his gardens and while painting Pan American Unity was armed with a .45 and a .38 after Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City. “Art in Action” could have become a Quentin Tarantino production. On the scaffolding while painting with his back to the audience, Diego offered a generous target. Another grandson by Ruth, scholar Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera, told me about some of the identities for the Mexican figures on the left side of the mural.


Artist Ben Wood has his next opus of projected installations at the site of the old San Francisco Cliff House until September 25.


The Victor Arnautoff murals at Washington High School will remain uncovered as the current board has rescinded the original vote to cover or paint them over. Hopefully, this will put to rest other attempts to deface WPA era murals. Work to create expository signage is ongoing. It was a hard road to get to the obvious resolution.


Isamu Noguchi’s home is to be opened to the public. Noguchi enters our story as part of the crew that created the art at the Mercado Abelardo Rodriguez in Mexico City, a project under the nominal direction of Diego. Noguchi is part of the entangled web of lovers that populate our story. He had an eight-month fling with Frida and was also a partner to artist Marion Greenwood with whom Diego was romantically engaged in 1936. Notably, Isamu had been partnered with Dorothy Hale, whom Frida portrayed in a scandalous recuerdo for Clare Booth in 1939 after Dorothy committed suicide. It was Noguchi whom a mortified Luce approached to get her name removed from Frida’s inscription, leaving a long blank space.


As Frida gets exposed in various “immersive” experiences and other exhibitions, here is an opinion piece.


Here is an interview in Spanish (at 44:25) with our friend, artist Arturo Guevara, who though he resides in the US, travels extensively in Mexico and was born in Guanajuato, Diego Rivera’s birthplace.






June 2022

Photo: Emmy Lou Packard, 1941, Diego with Monkey at the Casa-Estudio


Dear Friends of Diego,

The Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience exhibition opening reception is on Saturday, June 18, 2pm-4pm at the Richmond Art Center. Come on out and join the festivities! The exhibition runs June 22 – August 20, 2022, with many other events. It is co-curated by Robbin Légère Henderson and Rick Tejada-Flores (Rivera in America, Orozco: Man of Fire).

Emmy Lou Packard became the great benefactor to our Diego Rivera Mural Project many years ago, when her family, Donald and Kathé Cairns, shared her copious research with us. (Emmy Lou’s son Donald is the boy in the white t-shirt in the lower center of the mural.) Her work and the Timothy Pflueger papers became the foundation for all the investigations that have followed. Emmy Lou acted as Diego’s primary assistant and secretary on Pan American Unity. At the start of 1941 she and her father returned to México with Diego, and she spent most of the rest of the year with Diego and Frida. Her unique first-person insights and her later work developing a book on Diego Rivera in San Francisco have been priceless. [BTW The man in the green vest depicted behind her in the mural, has remained a mystery to us. It’s not Frank Lloyd Wright. Our last best-guess is that it may be Victor Fleming, director of 1939’s Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.]

Reminder: SFMOMA “Diego Rivera’s America” opens July 16, 2022 and runs to January 2, 2023. Member tickets and General tickets are now available.


Image: Katherine Du Tiel/ SFMOMA.

Diego Rivera: Moving of a Masterpiece, the documentary about relocating Pan American Unity to SFMOMA, has just won a San Francisco/Northern California Emmy in theArts/Entertainment – News or Long Form Content” category. This documentary captures 5 years of work in a precise 24 minutes. Congratulations to the stellar film crew!:

“Diego Rivera: Moving a Masterpiece,” NBC Bay Area KNTV/Northern Pine Productions Jill Lynch, Producer; Jennifer Walters, Produce/ Writer; Joshua Bryant, Producer/Cinematographer/ Editor; Malou Nubla, Host; Cole O’Brien, Cinematographer; Dave Corona, Photographer; Trey Hall, Graphic Artist; Lauren Garcia, Production Associate


Having recently written about Diego Rivera citing Thomas Jefferson’s quote “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” here is a more sobering note on President Jefferson. In a secret letter to Congress Jefferson proposed driving the Native Americans into debt as a means of obtaining their land. The issue of Indian schools in government policy was all part of a plan of “assimilation”…of their land. There is a paucity of indigenous people on the far-right side of our mural, Diego’s subtle comment on US policy.


A study for The Contribution of the Negro  to Democracy in America by Charles White (1918-1979) (christies.com)

This study in which Charles White tried to include missing parts of our history recently came up for sale at Christies. The adjoining essay (in link above) remarked on the study being evocative of Pan American Unity. White was married to Elizabeth Catlett (m. 1941–1946), whom I mentioned last issue, at the time this study was done. Very early in her career, Catlett’s work at the Public Works of Art Project exposed her to the art of Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias. She ended up in México.


At the suggestion of Lope Yap, Jr., I recently watched the PBS American Masters’ Tyrus Wong documentary while researching Rivera’s assistant Peter Lowe. Wong’s travails as a Chinese artist in LA exemplifies why our National Narrative must be “refreshed.” Some current agendas can only be advanced with a complete ignorance or disregard for how we really got here. The California Historical Society has a powerful calendar of lectures and events to alleviate some of the holes in the historical record.

In the idiosyncratic year 1940 we were the only major player still not in the fray. The times were strange. As a nation we had the luxury of only debating about the war. Rivera was adamant that the US would determine the outcome of the war, regardless of which side we backed. A year after WWII commenced in Europe, the America First Committee was formed on September 4, 1940. It was an umbrella isolationist group, which included pro-Nazi and pro-communist factions, advocating against US entry into the war. (The group disbanded after Pearl Harbor and Hitler, Japan’s ally, declaring war on us.) In México, the Ukrainian Leon Trotsky knew that “Stalinist Justice” was awaiting him. The only question was from where the attack would come? With Stalin and Hitler on the same side, the threat could come from anywhere. The first attempt on May 24 sent Rivera into hiding. A good indication of the tumult of the times is that Diego Rivera was at first thought to possibly be complicit in this attempt (it was Siqueiros!) and, also, the FBI thought Rivera was a likely next target. In our mural the cultivated actor Edward G. Robinson, who invariably played a thug, played an FBI agent in the scene from Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Charlie Chaplin bowed to the times and was making his first “Talking” movie. High on the scaffolding painting, Rivera was armed to the teeth, his definition of Art in Action.


As Diego dug into his bag of tricks to invent his masterpiece, sometimes the connections became very esoteric. The Severed Hand in lower panel 4 might refer to Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), the first surrealistic film. There’s a scene where a policeman pokes at a severed hand with a stick. As part of Spain’s Republican government, Luis Buñuel fled when his side lost. He ended up in Hollywood writing uncredited gags for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Diego might have met Buñuel when he went down to LA on his first weekend in California. At the time, Dictator co-star Paulette Goddard gave Diego movie publicity stills, which he used in the mural. However, though Rivera might want to acknowledge Buñuel, he didn’t want to “out” him to potential assassins.


Our late friend Robert Seward did an extensive study of the Masonic imagery in our mural. He would call and regale me with the connections he had discovered. Unfortunately, he did not have the opportunity to get them recorded. Having done research myself, Masonic symbols keep popping up.

Masonic Aprons XVIIIth Century.

The image above almost serves as a schematic for the symmetry of the mural’s two columns on the extreme ends and the center icon.  (A recent mural visitor from Nevada City, up north in the Gold Country, explained to me that the large wooden screw on the mural’s right side is most likely for compressing bales of hay to feed the horses pulling wagons out in the boonies.) The all-seeing eye appears in the half face-half skull in the center. The worker in panel 4 is coming up what might approximate “Jacob’s Ladder.” I wonder if Diego included these images to please architect Timothy Pflueger, a Mason. Diego’s father was a 33rd degree Mason, but later while trying to get re-admitted to the communist party, Diego in a “Biblical” moment would repeatedly deny he’d ever been a Mason. In our mural among the Masons is an apron-clad Samuel Morse signaling with his right hand: “I am a Master Maker Mason,” Robert Fulton (a NY Lodge was named after him), Henry Ford, Diego Rivera, Timothy Pflueger, Simón Bolivar, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, José María Morelos y Pavon, and George Washington. The Masonic symbols also include: the Broken Column (at the margin of panels 4 & 5), the Globe in Chaplin’s hand, a Bow drill (shaped like a Mason’s level), chisels, hammers, Compass and Square, and the “Tree of Life.”


This just in from JR, a new endeavor: The Inside Out Project: “We help communities turn their untold stories into a work of public art.” The good work continues.

It’s been three years since JR’s homage to Diego Rivera, The Chronicles of SF, was installed at SFMOMA. Our mural now occupies the space. (That’s me with the balloons.)

SFAI invited me over to meet Zoya Kocur, the new Diego Rivera Fresco Program manager. It was a wonderful three hour discussion of all kinds of ways we can collaborate. Ms. Zocur‘s vision for the mural certainly resonated with me, especially since the future of the SFAI mural is now assured. These are especially good days for Diego Rivera in San Francisco with SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera’s America opening very soon. The show’s next venue Crystal Bridges was profiled on CBS.

A milestone has been reached in the fight to save the Victor Arnautoff murals at Washington High School (San Francisco). On Tuesday evening, May 24, 2022, at their regularly scheduled bi-weekly meeting, the SF Board of Education formally voted, 4 to 2 to withdraw their appeal in George Washington High School Alumni Association (GWHSAA) v. SFUSD.  We owe a debt of gratitude to all who stepped up to stave off the obliteration of the frescos. Hopefully, next steps can protect the mural’s future. It’s evocative of when Detroit Auto Workers Defended a Diego Rivera Mural. Recently, I got energized by the story of Cornelia and Irving Sussman, a generous couple with a Bay-area connection. Even small groups can do wondrous things.

The 3rd grade mural visitors were a joy.  It seems to me no student should graduate from SF Bay-area schools without having seen our mural. It’s a gateway to a bigger world and an example of the wondrous things to be found just over the horizon. Extrapolating conservatively from SFMOMA attendance figures, I figure 100,000 visitors have seen the mural in the past year. However, the mural’s future is still a big question mark.