“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

February 2022

Diego Rivera, The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent, also known as Pan American Unity, 1940; City College of San Francisco; © Banco de México Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico City / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Dear Friends of Diego,

“The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

In lower panel 2 Rivera quotes from Thomas Jefferson’s letter of November 13, 1787 to William Stephens Smith regarding Shay’s Rebellion. In latter 1940 Rivera had a very precise mission: to articulate a paradigm for an alliance of the Americas and to get the United States into the war against Nazi Germany.  Therefore, he embraced a particular interpretation of the quote that Jefferson holds in his hand. But like scripture, words will be interpreted at the discretion of the person citing them. Timothy McVeigh’s t-shirt bore the quote on the day of his Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. A doctor who entered the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6 texted, “Tree of liberty was watered today!” Who is it that determines who are the “patriots” and who are the “tyrants”? As the assault on the Capitol Building continues to be investigated, some comparisons are being made with Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt, based on a lie, to overthrow the elected government. (Gray Brechin of The Living New Deal addresses another similar issue here.)

Rivera’s art is very explicit. In the upper right corner of this image, Abraham Lincoln is warding off the symbols of the fascist aggressors as wisps of the gaseous cloud waft in from lower panel 4. Some have suggested that the image of the 16th president is a reference to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Norteamericanos who fought in the Spanish Civil War with the duly-elected Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists. The opposing sides had been backed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, respectively. The civil war ended on April 1, 1939 and just five months later the Soviet Union and Germany, now allies, started WWII. On September 1 Germany invaded Poland from the west and on September 17 the USSR invaded Poland from the east. Writing about the cynicism manifested in their so-called “Non-Aggression Pact” put Diego in mortal danger, according to his FBI file.

We see the fasces, the wooden staves bound about an axe; a Roman symbol of power. The Lincoln Memorial has these symbols of power on the armchair. Mussolini appropriated the symbol and it lent its name to his political party. Both Hitler and Mussolini embraced ancient Roman symbols to legitimize their envisioned long-lasting regimes. Straddling the fasces is a symbol Rivera composed, a black cross out of which shoot jets of flame at right angles. Was this fiery swastika a reference to the Croix-de-Feu, the symbol of French fascists? Below this we see the twin cannons from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin and the bayonets and mother with dead child from the “Odessa steps” scene. (Note: Lower panel 4 has a reference to Picasso’s Guernica in the depiction of another mother over her dead child and, perhaps, in the “flames” by the cannon shell.  Guernica is such an indictment of war that when Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the UN in 2003 to argue, based on a lie, for invading Iraq, the US requested that a tapestry replica of Picasso’s work be covered; the optics would be paradoxical. The tapestry had been commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, who had the notorious incident with Diego Rivera in 1933.)

The tableau of the American “liberators” is the counterpoint to the totalitarian leaders of lower panel 4. In a pointed omission, Theodore Roosevelt, who is carved between Jefferson and Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore, was not depicted. His 1905 Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine sanctioned United States machinations in Latin America. USMC Major General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, would belatedly rail in War is a Racket against these expansive overtures in which he had admittedly participated. For Teddy Roosevelt, Rivera substituted abolitionist John Brown, who depending on the viewer’s politics was the first martyr of the Civil War or a cold-blooded killer. History is all about ambiguity. Regardless, the image of Brown is evocative of Michelangelo’s Moses or God in the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants. Rivera is layering meaning into his mural and the viewer’s intellectual bandwidth affords access to more or less of this information. (This is the constraint under which I consciously labor.)

All of these images are part of the Liberty Tree fresco, which Diego depicts himself painting with his plasterer working ahead of him. This is a “mural” within the mural. Rivera stands in working solidarity with the Mexican craftspeople in the foreground, who are part of the larger mural. Like the tromp l’oeil design of The Making of a Mural fresco at the San Francisco Art Institute, Rivera is creating different levels of reality to engage or baffle the viewer.

Rivera was being careful in this first foray into the United States after a six year artistic exile in the wake of the Rockefeller incident. He needed to get his foot back in the door, unknowingly, for the last time. His title for the fifth panel was The Creative Culture of North Developing from the Necessity of Making Life Possible in a New and Empty Land. “A New and Empty Land”? Rivera would seem to be an apologist for those who came up with the ideology of “Manifest Destiny.” But, Rivera subtly maintained his “revolutionary credentials” by depicting the sole Native American as a slave turning the lathe. His only other reference to the original inhabitants is the “Cigar Store Indian” covered in a pastiche of symbols, a surrogate, I believe, for the countless victims of genocide, which was unfortunately their “manifest destiny.” These are a stark contrast with his vibrant, albeit idealized, depiction of the indigenous peoples of México on the mural’s left side. However, the right side’s subtlety may have been a strategic move to avoid creating a distracting controversy. His main polemic was for US entry into the war against Germany as depicted by the strong arm, draped in the stars and stripes, restraining a smaller Nazi arm wielding a dagger. There was some blow-back from the German-heritage community, who took offense at Rivera’s depiction of Hitler and his agenda. The local German Consul General Captain Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s superior officer in WWI, hung out at the old Schroeder’s and strode about town in a black leather trench coat and a low-slung fedora, having seen too many “B” movies. Fritz felt confident he could convert northern California over to his point of view. In 1940 San Francisco was like Casablanca with agents of many sides walking the streets. Rivera, however, was walking a tightrope, exposed high on the scaffolding. Once Trotsky was murdered, Diego had a .45 in one pocket, a .38 in the other.

The mural’s exposure at SFMOMA has been a joy to experience. Museum-goers point out elements of the mural to their partners and some have given me insights: Frida stands directly under the aspect of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, who is the patron of women who die in childbirth. Friends, old and new, come by to see the mural.  Schoolteachers are preparing to bring their students.  See: Teaching Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity Mural: Curriculum from City College of San Francisco · SFMOMA

My favorite 3rd grade school teacher Amy messaged: “Look what I found in a So Cal airport car rental display?!”

(Her class’s mural visit with me is in April and, like her previous classes, they’ll come better prepared than many college students.)

Ran into Paul and Anne Karlstrom at the mural. Paul’s interviews for the Archives of American Art and others have been an ongoing resource for me and many who study art. It’s all about the legacy we leave. Recently, architect Timothy Pflueger’s great-nephew, architect Tom Pflueger and his daughter Genevieve, visited. He told me stories he’d come across in helping his father John organize the Pflueger family papers. It’s so much fun to see Tim’s 140 New Montgomery depicted in the mural and then look out the window and see the actual building. At Treasure Island Timothy created much for the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE). Now we’re getting a revitalized Treasure Island, which still has the three permanent aircraft buildings from the GGIE. The dark roof hanger, closest to the Oakland side, is where Rivera painted our mural. The size of the 14’ 9” square upper mural panels was the largest which could be crated and still transported over the top deck of the Bay Bridge, standing up to protect the precious fresco plaster.

Here’s an example of a research item. Some time back I got a “Diego Rivera” Google alert about a 1940 SF house for sale. It was designed and built by a WPA artist who worked with the renowned Diego Rivera.” Well, after hitting a dead end trying to identify the artist, I forwarded the info to CCSF’s Dr. Nicole Oest, who coordinates our docents. She hit the jackpot and identified the artist who built the house as Jack Moxom. (Ironically, it sold on Diego’s birthday, December 8, 2020.) So I forwarded this info to art conservator Anne Rosenthal, who restored the Reuben Kadish mural at the old SF State College building (now the Haight Street Art Center). She did some sleuthing and forwarded the AAA interview with Hebe Stackpole and Jack Moxom, who had done WPA murals at that complex of buildings. It turns out that after Trotsky was assassinated in México Diego Rivera was eager to rent Moxom’s house because it had high walls. Though, he never actually ended up working with the Mexican artist, Jack confirmed in the interview that Diego was armed. A useful research strategy is to have smart friends.


Our friend Luis-Martín Lozano recently communicated with me about his new book, Taschen’s Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings. Decades ago we invited Luis-Martín to be a visiting Fulbright scholar at City College and he was instrumental in mentoring my late partner Julia Bergman and me to focus our Rivera work. He went on to become director of Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art. We worked with him and Diego’s grandson Juan Coronel in San Francisco as they researched and created our part of Taschen’s definitive Rivera, The Complete Murals book (2008). Their depiction of our mural was an early breakthrough in international exposure. Originally, the Taschen website ad had the 600 page, 17 pound book open to our mural. In México he took us on a private tour of Anahuacalli, Rivera’s museum of ancient Mexican artifacts. Across the street from Diego and Frida’s studios at the San Ángel Inn, he showed us what a real “Margarita” was; the ice never touched the precious Tequila.


SFAI is exploring merging with USF. This is good news for the school and for Diego’s The Making of a Mural, whose future had been in question for the last couple of years.

Jeff Gunderson, Librarian and Archivist at the SFAI, writes, “On another note, I don’t know if you heard that SFAI received a nice grant from the Mellon Foundation for all things SFAI Rivera Mural—some conservation, some publicity, some research into our archives as well as CCSF’s wonderful collection; public programming, etc. etc….In fact there is a job description posted on the SFAI website for a part-time project coordinator.” Sounds like a terrific gig.

SFAI alumni, artist Ben Wood’s project: Artist Projects Glimpses of Cliff House History From Iconic SF Building’s Museum (msn.com).

More information on Diego Rivera’s frescos:

Secretaría de Educación Pública

Detroit Frescos

Here is information on the move of the “History of Medicine in California” mural by Bernard Zakheim. WPA-era murals still have lots of active friends.


As I continue to work on my essay on Frida’s first love affair, here are some views of LA, which she may have seen in 1930-31 on her layovers to and from San Francisco. Here are some images of San Francisco in early 1940’s as Diego and Frida might have seen them just as they left.


Julia’s and my CCSF friend, Abdul Jabbar has a new book: Not of an Age, but for All Time: Revolutionary Humanism in Iqbal, Manto, and Faiz.


La Nuit des Idees (Night of Ideas) has been postponed world-wide due to COVID. It will, hopefully, be rescheduled later this year. I’ll be in SFMOMA’s booth at KQED’s studios with former CCSF docent Vickie Simms to answer questions about the mural.



December 2021 Happy Birthday, Diego

San Francisco Museum of Art, “Art in Action” exhibit, December 5, 1940 (SF Chron/AP photo)

Dear Friends of Diego,

On Diego’s 54th birthday, December 8, 1940, he and Frida remarried in San Francisco’s City Hall, ending a year of being divorced.

After applying for a license on December 5, they had crossed Van Ness Avenue to take in the San Francisco Museum of Art’s (SFMA is now SFMOMA) Art in Action exhibit. It was an extension of the eponymous show at the recently closed Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), where Diego had painted his mural.  In June-July the SFMA had hosted Picasso’s Guernica, which was on a fund-raising drive for Spanish Civil War relief.  Diego had undoubtedly seen it and that is the main reason I feel there is a reference to Picasso’s work in lower Panel 4. (In early 1939 in Paris, Picasso had given Frida the “dangling hand” earrings, which she wears in her mural image.)

Around early September a shaken Frida came to San Francisco in the wake of the assassination of Leon Trotsky. She and her sister Cristina had been arrested as possibly complicit. Trotsky had lived in their family home, the Casa Azul, but, incriminatingly, the sisters had unwittingly invited the assassin Ramon Mercader over for lunch. Since Frida was divorced from Diego and her father was German, the police decided she wasn’t even a Mexican. She was stateless for several days but was hastily naturalized a Mexican citizen August 26 and the same day applied for a US visa. The visa application was displayed in the recent Frida show, Appearances Can Be Deceiving, at the DeYoung.

The next iteration of their marriage would be different. Dr. Leo Eloesser, Frida’s physician, who had checked her into St. Luke’s Hospital, brokered the pre-nuptial’s: they would share household costs, Frida would acknowledge that Diego would never be monogamous, and importantly, they would not have conjugal relationships. This last item seemed like a sentiment that might be suspect. But on a 2016 trip to Canada with my late Rivera partner Julia Bergman (who happily shared a December 8th birthday with Diego), we perused a private cache of raw notes for Diego’s “autobiography” My Art, My Life. Diego confirmed that he and Frida never had conjugal relations in the last 14 years of her life. Since it wasn’t part of their deal, after 1940 neither of them could be “unfaithful”.

But the main indication that Diego and Frida’s relationship had passed a threshold was that after being released from St. Luke’s, prior to the second marriage, Frida had a brief affair in NYC with Heinz Berggruen, Diego’s translator and chauffeur at the GGIE.  Diego was on top of his game painting our mural according to Mona Hofmann, who had worked with him recreating the “Rockefeller’ mural at Bellas Artes in 1934. After Frida’s unanticipated appearance, Diego may have “brokered” her assignation to facilitate completing his half-finished mural. He introduced the married Heinz, who was no longer employed by the closed GGIE, to Frida at St. Luke’s Hospital. Heinz, an émigré from Germany in 1936, had married well to Lillian Zellerbach and had previously worked at the SFMA. It would seem, Frida’s fidelity was no longer an issue with Diego.

However, Frida had long ago seen the writing on the wall about Diego’s fidelity and had embraced her almost decade-long relationship with photographer Nick Muray in latter May 1931, when she hadn’t yet been married to Diego two years and while Rivera was finishing his mural at the San Francisco Art Institute. Paint on her famous wedding portrait, dated April 1931, might not yet have been fully dry. What might have Frida been thinking as she painted? How might this inform the extensive analysis of the painting’s imagery? It might be difficult to be dreamingly in love, when your eyes are wide-open. As far as I know, with the notable exception of Isamu Noguchi, Frida’s lovers up to 1940 were mostly married (Muray, Trotsky, Levy, Berggruen).

Last issue’s mention of artist Marion Greenwood culminated in a fortuitous connection with Joanne Mulcahy, the author of an upcoming biography. This led to sharing of the 1936 film footage of Marion and Diego, which a mural “friend” had recently showed me. Last time, I posed a question about whether Isamu Noguchi and Marion, former lovers, knew about the other’s affair with Frida and Diego. Joanne wrote me that Isamu and Marion were “tight” and probably shared secrets. If this was a soap opera, all the coincidences might seem too implausible. Meanwhile, all the parties were creating art. Multitasking is not new.

Since Frida and Diego’s relationship was so complex, I’ve long used a scientific metaphor to illustrate their behavior and the efficacy of their pact. (Too often, Frida is depicted as Diego’s “victim”, which takes away her volition and disempowers her.) Diego and Frida can be imagined as binary stars coupled by a profound gravity, which compels them to revolve around each other as they trace their trajectory through the cosmos. Their attraction is equal and opposite. Demonstrably, the forces binding them were stronger than the forces trying to separate them. Astronomer Isabel Hawkins put a cherry on top of the metaphor with a clever pun. She told me, “But, of course, Diego is the “Red giant.”’


In honor of Diego’s birthday, here is the Amedeo Modigliani portrait of Diego at 28 years of age.

One of the greatest aspects of SFMOMA’s siting of the mural is how low it is, one foot off the floor. As we witnessed, if it had been raised literally an inch higher, it would not have fit in the Roberts Family Gallery. The mural-move team had thought of everything. In my September FOD newsletter, the cover photo is of a young person getting a great view of the mural. Now the Uffizi Museum has lowered some famous art pieces to let the kids get a better look. The fact that the Pan American Unity mural was never installed 14’ high, as originally designed, has been a benefit of the proposed CCSF grand library never being built. If it had been built, I believe that both Timothy Pflueger and Diego Rivera would have been mortified by what they had done to the artwork. The mural is now 81 years old, this past November 29th, and we’ve finally got it sorted out about how to display this masterpiece. Architects who will build the mural’s new CCSF home, recently examined the exemplary museum presentation. SFMOMA saved them a lot of work.

La Nuit des Idees is a world-wide event. On Thursday, January 27, 2022, I’ll be in SFMOMA’s booth at the Night of Ideas “(Re)building together” (at the new KQED studios) with former CCSF docent Vickie Simms to answer questions about the mural. Details to follow.

The issue of historical depiction is influencing the future of murals like the Victor Arnautoff murals at Washington High School. Historical filmmaker Ken Burns has made a very important and eloquent clarification: Being American means reckoning with our violent history.

In celebration of Diego’s 135th birthday, his dream Anahuacalli Museum has reached a milestone with the completion of the surrounding complex.

Frida’s Diego y Yo has set a new price record for a Latin American work of art at a sale at Sotheby’s. However, it is still the murals that comprise the place closest to my heart. Happily, murals in Hawaii by Jean Charlot will be saved and donated to the people of the state.

As we continue to document the mural, one item still requires analysis. The 1-1/4” metal angle which forms the perimeter dam for the fresco plaster is of unknown composition. We know it is non-ferrous because it doesn’t attract a magnet. Was a special alloy used to ensure it didn’t react with the lime-rich fresco plaster? The tools available to analyze paintings keep proliferating and many had already been used in our mural work. The proposed technique to be used in México on a sample of the angle will likely be x-ray spectrophotometry. Every bit of information we can glean is our gift to future stewards of the mural.



October 2021

Don and Will at the mural. (Photo: Kathé Cairns)


Dear Friends of Diego,

Here is the link to the NBC documentary on the mural move.

To celebrate the birthday of Donald Cairns, the little boy in the mural, 30 of his church members came out to SFMOMA for a Saturday tour. Emmy Lou Packard’s son was only 5 years old when he posed for the mural. Years ago, Donald gave my late Rivera partner Julia Bergman access to Emmy Lou’s papers, our first cache of primary resource material. Julia flew to Philadelphia, where the Cairns then lived, and photocopied like crazy. Emmy Lou had spent years doing research for a never-written Diego Rivera in San Francisco book. Her first-hand experience as Rivera’s assistant/secretary on Pan American Unity resulted in many insights. But, not having initially been the primary assistant left holes in the narrative, which were often filled by architect Timothy Pflueger’s papers, our second cache of primary source materials. These copies were kindly provided by nephew John Pflueger.

Over the years many “friends” have been very generous in sharing information. Recently, I was directed to a private party who had some interesting material about Diego, including a painting that will be in SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera’s America exhibit next summer.  1936 film footage of an affectionate Diego with artist Marion Greenwood was enlightening. It may answer a question I’ve had for some time. How did Isamu Noguchi and Frida get away with an eight month affair? The affair only came to an abrupt end when the bill for their love-nest furniture was mistakenly delivered to Rivera. It appears that Diego may have been preoccupied elsewhere.

Archives of American Art,  Marion Greenwood Papers

Both Isamu and Marion, who had previously known each other romantically as art students in Paris, were part of the muralism program at the Mercado Abelardo Rodriguez in Mexico City, nominally under the direction of Diego. An intriguing aspect is whether Isamu and Marion knew what the other was up to? Isamu, who had done a bronze bust of George Gershwin in 1929, was present when the great composer visited México in November 1935. In 1925 Miguel Covarrubias had done a Gershwin caricature for his book, The Prince of Wales and Other Americans, and was also present to greet Gershwin. Gershwin’s copy of the book is one of my prized possessions. Coincidently, both Marion and Gershwin were from Brooklyn.

Feliz Cumpleaños to our dear friend Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin, Diego’s daughter, whose birthday is October 23. I send along Pedro Infante and Las Mañanitas. Having recorded an interview with her in 1999, in May 2006 she invited Julia Bergman and me to Mexico City for her Encuentro Internacional de Pintura Mural. This encounter of a couple of hundred muralists from all over the world was a highlight of all the years working on mural research. Last time I saw her in San Francisco at the Brava Theater in June 2018, I gave her a framed photo of herself as an eleven year old, with her sister Ruth and Diego in front of the cactus fence at the Casa-Estudio. The photo was taken by George Gershwin (and given with permission from the Gershwin Trust).

History Matters in the Mission, a street procession with live music and theater, will be performed Saturday Oct. 23 (12-6 pm) in our beloved Mission district, San Francisco.

Have spent a lot of time with the mural and it’s always fun to see friends. So many people have already seen the mural at SFMOMA in its first four months. Occasionally, the visitors have known the mural and can best appreciate the startingly change in venue. The added depth of the lobby allows a comprehensive view in addition to the close-up view of paint strokes. When the morning raking sunlight hits the mural, it seems to shimmer. (Frescos are impervious to UV light.) Similarly, I got to see the mural at 11 pm, while walking back from a Giants game. It is an Edward Hopper moment seeing Diego’s nighthawks showcased, when everything else is darker.

At a recent lunch graciously hosted by the City Club for representatives of the various groups who participated in the mural move, our fresco conservators Anne Rosenthal and Kiernan Graves got to inspect Rivera’s Allegory of California  (link to my late colleague Masha Zakheim’s essay), which adorns the stairwell between the 10th and 11th floors. It’s a shock after the last several years to not have these people in my life on a daily basis, even if it was often Zoom. On the days we do get together, we try to cram as much friendship as we can into one day. Hopefully, the “home” team will reconvene down the road to escort the mural back to City College. A new Chancellor, Dr. David Martin, will start November 1. Back in 2015 as a financial officer at CCSF, he facilitated transferring funds from the CCSF Foundation to the College so that we could do the initial photogrammetry shoot. The amazing results are now posted at Stanford University.

Had a nice mural visit with Susan Kirk, niece of the late Oakland-born artist Marjorie Eaton. We had been connected years ago by John Crosse, whose blog has been an indispensable resource to me. Ms. Eaton had an adventurous life. She lived in Taos after driving there by herself in a Model A and found the love of her life. She hung out with Diego and Frida in NYC (where she roomed with Louise Nevelson) and later stayed at the Casa Azul and lived in Mexico. Later, she gave up painting and became an actress, playing the original role of Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and appearing in Mary Poppins. Marjorie is a great example of the profound Mexican influence on artists from the United States.

The Victor Arnautoff murals at Washington High School just got a favorable ruling from the judge, which will prevent them from being painted over or destroyed by the SFUSD. Congratulations to Lope Yap, Jr. and to all the people who stepped up to save the San Francisco treasures. ¡Si se puede! (However, the school board is appealing.)

There was also a U.S. judgement in the ongoing battle between Frida Kahlo’s family and the Frida Kahlo Corporation. Diego left the intellectual/artistic rights for his and Frida’s works (e.g., rights to reproduce images of their artworks) to México. Other rights to the lucrative  commodification of Frida (e.g., rights to make Mattel’s Frida Barbie doll) have been contested. How hot is Frida? Frida’s Diego y Yo, is getting ready to set a record at a Sotheby’s auction in November. Since the work is outside México (it’ll be displayed in Hong Kong, London, and NYC), it is not designated part of the Mexican national patrimony, which precludes it leaving the country, even after a sale.

There was a very nice piece recently on the Hijos del Sol, whom I’ve had the honor to do mural tours for in the past. They provide nourishment for the soul.

Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity Part 1 – YouTube: Link to my recent presentation and Q&A for the Community Living Campaign. This group “uses the power of relationships to reduce isolation and to eliminate barriers to aging in community.”