“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

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.”





September 2021

Dear Friends of Diego,

The main emotion I’m feeling is gratitude. To the team, to my late Rivera partner, Julia Bergman (because you should never forget the person you came to the dance with), and to all the people who helped, please know that you did a great job. This project has been a feather in the cap for every participant. Appropriately, the indigenous peoples of the Americas placed great value on feathers. Exciting connections and opportunities for the mural are flooding in. Have spent a lot of time with the mural watching people engaged with all the mesmerizing imagery. The beautifully renewed and well-publicized mural sends its sincere thanks.

Our gracious UNAM collaborators’ Spanish-language magazine article is fresh off the press (a YouTube Video of the project is embedded in the article. The end of the  article lists the UNAM team members.)

Here are links to: Cultural Heritage Imaging’s Photogrammetry work, Diego Rivera’s San Francisco Masterpiece – Spotlight at Stanford  and/or Scientific Imaging of Diego Rivera’s ‘Pan American Unity’ Mural | Stanford Libraries; Forbes magazine; NBC’s California Live; an KQED Morning Edition segment; and the NYT Link.

Two of my Zooms are coming up: September 13 for the Community Living Campaign  and September 15 for the Osher LLI. (Though having similar introductions, they have different second halves.)

[The link for the NBC Bay Area ½ hour mural move documentary, broadcast on July 2, has yet to be posted.]


Will, a proud team member

On a sad note, Nieves Orozco, one of Diego’s favorite models, whom Julia and I had the great honor to interview in 2006, passed away May 29 (August 5, 1922-May 29, 2021). In 1940, divorced from Frida, Diego publicly announced he would next marry Nieves. She famously is the Desnudo con Alcatraces. She told me that she posed with her back to the artist because she was pregnant. She was also Paulette Goddard’s attendant in the portrait Diego did of the movie star and Nieves gave us insight into how Paulette’s brief entry into our story radically changed the course of Diego’s life. Que descanse en paz.

May 2021

 Diego, c1915, Europe, photographer unknown 


Dear Friends of Diego,

In June of 1921, one hundred years ago, Diego Rivera finally found his way home to México.

Shortly before on November 29, 1920 Diego had written to Mexican writer and diplomat Alfonso Reyes:

“Tengo ganas de ir a trabajar con las manos en la masa de mi propio maíz, a ver qué sale.” (vale in some versions.)

[“I have a desire to go to work with (my) hands in the dough of my own corn, to see what comes out.”]

Having just returned to Paris from a penultimate trip to study Italian frescoes, it was almost time for Diego to leave Europe after a nearly 14 year stay; to take the technical skills he had learned and put them to the service of México.  Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros had met Rivera in Europe and enthused him with the possibilities of public art in México; he later took credit for reigniting Rivera’s “patriotism.”

This letter was dated exactly 20 years to the day before Diego signed the Pan American Unity mural in 1940. Painted as the world slid into a convulsive war, we cannot understand the mural without knowing the times. To measure how far Diego had come in those two decades, Dr. Grace McCann Morley, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA), evaluated the mural in a letter to Art Digest in December 1940:


“I have seen it and believe it is a really great work – technically beyond anything Rivera has previously done…. In intensity of symbolic images, complexity and depth of thought he is of course here going into something much more profound than anything he has previously attempted.”


This summer at SFMOMA get ready to see the Pan American Unity mural as it’s never been seen before! At ground level and in your face.

At its most accessible level the Pan American Unity mural is a snapshot of San Francisco as an era closed. The sweeping aerial view depicts the City’s modest skyline. The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company building at 140 New Montgomery was the tallest building at 435 feet high. Using rubble in its mortar, the City had rebuilt itself after the 1906 earthquake. Thirty-three years later on an artificial Treasure Island, the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) celebrated the two new bridges across the Bay, but unknowingly signaled the end of a chapter in the City’s history. San Francisco luminaries, philanthropist Albert Bender and architect Timothy Pflueger, helped shape our story and passed on. Their efforts helped bring Rivera to San Francisco in 1930 and saw him off after his 1940 work at the GGIE. Diego’s two visits bracketed his entire working time in the United States. Like belts, the bridges cinched in the landscape. With WWII the Bay became the portal to the Pacific for millions of soldiers. Many others from all over the country were drawn here for the work available at shipyards, the arsenals of democracy. Sloughing off its past, the City would transform into its next incarnation.

Historic DNA

As librarian Julia Bergman, my late Rivera partner, used to say, “You can teach anything with this mural.” The mural is infused with historic DNA. Rivera wove “genetic” algorithms into the mural’s fabric; patterns which repeat themselves through time.  Like the conveyor belt on the right side of the mural or the Mexica (Aztec) Calendar, these patterns don’t just suddenly end; they just go around again. Hydraulic mining, depicted by the bare chested figure holding a nozzle, was outlawed because it silted up the rivers, crippling the water flow. Today, some predict an impending critical density of human-made low-orbit debris could hamper space exploration. Venturing out heedlessly, we seem to invariably leave a signature wake of human detritus.

Though these algorithms are deterministic, their outcomes are not necessarily predictable. A single Sol LeWitt instruction set can manifest unique drawings at multiple venues. There will always be dictators like Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. But politics are historically fluid. Six months after the mural was finished, Hitler invaded Russia and the totalitarian Stalin was suddenly an ally. Recently, the COVID pandemic has seen science politicized and it is evocative of “Leninist” physics; facts are willfully assigned a back seat to dogma. Rivera ran afoul of the Soviet’s official “Social Realism” and Hitler defined “degenerate art”. Locally, the “Society for Sanity in Art” railed against Rivera and other “modern” artists. The jeopardy some San Francisco murals find themselves in today is, unfortunately, not new.

Diego’s Agenda

Rivera had an overriding goal; to get the U.S. into the war against Germany. Like a master chess player, he had looked several moves ahead and realized the peril to the Americas if Hitler was successful in conquering Europe. It’s the only Rivera mural where the United States is the hero; a muscular arm draped in a U.S. flag restrains a smaller Nazi arm holding a dagger. Our mural celebrated all of the peoples of the Americas, a bold counterpoint to racist, anti-Semitic groups like the “America Firsters.” Headlined by Charles Lindbergh and others, “Firsters” also wrapped themselves in the American flag and sought to define their version of patriotism. Samuel Johnson opined about those who as a last refuge invoke “patriotism”. Historic DNA has legs as we saw on January 6, 2021.

The Nazi’s found their eugenics theories in California and modeled their treatment of Jews on American Jim Crowe laws. In 1939 German Bunds with questionable allegiances held a huge “Pro-America” rally in Madison Square Garden, complete with fascist salutes. But later, it was the Japanese who were rounded up. [Like, Miné Okubo, who demonstrated the fresco technique (02:15) for fairgoers on the ground floor at Art in Action.]

[Charles Lindbergh had previously entered the story when, at the invitation of US Ambassador Dwight Morrow, he went to México in 1927. He met and later married Anne Morrow, the younger daughter. The Ambassador commissioned Rivera’s murals at the Palacio Cortes (Cuernavaca) and as a gift for her husband Elizabeth Cutter Morrow commissioned Diego’s first portable fresco Market Scene, 1930. It resides at Smith College.]


The Move

As the mural traces its historic journey to SFMOMA, Diego is beaming somewhere. Much of the move’s technical analysis has emanated from the Graduate Mechanical Engineering Department at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). Its engineers are on-site, continuously monitoring mural panel vibrations with digital accelerometers carefully “grafted” to the fresco surface. As the consummate conservators, welders, riggers, concrete-workers, and movers bustle about, one can almost imagine them as Diego’s figures who have tumbled out of the suddenly liberated mural. One of the crew even wears ironworker’s gloves with a red star like the worker in panel 4. For this project of a lifetime, SFMOMA has drafted the mural’s “dream team.” A foreman, who knows, told me that there is not a weak link in the crew. The mural deserves nothing less.

Photos, a documentary, spreadsheets, and Cultural Heritage Imaging’s on-line, publicly-accessible, photogrammetry record (archived at Stanford’s Library) will document the move for posterity. We will have been faithful stewards on this, our watch. (A warm adios to SFMOMA Project Manager Paco Link, who is moving on, but who had orchestrated the team’s crucial work up to now.)


Jason’s Gloves


After over a year of peeking through cored holes in the exterior wall, we finally got to see the complete back of lower panel 5 once it was, with excruciating care, coaxed free of the wall. Upper panel 5 was lowered in fits, begrudgingly catching on every protuberance of the wall. The riggers used all their skills to free the panel and for me it was like having a courtside seat at a Warriors game. These right-end panels were linchpins. Their removal would make removal of the other panels easier.  These panels are traveling to SFMOMA under the cover of darkness in stately procession at 5 mph.

The crew has been collecting the wads of newspapers and mechanical drawings which had been stuffed around the edges of the wall’s precast holes. The paper plugged cracks when mortar was poured into the holes to secure the steel rods, which connected the mural panels to the wall. A battered corner of a San Francisco Call-Bulletin newspaper dated Sept. 7, 1960 has part of an article about John F. Kennedy. The election was imminent as the mural was finally being installed at City College.

81 years ago the substrate of Portland cement  had oozed through the panel’s  wire mesh. The square cement extrusions bend gently  downward letting us know that the panels were plastered while standing.



Recently, there is another theory about the destroyed Rockefeller Center mural. In addition to the commonly cited political reasons for its demolition, there is now a proposed logistical reason, “a building technicality.” It may be that due to architectural constraints there was no wire mesh used. The initial coat of plaster was applied directly to the structural wall of the “30 Rock” lobby elevator shaft, so that there was no feasible way to save the mural. The destruction’s rationale continues to be refined 87 years later.


Matisse addendum

As a barometer of Diego’s stature in the art world in late 1931, he had a one-man show at MoMA, second only to Henri Matisse. Recently, stories have come up about Matisse passing through San Francisco on his way to Tahiti. The San Francisco Art Association bulletin of April 1930 noted that Matisse had stopped by to see the new San Francisco Art Institute campus on Chestnut. Though his local visit was short, he did go to Ralph Stackpole’s studio for a soiree. Wendy Van Wyck Good offers a first-hand account from Esther Bruton. Here is a great picture of Stackpole, Rivera, and Matisse in Montparnasse, circa 1907. Helen Bruton coordinated the Art in Action program where Rivera painted, but complained about his irregular hours. He often showed up to paint after the paying Fair customers had left for the day.


Here is a short BBC video about Frida and Diego.

Here is a Google experiment about Kandinsky and synesthesia. The stunning 2019 Kandinsky show at Bellas Artes in Mexico City is still fresh in my mind or, maybe, my ear.

Looking forward to seeing many of you at SFMOMA. I’ll be the guy in the Barcalounger.

Abrazos,                                                                                                                                       Will