“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

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


January 2021

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City

© Banco de México Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico D.F. / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

photo: Geigenot / flickr

Dear Friends of Diego,

“It’s a hard time to be a mural,” one San Francisco fresco lamented to another. “Yeah,” cried the other, “It’s not paranoia, if they are actually out to get you!”

The three Diego Rivera murals are among San Francisco’s crown jewels. Nowhere else, outside of Mexico City, is there such a collection of the master’s frescoes. People come from all over the world to stand in awe before the vibrant colors; colors as rich as the day they were painted. Now Diego’s mural at SFAI is dodging bullets. To bail out the fiscally-troubled Institution, the idea has been floated of selling the mural to an LA museum owned by George Lucas.

James Oles, curator of Diego Rivera’s America, a 2022 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, described “The Making of a Fresco” as uniquely site-specific. Rivera and the patrons, engineers, and laborers who created the work, appear on and around scaffolds dividing scenes of local manufacturing and infrastructure, with a worker towering in the center like a skyscraper.”

Removing a fresco mural that is painted on a furred-out wall is not easy. The mural was painted on this extra wall to create an airspace and protect the mural from the moisture that might seep through the concrete structural wall. Art conservators point out that fresco plaster is brittle and even our Pan American Unity mural, supported by rigid steel frames, requires delicate handling.

Since Diego and Frida’s stays in San Francisco were significant, SF supervisors have stepped in and unanimously initiated a “Landmark” designation for the mural. SFAI is asking, “Please not yet.”  An ideal solution suggested is to get the mural externally endowed in-place. Are there any “angels” out there?

The Victor Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School and even the name of the school have been under attack for quite a time. The GWHSAA CEQA Lawsuit against SFUSD In defense of the murals may be heard this April. Now, out of Left field, comes this defense of the school name. The issue will air soon.

The UCSF Bernard Zakheim murals have found an interim solution to avoid destruction, but the definitive plan to relocate them and how long they would be stored are unresolved. They too were painted on furred-out walls. The GGIE’s Covarrubias maps are a glaring example of great murals currently in storage.

The University of California is the landlord of among others; the SFAI Rivera mural, the Zakheim murals, Rivera’s Still Life with Blossoming Almond Trees fresco at UCB’s Stern Hall, and the Reuben Kadish mural currently being restored at the old UC Extension in the Haight. It had been in the queue to be restored for a while. Our friends at the Living New Deal have mapped local WPA-era art.

Stewardship is a serious obligation since artworks often transcend generations.

Here is an example of a 583-year-old Italian mural being professionally restored.


Focusing on the long-range picture, like eroding infrastructure, has been a problem in our relatively young country. Outside my window, a year’s work in the street’s bowels has wrapped up. Waste pipe replacement is not glamorous. Lots of monies were spent and yet the street now looks pretty much the same. However, we pass on something good to future generations. It’s not all about us.

For every example of wilderness prudently set aside for posterity, there are examples of pristine refuges being exploited, exacerbating the major problem in our future: climate-change. As our country creates a Space Force, we lose sight of the fact that we already are the crew of a spaceship…Earth. The Star Trek’s crew would never do what we do daily to our only ride through the cosmos. Creating colonies on other planets is not a  substitute for an enlightened understanding.

Our myopic thinking has created an official history, which is more romantically self-serving, than accurate. As the historical pendulum swings, one outcome is the 1619 Project. Questions come to mind as I consolidate 25 years-worth of research to pass on. What were Diego and Frida thinking when they became Stalinists late in life? After getting Trotsky asylum in Mexico, they witnessed public hearings about the USSR charges against him. They were intimately familiar with Stalin’s “downside.” (Trotsky had plenty of blood on his hands, too. Ironically, some of his papers are held at the conservative Stanford Hoover Institution.) In our mural in  1940, Rivera had grouped Stalin with totalitarian leaders Hitler and Mussolini.

The Whitney’s Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-45 still has plenty of information on-line: an audio guide and YouTube videos. Here is also a PBS piece on Los Tres Grandes.

Cultural Heritage Imaging is finishing incorporating information gleaned in the preparatory mural conservation into the photogrammetry files.

SFMOMA’s work to move Pan American Unity mural continues as plans are approved and the infrastructure is built. They announced:

“This spring, SFMOMA…will also welcome Diego Rivera’s dazzling 1940 mural The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent — better known as Pan American Unity — which has undergone a meticulous restoration and relocation. It will be installed in the free Roberts Family Gallery space until its new permanent home at City College of San Francisco is completed.”


CCSF recently cancelled the contract with the designer-builders of the new Diego Rivera Theatre and new ones are not yet chosen. This upset the synchronicity of the new home’s readiness when the mural returned from SFMOMA in 2023. Art experts have stated that the less the mural is handled, the better.

Now CCSF  will prioritize the construction of the new theater’s mural space to be able to accept the mural, even if the theater is not fully complete. The panels will be able to be mounted as soon as they arrive from the museum. An example, which the SFMOMA-CCSF team visited in 2019, is the Museo Mural Diego Rivera which was built around a mural bolted to the floor slab, still encased in protective crating. (CCSF kept our mural crated for the first 20 years of its existence.)

The murals, created by Picasso and the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar, were removed from the Norwegian government building in Oslo last summer       Photo: © Adrian Bugge.

This is an example of the infrastructure required to move large murals. This large art piece may not be as delicate as a fresco because it hasn’t been covered.

The upper panels for our mural are about 15 feet square and must be moved vertically in protocols set by the engineers in 1940. The crated panels were designed to be the largest able to still cross the Bay Bridge upright.




This Picasso photo puzzle has stumped experts. Can you help solve it? | The Art Newspaper

Along with Picasso (right), André Derain’s dog Sentinelle is the only other subject in this photo whose identity historians are certain of

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Michèle Bellot © Alexandre Zinoviev.

Retratos de Diego Rivera y Angelina Beloff, realizados en Madrid en 1915.


This certainly looks like photos of Diego and Angelina Beloff at this time as seen in these 1915 photos in Madrid. In addition to Picasso they hung out with a pretty heady group. A great friend of Rivera’s was Amedeo Modigliani. His Antonia (1915) has recently had a rigorous examination and re-evaluation.

A new Frida show is set to open at a community college in Glen Ellyn in June in a deal brokered with  Carlos Phillips Olmedo, son of Dolores Olmedo and director of the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico. (Carlos chatted and shared some of his excellent tequila with me at the opening of SFMOMA’s 2008 “Frida” exhibit.)

In Paris there is currently an exhibit of photos of Frida by Lucienne Bloch.

In the 1930’s it would appear that Isamu Noguchi was the only one of Frida’s male paramours, who was not married. She was “the other woman” for the rest. Noguchi has become the first Asian-American to have work in the White House collection. His Ceiling and Waterfall for the Lobby of 666 Fifth Avenue recently was de-installed and is in storage awaiting another venue.

PBS aired Josephine Baker: The Story of an Awakening.  Frida reputedly had a fling with her in early 1939 in Paris. Some have expanded the “fling” into an “affair.” But, Frida wrote that she wasn’t in Paris that long and was ailing in a hospital until Marcel Duchamp and Mary Reynolds rescued her.

For those of you, like me, who get mired in the minutia, here is an article on the Record Keeper’s Rave and the Archives hashtag party.



Dia de los Muertos, November 2020

Frida Ofrenda, Oaxaca 2007, photo Will Maynez

Dear Friends of Diego,

On this Day of the Dead, we hope for some saving grace in these troubled times. It helps to fondly remember past partners on this project like Julia Bergman, Masha Zakheim, Bob Seward, Sal DeGuarda, and Tannis Reinhertz. In 1999 my late wife Carmelita Alvarez went to the San Francisco Public Library to read all of the 1940 SF Chronicle and SF Examiner newspapers on microfiche. She created abstracts for our research. More of my friends and family are on the “threshold”, pausing for a momentary Mexican good-bye, increasingly difficult with the quarantine. Right now, Gabriel Garcia Marquez might write Life in the Time of COVID. Certainly, the Diego Rivera Mural Project is on the cusp of a change, the end of a chapter, as the mural transitions to SFMOMA for a few years.

There is some exciting news coming from Philadelphia about composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank. El Ultimo Sueño de Frida  y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego) is a Spanish-language opera about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera she is writing in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz. It is scheduled for fall 2021 at the San Diego Opera. She lives and runs a music school up north in Boonville, Mendocino County.

She is also working with Mural Arts. In 2006 Diego’s daughter Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin and Mural Arts convened an Encuentro Internacional de Pintura Mural in Mexico City.  The meeting of so many muralists from all over the world was surely a highlight of Julia’s and my Rivera work. Some of us reconvened in Philadelphia in early 2007 to celebrate Doctora Rivera, see a Mexican graphics show at the Philadelphia Art Museum, and enjoy some new murals. (A belated Feliz Cumpleaños to Dra. Rivera on her 96th birthday, October 23.)

The DeYoung’s Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving finally opened and it was a special treat to see it on opening day with my friend Adriana Williams. To augment my mural timeline, I’ve just gotten permission from the Museo Frida Kahlo to obtain copies of three documents displayed in the show. We’re hoping to get access to their archives in the future to get critical documentation for my theory on how Frida and photographer Nick Muray initially hooked up. Having a plausible/likely scenario still requires the rigor of hard data, which is difficult to find when a couple is initiating a clandestine affair. Their instantaneous affinity likely surprised them both.

The confluence of the Frida show opening and the SF Public Library’s  VIVA! Latino Hispanic Heritage Month hosted by Anissa Malady resulted in several YouTube videos, including author Celia Stahr talking about her Frida in America book. The new Frida film is now out and can be streamed through the Roxie Theater. My YouTube video is here.

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism at the Denver Art Museum has opened. This is a version of the Gelman collection of Mexican Modernists, but as usually happens, traveling exhibits are augmented locally. Denver collectors John and Sandy Fox lent works by Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. In San Francisco, the DeYoung was able to borrow Frida’s wedding portrait from SFMOMA and Portrait of Dr. Eloesser from Zuckerberg General Hospital. The three documents in the DeYoung’s exhibit have a San Francisco angle and were borrowed from the Museo Frida Kahlo by DeYoung curator Hillary Olcott.

The  NYT did a fascinating article about Albrecht Durer, Seeing Our Own Reflection in the Birth of the Self-Portrait. Another intriguing article on portraiture involves studies done of the Mona Lisa (which some believe is a Leonardo self-portrait). In this new investigation about DaVinci’s work, it suggests that the artist “copied” an image onto the canvas using pouncing, the technique used in fresco painting to transfer the drawn image on to the wet plaster.

© Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In doing research on Diego Rivera’s Making of a Mural; Showing the Building of a City at the San Francisco Art Institute, I came across copies of a Rivera article in my pile of Emmy Lou Packard papers. However, there was  a page missing. Luckily, I was able to find a hard copy of The Hesperian, Spring 1931 issue for sale on-line. Rivera’s article is titled “Scaffolding” and is a dialogue between various versions of himself and an architect. The tromp l’oeil scaffolding in that mural is metaphoric and refers to construction on many levels.  Though Rivera was enamored of US technology, that passion first manifested itself in his devotion to architecture. In the dialogue the Architect states: “You have always said, ‘the architect is painter, sculptor, and engineer welded into one personality, and that painting, sculpture, and architecture are together one thing: plastic art.’” In the lower part of the mural Rivera placed architect Timothy Pflueger and architect Arthur Brown, Jr. (City Hall, Coit Tower, and the SFAI) on either side of his SFAI patron, William Gerstle. In his inaugural speech in San Francisco at the San Francisco Art Institute on Dec. 13, 1930 Rivera stated, “skyscrapers are the peak of American art…and now the painter will follow the architect.” He exhorted the audience to learn to love steel.

There is also an article by SFAI instructor Albert Barrows on Dynamic Symmetry. Barrows, the figure in the mural’s lower right, huddled over the table, explains about the mural’s mathematical underpinnings, which he helped Rivera develop. Barrows makes an analogy with the mathematical underpinnings of music, which rather than constrain creativity, enables it. In 1985 to aid in Emmy Lou Packard’s research, Lucienne Bloch reconstructed the Albert Barrows’ guidelines. Recent work has applied mathematical analysis to a large number of masterworks.

Our friends at Cultural Heritage Imaging are helping maintain the world’s connection to the past; Recovering Traditional Weaving Knowledge: Te Rā, The Māori Sail. In January 2020 Carla Schroer and Mark Mudge of CHI traveled to the British Museum in London to document the only existing Māori canoe sail of its kind, made over 200 years ago. The imaging work was performed in collaboration with the New Zealand project entitled Te Rā — The Māori Sail Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau! – Raise up again billowing sail! — funded by The Royal Society – Te Apārangi Marsden Fund. The New Zealand team produced a 13½-minute video of the project.

Lastly, here’s a Zen moment from the Isamu Noguchi Museum, which nurtures creativity in the name of an artist, who has passed, but who had a significant connection with Frida and George Gershwin.