“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

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.



September 2020

¡ Amigos, Wear Your Mask, por favor !

Frida with Diego and Gas Mask by Nick Muray, 1938

Dear Friends of Diego, 

The Covid-19 tsunami has left us few places to flee; there appears to be little high ground.  My heart especially goes out to those with loved ones quarantined in nursing homes and to those residents deprived of life-affirming visits. Everyday new consequences surface, inevitable, but distressing none-the-less. SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera’s America exhibition has been postponed until Summer-Fall 2022.

Gratefully, planning continues on moving the mural; its museum unveiling tentatively set for late February 2021. From México UNAM’s Graduate Mechanical Engineering Department streamed video of the analytical testing of replica mural panels. As the panels tilted and swayed in the air, Art and Science danced a mesmerizing tango. The empirical data is informing the local team’s strategy to safely de-install and transport the mural panels.

Work continues on the design of a new Diego Rivera Theater and its lobby, where the mural will be installed in 2023. A dialogue has also started on defining a Mural Director position. Decades of work on this project have instilled the need of continuity for a mural which will last centuries.

80 years ago in early September, a distraught Frida flew to San Francisco. Her confidant Dr. Leo Eloesser checked her into St. Luke’s Hospital on Valencia Street. After Trotsky’s assassination on August 20-21st the police had arrested Frida and her sister Cristina. They had unwittingly had the assassin over for lunch at the Casa Azul, where Trotsky had once lived. The police decided that Frida wasn’t even a Mexican. She was divorced from Diego and her father was German. Diego was alarmed that Frida, who passed herself off as a Jew, might revert to being a German national. She was hastily naturalized a Mexican on August 26, 1940.

Chronicling the mural is immensely facilitated by our wealth of primary source material. Years ago, my late research partner, librarian Julia Bergman, went to Philadelphia to photocopy much of Emmy Lou Packard’s research work for a never written book on Diego Rivera in San Francisco. Emmy Lou interviewed people, collected correspondence, and made notes of her interactions with Diego, both as an assistant on Pan American Unity and as his secretary. Donald and Kathé Cairns generously gave Julia access to his mother’s work. Donald has a special role as the little boy featured in the center of the mural next to a Mexican girl. (Originals at AAA and UCB Bancroft Library.)

Julia then encouraged architect John Pflueger to allow us to access his uncle architect Timothy Pflueger’s papers about the creation of Pan American Unity. (Originals at UCB Bancroft Library.) Through serendipity (Julia’s and my “hole card”), we found the papers of a Rivera assistant, Mona Hofmann, who left revealing anecdotes about the making of the mural. Coupled with the private Gershwin information we acquired and the not-yet-public, raw notes for Diego’s autobiography, My Art, My Life, a librarian’s treasure trove informs our stories. As others cull through these histories in the future, new insights will arise and investigators will marvel at Julia.

Now, Lucienne Allen has generously sent digital copies of her grandmother Lucienne Bloch’s 1931-33 journals. (The early 1930’s mysteriously became a meta-theme in this missive.) These journals have recently been referenced by Celia Stahr in her Frida in America book. Lucienne met Diego and Frida late in 1931 at a NYC dinner hosted by San Francisco’s Rosalie Stern, owner of Levi Strauss & Company. Lucienne had been seated next to Diego so that they could converse in French. Diego didn’t speak English.  Though Lucienne at the time had an offer to work with Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin, she opted to serve as an assistant on Diego’s portable frescos for his 1931 one-man MoMA show, the 1932-33 Detroit murals, the 1933 Rockefeller Center mural, and the New Workers School murals. Lucienne became a dear friend to Frida and accompanied her back to México when Frida’s mother was dying. She was an eyewitness to some of what transpired in Diego and Frida’s encounter with the US. Her point of view allows us to triangulate on incidents reported separately by Diego and Frida, while shedding light on their personalities. Another Rivera assistant Stephen Dimitroff became her partner and husband. The two were well-known for their encyclopedic knowledge of fresco techniques. The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) Anne Bremer Library has DVD’s of lectures they gave there. Looking forward to the books Lucienne has planned.

After finishing his Allegory of California at the Pacific Stock Exchange Tower, Diego and Frida had spent six weeks in spring 1931 at Rosalie Stern’s Atherton home on the San Francisco peninsula.  While there Diego painted a small, portable fresco, Still Life with Blossoming Almond Trees, which now resides at UC Berkeley’s Stern Hall, but will be part of SFMOMA’s show. (The previous embedded link is a brilliant essay by Prof. Julio Ramos about that fresco and the Spanish language.) Among other themes, the fresco was Rivera’s homage to Van Gogh’s Blossoming Almond Trees. This painting is cited in a New York Times piece on the Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai, creator of Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. (Recently, a discovery has been made about a plausible locale of Van Gogh’s last painting of twisted Tree Roots. It reminded me of being in Paris trying to reconcile Diego’s view of Notre Dame from the Port de la Tournelle with the actual landscape.)

Lastly, in May 1931 Diego painted The Making of A Fresco, Showing the Building of a City. As the future of the SFAI is in flux, there is hope to find resources to keep the mural there. The Mexican Museum has asked to interview me about this mural. (If you’re downtown by Yerba Buena, look at the new facade on the Mexican Museum.) Art conservators continue restoring the  “Lost Frescoes,” such as one by Suzanne Scheuer, a student in 1934. SFAI Librarian and Archivist Jeff Gunderson sent a missive; re-posted here with permission. This Bulletin came out seven months before Diego and Frida first came to San Francisco. (Late in 1931 Rivera had a one-man show at MoMA, second only to Matisse, whose exhibit closed 17 days before.)

The first issue of the San Francisco Art Association Bulletin, April 1930, featured a stunning photograph of the new Library with its views of the bay, its oak tables, fireplace and filled with books in the built-in shelves. The letter from SFAA Board President, William Gerstle made sure to mention the recent visit by Henri Matisse who “expressed himself as having spent one of the most pleasant days of his stay in America when he visited the classes at work.” Matisse said “he had never seen such magnificent lighting and working conditions in Europe.”  [Jeff Gunderson]

Charlie Chaplin was almost assassinated in Japan on May 15, 1932 by ultranationalists, who mistakenly thought he was an American. He was saved because he decided at the last minute to go see some Sumo wrestling, instead of attending a reception. Again, this is how history happens. Almost immediately upon returning to the US in June 1932, Chaplin met Paulette Goddard. The couple went to the Far East in 1936 and got married, making her unavailable to George Gershwin, when he fell for her just before he died. (BTW An old school friend just sent me an announcement for Hershey Felder appearing in Gershwin Alone in Florence, Italy. The live streaming event happens Sunday September 13, 2020 at 5 PM PDT. Tickets.)

The New York Times chimed in on the significance of the UCSF Zakheim murals with an article on Biddy Mason, a Black nurse featured in one of the murals. The LA Times, too, had an opinion about her. Locally, KGO’s John Rothman show had a “Save the Murals!” segment on August 28, 2020. Recently, the SF Board of Supervisors and the SF Historic & Preservation Commission voted unanimously to grant the murals “Landmark Status.” UCSF is entertaining bids up to $1.8M to curate, remove, and store the murals. Hopefully, there will be a resolution to saving these historic legacies.


The San Francisco Public Library has booked me to do an on-line presentation on Saturday Sept. 12, 2020 at 11 am. Here is the link for the free Reservation.

The Mexican Consulate in San Francisco graciously invited me to participate in a bi-national Zoom ceremony this past July 31 to rename the Consulate’s Gallery to honor Diego and Frida.

Here are some inspiring items on artist Luchita Hurtado and photographers Flor Garduño and Dorothea Lange.


Cultural Heritage Imaging finished their NEH CARES grant mural work with another example of the professionalism being brought to this project. Though CHI had a discrete amount of shooting to do under the grant, they were amazed at how much brighter the colors were due to last summer’s conservation work. So, CHI re-shot our entire mural!

Kudos to my buddies Kiernan Graves and Anne Rosenthal, the lead fresco conservators, and to the whole international conservation crew.

Our super hi-res 6’ x 20’ Pan American Unity mural reproduction (by MagnaChrome from CHI files) awaits installation at the CCSF Culinary Arts Department’s Pierre Coste Dining Room.


As a going away quarantine fantasy, here is the San Francisco Ballet’s Dance of Dreams.

(Set to music from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the opening dance sequence is at the SFAI).


Stay safe and productive,