“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

May 2020

Photo Credit: instabusters.net

Dear Friends of Diego,

The mask mysteriously appeared. Various photos have materialized of El Rey, our Olmec head replica, hunkered down, standing watch outside the Diego Rivera Theatre. At the sequestered City College of San Francisco, classes became telecourses. The enforced quarantine has given many of us the opportunity to explore. For those not working remotely, it has been a chance to be in another, personal, time zone, as daily life merged into the slow lane.

Many resources have come on-line, some albeit only for short runs. But Alfredo Molina’s turn as Mark Rothko in Red is streaming on PBS Great Performances until May 27. In 2002 Molina had played Diego Rivera in Salma Hayek’s Frida movie.

The San Francisco Public Library has given members access to Kanopy, a cornucopia of great films. The Smithsonian Open Access provides a peek at 3 million pieces of its holdings, for example, a self-portrait of George Gershwin.

Although he does not appear in the mural, George Gershwin’s role in our story is pivotal, almost like a deus ex machina in a Greek play, an outside agent driving the story. His 1935 visit to México led him to advise movie star Paulette Goddard to visit Rivera and get her portrait painted. In 1940, divorced from Frida, Diego was rumored to be ready to marry either artist Irene Bohus or his model Nieves Orozco. When Paulette showed up, Nieves told me that he burned these bridges. While Diego’s infatuation with Paulette didn’t bear fruit, it created the change of trajectory which led to his re-marriage with Frida. The arrival of Paulette created different, but interesting, futures for Irene and Nieves. Over the years I’ve sensed Frida’s warm relationship with George in their brief encounters. Frida and George went shopping together for a dress for another woman. For those not familiar with Gershwin, the recent Carnegie Hall special with Michael Feinstein is a good introduction.

In 1937’s Shall We Dance Gershwin’s long-time friend Fred Astaire sang “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” to Ginger Rogers. The bittersweet song, written very near the end of George’s life, reportedly refers to his feelings for Paulette, who was still married to Charlie Chaplin. In April 2018 I reported how Paulette introduced Diego to Astaire’s choreographer Hermes Pan, which led to Pan’s portrait, Diego’s experiment in depicting motion. Goddard danced with Astaire in Second Chorus, which also featured her next husband, Burgess Meredith.

MoMA’s Dorothea Lange exhibit was only up briefly before the museum closed, but it has posted some streaming features.  NPR did a 4-minute listen.

During its three-day viewing window, the English National Ballet’s Broken Wings, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s brilliant piece on Frida, was a treat. The link still features a ballet trailer and an interview with the choreographer. Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the ENB, danced the signature role as the two Latinas showcased their talents. I had an opportunity to chat with Annabelle about Frida at our mural a couple of years ago when she was working with the San Francisco Ballet and the Smuin Ballet.

Celia Stahr’s new book, Frida in America, came out in early March after a decade’s work. The book quickly became a reference for me. The author’s significant coup was getting access to Lucienne Bloch’s journal. Bloch was a dear friend to Frida and an assistant to Diego at Detroit, at the Rockefeller Center, and at the New Workers School. At the first book signing in San Francisco, we also saw long-time friend Lucienne Allen, Bloch’s granddaughter. Ms. Stahr and I have had a chance to correspond and chat. Her book tour awaits the end of the quarantine.

One of the pitfalls of historical research is to put on blinders and head down a path, you are sure is the right one. You know what they say about assumptions. A scenario about how Frida and Nick Muray hooked-up, which I have been exploring for quite a while, recently took a turn. One of my blinders slipped off. An opinion (which Celia agrees is probably wrong) cited in a footnote, set me thinking in a different direction. The new scenario fits all the constraints of the story’s facts, even more nicely. Unfortunately, people having clandestine affairs, try not to leave too many tracks, except for Frida’s extravagant first love letter to Nick. If initial impressions are important, Nick hit a homerun. (Babe Ruth by Nick.) For all the Frida fans, here is a Virtual Tour of the Casa Azul.

Good news for our project was the passage of the bond issue which will fund the construction of the mural’s future City College home, a new Diego Rivera Theatre. It will be installed upon its return from SFMOMA in 2023.

Paco Link is SFMOMA’s Rivera Project Coordinator. The mural move team’s trip to México was cancelled because of the pandemic. UNAM (National Autonomous University of México), where we were due to work with the graduate mechanical engineering department, also closed. The bi-national work continues via teleconferencing as the various aspects of the mural move proceed.

For the Whitney’s  Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, Paco Link had previously directed an immersive, three screen film on the Abelardo Rodríguez Market and the adjoining, almost forgotten, Teatro del Pueblo, including murals by Pablo O’Higgins. The Whitney has not announced revised dates for the exhibit, but has put the art on-line. Everyone from Forbes to the NY Times has enthused about the show’s significance. PBS did a segment on the effect of Los Tres Grandes on the contemporary Mexican muralism scene.

Rivera had been in artistic exile from the United States since the destruction of the Rockefeller mural in February 1934, which caused the cancellation of future mural work in the US. In 1940 he returned to a “minefield” whose geography he now knew better. Moreover, the sides had been redefined. In earlier times, his murals might contrast an exploitive capitalist society versus the utopian socialist society. But in 1940 the sides were a democratic society versus a totalitarian society.  Our mural reflects the Stalinist Soviet Union alignment with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

After the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact signed by the USSR’s Molotov and Germany’s Ribbentrop, many communists were in a dilemma. Had the Soviet Union just inked a pact with the “devil”? Many communists, unable to swallow this cynical agreement, fled the party. But the “true believers” had to concoct a rationale for the pact being a brilliant move. The obvious upside of the Pact was that it bought Stalin time, but, ideologically, it was a weak excuse. After the war started, the local communist stance was for neutrality, denouncing any attempt by the United States to enter the war against Nazi Germany and by inference their ally the Soviet Union. Ironically, this aligned the communists with the America Firsters, a right-wing group in which Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford were prominently involved. This group promoted neutrality, but perhaps out of an infatuation with Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies. Lindbergh said that we did not want to go against Germany’s military might, which he had witnessed first-hand. For communists everything would change in June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

One of Rivera’s themes in our mural was the benefits of industrialization, which explains Diego’s infatuation with Henry Ford, despite his politics. In 1943 with the Soviet Union now a US ally, Diego was even more looking to the industrialization of the countries of the Americas. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston offers a database with over 8000 Documents of Latin American and Latino Art. In Arte y Panamericanismo [ICAA RECORD ID 747269], Rivera stated:

“This contributes to Pan-American unity and to the notion that-in conjunction with the planned industrialization supported by the United States-America will not perish beneath the rubble of the racist and oppressive world prone to slavery, but rather will lay the foundation for a new, better and free society.” [my italics]

The American Alliance of Museums and International Council of Museums May meetings in San Francisco were cancelled, but some features may go on-line.

Here is news from the Canal Alliance on the inspirational Dr. Resa.

A year and a half ago Jean Franco and I were interviewed by StoryCorps. Here is their link to my late partner Julia Bergman and me being interviewed in 2010 (use Chrome browser.) Having a librarian as a research partner was wonderful. Having a person I so admired call me friend was sublime.

Stay safe and creative,


February 2020

David Alfaro Siqueiros

David Alfaro Siqueiros

Dear Friends of Diego,

The Mexican muralists are getting off to a roaring start in 2020. As the 100th anniversary of the Mexican muralism program approaches, the Whitney Museum (NYC) unveils Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945,  February 17 through May 17. Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco toppled a cultural border wall and artists north of the frontera gravitated to the energy radiating from a post-revolutionary México. The continent’s artistic poles had shifted. Locally, future Coit Tower muralists Ray Boynton, Ralph Stackpole (who had met Rivera in Paris in 1907), Bernard Zakheim, and Victor Arnautoff made the pilgrimage. From different places Elizabeth Catlett, Marion and Grace Greenwood, Isamu Noguchi and others headed south, often in creaky, leaky vehicles. (Thelma Johnson Streat, who briefly served as an assistant on Pan American Unity, is also represented in the show.)

The Throckmorton Gallery’s Mexican Murals, Identity and Revolution in Images kicked off the theme and is on view until February 29.

One hundred years ago, Diego Rivera was culminating his European gestation with an extended stay in Italy. To master buon fresco, Rivera studied Giotto, Tintoretto, Uccello, and others.  He imprinted the techniques, painterly and geometric, artistic and scientific, with which he would chronicle the history of México.

(Ely de Vescovi, aka Bettina Whitman, was descended from Tintoretto. She concocted the half butanol-half water solution, first used on our mural to extend the drying time of fresco plaster. Recently, our art conservators have found what may be a down-side to the use of this solution. In 1940 she was accepted as an original resident at the Montalvo Art Center, which cut short her tenure as an original assistant on Pan American Unity. In June Mona Hofmann wrote, “We were still living in a hotel [California]-Diego, Bettina and I-on separate floors-still compiling the materials and instruments to start that enormous project.” De Vescovi had worked with Mona in 1934 helping Rivera recreate the “Rockefeller mural” at Bellas Artes, soon after its NYC destruction.)

For those American artists not venturing south, Los Tres Grandes’ energy was delivered by their creative visits north. This influence was formalized by George Biddle’s request to FDR on May 9, 1933 to create a national program to emulate the Mexican program:

“Dear Franklin:

…..There is a matter which I have long considered and which some day might interest your administration. The Mexican artists have created the greatest national school of mural painting since the Italian Renaissance. Diego Rivera tells me that it was only possible because Obregon allowed artists to work at plumber’s wages in order to express on the Government’s buildings the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution.” (Full text, page 2 on AAA link and FDR’s reply.)

(Having seen MoMA’s 80th anniversary Rivera retrospective in the winter of 2011-12, I may wait until spring to go to the Whitney. Though I stayed at the Warwick Hotel, practically across the street from MoMA’s rear entrance, I had to wear everything I brought to jay-walk 54th street without freezing. The Vida Americana show moves to San Antonio in June)

But it wasn’t only artists who went to México. In November 1935 composer George Gershwin went south to look for the kind of musical inspiration he had previously found in Cuba. He didn’t find it, but budding painter Gershwin wrote, “…Spent a great deal of time with charming fat Diego Rivera & charming lovely Mrs. Diego Rivera. Made color pencil portraits of them both.” The polarity of Gershwin’s politics shifted.

(The Gershwin Trust has recently shared a photo of Gershwin sailing home on the SS Santa Paula and shared a copy of the passenger manifest. These are wonderful pushpins in the chronology. The manifest recorded that actor Frank Morgan, soon to be the Wizard of Oz, had boarded in Los Angeles with his wife. They are is in the photo. For those, like me, mired in the minutia; it was a two week trip through the Panama Canal from Mazatlan to NYC with stops. The cast of Porgy and Bess was waiting for Gershwin at the pier.)

Gershwin also met Siqueiros during the visit and helped underwrite the Mexican artist’s Experimental Workshop in New York in 1936. At this workshop Jackson Pollock was introduced to drip painting. Here is a picture of Siqueiros and Pollock.

A comparison of Siqueiros’ portrait of the iconic revolutionary Emiliano Zapata with Rivera’s portrait is very revealing. The darkness and lightness of the concurrent paintings could serve as a metaphor for the political differences that separated the two Mexican artists for a good portion of their lives. Rivera’s alignment with Leon Trotsky became an encumbrance after the ex-leader of the Red army was assassinated in México in 1940, while Rivera painted in San Francisco. Siqueiros had tried dramatically, but unsuccessfully, to machinegun Trotsky several months earlier. Later, when Rivera applied for re-admittance to the Stalinist Mexican communist party, he would disavow this relationship and claim he was really trying to set-up Trotsky by inviting him to asylum in México. In Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government there is a similar example with Konstantine Bulatkin conveniently claiming that he wasn’t really a follower of the tarnished Cossack Filipp Mironov, but only trying to “kill the traitor.”

Siquieros Zapata

David Alfaro Siqueiros Zapata (1931). Oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Rivera Zapata MOMA

Diego Rivera, Zapata (1931). Fresco, MoMA.

Recently, there was a meeting at City College of San Francisco with architects assembling the Criteria Document for a new Diego Rivera Theater, including the lobby installation of the mural, upon its 2023 return from SFMOMA. The architects are creating functional standards for viewing, lighting, security, and access to guide the architectural firms bidding on the project. This will probably be the mural’s home for the next 80 years, so the planning has to be prescient; we will be handing a pristine mural off to the future. Also addressed was a move of our library’s unique Diego Rivera Collection in proximity to the mural.

On a Saturday afternoon walk on Russian Hill, we stopped by to see the progress of the conservation work on the Olmsted murals at SFAI. The cleaning phase appears to be done. City College restored its Science Building’s Olmsted murals in 2002.

Diego was crazy about Hollywood movies and the stars. Our mural references Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and Edward G. Robinson in Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Diego went down to LA on the very first weekend he was here to visit Paulette Goddard, who hosted a tea. Diego’s friend, actress Dolores Del Rio, threw a party at the Beachcombers. Later, Edward G. Robinson hosted some guests at his house. Paulette Goddard & Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich & Erich Maria Remarque, and Orson Welles & Dolores Del Rio got to see his Rivera paintings. Talk about some power couples! (Erich Maria Remarque became Paulette’s last husband.)

In January 1941 on his way home from San Francisco, he spent almost a month in Santa Barbara, but went to LA to attend a party at the home of actor Oscar Homolka. (Since Emmy Lou Packard said that they drove via the Pacific Coast Highway, I know the exact day Diego passed through my hometown of Oxnard. How’s that for minutia?) There was a lot of German exile filmmakers at the party, including Salka Viertel. Recently at the Mechanics Institute, Donna Rifkind spoke about her new book, Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Rifkind was a special guest at a screening of Queen Christina (1933), starring a luminous Greta Garbo and co-written by Garbo’s dearest friend Viertel.

The David Owsley Museum of Art (DOMA) at Ball State University will host Mexican Modernity: 20th-Century Paintings from the Zapanta Collection highlighting some of the most significant modern Mexican artists, from January 30 to May 3.

The Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is scheduled to run at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, February 13 – May 18 and at the  Portland Art Museum, June 13 – September 27. It then moves on to the Denver Art Museum on October 25, 2020 and runs until January 17, 2021 (almost concurrently with SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera’s America.) The Gelman Collection was at SFMOMA in 1996 and has accumulated some frequent flyer miles over the years.

The DeYoung’s Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving opens March 21. Curator Hillary Olcott will be giving a free lecture at the museum on February 27th at 10:30 am. An exhibit at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in Chicago will highlight the works of Frida Kahlo in the summer of 2020. The list of recent or upcoming Frida shows is staggering. A sidebar to all the “official” Frida shows is the issue of the Frida Kahlo Corporation and the right of artists to include images of Frida in their works.

Went to an opening reception for sculptor Fernando Escartiz’s exhibit, México: Raiz y Fuerza / Mexico: Root and Strength. The event was co-sponsored by the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco and the Public Policy Institute of California. Escartiz’s version of the Mexican Tree of Life represents the relationship between Mexico and San Francisco and is a part of Consul General Remedios Gómez Arnau’s year-long series of exhibits celebrating “2020: Año de México en San Francisco”/ “2020: Mexico’s year in San Francisco.” You may have seen some of the artist’s work at the San Francisco Symphony’s last Dia de los Muertos concert.

Next month the SFMOMA/Atthowe/CCSF “mural move” team is off to México to confer with our UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) team members. Mexican engineers have fabricated full-size, mural panel replicas, allowing us to quantify strategies to handle the real panels. The wonderful closure is that Mexican art conservation, chemical, engineering, and technological prowess is facilitating the move of a priceless mural, which celebrates U.S. technology. Diego’s dream for México has come true.

This coming May, the American Alliance of Museums and the International Council of Museums will be meeting in San Francisco. Both organizations have requested bus tours of the Diego Rivera murals. As it turns 80 years old, this will be a signature year for the Pan American Unity mural; finally getting the international attention it merits.

A heartfelt muchas gracias to my departed partners and to all you who have helped get the mural to this “tipping point”,


“There is a pool of good. No matter where you put in your drop, the whole pool rises.”

Recent Friends of Diego missives are archived at: “Friends of Diego Newsletter”. There is some redundancy as we try to make every newsletter stand-alone.

December 8, 2019

Diego Litho

Self-Portrait Lithograph, 1930 (age 44 years)

Dear Friends of Diego,

Happy 133rd Birthday, Diego! This is how Diego looked on his first visit to San Francisco. Today is also my late Rivera partner Julia Bergman’s birthday. That Julia and Diego should share a birthday was among the synchronicities we never questioned. We were destined for this work. (We have a signed copy of this 1930 Self-Portrait lithograph, a gift to our collection from the late Lynn Wagner, the little girl painting, while seated on the floor in Panel 4.  She was the daughter of Rivera’s assistant Mona Hofmann, the blond woman seated at the table in Panel 2, to whom Diego gave the lithograph.)

SFMOMA will celebrate his 134th birthday with the  Diego Rivera’s America exhibition of 160 objects and one giant mural, scheduled to open October 24, 2020. The mural work for the exhibition has many facets. The conservation work done this summer included local and graduate foreign conservation interns assisting our master conservators. The Italian interns mapped the individual giornata (one day’s fresco work) and we saw that the giornata featuring Paulette Goddard in Panel 3 appeared completely surrounded by older work. Apparently, Diego was waiting for Paulette to arrive to “model” for him, though having worked on her stand-alone portrait in Mexico in May 1940, he could have done her from memory. Paulette came to San Francisco to appear in the San Francisco Examiner’s Ski Show at the Civic Auditorium on November 13, the date on his Panel 4 signature. Diego was in the home stretch painting to the right on the bottom level. On November 15, two weeks before the “finished” mural was unveiled, Paulette showed up to model. Other than the two giornata with painted dates, this may be the only giornata for which we have an exact date! (It occurred to me that I already had enough information to realize this, but my “lightbulb didn’t go on” until the giornata were mapped.)

Scholar Adriana Zavala, who is writing two essays for the Rivera show catalog, visited the mural.

This past week we had a meeting to assimilate new engineering data and further refine the moving strategy. Further work will follow in México in January.

Artist Rina Lazo has passed away and with her another of the direct connections to Diego and Frida. Her murals in the Museo de Antropologia are favorites and,  in a brush with history, she was present at two events we attended in México.

Recently Frida’s Portrait of a Lady in White sold at a Christie’s auction for $5.8M, the second highest price for her work. Of interest was the conjecture over when and where it was painted. One article speculated that it was done in San Francisco in 1930. Since Frida and Diego didn’t arrive in San Francisco until November 10, the window to paint it is rather small. An Artnet article speculated on the subject: “Experts still debate whether the portrait’s subject is an ex-lover, a friend, or a former classmate.” Further, “Others speculate that the woman might be a relative or friend of Ralph Stackpole, a sculptor who lived with Kahlo and Rivera in San Francisco.” Though Diego and Frieda stayed at 716 Montgomery, Stackpole’s indoor studio, (adjacent to his outdoor sculpture yard, now the Villa Taverna), he did not live with them. We do know Frieda painted a Portrait of Jean Wight (dated January 1931) and her famous wedding portrait (dated April 1931) during her 6 month stay.

Frida painting Jean Wight

Diego painted his Lady in White in 1939 and that was Mona Hofmann’s costume for the September 1940  Art in Action “come as a painting” party.

Art in Action Costume Party

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Ansel Adams, Mona Hofmann as the “Lady in White, Rivera as himself, and Timothy Pflueger as “Rivera.”

Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving will be coming to the DeYoung from March 21-July 26, 2020. This show has been on a tour which originated at the Casa Azul in 2012.

Over the years, we have had a fruitful relationship with the DeYoung and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF).

At the museum’s request in 1999 (in another brush with history) we showed the mural to artist Elizabeth Catlett and her husband, artist Francisco Mora. She graciously invited my wife and me to the private dedication ceremony of her sculpture at the Legion of Honor.

FAMSF Director Harry Parker III went down to Veracruz in 2004 to borrow an Olmec head for the opening of the new DeYoung Museum and brokered an additional deal. City College received a gift from the state of Veracruz; a 14 ton, 9 foot high replica of El Rey, San Lorenzo #1. From the nearby Frida Garden its fierce countenance protects our Diego Rivera mural.  During the dedication ceremony Governor Miguel Alemán Velasco pointed out that in 1906 it had been Governor Dehesa of Veracruz who gave Diego his first scholarship to study in Paris.

In 2008 the museum invited me and my dear friend, biographer Adriana Williams, to do talks in conjunction with Miguel Covarrubias’ Flora and Fauna map.

(These maps, another legacy from the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition, deserve a respectful, permanent home. Adriana recently recorded a podcast as part of the Brava for Women in the Arts’  Indómitas series.)

We are exploring the possibility of Jean Franco and me performing the one-act, An Interview with Frida, at the DeYoung in the spring.

Frida Interview performance

The white-washed Frederick Olmsted mural at the San Francisco Art Institute is re-appearing as the paint covering it is meticulously removed by conservators Molly Lambert and Samantha Emmanuel. As The Art Newspaper says: “The conservation project contrasts with a decision to cover up a controversial 1930s school mural in the same city.”

Christie’s auction house recently did a blurb on Francisco Toledo.

The Noguchi-Hasegawa exhibit, which closes today at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, was a wonderful treat for the human soul. In post-WWII Japan the two artists “sought to balance tradition and modernity, Japanese culture and foreign influences, past and present.” Isamu Noguchi worked with Rivera in Mexico during the time George Gershwin came to visit in 1935. Noguchi had done a bust of Gershwin in 1929. (This year’s Gershwin prize will go to country music’s Garth Brooks. ) Isamu had an encounter with Frieda, before she was Frida. With the ascendency of Hitler, she dropped the “e” from her name, so it wouldn’t look so German.

Coming in September 2020 there will be a London Mural Festival.

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh until January 19, 2020.

Lastly, here is a link to a video of my SFMOMA talk at JR’s mural last August.

Abrazos y Feliz Año Nuevo,