“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

June 2019

Jean Franco and JR

Jean Franco and JR at SFMOMA opening, May 23, 2019.

Photo: Will Maynez

Dear Friends of Diego,

JR’s Chronicles of San Francisco got a splendid unveiling at SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery with many of the 1200 figures in the mural present. JR’s homage to Diego Rivera features a video of the French artist with his back to the audience, like Rivera in our mural, brushing on paste to “hang” photographic images. Bathing suited women allude to the swimmers in our mural, who look up at the diver, momentarily suspended in space…forever. Last year Time magazine designated JR one of the hundred most influential people in the world. In the June 3, 2019 Time issue, Chronicles of San Francisco is profiled.  The museum has invited me to speak on Aug. 9 as part of Gallery Talks. The Roberts Family Gallery is free to the public and will feature our mural as part of an extensive Diego Rivera’s America exhibition in the fall of 2020.

Lots of work is going on at the mural in preparation for the move. The protective railing was taken down and aluminum scaffolding raised. Vertical side trim was removed, exposing edges of the mural unseen since 1961. Contractors removed interior plaster work below the mural and will be boring into the exterior walls to investigate how the mural panels are actually attached. There is always the gap between the architect’s neatly rendered plans and the reality of jockeying not-quite-square, massive steel and plaster panels into position. Since the installation work was poorly documented, we’ve already found some surprises.

NOTE: Due to all the delicate work being done on the mural, it will remain inaccessible to visitors throughout the summer.

Supervised by SFMOMA’s Head of Conservation Michelle Barger, art conservators Kiernan Graves and Anne Rosenthal are minutely assessing the condition of the fresco plaster from atop the scaffolding. Long-time supporter Anne was recently honored for her work restoring the WPA murals at the celebration of the Aquatic Park Bathhouse’s 80th anniversary. Locally, her work also includes Coit Tower, the Beach Chalet, and the other San Francisco Rivera murals.

Florentine conservator Francesca Piqué, whose 1999 mural assessment for the Getty Conservation Institute changed my life, came back to visit after 20 years. She and her conservator colleague, who has worked at the Louvre, commented on the incredible condition, after almost six decades, of the mural’s lower parts (the parts some might deem more susceptible to possible damage). Francesca, who now lives in Switzerland, came to enroll her son in City College! We’re already looking at him as a prospective mural docent. Our docents move on to further their education (you go, Helen and Vickie) and we need to recruit. Everyone is welcome to sign up for the wide variety of classes the College offers and apply to be a docent.

Cultural Heritage Imaging will shoot the previously unseen mural parts to augment their photogrammetric work, a comprehensive 3-D image of the mural’s surface. This work, hosted at Stanford’s Digital Library, will inform the conservators’ work. Old bungalows on the north side of the theatre have been demolished, clearing the path for the murals extrication in about a year. X-ray analysis will reveal any undocumented, embedded metal in the panels.  Spectroscopic analysis of the pigments, fresco plaster and cement substrate is an upcoming task for a visiting Mexican scientific team.

Director Arthur Dunkelman of the Jay I. Kislak Foundation sent along an article about similar analytical work done on Rivera Popol Vuh watercolors by the Library of Congress. All this quantitative data is a benchmark for the future. The LOC recently contacted us to inquire about Rivera intellectual property rights issues. Their website has an interesting article, “Exploring the Early Americas.”

Dualities is a recurring theme in Diego and Frida’s work. Right now in the mural world we are embroiled on the other hand in a fight to save the Victor Arnautoff murals at Washington High School from being whitewashed. An April 11 NYT article on the issue garnered almost 800 comments. I made an “appearance” on KQED’s Forum in April. On April 26 the WSJ had an op-ed piece defending the murals. The Washington Post reported on this as well. As a Diego Rivera investigator, the destroyed “Rockefeller mural” is always the elephant in the room. This issue has invoked responses from Russia, Germany, and the National Coalition Against Censorship, which includes the Directors Guild of America. First Nation support for the mural has been offered in a video by Robert Tamaka Bailey, a Choctaw elder. Professor Dewey Crumpler, who painted a mural in response to previous controversy, offers commentary. We’re hoping a non-destructive solution to the impasse can be devised.

Lope Yap, Jr, VP of the Washington H.S. Alumni Association, sends word that the SFUSD Board will put the GWHS Murals on the Committee Meeting agenda on Tuesday, June 18th – 5:00PM (The Mural issue is first up on the Agenda. 30 Minutes allowed for both sides of the issue.)

San Francisco Unified School District

Irving G. Breyer Board Meeting Room

555 Franklin Street, First Floor

San Francisco, CA 94102

On Tuesday, June 25th  there will be a Final Vote, but no Public discussion.

We are encouraged to write messages of opposition to any whitewashing of the murals to: Superintendent Vincent Matthews  and the Board Members.

There will be a free Historic Preservation panel on Beyond the Controversy: The George Washington High School Murals and the Removal of Public Art, Tuesday, July 9 at 7:30 PM at ILWU Local 34 Hall – 801 2nd St. next to Oracle Park, SF. We recently met with filmmakers interested in doing a segment on the issue as part of a documentary on WPA murals.

Bird Levy sends word that her annual Pasion de Frida exhibit will open Tuesday, July 9, 5-8 pm @ at Puerto Alegre at 546 Valencia Street. Has a recording of Frida’s voice been found? Some think not.

The first two figures Rivera wanted to include in our mural were Robert Fulton, inventor of a working steamboat, and Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse code. Now celebrating their 175th anniversary, these two Morse inventions obliterated time by making messaging almost instantaneous; more akin to text messaging than transporting messages on horseback. Rivera loved that these great inventors were painters, who reconciled Art and Science.

The Discovery Channel came by to film a short segment about Dudley Carter for “Expeditions Unknown” . Host Josh Gates told me that the episode will air next season.

Anne Schnoebelen, vice president of the Treasure Island Museum, sends along a link to an aerial view of Treasure Island, where our mural was created.

Frida Garden

(Photo: Will Maynez)

Our Frida Garden’s paint job has been renewed by City College staff. The Pacifica statue and Olmec head were power-washed. A special thank you to VC Kristina Whalen for nursing that project along. She is moving on from the College, but very much left a legacy in helping organize the Diego Rivera Mural Project by establishing protocols in the seven years since I “retired.”

We look forward to an upcoming visit by new Mexican Consul General Remedios Gómez Arnau to renew our joint commitment to the mural as elucidated in our 2011 MOU.

The mural is on a long journey through time and we’re hitching a ride for a few decades.



March 2019

Cobre ART

Mural by Cobre ART

Dear Friends of Diego,

As San Francisco’s Mission district gets gentrified beyond recognition, there’s some push back. Jean Franco just alerted me to a new mural; it appears Diego and Frida are watching! (200 block of San Carlos).

Got a  message from muralist Juana Alicia that she is bringing her art class to see the mural next week. In talking about our mural, I like to point out that what México brought to the “Marriage“ was continuity of culture, especially in its plastic arts (painting, sculpture, jewelry, etc.) We have a 9 foot high, 14 ton replica of a 3000 year old Olmec head.

It occurred to me that Juana is the heir of that continuity. The Women’s Building on 18th Street is a local treasure, a frequent stop on my neighborhood walks. Santuario/Sanctuary, her fresco painting at the San Francisco International Airport, is a collaboration with our friend artist Emmanuel Catarino Montoya, who created the sculptures. The Discovery Channel approached us and is coming next month to do a segment on Dudley Carter’s Goddess of the Forest, which is across from the mural in the lobby of the Diego Rivera Theatre. I contacted Emmanuel, who as a CCSF art student helped Dudley restore his pieces on campus. Some more continuity.

Note: Few of the artists who created the murals for which the Mission is famous, can afford to live here and many of the artistic legacies are being orphaned.

Public Events:

April 4, 2019 at Mechanics Institute GGIE 80th Anniversary Lectures  (I’ll be speaking at 3 pm.)

A separate Evening party follows at 6-8 pm.

On May 23, 2019 SFMOMA will host the public unveiling of JR’s The Chronicles of San Francisco. All 1200 people in the video mural are invited.

On Aug. 9, 2019 at noon, I will give a talk at SFMOMA at JR’s mural.

My Treasure Island Museum talk is re-scheduled to November 16, 2019.

Starting in April, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are free to San Francisco residents on Saturday’s.

Mona Schroder close up

Another concrete benefit of the photogrammetry work done by Cultural Heritage Imaging is the support they obtained from Stanford’s Digital Library. The huge mural files are stored there and Artist Rights Society has provided clearances.

Although the files are neot yet available to the public, using Stanford’s new Mirador viewer, I took a peek and found “Mona Schröder” painted onto the balustrade to the right of the image of Mona Hofmann in the mural’s panel 2. (The resolution is stunning compared to the website version of this area.) Under Mona’s maiden name, Rivera inscribed what may be, “The Queen of Sheba.” Since they had been very close, I wonder what the nickname means? [The reclining blond girl painting on the floor in panel 4 is Mona’s daughter, the late Lynn Wagner, who donated her mother’s remaining papers to us.]

Richard Neutra - Frida and Diego 1937

[Richard Neutra, Tan Yuka Pyramid/Serpent Diego & Frieda Rivera, Mexico City, 1937 (courtesy Dion Neutra, Architect © and Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)]

A back burner story jumped to a front burner. Our mural docent Helen Pinto was sleuthing and found this drawing architect Richard Neutra had done of Diego and Frida in México in 1937.

[1937 was quite a year: aviatrix Amelia Earhart disappeared, the German airship Hindenburg exploded, Picasso painted Guernica; Trotsky got asylum in Mexico; the Golden Gate Bridge opened; Frida appeared in Vogue magazine, George Gershwin met and fell for Paulette Goddard, but died 4 months later]

Mona and Arthur Hofmann were clients of the architect in 1937 and their former house in Hillsborough is on the National Register. The Hofmann’s had been introduced to Neutra by Dr. Sidney and Emily Joseph, Bay area Modernist art fans. Sidney was a painter and writer Emily had translated Diego’s talks “on-the-fly” in his 1930-31 stay because Diego didn’t speak English. I’d always thought Mona introduced Diego to Neutra in 1940, but this drawing skewed the chronology. Businessman/photographer Sidney Kahn, who took many pictures of Diego in 1940, had a Neutra house at 66 Calhoun Terrace. A couple of doors down was 42 Calhoun Terrace, among the places Diego stayed. After Trotsky was killed, Diego made sure he was a moving target.

A recent local cause célèbre was the destruction of the historically significant Neutra “Largent  House” (1936) at 49 Hopkins Avenue on Twin Peaks. The precedent it might set is dangerous. The City has ordered the developer to rebuild it. This is another example of artistic legacies in jeopardy.

Richard’s son Raymond Neutra has been extremely helpful sending me photos of germane pages. He told me that his father related in a letter that he went to visit Diego and Frida in the dark to the ominous sound of snarling dogs. Storytellers live for anecdotes like this! We were connected by mutual friend John Crosse, who writes a blog on Southern California Architectural History, including  Richard Neutra. Over the years our overlapping research has made us almost symbiotic. Raymond was able to correct the idea that his father had gone to Mexico in 1925. The consensus was that 1937 was Neutra’s first visit to México. (Likely, Sidney and Emily Joseph provided the introductions.)

A new book, The Tango War, speaks about the little known role of Latin America in WWII. Diego Rivera’s main agenda in painting our mural was to establish Pan-American solidarity in anticipation of the war reaching our shores. After the war, South America became a refuge for many Germans and Italians. México has a long history of receiving refugees.

Don and Kathe Cairns and their church group came on their annual mural visit on February 9th. It’s always a treat to see them and go out to lunch. (FYI: Donald is Emmy Lou Packard’s son and the little boy in the lower center of the mural.)

The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song ceremony will air on PBS May 3. The local Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust is one of the sponsors. In a nice nod to Latin music; Emilio and Gloria Estefan Honored in Gershwin Prize Tribute Concert.

Had you been invited to the private unveiling of the mural in 1940, here is what you would have received. Wonder who you had to be to get on the “A” list? (Copy of invitation purchased from Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1109 Geary, SF, 94109 using your donations to the Foundation of CCSF (Diego Rivera mural).  John Crosse alerted me to this opportunity.)




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

January 2019

Templo Mayor

Model of the Templo Mayor at center of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Actual center just behind.

Dear Friends of Diego,

México City works its magic on you. Spells cast centuries ago emanate from ruptures in the street, where through glass windows you can see the base of a temple below…astride yet another temple (our mural website rests on 1998 work). The ancient, the Baroque, and the ultramodern shoulder each as if they were on the  metro at rush hour. Diego, Mexican dirt under his fingernails, compulsively collected the pre-Columbian past rooted in the earth. Yet, he also embraced Henry Ford’s machines, the vehicles which could propel México into the future. All the jostling took place in his head and then spilled out on to the wet fresco plaster (enlucido).

The Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso houses Diego Rivera’s first mural, The Creation  (an encaustic, not a fresco). On Friday, January 12, 2019, SFMOMA convened a Roundtable of thirty US and Mexican art practitioners to discuss how best to de-install and move our Rivera mural from City College to the museum. (Frida and Diego would have loved that women comprised half the Roundtable. Soon, hopefully, this won’t warrant comment.) Specific next steps were determined, which include modeling of the mural panels to ascertain their vibrational properties.

We had spent Thursday morning viewing Rivera murals at the Secretariat of Public Education and, then, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes viewed panel 4 of the Carnival of Mexico, which had previously traveled to France for a show. This steel-framed panel weighs about two tons. At the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, a diversity of sophisticated analytic techniques were used to determine the mural’s physical characteristics. We studied the supporting structure behind the mural, which had been moved adjacent to the Alameda in 1986 from across the street at the seismically-damaged Hotel del Prado. At the Museo National de Arte we got an insightful lecture on the spectral analysis  of the over 200 paints left behind in Diego’s studio. On a cross-town Uber ride to cocktails at an art-filled private home, a Mexican art conservator from Chiapas, who specialized in lime-plasters, taught me technical fresco terms in Spanish. The Mexico visit, partially underwritten by the Koret Foundation, was a model for collaboration between our two great countries, stewards of our communal cultural heritage.

The photo below by SFMOMA’s Ruth Berson refers to French artist JR’s Chronicles of San Francisco. This is an homage to Diego Rivera, who lived in France for many years. JR’s video mural opens at the museum on May 23, 2019, a year before we move the mural to the same Roberts Family Gallery, which is freely open to the public. Here is JR on TED.

Will at Museo Mural Diego Rivera

On January 9 I tossed back a salute to my late Rivera partner Julia Bergman, who, among other things, taught me how to drink tequila. She’s been gone two years. I toasted on the hotel rooftop, where we would analyze the day’s research, starting with our first trip in 1999. Looking over the ledge I could see work in the long-empty lot below, which has been recently discovered to be the site of an Aztec ball court. You feel like you are immersed in time. But, it could be the tequila.

Siqueiros in Prison

The Archivo General de la Nación is in a nicely remodeled penitentiary. This famous photo of Siqueiros behind bars was taken there. In his “honor” they restored a small cell block and display the photo. Archives are idiosyncratic and they pointed me elsewhere for 1930’s address directories and immigration records. Instead, using Cynthia Madigan’s memory of where their house (designated part of the national patrimony) was, I started walking down Paseo de la Reforma. The house that hosted George Gershwin in 1935 has survived between the high-rises that overgrew what was meant to be a grand European boulevard.

Though we have yet to find the exact date that Frida returned to Mexico in the 3rd week of May 1931 to start her affair with Nick Muray, at our Friday session I met a principle from Frida’s Casa Azul, who was much interested in the implications of my research and offered to help. A recent article noted that the immediate empathy between  Frida and Dorothea Lange may have had to do with both suffering from childhood polio. Importantly, Dorothea introduced Frida to Dr. Leo Eloesser, who would become her San Francisco confidante, as well as medical advisor. Imogen Cunningham’s son, Rondal Partridge, whose photo of Diego graced our December 2018 issue, started working in Lange’s darkroom when he was only 16 years old.

My Mexican friend, physicist Evelina Chiu, told me that the Dragon de Oro (the Golden Dragon) was the Chinese store where her mother used to wait on Frida. (Their family-owned company furnished the heavy equipment for the Alameda mural move.) Though I didn’t find the building, Avenida Madero is still home to the Hotel Ritz, where Tim Pflueger stayed in April 1940, while inviting Diego to paint at Art in Action  at the Golden Gate International Exposition’s (GGIE) second season.


The Treasure Island Museum will host a GGIE event Saturday, February 2, 1:00-4:00 PM, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the opening.

The Mechanics Institute will host their GGIE event on Thursday, April 4, 2019 from 11:30-6:00 pm, with speakers (including me) about the fair. There will be an additional evening program. Details to follow in the next issue.

México City (CdMx) is awash in museums. I went to the Museo Jumex, Museo Soumaya (Carlos Slim’s place has a copy of Rodin’s Gates of Hell), to an extensive Graciela Iturbide show, and to the Museo National de Arte for Carlos Mérida and José María Velasco exhibitions. In Conversations with Diego Rivera, The Monster in his Labyrinth (page 42) Rivera relates that Velasco landscapes weren’t meant to be “photographic.” This finally explained why in Paris in 2014 I found that Diego had taken artistic license in his Le Port de la Tournelle painting; I couldn’t get Notre Dame, the pont, and the quay to align as in the painting.

An extraordinary Bellas Artes Kandinsky exhibition has an unstated Rivera connection. In his 1930-31 San Francisco sojourn, Rivera connected with Galka Scheyer, who represented Die Blaue Vier; Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger, and Jawlensky. This show warranted an extra visit, which I was unable to do.

On the last Sunday, I went back to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera for one last pass at Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central. It was the cherry on top. Sr. Arturo Aguilar González hangs out at various Rivera murals and is a walking archive. In a large photo of Diego and Frida, he pointed out that she’s wearing Chinese slippers, probably from the Dragon de Oro. (In the museum’s gallery there was an exhibition on the 20th Century Chinese-Mexican connection, Vientos de Fusang, which included work by Miguel Covarrubias.) He pointed out Diego’s dead twin peeking out from behind José Guadalupe Posada and an isolated eye he claimed belonged to Nahui Olin. Using photos he unveiled subtle messages in the reconstructed “Rockefeller mural” at Bellas Artes. We spent an hour exchanging stories, though we didn’t always agree.

He repeated the refrain about Rivera disrespectfully “mooning’ viewers at the San Francisco Art Institute mural; an interpretation I’ve rejected for many years. The trompe l’oeil mural depicts Rivera as you might stumble upon him working. Bernard Zakheim had done a watercolor of Rivera in México seated on the scaffold. Lucienne Bloch, Diego’s assistant at Detroit and at the “Rockefeller” (where she took the mural photo which allowed its recreation), also did a print of Diego in this pose. If one buys into the “mooning” theory, the direct objects of Rivera’s disrespect would have been his friends depicted below him, patron William Gerstle, who hired him to paint the mural and offered him a teaching position, and architect Arthur Brown, Jr. (City Hall, SF Art Institute, and Coit Tower). Diego’s best advocate, architect Timothy Pflueger,  is not in the photo, but is the mural figure on the left. [The New Yorker has an article on “Wing”, photos by Patti Smith taken at the Casa Azul in 2012. They were on display at the SFAI in the Diego Rivera Gallery for a 5-day run.]

Diego at SFAI with Gerstle and Brown, JR

Diego Rivera, William Gerstle, Arthur Brown, Jr., late May 1931. SF Art Institute photo.

Rivera’s San Francisco murals are devoid of the overtly politicized images that characterized the “Rockefeller” mural or his Carnival of México series. So much was at stake for Diego in this first working foray north of the border. In San Francisco he was treated well and wrote as much to Pflueger in accepting his 1940 commission.  (After returning to México in 1941 he bitterly complained to Frida about how he was treated there, compared to San Francisco.) Here, Diego was on his best behavior (well, at least, on the scaffold). Sr. Aguilar González and I plan to hook up next time I’m in CdMx. Walking back to my hotel, I passed the lovers, rappers, strollers,  break-dancers, and clowns, who are today’s Sunday afternoon Alameda park denizens. Diego would have loved them and we can imagine such a mural.

Saying this trip was a dream come true would be imprecise; my most ambitious mural dreams were never this good. Thanks to my friends at SFMOMA for graciously including me.