“Friends of Diego” Newsletter

September 2018

Donald Cairns

Photo: Kathé Cairns, 2013

Feliz Cumpleaños, Donald Cairns!

Tomorrow, September 27th is the birthday of the t-shirt clad, little boy in the mural, Emmy Lou Packard’s son. He is our touchstone to Diego and the mural work. Donald and Kathé have been staunch supporters of our work for a long time. Years ago, when they still lived in Philadelphia, they allowed my late partner Julia Bergman to bring over a Xerox machine and make copies of Emmy Lou’s research for her never written Diego Rivera in San Francisco. This cache of irreplaceable, primary source material has anchored our research. (Original Emmy Lou papers are now housed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and at the Smithsonian’s  Archives of American Art.)

Don Cairns 7 yrs old

Seven-year-old Donald with a steely gaze in a Mexican cowboy suit, a gift from Frida. Photo by Emmy Lou Packard, found in Frida’s belongings.

Join the Living New Deal on October 5-6 as it convenes Women and the Spirit of the New Deal at UC Berkeley. On October 5 Robert Reich will receive the Francis Perkins award. On October 6 the Diego Rivera Mural Project will receive a Kathryn A. Flynn Preservation Award. On behalf of the Project, Associate Vice Chancellor Kristina Whalen and I will accept the award.

FDR modeled the New Deal’s WPA Federal Art Project on Diego Rivera. Several of FDR’s grandchildren are on The Living New Deal Advisory Board. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a short article on FDR and humility.

Dudley Carter’s grandson Peter Vaughn came by to visit the mural in late August.  We are working on filling in Dudley’s page on our website with help from emeritus CCSF art instructors Phil Pasquini and Roger Baird, who worked with Dudley when he came to CCSF in 1983 and 1986 to restore his works. As a student, artist Emmanuel Montoya, who currently has a print show at the Mexican Consulate, worked with Dudley at City College. He has been a generous resource, providing pictures and audio interviews.

Jeff Lohrmann came by to talk about a drawing for Bernard Zakheim’s Coit Tower Library mural. They’re looking for a good home for it and other Zakheim art. As my late dear CCSF friend and mentor Masha Zakheim pointed out, her father Bernard and Diego were good friends in 1930. But in 1940, the Stalinist Zakheim wouldn’t even talk to the Trotskyist Rivera. Both Diego and Frida became Stalinists after WWII. The artifacts are being handled by Albert Nieman of VT Gallery.

Coit Tower The Library Charcoal Drawing

My all-time favorite radical, Tina Modotti, will be chronicled in a mini-series Radical Eye: The Life and Times of Tina Modotti. She was instrumental in introducing Frida to Diego and modeled for him. Her short, incendiary life was pyrotechnic. Hopefully, this work will capture her. Previous depictions of her have fallen short of the mark.

Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo

Tina Modotti and Frieda Kahlo, 1928

Here is an interesting (for us art-science nerds)  Library of Congress article on the scientific study of three Rivera watercolors about the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation story. After spectral analysis, a question is posed about why different paints were used in two of the watercolors. A decade ago in researching these artworks to aid Diego’s daughter, Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin (who has a birthday next month), I came across the answer. Only The Creation is one of the original three he did in San Francisco in 1931 for a never completed project with John Weatherwax. Two of these paintings being studied were done later, probably in Mexico, hence the different paint.

The December 2017 FOD missive mentioned Life with the Painters of La Ruche by Marevna, Diego’s common-law wife in Paris and mother of Marika. The book recounts first-hand stories of the painters who inhabited this “beehive” in Montparnasse.  Roseberys of London sends word that they will be conducting the “Diego Rivera’s Other Woman: Studio Collection Sale of Marevna on December 5, 2018 …to include portraits of and letters from Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Moïse Kisling, Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Leger, and Henri Matisse.” A link to the e-catalog will follow when it’s available.

This fall (October 26-28, November 2-3) the City College Theater Dept. will stage a version of Tim Robbins film, The Cradle Will Rock. CCSF director Patricia Miller says Tim Robbins has given his blessings. The 1999 movie dealt with two 1930’s examples of censorship. Orson Welles production of the Federal Theater Project’s musical The Cradle Will Rock was forced to look for another venue after it was shut down. Diego Rivera had his famous cause célèbre when the Rockefeller mural was destroyed.

CHI reports about the photogrammetry work that, “After a lot of work…we have our first version of all 5 panels in a single (very large file)  It is ~ 20 gigapixels.” As I mentioned last time, Stanford Digital Libraries will host this work, hopefully, in perpetuity. The SFMOMA conservation team will use these images to inform their interventions on the mural. A reduced-resolution version of this file will be used to generate a 6’ x 20’ hi-res reproduction of the mural to replace the old version installed in 1997 in our Culinary Department’s Chef’s Table dining room. That 17 month project sucked me into the Diego Rivera work (evidently whole).

When I first met with SFMOMA staff in May 2017, the 2020 Rivera’s America show seemed so far away. Now it’s less than 2 years until our mural will be removed from CCSF to be installed in SFMOMA’s freely-accessible Robert’s Family Gallery. The new Gallery has housed Richard Serra’s huge, steel Sequence sculpture since the expanded museum re-opened in 2016.The museum will soon return Sequence to Stanford’s Cantor Art Center.

Pan American Unity at SFMOMA

Rendering of Pan American Unity in the Roberts Family Gallery at SFMOMA. Image: courtesy SFMOMA.

Then, the SFMOMA Gallery will first showcase French artist JR’s The Chronicles of San Francisco mural beginning on April 25, 2019.  JR said he drew inspiration from Diego Rivera’s murals in San Francisco. Earlier this year after giving JR a tour of Rivera’s Allegory of California at the City Club, he invited me to be photographed, holding an easily recognizable prop, against a green screen in the studio he set up in the Mission. We chatted over chocolate cake. Later, he photographed Jean Franco as Frida.

Art by JR

Tomorrow, Sept. 27 at 7 pm, JR will speak at SFMOMA about the project. This is a partial example of the finished product. Individual people will be animated and speak to you over your phone. The guy with the balloons is me.

We eagerly await the programming around the Rivera show, as it firms up over the next two years. Recently, SFMOMA and I were both approached by the choreographer of an established local dance company to explore a dance program in connection with the 2020 exhibition. We’ll meet later this week.

Given that frescos can last so long, it is encouraging to attend CCSF sessions for the educational component of the SFMOMA collaboration. There’s a lot of new faces in addition to long-time supporters of the mural. Though, I’ve often quoted Getty Conservation Institute conservator Francesca Piqué’s admonition to act as if our mural would last 200 years; 2000-year-old frescos have been routinely found in the ruins of Pompeii.

There is talk about endowing a position to institutionalize the stewardship work we’ve done (hopefully, before I’m institutionalized). Erik Sherman quotes Jack Ma, the retiring founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, in a recent article. These following principles very much apply to the on-going stewardship of the mural.

  • You can’t do everything by yourself,
  • you won’t last forever, and
  • for real success, your undertaking should be able to continue without you.



August 2018

Libertad para Siquieros

Dear Friends of Diego,

At the Diego Rivera Theatre in late May, a convocation of world-class conservators, curators, engineers, architects, and art movers gleaned new insights into the mural’s condition and installation. In late July further work involved removing an exterior decorative stone panel to expose the structural wall to which the mural is attached. Conservator Kiernan Graves (“our mural whisperer”) again came for the day from L.A. to lay her hands on the mural to detect excessive vibrations. The resonant frequencies of the mural panels is a question. (In a nice bit of closure, Kiernan’s mentor was conservator Francesca Piqué, author of the first 1999 Getty Conservation Institute mural report.)  Soon, some of us from CCSF, SFMOMA and Atthowe Fine Arts Services had our latex-gloved hands on the mural feeling the vibrations as the outside crew sawed and chiseled through the exterior panel. (Atthowe’s Scott, Bryan, and Esteban installed our 14-ton Olmec head in 2004.) Once portions of the 12” thick structural wall were exposed, Bryan drilled holes to allow a borescope to peek and film behind the mural.

All the information will inform Atthowe’s strategy for relocating the mural to SFMOMA for their late 2020 Rivera’s America exhibition. In addition we have started conferring with City College Performing Arts and Education Center (PAEC) architects, who are modifying the lobby design to accommodate the mural upon its return.

In May one surprise to UNAM historian/conservator Sandra Zetina Ocaña and to Kiernan Graves was a bit of graffiti. Frankly, I couldn’t see it until Cultural Heritage Imaging’s Carla Schroer helped with a hi-res sample of our photogrammetry shoot (shown above). In lower Panel 2 where Diego depicts himself painting a fresco, subtly scratched in pencil to the left of his brush tip is,

¡libertad para SIQUEIROS!

At first, I thought that Diego’s solidarity was surprising. The Stalinist David Alfaro Siqueiros and the Trotskyist Rivera had a conflicted, pistol-packing relationship over the direction of the Mexican communist party. On May 24, 1940 Mexican artist Siqueiros led the assault on Leon Trotsky’s fortified house by 20 inept submachine gun toting assassins dressed as police. Only Trotsky’s grandson was slightly injured. Rivera, both a potential target and, initially, an official suspect, prudently went into hiding. Divorced from Frida, he was covertly aided by movie star Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin’s estranged wife, who was in town to get her portrait painted. Overestimating his “chances” with Paulette, Diego burned other local, amorous bridges. Paulette and Diego flew out of Mexico on June 4, headed to California for a splashy, flashbulb arrival at the Burbank Airport.

Four months later on October 4, Siqueiros was arrested at his hideout.


Photo: El Universal, México City, México, October 1940.

I had believed that the graffiti was likely written soon after. Later released, Siqueiros left México before anyone had a change of heart. (Leon Trotsky had been attacked by Stalin’s “Plan B,”  Ramón Mercader, on August 20 and died the following day.)

Flying this scenario past Sandra Zetina, the Mexican scholar also sensed that the solidarity was surprising. She thought, instead, that the graffiti might refer to an international campaign for Siqueiros’ release after a 1960 arrest. (He was released in 1964.) On August 9, 1961, the first anniversary of his arrest,  a NY Times ad, paid for by artists, called for Siqueiros’ freedom. The only problem with this scenario was that Diego died in 1957.

Belatedly comparing writing samples, it seemed to me that the graffiti handwriting didn’t match Diego’s. But, if not, who would have the chutzpah to write on Diego’s masterpiece? If the graffiti appeared after the mural was installed in the theater in mid-January 1961, the list of suspects became smaller.

In 1941 while the mural was initially in storage at Treasure Island, a fireman accidently punctured the crate holding Panel 5 with an axe during a fire. In the summer of 1962 Emmy Lou Packard was hired by City College to repair the damaged part of the mural. She had access and the opportunity to possibly scratch the graffiti.

In 1954 Rivera had been finally re-admitted to the Stalinist Partido Communista Mexicano (PCM), which had booted him out in 1929. A recent Weekly Standard article addressed Frida’s obsession with Stalin. Emmy Lou in a 1979 AAA interview disavowed her anti-Stalinist dalliance, citing a rationale that only Stalin could have defeated Hitler. It seems that after WWII, Stalin was the only game in town for the Left. Did Emmy Lou express her solidarity and Rivera’s in absentia? Hopefully, more information will surface to resolve the issue.

Conversely, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is about his disillusionment with communism after participating in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 as part of the anti-Stalinist POUM, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. Orwell noted that you needed a scorecard to keep track of all the leftist Republican players, who governed Spain as an uneasy coalition.  Moscow used the war to brutally purge the Republican side of non-Stalinists, despite it undeniably helping the fascist Franco to victory. Siqueiros served in this war, honing his anti-Trotskyist agenda; while Trotsky, fleeing Stalin, got his fatal asylum in México in 1937 through Diego Rivera’s intercession.

Rivera researchers alert!

Rick Tejada-Flores, director of the PBS American Masters documentary Rivera in America wrote:

I want to let you know that the entire collection of materials for Rivera in America are now housed at the Washington University Film Archives in St. Louis, and are available to researchers.  They include the source tapes that I shot of interviews with Raquel Tibol, Lucienne Bloch, Steven Dimitroff, Ella Wolfe, Emmy Lou Packard, Pele DeLappe, Peter Stackpole, the doorman at the Stock Exchange Club, Michael Goodman, Jose Alfaro and Paul Von Blum. There are also dupes of all the footage of Rivera Painting in Detroit.  Also Included are my production papers including partial interviews and the Paramount story on Frida welcoming Trotsky to Mexico.

Working with Stanford’s Digital Libraries, Cultural Heritage Imaging gave me a peek at the huge photogrammetry file for Panel 5, which Stanford is currently hosting. The resolution of the not yet public image is extraordinary. Using the Digital Elevation Map (DEM) feature, I have already been able to see the outlines of the work done by Emmy Lou Packard in 1962.  (Per Carla: the DEM is “a false color way of showing the 3D surface topology in a 2D image.  It is derived from the 3D data, specifically from the 3D point cloud.”) An important future project will be to map the now visible outlines of each jig-saw puzzle shaped giornata, a single day’s painting work on the fresco’s wet plaster.

We are looking forward to the cutting-edge discussion about intellectual property rights, access to the images, storage in perpetuity, and all the issues surrounding this unique cache of information. This work will be useless if the files cannot be safely passed forward to future generations.

[Note: Funding for the photogrammetry shoot has been paid for entirely by donations to the Foundation of City College of San Francisco’s Diego Rivera account (disclaimer: I am the signatory). Thank you, Mural Angels, for your gifts to the future!]

When Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin, Diego’s daughter, was in town for a Father’s Day conversation at the Brava Theater, I gave her a framed print of a photo of Diego, her sister Ruth, and her taken by George Gershwin in November 1935 (courtesy of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust). She and I plan to meet next time I’m in México. These Gershwin pictures will be publicly available through the Library of Congress, once the Trust’s assets are catalogued.

Artist Wayne Healy was in town for the ongoing (until September 16)  California Historical Society’s exhibition ¡Murales Rebeldes! about L.A. murals that were lost or destroyed. He and curator Jessica Hough came by to visit the mural. Diego Rivera believed in the reconciliation of Art & Science and often said he would have been an architect, if not an artist. Diego would have loved Wayne. In addition to being a prolific muralist, he is an aerospace engineer. We talked Bernoulli’s Principle over lunch and were later interviewed by Univision.

In the Living New Deal’s latest newsletter, there is an article about a WPA mural that was recently painted over. The issue of the stewardship of public art is ongoing. The artists who painted the murals in the “Mission” district can no longer afford to live here. The Living New Deal is co-sponsoring a conference “Women and the Spirit of the New Deal” on October 5-6, 2018 in Berkeley.

John Charlot, son of artist Jean Charlot, Diego and Frida’s good friend, contacted me recently. Jean had been featured in the Anita Brenner show at the Skirball. Linda Downs, past director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, hooked us up.

Matria is a documentary film by Fernando Llanos, about his grandfather Antolin Jimenez, a revolutionary, politician, Mason, and businessman, who in 1942 tried to muster an army of Mexican charros (horsemen) to fight against the Nazis, should they attack México. The film describes Nazi influence in a México, which eventually sided with the Allies. This is the world Diego Rivera wrote about in early 1940 in the tabloid Hoy, just prior to coming to San Francisco.

Our June San Francisco History Association talk had almost 300 attendees, a surprise to the hosts and to me. Swapping stories with other investigators was a real treat.

Being at the mural is never boring: a visiting Canadian family told me they have a friend who is the grandson of a former Canadian ambassador to Mexico. This friend has an autographed drawing of Diego’s penis, which the Mexican artist sketched for the Ambassador. They’ll try to send me a photo and the details of what must be an interesting story.

Had a great scare lately when my laptop hard drive crashed. Having been remiss in regularly backing up my Rivera research, the consequences might have been catastrophic. John at SF Computer Repair saved the data. Please, remember to back-up your work!



June 2018

Dear Friends of Diego,

Bay Area Locals!  On June 17, 2018 at 3 pm, Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin, Diego’s daughter, will give a talk in honor of Father’s Day, Un Río, Dos Riveras at Brava for Women in the Arts on 24th Street in the Mission.

Our collaboration with SFMOMA is picking up steam. Our CCSF Education team was hosted at a museum open house. A cohort of SFMOMA staff came out to see the mural and we’ve booked another visit with more staff. Curator Caitlin Haskell graciously invited Dean Kristina Whalen and me to the opening party for the unique René Magritte: The Fifth Season exhibition. Caitlin is moving to the Art Institute of Chicago and we will certainly miss her on this Rivera project.

May 29-31 we started exploring inside the wall below the mural to confirm that the building plans accurately reflected the mural anchorage. Ouch, they didn’t. Locations, where the mural was to be bolted to its lower support, were welded. An unused bolt had been left behind. Externally, electro-magnetic probing helped explore strategies to release the mural from metal rods tying it to the wall. The lobby was bursting with world-class curatorial, conservation, and engineering talent using light meters, temperature/moisture sensors, borescopes, and very sensitive ears and fingers. At the invitation of SFMOMA’s staff, Sandra Zetina Ocana, an UNAM art historian/conservator with expertise in Rivera, flew in from México for several days. Conservator Kiernan Graves, experienced with Rivera’s portable frescoes, flew in from L.A. for the day. Sometimes, dreams come true.

Doing Rivera research is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, albeit one in which the final image is a mystery. A new piece of information is coddled into a niche, where it sweetens that story. There’s lots of empty space. In Spanish, jigsaw puzzle is rompecabezas, literally “break heads.” This aptly describes the feeling when pieces elude us; like the exact date of Frida’s late May 1931 return to Mexico. The SFAI’s Jeff Gunderson, librarian & archivist, just sent me a copy of a press release dated May 12, 1931 about a party Frida had attended the night before. We’re zeroing in.

The first of last month’s Rivera murals (all three) tours for the Mexican Consulate included two couples who had just heard me do a presentation for the California Historical Society the previous Saturday. Ron sent me a link to his take on the tour, which started with a City Club lunch with the Consul General and ended 5 hours later with my analysis of Frida’s wedding portrait at SFMOMA.

On the second tour, the Mexican Consulate’s Itziar Mondragón pointed out to me a striking similarity between the tree stump in Allegory of California and an image of the árbol quebrado (broken tree) from the Códice Boturini, which documents the 200 year peregrination of the Mexica (Aztecs) from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). This was definitely a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Rivera immersed himself in pre-Columbian artifacts and incorporated the motifs in his murals. He drove Frida crazy with his compulsive buying. He may have been an easy mark for counterfeiters. Some pieces in Anahuacalli, his museum, may not stand up to scrutiny; a failing of some of Rivera’s fabulous stories, as well.

As the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust in San Francisco transfers its collection to the Library of Congress, their archivist Michael Owen (CCSF Library program graduate) invited me to pick up a couple of books he had set aside for me. Michael mentioned that the books might have originally been from George’s library.  The 1940 MoMA exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art catalog clearly belonged to Ira because George died in 1937. But Miguel Covarrubias’s The Prince of Wales and other famous Americans (1925) includes a caricature of George (below) and was most likely his. Having been so involved in the George Gershwin play over the last few years, there’s an eerie poignancy in cradling a book once held by hands that played Porgy and Bess. It’s quite a singular thrill.

Gershwin by Covarrubias

We were recently contacted by Dr. Caroline Zilboorg, who is writing a bio of her father Dr. Gregory Zilboorg, George Gershwin’s psychiatrist. He accompanied George to Mexico and per differing accounts was brilliant or manipulative (like speaking Spanish to some of their Mexican contacts to exclude Gershwin).

Diego Rivera’s The Rivals (approximately 4’ x 5’) sold on May 9, 2018 for $9.76M, a new auction record for Latin American art (Spanish link), surpassing the record held by a Frida painting. It will, hopefully, be part of SFMOMA’s 2020 show Rivera’s America. The value is intriguing because “comparables” for our Rivera mural were used to compute a replacement value for insurance purposes.

Extrapolating from this “size and price”, our mural is worth over $790,000,000.00.    Note: In 2016 a Rivera painting Baile en Tehuantepec (82” x 65”) went for $15.7M in a record private sale. (Its rate would value our 22’ x 74’ mural at $690M.)

Have a correspondence with the seller of the Hermes Pan portrait by Diego Rivera. He found our last missive interesting.

Came across an article on Luther Burbank that had an image of prints he made from cross sections of fruits. Wonder if Frida saw these in December 1930 at his house in Santa Rosa? She later used her lip prints as a “signature” on letters.

Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whom I mentioned in the last FOD missive, garnered very nice reviews for her Guernica at the SF Ballet.

My buddy Frank Koehler gave me a pristine copy of Art in America, Feb. 1986 with an article about artist Lucienne Bloch. She was a dear friend to Frida and an assistant to Diego at the Detroit Institute of Arts and at Rockefeller Center.

Anne Schnoebelen invited me to a Treasure Island round table lunch at the City Club. I’ve spent so much time there this year, I should get an honorary membership. Things are looking up for Anne and our friends at the Treasure Island Museum Association. I will speak there next year.

Sadly, we have to report that René Yañez has passed away. The long-time Mission district artist was an inspiration to many.

Third graders have become my favorite tour of the year. They studied one panel a week for the 5 weeks prior to their visit. They were enthusiastic, polite, and knowledgeable. I can’t say enough good things about their teacher, who visited last year while working at a different school. Let’s just clone Amy!

On June 26 at 7:30 I will present Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, & San Francisco: A Love Affair for the San Francisco History Association at Congregation Sherith Israel.



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