Revisiting Slash: Two Punk Requiems

This essay concerns Revisiting Slash: The Five Best OC Punk Articles From One of LA’s Original Punk Zines, written by reporter Frank John Tristan and published in the OC Weekly on October 3, 2017. The alleged subject of the article was how SLASH Magazine covered the early punk bands of the beachside Southern California community of Orange County.

I happened upon the story quite by accident, and was taken aback to find one of my cover drawings for SLASH featured uncredited as the lead illustration. Be that as it may, when I began to read the piece my blood began to boil since it made the ludicrous accusation that SLASH Magazine published “Nazi rapist bullshit.”

"Come Back to Haunt You." Mark Vallen. Pencil drawing © Published as SLASH Magazine cover drawing, final edition, 1980.

"Come Back to Haunt You." Mark Vallen. Pencil drawing © Published as SLASH Magazine cover drawing, final edition, 1980.

I write my rebuke to Revisiting Slash as an aging punk rocker who worked at SLASH Magazine from 1979 to 1980 as a designer and production artist.

Ultimately I created two cover illustrations for the magazine, a 1979 drawing titled Sue Tissue (a portrait of the vocalist for the Suburban Lawns band) and the aforementioned 1980 cover, Come Back to Haunt You.

I also worked on The Decline of Western Civilization, the original 1981 documentary film by Penelope Spheeris that focused on the initial Los Angeles punk scene.

Much has been said of late regarding the demise of journalism and the rise of “Fake News.” I submit to the reader that Revisiting Slash is a prime example of both. While the minutiae of Los Angeles punk history might seem little more than trivialities to some, those chronicles are noteworthy details in the history of the late 20th century. As CNN, the exemplar of fake news likes to say, “Facts First.”

The OC Weekly has the bona fides of reporter Frank John Tristan posted on its webpage; it says he’s 22-years-old, meaning he was born in 1995, long after the events at SLASH he wrote so authoritatively about had occurred. This is not to say that a writer far removed from historic events cannot write about such things with veracious accuracy… it’s just that Tristan is not that writer.

"Dave Vanian." Photo by Melanie Nissen. First issue of SLASH Magazine, May 1977.

"Dave Vanian." Photo by Melanie Nissen. First issue of SLASH Magazine, May 1977.

In the opening paragraph of Revisiting Slash, Tristan states that SLASH “quickly rose from interviews with L.A. bands like The Damned”—with this one colossal faux pas the reporter’s credibility vanished.

The Damned were one of a handful of punk bands to rise from London’s decay in 1976. They were the first U.K. punk band to release a single (1976), an album (1977), and the first to tour the United States (also in ‘77).

Their Los Angeles visit helped detonate the city’s punk movement; in the wake of their visit SLASH emblazoned the cover of its premiere Mayday issue with an eerie photo of the band’s lead vocalist, Dave Vanian. SLASH Magazine co-founder Melanie Nissen took that photo.

The Damned, I might add, are still active and quite well known.

I think the reporter gathered info for his article with the one essential tool every new writer now inordinately relies upon—Google searches. I do not mean to imply that Google-fu could not have resulted in a decent piece of journalism; nevertheless, there is the Google search performed by a wizard and the one conducted by a neophyte.

The reporter, name dropping like a celebrity news gossip columnist, but without any clarity whatsoever, muddled through dumbfounding anecdotes guaranteed to flummox anyone not familiar with the fine points of L.A.’s punk history. Here is one offending passage, followed by my key to parsing its meaning;

“Unfortunately, while Lisa Fancher says the zine put the Middle Class on her radar, she believes that the zine proved non-influential in the OC scene and Ronnie ‘Posh Boy’ Fields agrees with her. Fields even claims Craig Lee tried to get Red Cross not to sign a record deal with his label and calls Slash a ‘(failed) commercial venture masquerading as a fanzine.’”

This is the open door to understanding the mishmash above; Lisa Fancher is the founder of the punk rock label Frontier Records; Middle Class is one of the first hard core punk bands from Orange County; Craig Lee was the guitarist for the Bags (one of L.A.’s original punk bands) and later worked for SLASH; Robbie Fields is founder of the influential Posh Boy Records and a punk rock personality whose name Tristan insultingly couldn’t spell properly (”Ronnie Fields”?), and Red Cross was a punk band on the Posh Boy label. The OC Weekly apparently doesn’t employ editors anymore, or perhaps they were all out skateboarding when the reporter submitted his article for editing.

Ironically Robbie Fields is an associate of mine. When I saw Robbie’s name mutilated in the article, I could not trust that words were not being put in his mouth, so I asked Robbie about the article. The posh one clarified that he had informed the reporter in writing, “SLASH had no influence on MY signing OC bands”, which is substantively different from saying SLASH was “non-influential in the OC scene.” Besides, Robbie told me, “SLASH had stopped publishing before I hit my stride in Orange County.”

Robbie confirmed that he did tell the reporter “SLASH was a (failed) commercial venture masquerading as a fanzine,” a statement I don’t disagree with but one that needs context. The magazine was always a dual entity. One side thought it a money making pursuit and a springboard to becoming an alternative record label; the other side was a bunch of scruffy punks who just wanted to run an iconoclastic punk fanzine. It was a sad day when SLASH Magazine forever closed its doors as a weirdo bohemian zine and fully transmogrified into a commercial record label. Los Angeles lost a truly unique contrarian voice.


"Darby Crash." Photographer unknown. SLASH Magazine cover, April 1978.

However, the actual sum and substance of my authoring this article is to denounce the insinuation made in the pages of the OC Weekly, albeit through the words of none other than The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, that SLASH was guilty of publishing “Nazi rapist bullshit.” I have stood against racism and sexism my entire life, and my works as an artist bear this out. I am greatly offended by this ahistorical scandalmongering by the OC Weekly, and yes, I do take it personally.

Matt Groening sent his poison pen letter to SLASH in 1978 when he was decidedly not famous; he was working at the now defunct Los Angeles Reader alternative newspaper answering phones and delivering papers. He would not grab notoriety until 1980 when the Reader would publish his first cartoon strip, Life in Hell.

The Revisiting Slash article republished an undersized and barely legible archival reproduction of Groening’s letter to SLASH; the reproduction included SLASH’s rebuttal to Groening’s accusations. The OC Weekly retyped Groening’s letter in standard size legible type and featured it so that it could be read without squinting, allowing readers to savor it for its broad-mindedness. SLASH’s rebuttal was afforded no such treatment, disallowing any response to allegations of wrongdoing. Here’s Groening’s letter in its entirety:

“This is a short letter of appreciation for your magazine… your graphics are really hot stuff - my compliments to the chefs. And your snotty tone is perfect - good, clean, pissed-off alienated humor is something we all need more of.

My only criticism is that too often your articles glorify the misogynistic attitudes of young male cretins, and too often SLASH seems to endorse these repugnant attitudes. Sexism pervades our culture, and I applaud your disdain and cynicism, but rapist humor is as traditional and predictable as everything you oppose, and I think you should have brains enough to rise above it.

Your magazine is not particularly guilty of Nazi/rapist bullshit, but it is typically guilty of it, and that kind of normality is especially disappointing.


Matt Groening”

If Groening’s letter had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of early punk bands in Orange County and the coverage SLASH gave them, then why did the OC Weekly mention Groening at all? I’m afraid fawning celebrity worship of the worst kind is the cause; The Simpsons franchise has garnered Groening a net worth of $500 million.

Since the OC Weekly couldn’t be bothered to include a readable version of the SLASH rebuttal in their Revisiting Slash article, I offer one here:

“Okay, hold on. What Nazi rapist bullshit?? In the graphics? The text? Anyway, there are almost as many girls involved with SLASH as guys; not one of them thinks SLASH is misogynistic (how many music papers feature as many girls as boys on their covers??) and not one of them is what you’d call a young female cretin. Bet you see sexism everywhere. You’re probably right, it might be everywhere. In our case, though, what you spotted as sexism or whatever was most likely a little loose chunk of a much bigger piece called contempt for ALL forms of nice proper civilities. We regard women (punks) as totally equal to men (punks) (don’t know about your circles) and therefore equally subjectable to abuse, insults and other forms of communication. —Ms. KickPerson Face”

A charge of misogyny is made by a man, and while unsubstantiated it is given prominence in Revisiting Slash, while the denial of sexism made by a female SLASH staffer is ignored. And the OC Weekly wants to cry about sexism?

Who was this enigmatic “Ms. KickPerson Face” she-devil? Her real name was Philomena Winstanley, and when she declared “there are almost as many girls involved with SLASH as guys” she didn’t mean they were there to serve coffee. Philomena was a mover and shaker, an editor at SLASH, and also the partner in crime and wife to Claude Bessy, editor and chief writer at SLASH. Bessy took his nickname, Kickboy Face, from the title of a song by Jamaican reggae performer Prince Jazzbo; hence Philomena’s moniker.

To be entirely honest Bessy’s sneering impish humor might have lead him to compose the rebuttal and sign it “Ms. KickPerson Face” as a taunting joke. I really don’t know if that’s the case, but it is clear that whichever part of the dynamic duo wrote the comeback, it was truthful and genuine.

The reporter attempted to support Groening’s accusation that SLASH was publishing “Nazi rapist bullshit” by listing SLASH artworks and articles he found in the Circulation Zero online archive. He wrote, “Maybe it was the Gary Panter drawing in Vol. 1 # 2 with the text suggesting a nude tied up woman was being beaten” followed by, “or maybe it was the image of the band Fear playing in a house with a distraught woman tied up with a ball gag in her mouth in Vol. 1 #9.” The reporter implies that “offensive” works of art should not be published, but who rules what’s objectionable, and what happens when censorship gets going?

I wonder how the words “with the text suggesting” would hold up in a court of law? But then this is not a court of law, this is trial by media. I also wonder how cartoonist Gary Panter would react to the charge that he created “Nazi rapist bullshit” for SLASH, especially since he was honored at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2006. Groening’s accusation was ridiculous in 1978, but to see it repeated in today’s pages of the OC Weekly is even more absurd. Liberals have shamelessly pinned the “Nazi” epithet on so many people that the word is losing its meaning. It is grotesque that the OC Weekly has reached almost forty years into the past to besmirch SLASH Magazine with that ugly epithet.

Female SLASH fan, 1979. Photo Melanie Nissen.

Female SLASH fan, 1979. Photo Melanie Nissen.

One of the things that impressed me the most about punk was the number of young women involved; contributing as performers, scenesters, writers, photographers, artists, band managers, and more; they all passed through the doors of SLASH. The women fronting or participating in punk bands were legion; Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), Dinah Cancer (45 Grave), Wendy O. Williams (Plasmatics), Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre (Crass), Poison Ivy (The Cramps), Penelope Houston (The Avengers), Exene Cervenka (X)… too many to list here, and SLASH loved and respected them all. Compared to the Heavy Metal scene and the mainstream rock world in general, punk was a liberated zone for females.

As for the band FEAR, they let loose on everyone under the big black sun; like every good punk band, they served as a tarnished mirror that reflected back upon society all of its odious disgraces. FEAR “entertained” with an ominous brand of punk theatrical shtick; but those who believe stage actors are really the characters they play are little more than simpletons. In the event that you were disgusted and outraged by the antics of FEAR, well… that was the desired effect.

I hate to break it to everyone, but long before the poseurs of Green Day graced the stage of the corporate American Music Awards in 2016 there was a vulgar, impolite noise called punk. Shock, offensiveness, and crassness were its core aesthetics—for pity’s sake there was even a band named Crass. The expression “politically correct” had not yet found its way into the common vernacular, but bourgeois society had rules for social conduct and punk was hell bent on upending them.


The censored photomontage from The Pop Group

I recall the 1980 interview SLASH conducted with a U.K. band called The Pop Group. A favorite of mine at the time, the outfit blurted out a dark ethereal mix of punk, dub reggae, jazz, and funk rhythms, all densely wrapped around ecstatically radical political lyrics.

To illustrate their interview with us they sent a black and white photomontage of a naked then-presidential candidate named Ronald Reagan standing with a WWI soldier wearing a gas mask.

We were a pretty jaded crew at SLASH, so I don’t recall the graphic causing much fuss; we simply laid out the magazine and sent it to the print company for its print run.

The next day there was great consternation in the SLASH office when the print company sent the unprinted pages back to us with a notice that they refused to print the paper as long as the naked Reagan was included. Panic ensued! We worked out a deal… we painted black shorts on Reagan’s likeness. Kickboy hand wrote on the graphic an apology to The Pop Group for altering their art, and the print company completed their job. The eager punk masses received the somewhat late, albeit final edition of SLASH Magazine.

Now I ask you, does that sound like the work of Nazi rapists?

Here’s what’s generally misunderstood about the original Los Angeles punk scene, it wasn’t a politically correct, structured “safe space” for virtuous do gooders; it was a wide-open, no holds barred, chaotic experimental zone for free thought and action—at least in its beginnings. Punk was streaked with nihilism and violence, but it also proffered creativity and a deep humanism. It was not monolithic in nature, but comprised of numerous layers, where adherents had divergent beliefs and styles. What united this congregation of castaways was a sense of community found in our music and antiauthoritarian attitudes. Punks initially hated corporate record labels, misbegotten celebrity, and staid conformity. Kickboy gave a fair description of SLASH when responding to a letter sent to the magazine; “Yea, I know, anarchy ain’t what it should be. But listen, we are not going to take anyone by the hand and tell them what to destroy, what to read, who to hate. We are not a party, a cell or an underground brigade.”

"Sue Tissue." Mark Vallen. Pencil drawing. Published as SLASH Magazine cover drawing, Volume Two Number Nine, 1979.

"Sue Tissue." Mark Vallen. Pencil drawing © Published as SLASH Magazine cover drawing, Volume Two Number Nine, 1979.

As I’ve grown older, my view of the punk scene has been altered by the light of day. Truth be told, there were things about L.A.’s punk underground that I didn’t care for (including a creeping “group think” expressed in dress and behavior), just as there were individuals in the scene that I disliked—some quite intensely; but then I was not required to like them.

A few characters have unwisely written books purporting to be the definitive overview of punk, and of course the legacy media has lied about punk since its inception. Forget them. If you want to know about the early days of punk, oh heck… if you want the truth about anything, go to multiple primary sources, study, analyze, and then make up your own mind. With this article I have offered a short synopsis of my experiences at SLASH, take them as you will.

The OC Weekly’s intimation that those associated with SLASH Magazine were “Nazi rapists” certainly comes from a place of bottomless ignorance; the best that can be said of their article is that it is a noxious piece of character assassination based upon identity politics. I do not ask for nor expect apologies from the OC Weekly; I have not written this essay as a corrective to the Weekly’s staff. I am writing for those who want to know the realities behind early Los Angeles punk and its bygone standard bearer SLASH, the monthly manifesto of angry refusal.

Spirit Cooking with Marina Abramović: The First Cut Is the Deepest

Abramovic eyes

CAUTION: The following essay contains violent imagery not suitable for the faint-hearted or for children under 13. Welcome to the wonderful world of postmodern art.

A facet of the outlandish chronicles having to do with the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 that remains obscure and largely untold, is the unwitting role of the celebrity art world. This essay is an attempt to bring some much needed clarity to that bizarre collision of postmodern art with mainstream U.S. politics. The U.S. is currently so deeply divided that I loath making myself a target by writing this, yet I feel compelled to do so for the sake of history.

My report revolves around the “world renown” Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. Conservatives call her a Satanist and Liberals calls her a genius; both sides are altogether wrong. My essay’s subheading, The First Cut Is the Deepest, provides the upshot of my explication; I think what Abramović does is a wound upon art. Dissidents and conformists… please do read on.

Marina Abramović during 1974 "Rhythm 0" performance, photographer unknown.

Marina Abramović during her 1974 "Rhythm 0" performance. Photographer unknown.

Abramović calls herself “the grandmother of performance art.” During her performances she has cut, whipped, burned, and nearly killed herself. In 1974 she performed Rhythm 0, where for six hours she stood passively while her audience was invited to manipulate her body with any of the 72 objects provided them; a rose, honey, scissors… a handgun with one bullet. She ended up with multiple cuts, the clothes cut from her body, and the gun pointed at her head. This escapade became one of her most famous works.

A major turning point in the career of Abramović was her 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where she performed The Artist Is Present. Abramović sat motionless and silent at a table in the museum’s entrance hall for over 30 days and 16 hours as observers were encouraged to sit opposite her, one at a time, to exchange silent glances. After this engagement the elite art world bestowed true superstar status upon Abramović, proclaiming her the very symbol or icon of performance art.

In full disclosure, as a figurative realist painter, I have little regard, affinity, or patience for the works of Marina Abramović. Call my views regarding art passé or sagacious, but I would never allow someone to point a gun at me for the sake of art. While I challenge the importance of Abramović’s works and that of postmodernist art in general, I am dismayed by the lies and fabrications used against her for political reasons; this think piece is not a defense of Abramović, but it is a refutation of the falsehoods that have been directed against her. It is also of course, a critique of postmodernist art.

Perhaps Abramović’s greatest achievement was her 1996 Spirit Cooking project, not for any profundity of the work itself but for its unintended consequences. Spirit Cooking began as a portfolio of eight etchings illustrating 25 letterpress prints of made-up “aphrodisiac” recipes. These were not instructions for preparing actual meals, according to the artist they were “evocative instructions for actions or thoughts.” Having no experience in drawing (which is the postmodern definition of an artist), Abramović’s Spirit Cooking portfolio is a banal plodding mess, at least in my opinion, so naturally it is in MoMA’s permanent collection.

In 1997 Abramović created a multimedia installation version of Spirit Cooking at the Zerynthia gallery in Paliano, Italy, where the recipes in her Spirit Cooking print portfolio were splashily daubed on white walls with copious amounts of coagulated pig’s blood. Unknowingly, she had just helped to launch one of the biggest cultural/political scandals in U.S. history.

Xxxx xxxx xxxx

The email that started it all; June 28, 2015 message from Marina Abramović to Tony Podesta.

During October and November of 2016, just before the U.S. presidential election would pit Donald J. Trump against Hillary Clinton, Wikileaks started publishing a huge cache of emails stolen from the personal Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. The 20,000 pages of emails showed the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party, as well as revealing the controversial skullduggery of Ms. Clinton. An anonymous hacker had pinched the emails and turned them over to Wikileaks for publication… and the rest is history.

One of those purloined digital messages published by Wikileaks was an email sent by Marina Abramović on June 28, 2015 to Tony Podesta, a collector of her work since the 1990s and the brother of John Podesta.

Knowing John Podesta was a wealthy art collector and one of her biggest supporters, Abramović wanted to honor him with a Spirit Cooking themed dinner as a “thank you” for a large donation. The email was innocuous enough, it simply read: “Dear Tony. I am so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you will be able to let me know if your brother is joining? All my love, Marina.” As it turned out, John Podesta did not attend the dinner party of ten.

Inquisitive conservatives investigating the cryptic “spirit cooking” reference soon found the following video on YouTube shown directly below:

The video documented preparations for the 1997 multimedia installation of Spirit Cooking at the Zerynthia gallery carried out by Abramović and an assistant; the video showed Abramović using pig’s blood to paint her recipes; “Mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk drink on earthquake nights” read one. “With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain” read the other. Fast forward to 2016, and people sheltered from the harebrained excesses of contemporary art expressed revulsion after viewing this film, while political opponents of John Podesta, the Democrats, and Hillary Clinton moved in for the coup de gras. Gossip about Spirit Cooking spread like wildfire over social media; in a flash it was characterized as an elite cabal of Satan worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles that lingered around the Clinton campaign.

On Nov 4, 2016, the editor-at-large at Infowars Paul Joseph Watson, conservative YouTuber Mark Dice, and right-wing libertarian philosopher Stefan Molyneux, separately published videos on their respective YouTube channels accusing Abramović, and by extension John Podesta and Hillary Clinton, of having links with Satanism. The YouTube video from Paul Joseph Watson is shown directly below:

Molyneux’s video Spirit Cooking: Evil In Government, included a talkfest with American nationalists Mike Cernovich and Vox Day, purportedly to shed light upon the “disgusting practice of ‘Spirit Cooking.’” But Molyneux’s supposed reliance on empirical evidence soon gave way to the conjectural, the irrational, and quite frankly, the absurd; he stated that “the amount of immorality that seems to be emanating from these practices, these rituals, I don’t think it’s too far to say that they’re downright Satanic.”

In summing up his video talk Molyneux proclaimed; “I hope this is going to shock people into recognizing that there is, you know, if these stories turn out to be true, there is a sort of layer down here of truly deep, conscious, and focused willed evil.” He went on to ask Cernovich where he placed “this level of immorality” in his world view; Cernovich replied:

“These are ritualistic practices, where are they learning… that’s what I always ask as a lawyer, as a detective, as a journalist… where are they learning this stuff, who is teaching it, because clearly they have shared traditions. Clearly they have a shared language, clearly they have shared symbolism. They’re learning it from somewhere, whether that’s from the Devil, from Satan, or from practitioners… I can’t tell you, but I can tell you as a rationalist, and as somebody who maybe doesn’t believe in God necessarily, they’re learning it from somewhere. And we need to ask people, whatever you believe about religion, whatever you believe about good and evil… where the hell are they learning this sh*t from?”

Where are they learning this shared language? Why, in the halls and exhibit rooms of prestigious museums and galleries; in the articles found in haughty and oh so cosmopolitan art magazines; in the positive reviews of trendsetting exhibits found in the legacy press (you know… the “fake” news). Who is teaching it? Have you visited the Department of Art at your local university lately, or perhaps an acclaimed art school? Try spending some time glancing over the endless number of websites and blogs dedicated to covering postmodern art.

I would like to add that none of the hundreds of thousands of people associated with the groups and institutions just mentioned are Satanists, well O.K., maybe one or two are. But political activists on the left and right, not to mention the overwhelming public at large, pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the pretentious idiocy found in the impenetrable bubble that is the contemporary art world. If they were to pay attention they would be rewarded with dubious art achievements from the likes of Martin Creed, Piero Manzoni, Damien Hirst, and those boorishly despicable beasties the Chapman Brothers. Yeah, take a look… this is art today.

Right after the hysteria that ensued following the discovery of the Zerynthia gallery Spirit Cooking video, another controversial video surfaced. This one showed the annual fundraiser dinner gala held in 2011 by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), then directed by the charlatan Jeffrey Deitch. I must admit, it did look like a satanic ritual, but it was just good clean innocent fun as practiced by well-to-do Hollywood bluebloods who were inebriated and desperately trying to escape their endless state of terminal boredom.

That original unedited video showing the MoCA fundraiser dinner gala is shown directly below:

Marina Abramović was asked to design the look and feel of the gala, attended by roughly 800 glitterati of the Los Angeles art world and entertainment industry. Tickets went for $25,000, $50,000, or $100,000. For those sitting at the round tables reserved for $100,000 ticket holders like California governor Jerry Brown and then LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the centerpieces were rotating platforms; upon each a live nude woman was draped with a life-sized human skeleton, a nod to Abramović’s Nude with Skeleton performance. As centerpieces for the less expensive tables Abramović hired 50 young artists and dancers to sit on rotating platforms placed at intervals beneath the tables, their slowly spinning heads protruding through the table tops.

The spinning head hirelings were paid a paltry sum, resulting in American dancer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer writing an angry letter to Deitch and MoCA on the subject of exploitation. This was a more meaningful controversy than anything offered by Abramović. The letter was signed by 49 other artists— I would have signed it myself if I had been given the chance.

Deborah Harry from the long defunct band Blondie sang for the crowd, after which dessert cakes in the form of life-size nude replicas of Marina Abramović and Deborah Harry were sliced up with large lethal knives and served to the crowd.

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Cutting the Abramović cake at the 2011 MoCA gala dinner.

The cakes were created by the food artists of Kreëmart, a specialized bakery founded by Raphael Castoriano that creates confections for the worldwide postmodern art crowd. Castoriano helped produce and distribute the video of the MoCA event shown above, which detractors used as further evidence that Abramović, and by extension John Podesta and Hillary Clinton, were involved in a satanic death cult.

In a 2016 editorial written for, the au courant aficionado of art Alexxa Gotthardt attempted to make sense of the election time “crazed political conspiracy theories” surrounding Marina Abramović, which Gotthardt unceasingly attributed to the “alt-right community.” I am sorry, but blaming the “alt-right” bogeyman is a fast talker’s glib attempt at avoiding the irrefutable dilemma— art has become repulsive, alienating, meaningless, and unapproachable. Average Americans in the tens of millions did not need soapbox propaganda from the “alt-right” to realize that cryptic words daubed onto a wall in congealed pigs blood was something other than fine art; they consequently believed the worst of anyone associated with Spirit Cooking.

Alice Cooper and friend. Photograph David Bailey 1972

Alice Cooper and friend. Photo David Bailey 1972.

In some ways the histrionics over Abramović and her shock art reminds me of the outrage directed against Alice Cooper by straight-laced critics back in the early 1970s. At the time Cooper and his band were a scandal because of their horror rock stage performances. Cooper would command the stage as a villainous antihero and his stage theatrics included sham knife fights and using an axe to chop off the heads of dolls and mannequins, all with generous amounts of stage blood. Cooper draped himself with live snakes as he crooned to his audience, and he simulated his execution by guillotine, electric chair, and hanging at the gallows; all this and more. No, it was not high art, but it was low-brow rock ‘n roll extravaganza. It should go without saying that Cooper was regularly accused of being a Satanist. As we know today Cooper is a Christian who has quietly voted the Republican ticket.

Abramović 1990. Alice Cooper did a much better job of it two decades earlier.

Abramović 1990. Alice Cooper did a much better job of it two decades earlier. Photographer unknown.

In the same vein, in 1967 there were the original shock rockers, the psychedelic band The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Founded by the brilliant vocalist Arthur Brown, the outfit became known for their dark, over the top theatrical stage performances. In ‘68 the group released a 45 single of their song Fire, an apocalyptic rock anthem that began with the words, “I am the God of Hellfire, and I bring you— Fire!” Brown wore an actual flaming metal helmet when performing the song, bringing inspiration to Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, and a host of other rockers. Today, only the most closed minded religionist would call Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, et al., “Devil worshippers.”

Though involved in markedly different modes of expression, I believe Cooper is a more honest artist than Abramović. At Alice Cooper concerts attendees suspend belief and enjoy the over-the-top theatrics, they know it is just a charade; whereas some devotes of Abramović actually seem to believe that she offers “a religious experience” comparable to “the earliest days of Christian mysticism.” In point of fact we are looking at the cult of Marina Abramović. Consider the “Abramović Method,” touted as having been “developed over decades of research on performance and immaterial art.” Created by Abramović, the “Method” is an “exploration of being present in both time and space. It incorporates exercises that focus on breath, motion, stillness, and concentration.”

So if you are seeking phony enlightenment, you may find it in the repackaged synthetic Zen Buddhism of Abramović.

While much of postmodern art revolves around the kitsch and the superficial, Abramović’s “radical” performance art, we are told, is profound. It allegedly delves into the transcendental, the philosophical, and the abstruse aspects of being human; themes of trust, departure, cleansing, and the limits of the mind and body, etc., are supposedly examined in her performances. I don’t buy any of this nonsense. Abramović has all the profundity of a circus sideshow starring Miley Cyrus.

"Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful." Photo commemorating Abramović's 1975 performance piece of the same name.

"Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful." Photo commemorating Abramović's 1975 performance piece of the same name.

Take the above “glamour” shot for instance. It makes reference to Abramović’s “iconic” 1975 video performance where she sat before a camera and aggressively, painfully combed her long hair with a brush and comb for 50 minutes while continually chanting “art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful.” The words also served as the title of the work.

Movie poster for the low-budget 1972 American horror film, "Daughters of Satan." The low-brow kitsch aesthetics embodied in this poster animates the "high-art" of Abramović.

Movie poster for the low-budget 1972 American horror film, "Daughters of Satan." The low-brow kitsch aesthetics embodied in this poster animates the "high-art" of Abramović.

The performance was widely regarded as feminist. However, the razzle-dazzle ensanguined beauty shot has nothing to do with the original work, rather it is a betrayal of that work. The knives, chunks of fresh meat, and blood-spattered text are simply for shock value and meant to frame the art star’s allure and ascendancy in the art world. Unlike the 1966 Beatles’ album Yesterday And Today with its infamously censored “Butcher cover“— reportedly a mordant comment on the American war in Vietnam, Abramović’s photo lacks even the tiniest inkling of profundity. The photo radiates the type of kitsch associated with low-budget B movie horror films like the cheese fest 1972 Daughters of Satan.

If you find the works of Marina Abramović objectionable, allow me to introduce you to the Austrian performance artist Hermann Nitsch. On Saturday June 17, 2017 he will oversee a performance titled 150.Action, a “major work” that revolves around a newly slaughtered bull and Nitsch’s assistants covering themselves in the entrails, gore, and blood of the unfortunate animal. The performance group will also bathe in 500 liters of fresh blood— for the metrically impaired that is over 132 gallons of blood.

Official PR image for the "150.Action" performance conducted by Hermann Nitsch.

Official PR image for the "150.Action" performance conducted by Hermann Nitsch.

This atrocity masquerading as art takes place at the Dark Mofo festival of music and art held on the Australian island state of Tasmania. If you are familiar with American street slang you will know the grind show is aptly named. The festival was created, and is hosted by, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which is also presenting Nitsch’s performance. I will address the questionable history of MONA later in this article. The museum describes the performance as “A bloody, sacrificial ritual performed by the patriarch of Viennese Actionism, his devoted disciples and an orchestra.” All of this gore is rather old hat for Nitsch, save for the orchestral accompaniment. I cannot imagine what he will do with an orchestra… he must be getting soft.

Hermann Nitsch performance, date, place, and photographer unknown. In this photo assistants use cow, lamb, and pig entrails and blood.

Hermann Nitsch performance at his Prinzendorf Castle in Austria, year unknown. Assistants use entrails and blood from cows, lambs, and pigs. Photographer unknown.

Hermann Nitsch is a founder of Viennese Actionism, a performance art that includes the slaughter of animals and the drinking of their blood, the covering of performers with blood, entrails, and excrement, the mock crucifixion of performers, the mockery of Christianity, and the shattering of every imaginable taboo. Nitsch once said of his works; “I’m not a social critic, I just show the divine comedy and the divine tragedy at the same time, and most people are not willing to open themselves up for this consciousness.” He became the most well-known of the actionists and actionism became an influential aesthetic; it ripples and twitches through the tenebrous works of Marina Abramović.

Hermann Nitsch was a premier guest at the 2009 Incubate arts festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. In this photo assistants undergoing mock crucifixions drink and bath in animal blood.

Hermann Nitsch was a premier guest at the 2009 Incubate arts festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. In this photo assistants undergoing mock crucifixions, drink and bath in animal blood. Photographer unknown.

There is no clearer indication of the unhealthy condition of contemporary art and the debauchery of art criticism today than the fact that nary a murmur of criticism or protestation of 150.Action has come from the art world. Not surprisingly, animal rights groups have raised a ruckus, gathering 20,000 signatures to stop the killing of the bull, but from the art world… silence.

Starting in the early 1960s individual Austrian artists in Vienna like Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Hermann Nitsch began staging “transgressive” public art actions. The performances became known as “actionist,” the school, Viennese Actionism. In 1963 Adolf Frohner, Muehl, and Nitsch staged a three day public actionist performance before a small audience of some 30 people in Muehl’s basement studio. The actionists dressed in white robes, crucified a dead lamb upside down (intentionally mocking the Christian symbol of the Lamb of God), and after disemboweling the animal bathed in its blood.

In 1968 Günter Brus publicly masturbated and covered himself in his own feces while singing Österreichische Bundeshymne, the Austrian National Anthem. Also in ‘68 Oswald Wiener, Peter Weibel, Brus, and Muel staged Art and Revolution, where the four crashed a student lecture at the University of Vienna and flogged themselves, urinated on one another, masturbated, covered themselves in their own excrement, and forced themselves to vomit. In 1969 Otto Muehl and Brus staged Piss Action at the Hamburg Film Festival, where onstage a standing naked Muehl urinated into the open mouth of the nude Brus on bended knees. In its ludicrous description of Viennese Actionism, the Art Story Foundation wrote that Piss Action was “one of the most notorious demonstrations of art merging with life and breaking free of the walls of the art museum.”

Günter Brus vomits during an unauthorized actionist performance of Art and Revolution at the University of Vienna, 1968.

Günter Brus vomits during an unauthorized actionist performance of Art and Revolution at the University of Vienna, 1968. Photographer unknown.

Today the Viennese Actionists are acknowledged and celebrated by the art establishment as the wellspring of today’s performance art and one of the most influential art movements of the late 20th century. In this we see the acceptance, sanction, and advocacy of the ugly, transgressive, anti-humanism embraced by the postmodern art world. Which brings us back to The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).

MONA allegedly cost over $200 million to build, it was founded and financed by multi-millionaire David Walsh, who made his fortune as a professional gambler. The museum is the largest privately funded museum in Australia. It has also become a major tourist attraction, drawing enormous crowds. MONA has been described by Walsh as a “subversive adult Disneyland.” Others have not been so charitable. In his article titled MONA’s Brutal Banality, Michael Connor of the conservative Australian literary and cultural journal Quadrant, wrote:

“MONA is the art of the exhausted, of a decaying civilization. Display lights and taste and stunning effects illuminate moral bankruptcy. What is highlighted melds perfectly with contemporary high fashion, design, architecture, cinema. It is expensive and tense decay. For the uncomprehending, uncritical, unmoved tourists it is meaningless matter superbly showcased—though if you threw out the art and put in a (gay) wedding expo, a psychic convention or a showing of hot rods they probably wouldn’t even notice, or care.”

Walsh’s personal art collection displayed at MONA is said to be worth some $100 million. It includes such bizarre postmodern carny works as Stephen Shanabrook’s On the road to Heaven the Highway to Hell, a gruesome sculpture cast in dark chocolate that depicts the shredded remains of a suicide bomber. Then there is Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional, a machine that is fed meat, vegetables, pastries, water, and enzymes and then excretes the equivalent of human feces. Read A Human Masterpiece, Artnet’s excruciatingly fawning review of Delvoye’s Rube Goldberg excrement device; it tries one’s patience but also demonstrates how literal crap has been embraced in the dominant postmodern art world.

"On the road to Heaven the Highway to Hell." Sculpture cast in dark chocolate depicting remains of a suicide bomber.

"On the road to Heaven the Highway to Hell." Sculpture cast in dark chocolate depicting remains of a suicide bomber. Photo Stephen Shanabrook.

Last but not least let us not forget Greg Taylor’s Cunts… and other conversations, 2008 - 2009, 151 life-size white porcelain “portrait” sculptures of vaginas. I don’t know how a man sculpting women’s genitalia has not escaped angry accusations of misogyny and “cultural appropriation” from the many progressives found in artistic circles, but then the postmodern art world is a confused and contradictory realm. One can only imagine what the pink “Pussy Hat” wearing crowd would make of “Cunts…” All that is missing from MONA is a Fire Eater, a Snake Charmer, and a Sword Swallower.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the German artist Ulay, a long time artistic collaborator with Abramović as well as her former lover. From 1975 to 1988 they jointly created performances dealing with gender roles and identity, sexuality, and the physical limitations of the body. It has been said that their works were the most innovative and trailblazing in the history of performance art. An example of such a “cutting-edge” work would be their 1977 collaboration Relation in Time. In a gallery setting the couple sat back to back, their long hair interwoven like a rope, making them inseparable. They sat immobile like that for 17 hours. Sorry, it’s not even as interesting as it might sound. In 1988 the power couple of performance art even made a work out of their separation; in The Great Wall Walk the two walked over 1,500 miles along The Great Wall of China from two opposite ends, meeting in the middle for one final embrace.

Despite the endless beguilement with Abramović expressed by the art press over the years, truth finally emerged in November of 2015 when Ulay sued Abramović for violating a contract over their collaborative works. After their breakup Ulay sold his archives to Abramović, who not only agreed to their maintenance but arranged to administer saleable materials. Ulay claimed Abramović told galleries to list her as the exclusive creator of their shared works, that she failed to provide him with sales statements, and that in the course of 16 years she only paid him four times. Abramović forcefully denied these charges.

In September of 2016, a court in Amsterdam ruled that Abramović was in breach of contract, and ordered Abramović to pay Ulay significant damages. Furthermore, according to Ulay’s legal team, “The Court has ordered Abramović to respect her obligations under the agreement, ensure that Ulay is properly credited as joint author of these works, and desist from future infringement of his moral and economic rights.” This was the most important part of the court decision, since Abramović was literally erasing Ulay from history. Even her 2010 MOMA performance, The Artist is Present, was an uncredited appropriation from Nightsea Crossing, a 90-day collaborative performance with Ulay in the 1980s where the two sat silently facing each other at a table. Swindling; I think this behavior is the authentic “Abramović Method.”

“Art is anything you can get away with” was a thought first expressed by the Canadian philosopher and writer Marshall McLuhan in his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage. True to form, Andy Warhol plagiarized the catchphrase and made it his own; over time the words became a benediction in the house of postmodern art. There is almost no end to what Marina Abramović has gotten away with; she once said of her performances that deal with mysticism and occult ritual:

“If you are doing the occult magic in the context of art or in a gallery, then it is the art. If you are doing it in different context, in spiritual circles or private house or on TV shows, it is not art. The intention, the context for what is made, and where it is made defines what art is or not.”

I find Abramović’s philosophy as stated above to be fallacious, it is but one of the problems I have with postmodern artists like her. If I create an oil painting, and I place it in a private house or it appears on TV, it is still art. If a critic tosses my painting into a garbage bin then it would be art in a dumpster. My painting need not be in a gallery for it to be art. Conversely, if instead of an art gallery Abramović was on a street corner violently brushing her hair and mumbling to herself, people would think of her as just another colorful, but slightly moonstruck character.

Incautious critics and bourgeois art aficionados have called Abramović the most significant artist of our time, which I find absurd. Voices in today’s art scene celebrate an allegedly unstructured, diffused, egalitarian “pluralism” that has “expanded” the definition of art; altogether scratching out moth-eaten notions of good taste, quality, standards, and beauty. But it is a partisan pluralism that declares painting dead (unless it is a perverted grotesquerie), while it beats the drum for craftless, self-indulgent rubbish. Where today’s art elites see “pluralism” I see only anti-art and the dominance of Conceptual art, Installation art, Lowbrow art, Street art, Performance art, and Appropriation art… the anti-aesthetic tyranny. Into this landscape rushes the artless brutes.

As an aging punk rocker I completely understand the theory and practice of anti-art, a modus operandi I engaged in myself during the late 1970s. Punk artists wanted a new aesthetic to combat the stultifying conformity and somnambulism of the late 20th century, this led to extremely offensive, disturbing, and scandalous means of expression, all of which I believed to be absolutely warranted and necessary at the time. During those days, some of the pop music sacred cows included the Electric Light Orchestra, the Bee Gees, and Captain & Tennille. In that context, I still think the punk explosion was crucial, but the minute it was successfully co-opted and commodified it became dead to me. I obviously have no trouble with upsetting the apple cart, but today, Abramović and those like her, are the apple cart.

I grew up in the early 1960s watching horror films, reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and listening to Rock ‘n Roll. Halloween was (and still is) my favorite celebration— but these things were attacked by the Christian right for being trashy, immoral, and in some instances demonic; at the same time these were guilty pleasures for many conservatives. In the present day, American culture is awash with ghoulish entertainment, from The Walking Dead to American Horror Story, nevertheless many conservatives enjoy these shows. Rightist social libertarians are now saying that “conservatism is the new punk rock” (recall the rightwing Johnny Ramone, co-founder of the 1st American punk band the Ramones). Why then have some conservatives made Abramović a target? Simple, they still speak with the fundamentalist voice of the Christian right they claim to disavow. However, just be forewarned… the new young conservatives are out to sink the GOP of yesteryear.

Marina Abramović. Photograph by Dusan Reljin for August 2014 issue of Vogue Ukraine.

Marina Abramović. Photograph by Dusan Reljin for August 2014 issue of Vogue Ukraine.

Because I am an artist, I highly value my right to free expression and speech, rights that I would never deny anyone. I may rebuke Abramović and her cohorts, but my admonishment is not a call for censorship. What I want is actual pluralism in art, where a beautiful painting displaying craft, skill, meaning, and narrative can once again be prized by collectors, art critics, gallery owners, and museum directors; this was already largely lost by the late 1970s. In my opinion, a truly outsider, rebellious position would call for painting’s restoration. When was the last time YOU saw works by a living painter in an art museum? And by the way, wasn’t the “rebellious” postmodern coterie co-opted and commodified long ago? Ask the multi-Billionaire Medici of Los Angeles Eli Broad, he collects postmoderns like they were stamps.

In 1863 the conservative French Academy of Fine Arts was about to present their Paris Salon, the greatest art event in the West at the time. The Salon was dominated by academic artists; in an attempt to preserve their authority they rejected submissions from realist and impressionist artists. The blacklisted undesirables organized a Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of the Refused), and thousands came to jeer and ridicule their paintings, nonetheless the first avant-garde was born, and it eventually overthrew academic art. The anecdote about the Refused is apropos because Marina Abramović and today’s postmodern artists are the new Academic art establishment.

A brand new Salon des Refusés is long overdue!

– // –

UPDATE: 6/19/2017

Hermann Nitsch carried out his bloody “150.Action” performance art on June 17, 2017. Press summations on the atrocity can be found here: The Art Newspaper and the Daily Mail.

Exhibit of “Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed.”

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

Starting March 12, 2016 and running through April 2, 2016, I will show two of my social realist drawings at Mi Ciudad of Los Angeles, a group exhibition at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, L.A. California.

Created in 1980, my drawings Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed and Hollywood Blvd., Punk Rules, portray the decaying urban landscape of Tinseltown in the late 1970s before it was transformed by waves of gentrification that began in the 1990s. My drawings describe a hidden history of Los Angeles that I lived as an active participant. With the Ave. 50 exhibit, these artworks will have been exhibited only twice since they were originally created. A high resolution version of Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed, can be viewed on my Saatchi Art account; by double-clicking the artwork found there you will be presented with a strikingly detailed image.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Color pencil on paper 22"x29" inches. "The decaying urban landscape of Tinseltown in the late 1970s, before it was transformed by waves of gentrification that began in the 1990s."

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Color pencil on paper 22"x29" inches.

Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed was created with color pencil on paper. It is based upon sights I witnessed on the famous street as it became the nucleus for the punk rock movement on the West coast of the United States in the late 1970’s. The Masque, the first underground punk club in California, opened its doors in 1977. It was located in a dark, dank, windowless basement on Cherokee Avenue, a tiny side street off of Hollywood Blvd. I frequented that den of iniquity, and through my art began to document and promote the dangerous subculture that incubated there.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

While Hollywood boulevard is internationally renowned for its Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the brass and terrazzo stars embedded in the sidewalks along the Hollywood “Walk of Fame,” in the late 70’s the street had fallen on hard times.

Stores in the area had gone out of business, or turned to selling cheap kitsch to the tourists that never stopped flocking to the Mecca of the Hollywood dream machine. Instead of starlets, visitors were more likely to see drug dealers and their clients, male and female prostitutes, homeless indigents, and flamboyant transvestites. In that context, L.A.’s first punks found a home.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

In the midst of the boulevard’s regular population, a small army of colorful misfits hung around the Masque. We were enigmatic oddballs, inexplicable with spiky day-glow hair, bizarre clothes, “jewelry” of razor blades and safety pins, weird sunglasses and even weirder music.

In We’re Doomed, I portrayed drifters loitering on a bus bench graffitied with the names of L.A. punk bands like the Weirdos, X, Germs, Bags, Screamers, Fear, Mau Mau, and the Plugz. In real life the bus bench depicted in my drawing was around the corner from the Masque, and a nearby star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame was actually defaced with the nihilistic punk scrawl “we’re doomed.” It was a detail included in my dismal tableau, but also used to title the drawing.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©. "We Must Bleed."

My drawing displays words etched into the bus bench that read “We Must Bleed,” the title of an apocalyptic song by the Germs. Not long after I finished my drawing in 1980, the 22-year-old frontman and songwriter of the Germs, Darby Crash, committed suicide with an intentional overdose of heroin. The Masque permanently closed its doors in 1979, but an uncontrollable movement had been unleashed.

My second work of art in the exhibit is a 1980 pen and ink drawing titled Hollywood Blvd., Punk Rules; it also depicts a squalid scene on the boulevard. The work was drawn using a Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph technical pen, allowing me to create precise crosshatching and rich layers of transparent color.

"Hollywood Blvd - Punk Rules." - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Pen & ink on paper. 9 1/2" x 11"

"Hollywood Blvd - Punk Rules." - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Pen & ink on paper. 9 1/2" x 11"

The pen drawing portrays an elderly woman waiting for a bus; she is no doubt a resident in one of the many cheap apartments that existed in the area during those days. Sitting expectantly on a grimy bus bench is a young green-haired punk. At the time only a handful of miscreants dyed their hair in “anti-fashion” day-glow colors, it was a sign of extreme disaffection with society that guaranteed trouble; for the mobs of punk youth that called themselves the “Hate Generation,” that was A-Okay.

The background behind my two characters is a Hollywood wall covered with the iconic hieroglyphics of the era, a mix of Chicano gang placas (graffiti) and punk defacements; note my inclusion of the legendary Hollywood “Walk of Fame” gold stars on the sidewalk. Two posters are included in the urban landscape; both were actually plastered all over Los Angeles at the time.

The poster wheat pasted to the wall called for a militant demonstration at L.A.’s MacArthur Park on May 1st, International Workers Day. It was the first significant May Day event in the city since the 1960s, and it was attacked by the Los Angeles Police Department for being an unpermitted march. I was in the park taking photographs when I witnessed the mass arrests; I was almost trampled by two truncheon swinging LAPD officers on horseback.

The peeled and ripped broadside on the bus bench announced a May 4th concert by the U.K punk band Public Image; I attended the riotous mêlée at L.A.’s rundown Olympic Auditorium that co-starred L.A.’s own, The Plugz.

Curated by esteemed L.A. painter Raoul De la Sota, the exhibition features the works of eleven L.A. artists who with their works bear witness to the megalopolis that is the City of Los Angeles. Mi Ciudad of Los Angeles opens on Saturday, March 12, 2016, with an artist’s reception from 7 pm to 10 pm. The exhibit will run through April 2, 2016. Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, in Highland Park, CA 90042 (View map for directions).

A New Look at Rivera’s “Gloriosa Victoria.”

I published an article on Oct. 5, 2007 titled Diego Rivera: Glorious Victory! It was about the Diego Rivera retrospective then on view at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City, Mexico. The real treasure in that show was the artist’s 1954 mural, Gloriosa Victoria (Glorious Victory).

"Gloriosa Victoria" (Glorious Victory) - Diego Rivera. Oil on linen. 1954. Collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia.

"Gloriosa Victoria" (Glorious Victory) - Diego Rivera. Oil on linen. 1954. Collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia.

Gloriosa Victoria is a large oil on linen “mobile mural” that had been touring Eastern Europe in 1956 when it somehow became lost. It was discovered rolled up and sitting in a store room at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia in 2006; Rivera had apparently gifted the mural to the Soviet Union. By special arrangement it was loaned to Mexico by the Russian government for the 2007 Palace of Fine Arts exhibition (click here for a larger view of the mural). A number of developments regarding the mural have since led me to write a fresh perspective on its history.

Gloriosa Victoria depicts the 1954 U.S. government engineered coup d’état against the elected government of Guatemala. The mural’s narrative quality is as powerful as a renaissance altarpiece; its recounting of historic events augmented by a superlative handling of composition, color, and form. There are no subtleties or abstractions in Rivera’s telling of this bleak chapter in human events; he offers no tales of universal suffering or “the human condition.” He strips away the mythic to reveal the common truths found in the chronicles of Latin America.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In the above detail from the mural, the man at left dressed in khaki fatigues is the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. He clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The man in the dark suit seen whispering into the ear of John Foster Dulles is his brother Allen Dulles, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA chief wears a messenger bag stuffed with Yankee dollars, and he is passing that money to John Peurifoy, the man behind and to the right of the Secretary of State. Peurifoy is handing out the cash to the traitorous military officers and their goons who overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz by force of arms.

Standing front and center before this group of coup plotters is Air Force Colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas. The breast pocket of his “Eisenhower jacket” is full of American dollars; he carries a Colt Model 1911 .45ACP pistol in his waist band. Armas, the leader of the CIA backed “rebels,” successfully ousted the government of Árbenz and was named head of the military junta. Weeks later a faux election was held in which Armas won 99.9% of the vote. Along the bottom half of the painting are the bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup.

The tall man in black blessing the scene deserves special mention, in Rivera’s overall composition the viewer’s eye naturally travels to him. He is Rivera’s depiction of Guatemala’s arch-conservative Catholic Archbishop, Mariano Rossell Arellano (1909-1983). In the opening days of the coup the CIA distributed leaflets across Guatemala that exhorted the population to support the putsch. One such flyer was a pastoral letter issued under the Archbishop’s name, it read in part:

“The people of Guatemala must rise as one man against this enemy. Our struggle against Communism must be… a crusade of prayer and sacrifice, as well as intensive spreading of the social doctrine of the church and a total rejection of Communist propaganda - for the love of God and Guatemala.”

The pastoral letter was not written by Archbishop Arellano. Though its content was approved by the Archbishop, the letter was actually composed by CIA officials in coordination with conservative Catholic clergy in the United States [1]. Rivera named his painting after a remark made by Secretary of State Dulles, who immediately after the U.S. successfully overthrew the government of Guatemala, proclaimed the act to be a “glorious victory for democracy.”

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." A heavily armed soldier from the U.S. backed coup, watches indigenous Maya working for the neocolonial American corporation, the United Fruit Company.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." A heavily armed soldier from the U.S. backed coup, watches indigenous Maya working for the neocolonial American corporation, the United Fruit Company.

One final note about Rivera’s painting; when it was rediscovered at the Pushkin and examined, a second painting was discovered on the backside of Glorious Victory. It was an unfinished portrait that Rivera started but never finished; it was titled “Portrait of a leader of the Mexican Communist Party, Dionisio Encinas.”

Nearly two months after I published my Glorious Victory! article, the New York Times published a rather disparaging review of the Rivera retrospective that was written by Elisabeth Malkin. Titled Rivera, Fridamania’s Other Half, Gets His Due, it offered the following appraisal:

“The centerpiece of the show was ‘Glorious Victory,’ a mural Rivera painted at the end of his life, after the American-backed coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954. It is pure propaganda, almost caricature…”

As George Orwell once wrote, “all art is propaganda.” I could argue that the contemporary art the NYT tirelessly writes about also falls under that description, but that’s another essay. Malkin’s assertion that Rivera’s Glorious Victory is nothing but “pure propaganda,” precludes a discussion regarding the aesthetics of social realism, preferring instead mockery and contempt in lieu of serious criticism. She recounts the historic fact that an “American-backed coup” destroyed “the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954,” but then condemns Rivera’s artistic depiction of that same reality as “pure propaganda.” How would Malkin like an artist to depict the nettlesome subject in a work of art? My guess would be… not at all.

Detail: "The bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup."

Detail: "The bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup."

After Glorious Victory was seen by thousands at the Palacio de Bellas Artes retrospective, the mural was moved to the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City. It was displayed there from January through June 2008 before being returned to the Pushkin collection. The Russian government loaned Glorious Victory to Guatemala in 2010, where it was shown at the National Palace of Culture as part of that museum’s ambitious art exhibition, ¡Oh Revolución! 1944-2010: Múltiples visiones (Oh Revolution! 1944-2010: Multiple Visions). That exhibit was proclaimed by Guatemalan officials as the most important art show mounted in the country in six decades.

Museum staff from Guatemala's National Palace of Culture, and experts from Russia's Puskin Museum, uncrate Rivera's painting in preparation for the exhibit "Oh Revolution! 1944-2010 Multiple Visions," held in Guatemala's capital in 2010. Photo by Paulo Raquec for the Government of Guatemala.

Staff from Guatemala's National Palace of Culture, and experts from Russia's Puskin Museum, uncrate Rivera's painting in preparation for the exhibit "Oh Revolution! 1944-2010 Multiple Visions," held in Guatemala's capital in 2010. Photo by Paulo Raquec for the Government of Guatemala.

President Álvaro Colom provided remarks for the Oct 1, 2010 opening ceremonies of ¡Oh Revolución!, but before I comment further, allow me to guide you through some of Guatemala’s recent political history, which makes the showing of Rivera’s mural in Guatemala that much more profound.

In 2003 Colom ran for president as the candidate of the social-democratic National Unity of Hope party. He lost to the oligarch Óscar Berger, who ran as the candidate of the rightist Grand National Alliance party. In 2007 Colom again ran for president on the National Unity of Hope ticket, this time against Otto Pérez Molina and the rightist party he founded, the Patriotic Party. Molina was a retired Army General, trained at the U.S. School of the Americas, who had close ties to the military regimes that ran Guatemala in the early 1980s. He lost the election to Colom, who became the only “left” leaning politician to be elected president in 53 years; the first of course was the ill-fated Árbenz, who was overthrown in the U.S. organized coup d’état.

As previously noted, President Colom led the opening ceremonies of the ¡Oh Revolución! exhibit, which presented Guatemalan history through paintings, drawings, and prints, from the overthrow of Árbenz to the current period. The pièce de résistance in the show was of course Rivera’s Gloriosa Victoria, and President Colom thanked the Russian government for loaning it to his nation. At the time of the exhibit Guatemala was celebrating the anniversary of its Diez años de Primavera (Ten Years of Spring), the period between the people’s 1944 overthrow of dictator Jorge Ubico, and the end of the democracy movement brought about by the 1954 U.S. coup against Árbenz.

While President Colom implemented modest reforms during his term in office (2008- 2012), his most significant act was the Oct. 20, 2011 official apology he made for the government’s role in helping to organize the 1954 coup that crushed democracy. Directing his apology to the family of Jacobo Árbenz and to the people of Guatemala, Colom made the apology at the National Palace, saying of the coup; “That day changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it yet. It was a crime to Guatemalan society and it was an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring.”

In this 1965 photograph, Rina Lazo paints a replica of the famous Maya murals of Bonampak. Her replica is now housed in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photographer unknown.

In this 1965 photograph, Rina Lazo paints a replica of the famous Maya murals of Bonampak. Her replica is now housed in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photographer unknown.

President Colom introduced another special guest at the ¡Oh Revolución! opening, Rina Lazo, the Guatemalan-Mexican painter and muralist.

Lazo assisted Diego Rivera from 1947 to 1957, directly helping him paint a number of his most well known mural works. As a young student she won a scholarship to study art in Mexico, and three months after arriving in Mexico City she met Rivera and became his pupil.

Rivera made her a leading assistant, referring to her as his “right hand,” and asked her in 1947 to help him paint the mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, then being created in the Hotel del Prado (now the Museo Mural Diego Rivera).

In 1954 Lazo assisted Rivera in painting Glorious Victory. One late afternoon while working on the mural, Rivera asked Lazo if she would like to be included in the painting as a background figure. She agreed to pose, and Rivera told her to bring a red blouse to the studio the next day.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." At left, Rina Lazo in her red blouse.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." At left, Rina Lazo in her red blouse.

The following morning Rivera provided Lazo with a 9mm carbine, set her in an appropriate pose, and began painting.

In the upper right corner of Glorious Victory a group of armed workers and compesinos take action to defend their elected government from the coup-makers; two agricultural workers brandish machetes while Rina Lazo in her red blouse wields a carbine.

While Rivera was painting Glorious Victory, Lazo was creating her own large canvas titled Venceremos (We Will Win). It linked the U.S. coup in Guatemala with the U.S. war in Korea, which had just concluded with an armistice in 1953. The canvas presented an apocalyptic landscape of Guatemalan jungle and Korean rice paddies, where marauding soldiers massacred Korean and Guatemalan peasants alike.

Venceremos (We Will Win) - Rina Lazo. Oil on canvas 1954.

'Venceremos" (We Will Win) - Rina Lazo. Oil on canvas 1954.

In the tableau one unfortunate man shot full of bullet holes is tied upside down to a tree, recalling the Apostle Peter crucified upside down by soldiers of the Roman Empire. Venceremos was also included in ¡Oh Revolución!, and today it is in the collection of the Museo de Bellas Artes de Toluca, México.

"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera" - Photo by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi.

"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera" - Photo by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi. 1933.

Through Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Lazo met Arturo García Bustos, her husband to be. Bustos was one of “Los Fridos,” a small circle of young artists who were not only fiercely loyal students of Kahlo, but lived and worked with Rivera and Kahlo for close to ten years.

Bustos was also a founding member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Lazo and Bustos married in 1949. At the time of this writing Lazo is 93-years old and Bustos is 90; they continue to live together in Mexico City.

By reason of the malaise and torpor of today’s postmodern art, Lazo and Bustos insist that social realism - as exemplified by Rivera’s Glorious Victory - will one day make a comeback; as an artist infinitely inspired by Mexican Muralism, I share the assessment of Lazo and Bustos.

– // –


[1] Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion. T. Jeremy Gunn. Publisher: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

View the flickr page created by the Government of Guatemala, celebrating the 2010 exhibition of Gloriosa Victoria at Guatemala’s National Palace of Culture. The photos at the end of the page feature images of President Álvaro Colom, as well as Rina Lazo and her husband Arturo García Bustos.


There is more to this Guatemalan tale. When President Colom’s term in office ended in 2012, his old rival, the former Army General Otto Pérez Molina became the next elected president; despite accusations of corruption and human rights abuses. Three years into his reign the rightist strongman was exposed for involvement in a major corruption scheme. The scam involved the country’s custom service taking bribes from importers in exchange for illegally reducing custom tarifs; the profits of course going to Molina and members of his administration.

Known as La Linea (The Line), the scam was named after the telephone line importers used to arrange bribes with corrupt officials. Hearing of this outrage the people held mass protests for months, filling the streets with demonstrations, conducting strikes, as well as seizing workplaces and schools. Of the 15 million people who live in Guatemala, over 50% of them live in dire poverty. The protests brought the country to a standstill. President Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and dozens of officials from their administration, resigned in disgrace and were arrested. Molina and Baldetti are currently in prison and on trial for corruption.

As if things could not get any worse… or more surreal, in October 2015 a former TV comedian named Jimmy Morales was elected president of Guatemala; Morales was inaugurated on January 14, 2016. With no political experience whatsoever, Morales was elected in the wake of the anti-corruption protests that swept General Molina and his cronies from power. Morales ran as the candidate of the right-wing National Convergence Front, founded in 2008 by retired army officers who played a bloody role in the country’s 1960-1996 genocidal civil war. Already, fifteen colleagues of Morales, mostly members of the National Convergence Front, have been arrested for human rights violations related to the war. By the way, attending the inauguration of Jimmy was none other than U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden. Guatemala’s anguish and despair continues… Glorious Victory indeed.

Lives in Limbo

Book cover for "Lives in Limbo" by Roberto G. Gonzales (University of California Press, 2015). Cover design based on a drawing by Mark Vallen.

Book cover for "Lives in Limbo" by Roberto G. Gonzales (University of California Press, 2015). Cover design based on a drawing by Mark Vallen.

“My world seems upside down. I have grown up but I feel like I’m moving backward. And I can’t do anything about it.” – Esperanza

The above quote is but one voice from Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America. Written by Roberto G. Gonzales, an Assistant Professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, the book specifically focuses on the stories of immigrant Latino children and young adults who are caught in the Kafkaesque U.S. immigration system.

Dr. Gonzales first contacted me on January 6, 2015 with a query regarding the use of my Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal - No Human Being is Illegal drawing as the cover art for his forthcoming book. I thanked him for his kind letter, but politely rebuffed him with the following: “I have to admit to hesitancy about using the image for a book cover. The image has become iconic of the immigrant rights movement, as I intended, and I am frankly reluctant to alter the legacy of the image.”

However, Gonzales did not relent, and in retrospect I am happy for that. The Assistant Professor continued to e-mail this artist with an epistle of dispatches that ultimately convinced me of his profound seriousness. But it was Gonzales sending me copies of several chapters of his unpublished manuscript that ultimately persuaded me; a boundless humanism leapt off those pages. It was the same spirit of commitment to the downtrodden that compelled me to create the Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal - No Human Being is Illegal drawing in 1988.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal - No Human Being is Illegal." Mark Vallen © Offset lithograph, 1988. Bilingual poster based on the artist's pencil drawing.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal - No Human Being is Illegal." Mark Vallen © Offset lithograph, 1988. Bilingual poster based on the artist's black & white pencil drawing.

Dr. Gonzales told me that he thought my drawing was a persuasive criticism against racism and America’s unfair immigration system, referring to the artwork as emblematic of a social movement in opposition to bigotry and injustice.

He expressed a fervent desire that Lives in Limbo would have a similarly powerful impact. Because I had no doubt that it would, I enthusiastically gave Gonzales full permission to use my artwork - an approval I extended to no other in all these years.

You may of course take this as a wholehearted endorsement of Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America, a book that I am absolutely thrilled to be associated with.

I believe that every person living in the U.S. would benefit from reading this tome, not just academics, but working people and students, because it is imperative that we humanize the plight of the immigrant.

In some ways the narratives found in Lives in Limbo relate to my own history. Along with his family my father came to the U.S. from Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico when he was around 2-years-old, settling in San Diego, California. At sixteen years of age he came to Los Angeles to work in the city’s restaurant business. There he met and married Patricia Schneider, a young woman of mixed Mexican/German heritage. Ten days before I was born on September 7, 1953, my father officially became a U.S. citizen, changing his name from José Jesus Valenzuela to Joe Vallen. I never knew the disquietude he must have suffered as an undocumented worker, nor do I know anything about his path to citizenship. I can only imagine because he never discussed it with me.

Regarding the opening quote of this brief scoop; in case you are unfamiliar with Spanish, Esperanza is “Hope” in English. It is an enchanting name that has been given to many a girl child. Here in Los Angeles where I was born and raised, for the brown-eyed people of the sun it has always been a common name - stretching back to the 1781 founding of El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles, or for the monolingual reader, “The Town of the Queen of the Angels.”

But hope is dying… we are living in terrible times where there is frightful talk about mass deportations and building a colossal wall to separate humanity. Whatever your position regarding immigration, bear this in mind, when people are stripped of their humanity and thought of as illegitimate, appalling things will follow. That is the REAL meaning behind No Human Being is Illegal.

– // –

You can purchase Lives in Limbo at

Visit Roberto G. Gonzales on Twitter

Purchase my No Human Being is Illegal poster

Read about Lives in Limbo on NBC news

A New Year message: Hope & Beauty on leave of absence

Mark Vallen, Sept., 2015. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe. ©

Mark Vallen, Sept., 2015. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe. ©

In 1627 the French Baroque artist Simon Vouet created the remarkable oil painting, Time defeated by Hope and Beauty. The masterpiece depicts Father Time dragged to the ground along with his scythe and hourglass; he has been vanquished by the paragons of Hope and Beauty.

Father Time is menaced by a grappling iron brandished by Hope, while the fierce grip of Beauty seizes the long grey tresses atop Father Time’s head as she prepares to drive a spear into him. The joyous faces of Hope and Beauty belie the implied violence of the canvas.

This year poor Father Time looks bedraggled like never before. The elderly bearded man is bruised and gaunt; his robe is in tatters and his sash bearing the old year’s date is ripped and splashed with human gore. But where are the paragons of Hope and Beauty? Unhappily, the political flapdoodle of “Hope” as advanced by a certain Folitician, sullied the good name of Hope the celestial being; she is taking a long hiatus from our fool’s paradise until humanity comes to its senses. And as for that immortal that goes by the name of Beauty, well… the art world betrayed and abandoned her long ago.

As tradition has it, Father Time appears every New Year’s Eve with an angelic infant, an allegorical newborn that represents what is to come. But this year everyone is suspicious of the angel-faced bambino, and it is assumed that the toddler will grow up to sow endless war, terrorism, pestilence, and economic collapse. We are frightened and skittish for good reason; a sense of foreboding envelopes us. But while Hope and Beauty are on leave of absence, they slyly left their metaphorical tools behind. I have added Hope’s grappling iron and Beauty’s spear to my stockpile of paints, brushes, pens, pencils, and canvases. With such an armory, this artist is ready to join the great battles of 2016.

A Happy New Year to almost everyone! And to help you locate the sanctuary of Hope and Beauty, here are a dozen of my web log posts from 2015 to guide your way:



Twittering Like A Bird (2015/01/31)

I took the plunge into social media and opened a Twitter account at the beginning of 2015.

“I have an aversion to the Orwellian truncation and mangling of English words and their meanings. Last year Lake Superior State University came up their 40th annual list of words that should be banished for their mis-use or uselessness; words like swag, foodie, curate, and enhanced interrogation. I would like to add to that list the words twitter and tweet. As a lover of the avian world and a keen bird watcher, I know that tweeting is something birds do. Nope, you can’t fool me.”


"Arts Champion"?

Obama’s 2016 Arts Budget (2015/02/03)

“Let me put it this way. Our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate president has put forward a ‘defense’ budget for FY 2016 that will total $620.9 billion. His proposed budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), you know, the U.S. government agency that is ‘dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts’ from sea to shining sea… is a mere $148 million. Here I must add that Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has grossed, in just a three week period, $31.9 million dollars; the film is expected to generate $249 million in domestic sales.

When announcing his FY 2016 budget, Obama said: ‘Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or are we going to build an economy where everyone who works hard has a chance to get ahead?’ The answer to that should be obvious; the financial aristocracy is grinning from ear to ear.”


Linda Christian

El Retrato de Linda Christian (2015/02/09)

El Retrato de Linda Christian (Portrait of Linda Christian) has until recently been an oil painting by Diego Rivera that was virtually unknown to the general public, especially outside of Mexico.

As it stands, the painting has once again disappeared from public view, slipping back into obscurity as an expensive trophy in a private collection. Oh pobrecito Diego. ¡Oh pobres de nosotros!”


Art not Oil

LACMA, BP & the Oil Workers Strike (2015/02/11)

“I always viewed LACMA’s relationship with BP as an ethical dilemma for the arts community, from BP shaping an arts institution to LACMA being a partner in the oil giant’s “greenwashing” propaganda. However, the nationwide workers’ strike against BP adds a new wrinkle to the entanglement - revealing once more the difficult interface between art and capitalism.

If thousands of workers are on strike against BP because of deplorable working conditions that are literally taking workers’ lives, and BP is a major contributor to LACMA… what then does that make the museum? Is it really an impartial institution? Does it actually need to be said which side LACMA is on - with the workers, their families and friends - or with BP?


Art that resists

“It feels as if art is failing us” (2015/02/21)

“On Nov. 27, 2014, the chief film critic for the New York Times, A.O. Scott, wrote an essay that broached the question, Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?

He stated emphatically that ‘we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.’ Scott pointed out that in decades past, ‘all the news you need about class divisions’ could be found in painting, theater, movies, and literature. Here he explicitly wrote that he was ‘waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad - something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times.’ Mr. Scott will be waiting for a long time… all we get is 50 Shades of Grey, Justin Bieber, and some ludicrous balloon dogs from the vacuous Jeff Koons.”


Wave-making art

The Left Front: Defying Established Order (2015/04/01)

“In the ten year period covered by The Left Front exhibit, artists created works against racism, poverty, and the drive towards war, that is… the very same problems we have today. But what of the present?

Who wins favor with the art establishment? Why are artists failing so miserably in addressing the world’s problems? Those in The Left Front show entrusted to us a people’s history and a record of resistance. They bequeathed to us images of transcendent beauty, unbreakable spirit, and deep humanism in the face of bottomless cruelty and inhumanity. Now it is our turn.”


Diego, Frida, & the Motor City

May Day with Diego & Frida (2015/05/19)

I flew to Michigan in May to see and review the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit organized by the Detroit Institute of the Arts. This unique photo-illustrated essay was the result.”

Art critics and reviewers have written positive appraisals of the DIA exhibit, but they have done so with little understanding of Mexican history, and absolutely no sympathy for the politics embraced by Rivera and Kahlo. As an artist that has been involved with Chicano art and politics in Los Angeles since the late 1960s, I have a different take on Rivera and Kahlo.”


The painter's craft

Robert Henri’s California (2015/05/22)

“Robert Henri’s California dazzles on several fronts. It awes the viewer with Henri’s skill as a painter and brings to life craft as an essential part of painting. It produces a sense of admiration regarding Henri’s ability to capture the essence of people in formal portraiture, revealing the deep humanism Henri possessed. The exhibit also affirms something little known about the man usually thought of as a ‘New York’ realist painter - his deep and abiding love for the lands and people of southern California.”


No postmodern swamp

In the Land of the Tlingit (2015/07/31)

“Fortune smiled upon me and I found myself in the land of the Tlingit from June 7th to June 14th, 2015; I made an all too brief journey to Southeast Alaska and witnessed many wonderful sights during my brief sojourn.

The indigenous Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people all live in the region, but this article will place emphasis on the enduring Tlingit people as I encountered them during my visits to the Alaskan communities of Icy Strait Point, Hoonah, Juneau, and Ketchikan.


Be more than a witness

I Did Not (2015/09/07)

A rather flowery autobiography of sorts, posted when I turned 62:

“I did not start my American life at Disneyland, but it was a close starting point. I was born September 7, 1953. Disneyland opened in California in 1955, my parents took me there in 1959. I was six-years-old.

“That same year Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was denied permission to visit Disneyland. I liked Tomorrowland where I rode the look-alike U.S. Navy nuclear submarines. I liked the Rocket to the Moon ride with its space age astronauts. I did not like Mickey Mouse.

007 Ayuda Ayotzi

007 Ayuda Ayotzi

007: The Spectre of Ayotzinapa (2015/09/15)

“Cinema has always been an art form that easily conveys ideology on the sly, but Spectre seems to have broken new ground when it comes to state generated propaganda.

It is unprecedented for an American motion picture studio to have taken large amounts of foreign money in exchange for rewriting a film. The Webster dictionary defines propaganda as ‘ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.’ If one thinks about it for a moment, that entails quite a bit of what we experience in today’s modern society, including our cultural preoccupations. Spectre certainly fits the bill.”


Diego Rivera censored again

Diego Rivera mural blocked from public view! (2015/09/29)

“As a working painter and printmaker in Los Angeles, I write this open letter on the subject of Change the World or Go Home, an installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting by Mexico City-based artist Alejandro Almanza Pereda, now on exhibit in the SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery.

I write to express my dismay that Mr. Pereda’s installation unnecessarily blocks public viewing of Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. I also have misgivings about Pereda’s installation being placed so close to Rivera’s delicate fresco mural; I believe it poses a threat to the mural’s preservation. More to the point, I hope to explain why I believe that Pereda and the SFAI have denigrated the legacy of Rivera and his fresco mural.”

Wishes and Dreams! Beauty is in the Street!

 "¡La belleza esta en la calle!" (Beauty is in the Street!) Mark Vallen 2015. Oil on linen, mounted on masonite. 14" x 16" inches.

"¡La belleza esta en la calle!" (Beauty is in the Street!) Mark Vallen 2015. Oil on linen, mounted on masonite. 14" x 16" inches.

My most recent oil painting, ¡La belleza esta en la calle! (Beauty is in the Street!), will be premiered at the Wishes and Dreams exhibition at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles California. Curated by esteemed L.A. painter Raoul De la Sota, the group show features the works of sixteen artists who present in their artworks “the hopes, aspirations, dreams, memories, and wishes the participants have for themselves or for the world.”

And what is my wish, my dream? It is that we all end our conformist, hyper-consumerist, pessimistic, work-a-day-world apocalyptic thinking, to become idealists, artists, and utopians. In short, the same dream I have always embraced. As an oil painting ¡La belleza esta en la calle! (Beauty is in the Street!) echoes my philosophy that a better world is possible only when the multitudes begin to imagine it, and then fill the avenues to create it.

The title of my oil painting came from a street poster produced in 1968 Paris by an anonymous member of the worker and student run art cooperative known as the Atelier Populare (Popular Workshop). But I do not live in Paris, France and it is not 1968; I am a painter living in the megalopolis of Los Angeles, California during the dawn of the 3rd Millennium.

Because L.A. County today has the largest Latino population of any county in the United States (some 49%), I chose a young iconoclastic Latina as a symbol for the free spirits that will take to the streets to change the world. The painting has its title in Spanish for the same reason.

Wishes and Dreams opens on Saturday, December 12, 2015, with an artist’s reception from 7 pm to 10 pm. The exhibit will run through February 7, 2016. Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, in Highland Park, CA 90042 (map).

Tlaloque: A Day of the Dead Monoprint

"Tlaloque" - Mark Vallen. Monoprint 8.5 x 11 inches. 2015 ©.

"Tlaloque" - Mark Vallen. Monoprint 8.5 x 11 inches. 2015 ©.

To mark the devasting drought of California (my home state), and to observe Día de los Muertos 2015, I have created an extremely limited edition suite of six monoprints. The prints recall the Tlaloque, underlings of Tlaloc, the ancient Aztec god of rain and celestial waters. You may consider my print a supplication for divine rain and an end to crippling drought; Tlaloque is a chromatic painted prayer put to paper in the Aztec tradition.

And what is the meaning behind my print?

Tlaloc had four water spirit assistants known as Tlaloque who lived in the high mountains where rain clouds gathered. It was the duty of these magical water sprites - who represented the four cardinal points - to gather up water in their ceramic vessels. Their jugs of water represented rain, frost, drought, and water-born calamity and disease. If pleased, Tlaloc would order his Tlaloque to break open their ceramic urns with their staffs to produce not just thunder and lightning, but life-giving rain. Just as easily, torrents could be unleashed to flood the land, or freezing sleet and snow sent to destroy crops. If angered, the rain god and his Tlaloque would punish with drought.

"Tlaloque" - (Detail) Vallen. Monoprint 2015 ©.

"Tlaloque" - (Detail) Vallen. Monoprint 2015 ©.

Essentially Tlaloque is a printed painting that depicts a watery realm. The artworks were created in oil paint directly applied onto a pane of glass, covered with a sheet of paper, and then burnished with a wooden spoon; each color was “pulled” separately. Working with a limited palette of cool colors (ultramarine, viridian, cerulean), I applied the paints using brushes, crumpled paper, cotton swabs and my fingers, to produce an ethereal female visage seemingly made from aquatic plants, water currents, and bubbles.

When buying these monoprints, remember that each stand-alone print is unique. While quite similar, no two prints are exactly alike. I cannot guarantee that your purchase will look precisely like the one displayed on this page. However, I personally pulled and curated the prints and found each one suitable for inclusion in the suite. Each print is dated, numbered, and hand-signed with the artist’s signature and title of the print - Tlaloque.

$495. Tlaloque - Mark Vallen. Monoprint  8.5 x 11 inches. 2015 ©.
Purchase your print here

– // –

Some of my 2014 monoprints, “Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43,” are still available for purchase.

Diego Rivera mural blocked from public view!

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011. The mural as it was meant to be seen.

This is an Open Letter to the Students and Faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute.

In September 2011, it was a real pleasure to travel to San Francisco for the express purpose of photographing the Great Depression era murals that exist in the city. I visited the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where I made photographic studies of Diego Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, located in the campus gallery named after him.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

Rivera’s mural is a brilliant tromp-l’oeil, showing us a mural within a mural, with Rivera and assistants on a scaffold as they paint a monumental worker representing the working class; in the artist’s words, a “Gigantic worker, his gaze fixed firmly forward.”

A number of foreign visitors were among the U.S. tourists in the gallery that day; I was impressed by their silent contemplation of the mural. Indeed, the painting is a major destination for cultural tourism, and many travel guides for San Francisco suggest a visit to the SFAI for a look at Rivera’s mural.

Wanting to share my passion for Rivera’s work, I uploaded a few of my photos of his SFAI mural to my web log in 2011, along with some of the history behind the making of the fresco. I might add that I traveled to the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in May of 2015, not just to see that museum’s Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit, but to study and photograph Rivera’s magnificent Detroit Industry mural cycle painted in an internal courtyard of the DIA. Throngs of people jammed the museum for the Rivera and Kahlo exhibit, which by the end of its run was seen by well over 153,000 people, making it one of the biggest shows in the DIA’s history.

As a working painter and printmaker in Los Angeles, I write this open letter on the subject of Change the World or Go Home, an installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting by Mexico City-based artist Alejandro Almanza Pereda, now on exhibit in the SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery. I write to express my dismay that Mr. Pereda’s installation unnecessarily blocks public viewing of Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. I also have misgivings about Pereda’s installation being placed so close to Rivera’s delicate fresco mural; I believe it poses a threat to the mural’s preservation. More to the point, I hope to explain why I believe that Pereda and the SFAI have denigrated the legacy of Rivera and his fresco mural.

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Mr. Pereda is an artist in residence at the SFAI, and so was given a solo exhibit in the Diego Rivera Gallery. Pereda has constructed 24-foot-high scaffold, with a jumble of functioning fluorescent light tubes replacing the scaffold’s wood or steel planks. In the SFAI’s promotional material for Pereda’s scaffold, the school writes some typical postmodern gobbledygook that the fluorescent light tubes are meant to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality of Diego Rivera’s fresco.” But what art institution does not know that light, even in limited amounts, can cause cumulative and irreversible damage to works of art?

Art conservators should be apprehensive that Rivera’s fresco is now exposed to light thrown from Pereda’s giant fluorescent light fixture. Fluorescent light contains high levels of UV radiation, and museums use strict guidelines to prevent artworks in their collections from being unnecessarily exposed to the dangers of UV light.

A short film made under the auspices of the SFAI, shows Pereda’s scaffold and fluorescent light fixture being built with the help of young assistants. Black construction netting was initially erected, supposedly to protect the mural while the scaffold was built. A heavy mechanical lift was used in the construction process, and upon completion the scaffold was improbably secured in place with wires anchored to the walls of the gallery. There appear to be no professional technicians involved in the work, nor art conservators to condition-check the mural. The finished scaffold looks flimsy. With San Francisco sitting on the San Andreas Fault and six other significant earthquake fault zones, there is good reason to be anxious.

I am appalled that the SFAI allowed Pereda’s scaffold to be placed so close to a priceless art treasure, not to mention exposing it to UV light. I can think of no other legitimate art institution that would so recklessly endanger an important internationally recognized work in their collection. I cannot imagine the Detroit Institute of the Arts allowing such a cheap stunt to be pulled off anywhere near their Detroit Industry murals.

Pereda apparently believes that the art and legacy of Diego Rivera is a “limiting screen,” a curtain that restrains Mexican art and confines Mexican artists. Pereda envisions his scaffold as a different sort of screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera’s fresco! The scaffold itself, even with its lights turned off, impairs a clear view of Rivera’s mural. Evidently the SFAI is titillated by Pereda’s art prank masquerading as profound artistic exploration. In the aforementioned film, Pereda attempted to explain the meaning of his scaffold installation:

“I always had kind of trouble with Mexican Muralism. The Mexican government supported Mexican Muralism, and so that more or less it became a type of propaganda. So when I see the murals, sometimes, you know, like the one here… it’s about progress, the scaffolding symbolizes progress. But a different progress, like destruction, you create something new, like a new condo over a really nice house. And that’s changing the face of the cities, so sometimes it’s terrifying to see scaffolding.”

In the quote above Mr. Pereda spouts utter nonsense. He implies that Diego Rivera and his fellow muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, et al., were propagandists for the Mexican government, which could not be further from the truth. The majority of the muralistas were political radicals, and they often publicly clashed with the government over a variety of issues. In 1922 Rivera and other important artists founded the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, a group dedicated to creating revolutionary art. David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote the group’s manifesto.

That same year, Rivera, Siqueiros, and many other artists joined the Mexican Communist Party (Frida Kahlo would join in 1928). Rivera’s membership in the party put him in direct odds with the government, which banned the party and its activities in 1925; the outright ban continued until the left-leaning Lázaro Cárdenas was elected president of Mexico in 1934. Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the history of the Mexican Muralist Movement should know these facts. Perhaps Mr Pereda should go back to art school, oh wait… he is an artist in residence at the SFAI.

It seems that Mr. Pereda’s logorrheic style of babbling was a bit thin as an artist’s statement, so the SFAI graciously assisted with some of its own postmodern prose. The school’s promotional material for Pereda describes Rivera’s mural in the following words:

“Meanwhile, in SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery, we have been looking at Diego Rivera’s ass for 84 years. Of course, this was the artist’s intention. Rivera’s iconic work The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) offers an epic image of the reconstruction of San Francisco, depicting laborers and fresco painters alongside the patron, on the scaffold, and closest to our eye: the artist’s high-waisted rear.”

Looking at Rivera’s ass for 84 years? It was Rivera’s intention to show his “high-waisted rear” to the public? Excuse the Pop culture reference, but the SFAI’s brassy remarks remind me of an aside from British comedian John Cleese; “It’s all about backsides with you Americans, isn’t it.”

It is interesting that the SFAI’s mocking reference to “Rivera’s ass,” is the same type of derisive scorn heaped upon Rivera and his mural by critics in 1931. In his book, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals, author Anthony W. Lee mentioned how reactionaries bashed the mural by accusing Rivera of having painted a portrait of himself defecating on his patrons! A less vulgar “critique,” but one no less spiteful, was made at the time by Kenneth Callahan, the painter from the state of Washington. Castigating the mural, he mentioned Rivera’s “flat rear, hanging over the scaffolding in the center. Many San Franciscans chose to see in this gesture a direct insult, premeditated, as indeed it appears to be. If it is a joke, it is a rather amusing one, but in bad taste.”

The only “ass” to be found in this story is the one who seeks to poke Rivera’s legacy full of holes.

Rivera intended his murals to be accessible to the public; that was the central tenet of the Mexican Muralist Movement to which he belonged. Many San Francisco Bay Area artists met and worked with him when he visited San Francisco, and it is because of his influence that San Francisco became a city full of murals. The evidence is everywhere, from the 1934 Chapel Mural painted at the Presidio by Victor Arnautoff, to the magnificent 1934 Coit Tower frescos at Telegraph Hill. From the 1936 San Francisco Life frescos by Lucien Ladaudt at the Beach Chalet restaurant, to the 1941-1948 History of California murals by Anton Refregier at the Rincon Center. Rivera made enormous contributions to art, and his legacy is not a “screen” that oppresses anyone.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFIA short film, Change the World or Go Home, an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home," an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

While the San Francisco Art Institute does not publish Diego Rivera’s own words regarding the true intentions of his mural, I will happily do so. In his autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera described the intent behind his 23-by-30-foot mural. Rivera wrote that he wanted:

“to present a dynamic concerto of construction - technicians, planners, and artists working together to create a modern building (….). I showed how a mural is actually painted: the tiered scaffold, the assistants plastering, sketching, and painting; myself resting at midpoint; and the actual mural subject, a worker whose hand is turning a valve so placed as to seem part of a mechanism of the building.

Since I was facing and leaning toward my work, the portrait of myself was a rear view with my buttocks protruding over the edge of the scaffold. Some persons took this as a deliberate expression of contempt for my American hosts and raised a clamor. However, I insisted that my painting meant nothing else than what it pictured. I would never think of insulting the people of a city I had come to love and in which I had been continuously happy.”

If you type in the title of Rivera’s mural on Google - The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City - you will find that the SFAI web page on the painting is the first item to come up, but my 2011 web log article on the mural is the second. Over the years thousands of people from around the world have read my article on Rivera’s mural. It would be an understatement to say that I would have been upset if I had journeyed to the SFAI to study and photograph Rivera’s fresco, only to find the school had blocked the mural from public view by installing a scaffold made of fluorescent light bulbs in front of it. The annoyance would have been made all the worse with the SFAI promoting the installation on an equal footing with Rivera’s mural.

One arts professional that balked at the way the SFAI has treated the Rivera mural was Sarah Lowndes, a writer, curator, and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland. Having traveled all the way from Scotland to view Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco, Ms. Lowndes was aghast at finding Pereda’s scaffolding blocking the mural. She also wrote an open letter to the SFAI to express her disappointment. Since Pereda’s scaffold will block the view of Rivera’s mural until December 3, 2015, there will be many people who are going to be angry over being denied the pleasure of contemplating one of San Francisco’s greatest mural works.

You may choose to call the deliberate blocking of someone’s view of an artwork a clever act of “art intervention” or a means to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality” of the artwork… but an honest person would call it censorship.

There is a larger cautionary tale to be told here regarding Rivera’s mural, one that has it roots in the history of the SFAI, but also in the chronicles of U.S. art and politics.

In 1931 Diego Rivera painted his mural at the SFAI, then known as the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Douglas McAgy was the school’s director from 1945 to 1950, and he transformed the institution into a center for the non-objective school of abstract art. McAgy hired abstract artists like Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn as instructors, and tirelessly promoted abstract art through exhibitions and forums. To McAgy, figurative realism in art was passé and on its way out.

The “enlightened” McAgy was so offended by Rivera’s social realist mural that in 1945 he had a wall constructed over the fresco to prevent the public from ever seeing it [1]. While history has noted the total destruction of Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural at New York’s Rockefeller Center by the order of Nelson Rockefeller in 1934, the censorship of Rivera’s mural at the CSFA is barely known or acknowledged. In retrospect the suppression of the mural by McAgy has been forgiven by those who simply think the school director acted as an overzealous apostle of abstract art. As if that is an excuse for his blatant act of censorship.

But here is the delightful irony in this whole messy affair. Just as the director of the CSFA revamped the school into a citadel of abstract art on the West coast, putting the kibosh on figurative realism in the process, so too has the current leadership of the SFAI turned the school into a bulwark for today’s oh so fashionable postmodern art. As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” Douglas McAgy covered Rivera’s mural in an open act of censorship; the SFAI covers Rivera’s mural and justifies it in the name of “ambitious new works.”

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

But I do not believe for a moment that McAgy’s censorship of Rivera’s mural was an act solely based on an extreme bias against realism in art. McAgy acted in full accord with the “Red Scare” that had seized control of U.S. national politics.

In 1938 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA). Specifically, HUAC went after the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, a government effort to provide work for unemployed theater professionals in the midst of the Great Depression. HUAC concluded the project was dominated by communists and demanded Roosevelt fire the project’s leadership because they had “associates who were Socialists, Communists, and crackpots.” Roosevelt refused to fire the leaders but HUAC convinced the U.S. Congress to cancel funding to the project on June 30, 1939.

In 1945 HUAC became a permanent Congressional committee that launched investigations into “subversive” activities in the U.S. It undertook an anti-Communist witch hunt in Hollywood in 1947 that placed over 320 actors, directors, and writers on a blacklist forbidding them work. In the same timeframe Joe McCarthy, Senator from the state of Wisconsin, led his own crusade against the hundreds of communists he alleged had infiltrated the U.S. government. The manic anti-Communism that gripped America in that period became known as “McCarthyism” due to the pathological anti-communism of Senator McCarthy and his political allies in official circles.

HUAC repression in Hollywood destroyed careers and purged the entertainment industry of those perceived to be “un-American.” Ten prominent screenwriters and directors who refused to cooperate with HUAC were found in contempt of Congress and each was sentenced to a year in prison; after their release they were blacklisted like all the rest. Government bullying not only purged Hollywood of the left, it ushered in an era of political submissiveness and conformity in U.S. cinema; The Red Menace from Republic Pictures is a perfect example [2].

McCarthyism impacted all facets of cultural life in the U.S., it was not just the entertainment professionals in Hollywood who suffered; visual artists were also targeted. It is beyond the scope of this article to list all of the painters and printmakers who were persecuted by McCarthyism, but Irving Norman, the painter of social surrealist images comes to mind. U.S. artists would do well to remember the reactionary assault on art during the McCarthy years led by Michigan Republican Congressman, George A. Dondero. On August 16, 1949, Rep. Dondero gave a speech before the U.S. Congress titled, Modern Art Shackled to Communism [3]. He spoke of the “isms” that he said were promoted by communists:

“Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder. Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth. Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule. Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane. Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms. Surrealism aims to destroy by the denial of reason. All these isms are of foreign origin, and truly should have no place in American art. While not all are media of social or political protest, all are instruments and weapons of destruction.

We are now face to face with the intolerable situation, where public schools, colleges and universities, art and technical schools, invaded by a horde of foreign art manglers, are selling to our young men and women a subversive doctrine of “isms,” Communist-inspired and Communist-connected, which have one common, boasted goal - the destruction that awaits if this Marxist trail is not abandoned.”

Today Congressman Dondero’s words may sound utterly ridiculous, but between the years 1946 and 1956 this was a deadly serious matter. Congress never rebuffed Dondero’s claims; he had very powerful friends and allies. Together they condemned and suppressed modern art exhibits while leading campaigns to censor and destroy “communist” WPA murals located in government buildings. In 1953, acting as the chairman of the House Committee on Public Works during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dondero was involved in a congressional push to destroy the murals of Anton Refregier that were painted in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office.

While Congressman Dondero and his supporters were attacking abstract art for being “communist because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, and our material progress,” a few powerful opponents of Dondero both in and out of government were defending abstract art as anti-communist.

The advisory director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Alfred Barr, wrote an essay titled Is Modern Art Communist? for the New York Times in 1952. Barr proclaimed abstract art to be anti-communist and an expression of American freedom and individualism! [4] Here I must remind the reader that Nelson Rockefeller, a major proponent of abstract art, was the president of MoMA in the 1940s and 1950s, and that he initially approved of, but then ordered the destruction of, Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural in 1934.

For twelve years Rivera’s mural would remain hidden behind McAgy’s wall until after Rivera’s untimely death in 1957. That same year McCarthyism and Abstract art began to ebb; the CSFA decided it was safe to take down the wall that hid the fresco mural and rededicate The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.

As conservative anti-communists and liberal anti-communists fought over how to defeat communism in the arts, as well as how to combat it with the arts, there stood Diego Rivera in the midst of the clamor, painting his mural at the California School of Fine Arts. It is little wonder why Rivera’s fresco was targeted for censorship in 1945. Douglas McAgy’s decision to wall off Rivera’s mural was undoubtedly motivated by the “liberal” anti-communist view, coupled with his being an exponent of abstract art.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

What may astonish the reader is that the CSFA, renamed the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1961, makes absolutely no acknowledgment online of CSFA director Douglas McAgy being responsible for building a wall over Rivera’s mural and keeping it covered for a dozen years. Mention of McAgy’s censorship is not even broached on the SFAI website page that supposedly presents the institution’s history.

I have a few rhetorical questions for the students and faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as for the larger arts community in the U.S. and beyond.

Mexico is in deep crisis, it is in a political, economic, and moral tailspin; since 2007 over 164,000 Mexicans have been killed in the so-called drug war; 10,000 Mexicans have been kidnapped and “disappeared” by death squads since 2012; over 41 Mexican journalists have been assassinated since 2010 for seeking the truth.

I write this on the one year anniversary of the kidnapping and forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico, who were seized by corrupt police officers and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become a dagger in the heart of the Mexican people, and millions of them know who is responsible for conspiring against them.

My questions are - do you really prefer Alejandro Almanza Pereda and his fluorescent light scaffolding over Diego Rivera and his socially conscious mural? Do you actually think Pereda’s is the appropriate artistic response to a Mexico awash in blood and corruption? Do you genuinely believe that art and artists are above the fray, and need not dirty their hands with real world issues? And, faced with all of the inequality and barbarity of this world, do you regard it as apropos to “contend with and complicate the legacy” of these conditions by attacking Rivera?

If you answered “yes” to any of my questions, then I think it safe to say that the arts community is in its own moral tailspin.

– // –


[1] Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University. Howard Singerman. University of California Press. 1999.

[2] The Red Menace - Director, R.G. Springsteen. Republic Pictures 1949. The film offered an over the top fictional account of how the Communist Party USA supposedly operated in the city of Los Angeles, using deceit and thuggery to recruit the weak minded. The film is narrated by Lloyd G. Davies, a member of the Los Angeles City Council. One of the film’s villainous communists was played by actress Betty Lou Gerson, who would be the voice actress for Cruella De Vil in Disney’s 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians.

[3] Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts - John Henry Merryman, Albert Edward, Elsen, Stephen K. Urice. Published by Kluwer Law International, 2007.

[4] The Rise and Fall of American Art, 1940s-1980s: A Geopolitics of Western Art Worlds - Assoc Prof Catherine Dossin. Ashgate Publishing. 2015.