May Day with Diego & Frida

Night time in Motor City. I am standing before a backlight banner at the Detroit Institute of Arts, May 1st 2015. Photo by Jeaninne Thorpe ©.

The Motor City, May 1st 2015. I am standing before a backlit banner at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When I first got the news that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan would be presenting a special exhibition of works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, I knew I would be making a trip to the Motor City. My wife and I flew from Los Angeles to arrive at the DIA on May Day, the most appropriate day to visit with my old mentors Rivera and Kahlo.

I had never been to Detroit, let alone the DIA, and found the entire experience eye-opening and inspiring. The DIA is an amazing world class museum with a truly impressive collection. My only regret was that I did not have more time to peruse through every wing of the institution.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit opened at the DIA on March 15th and will run until July 12, 2015. The exhibit features some 70 works from the couple, most of which were done while visiting Detroit from 1932 to 1933 during the Great Depression. The show features 23 paintings, prints, and drawings by Kahlo, with the remaining works having been created by Rivera.

As of this writing I am still working on a review of the exhibit; as a working artist profoundly influenced by the Mexican school of social realism that Rivera and Kahlo were part of, there is so much to cover.

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photo also shows the laminated glass skylight that illuminates the court.

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photo also shows the laminated glass skylight that illuminates the court.

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.

I view them, not as superstars or interesting figures frozen in a not-so-distant past, but as standard bearers for the type of art so desperately needed today. That is especially so for Diego Rivera.

My overall impressions of the exhibit are overwhelmingly positive, and I suggest that everyone who can should make an attempt to see it. However, my praise for the show does not preclude criticism… but you will read all of that in my forthcoming appraisal of the show.

This essay will be the first installment of multiple observations I will make regarding my visit to the DIA; surprisingly enough, this opening assessment does not focus on the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibition, but with my photographs of Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco murals found in the DIA’s gorgeous Rivera Court.

In 1932 Rivera was commissioned to create the murals by then president of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford. The mural project was encouraged by the DIA’s director at the time, William Valentiner, with the museum providing the wall space for the monumental murals in an interior garden courtyard. Obviously, it was the creation of the murals that brought the couple to Detroit by train in ‘32. Seeing as how Rivera’s monumental sketches for his murals were on display in the special exhibit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, the murals and the special exhibit can be seen as one organic whole.

My objective in presenting photos of Rivera’s paintings, is to spotlight the craft of his works and to show the artist’s hand in making them. Rather than present a typical photograph that crams as many figures into the shot as possible, I have chosen instead to zero in on extreme, detailed close-ups. My photos give insight into the physicality of Rivera’s frescos, revealing layered washes and underlying charcoal drawings, as well as showing textures and the absorbent nature of the walls Rivera painted upon.

While fresco was practiced in ancient Crete, Greece, and Rome, it is mostly associated with European art of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. The technique entails painting upon freshly-laid wet plaster with water-based pigments. The plaster absorbs the pigment, and as the two dry they bind, becoming inseparable. It is an unforgiving medium, and with fresco murals as large as the ones painted at the DIA, only so much wet plaster could be trowelled on the walls and painted before the plaster dried, which means that the entire mural cycle had to be painted in small sections.

In 1920 Rivera learned how to create frescos when traveling and studying in Italy, but as an amateur archaeologist well familiar with the ancient fresco paintings of the indigenous Toltec artisans at Tula and the frescos from craftsmen at ancient Teotihuacan, Rivera was inspired to create a new muralism that sprang from Mexico’s own history.

I am standing at the south wall of "Detroit Industry." One of the monochromatic predella panels is shown directly behind me. Photo by Jeaninne Thorpe ©.

I am standing at the south wall of "Detroit Industry." One of the monochromatic predella panels is shown directly behind me.

In this, my first illustrated essay on Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, I am going to set my sights on a certain design aspect of the artist’s frescos, his use of the “predella panel” in buttressing his mural’s overall message.

In European religious altarpiece paintings from the late medieval and Renaissance period, a central figure or depiction would be augmented by a series of small panel paintings, the predella, images that added to or reinforced the overall narrative.

Rivera’s predella panels were painted like traditional grisaille paintings. As a technique, grisaille (pronounced greeze-eye) goes back as far as the late Middle Ages, but it continues to be used today; I use the technique on some of my own oil paintings. Basically it means to paint monochromatically in shades of grey (sometimes in burnt umber), the name for the method coming from “gris,” the French word for grey.

Grisaille can be a monochromatic painting completed in one color, or treated as an underpainting painted over with glazes of color, the technique I choose. Rivera’s grisaille predella panels give the illusion of sculptural friezes.

In painting his grisaille predella panels, Rivera was no doubt also thinking of the Mexican folk art art known as “retablos,” small devotional paintings of Saints or other religious figures that are created on tin, copper, or wood. Many people in the Southwest of the U.S., especially those of Mexican heritage, are familiar with retablos… I have a few in my own house.

But Rivera was not thinking of Catholic saints when he painted Detroit Industry, we was extolling the working class. Rivera’s predella panels were painted monochromatically in tones of blue and grey, each surrounded by a fresco tromp l’oeil frame of bolted green steel. Each predella depicted the workers daily life at an auto plant and the labor associated with automobile manufacturing.

To wrap up this intro, the DIA allows photography of the Detroit Industry murals in Rivera Court, provided you do not use a tripod. I used my Canon Rebel T2i camera with a 17-55mm zoom lens for paintings at eye-level, and a 70-300mm telephoto lens for extreme close-ups and shots of figures placed high up in the mural. Considering the ceiling at the Rivera Court consists of a magnificent laminated glass skylight, I used nothing but natural light for my photos. All quotes by Rivera that appear in my essay come from his personal history, Diego Rivera - My Art, My Life: An Autobiography.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, Rivera showed tired auto workers taking a quick lunch break.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, Rivera showed tired auto workers taking a quick lunch break.

In 1932 the workers at Ford labored under deplorable conditions. They had no union to protect their rights, and Ford liked it that way. What makes this painting so poignant is that at the time workers were forced to work one long grueling shift with only a brief respite for lunch. They would not win the right to two fifteen-minute rest periods per shift, amongst other basic rights, until 1941.

Rivera’s works were actually based upon his observations of workers at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant. As the artist noted:

“I studied industrial scenes by night as well as by day, making literally thousands of sketches of towering blast furnaces, serpentine conveyor belts, impressive scientific laboratories, busy assembling rooms; also of precision instruments, some of them massive yet delicate; and of the men who worked them all. I walked for miles through the immense workshops of the Ford, Chrysler, Edison, Michigan Alkali, and Parke-Davis plants. I was afire with enthusiasm.”

Rivera said that Edsel Ford placed only one condition on the creation of the murals, “that in representing the industry of Detroit, I should not limit myself to steel and automobiles but take in chemicals and pharmaceuticals, which were also important in the economy of the city. He wanted to have a full tableau of the industrial life of Detroit.” Close examination of the Detroit Industry mural cycle reveals that Rivera also depicted workers involved with the pharmaceutical, chemical, transport, weapons, steel, and medical industries, all of which were dynamic in Detroit at the time.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown cutting and stacking steal bars.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown cutting and stacking steal bars.

When Rivera and Kahlo arrived in Detroit the Great Depression was strangling the city as well as the rest of the country. Thousand of workers at Detroit’s great auto plants had been laid-off and those that remained had their wages severely cut. Auto workers labored long hours for an annual salary of $757. The workers had no union and enjoyed no company benefits. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance or social security. The banks had collapsed and workers became impoverished. The Detroit working class was suffering joblessness, poverty, homelessness, and utter despair.

Eventually the workers decided to march on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant on March 7, 1932 in what they called The Ford Hunger March. The workers rallied behind a set of demands; jobs for all laid off Ford workers, the right to organized a union, a seven-hour work day without a reduction in pay, free health care for all Ford workers whether employed and unemployed, no discrimination against blacks and an end to racist hiring practices, no speed-ups, two fifteen-minute rest periods per shift, no foreclosures on the homes of Ford workers, and the abolishment of company spies and armed thugs.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock.

All of the demands from The Ford Hunger March were equally important, but I have to elaborate on the demand regarding the use of armed thugs at the Ford River Rouge Plant. Henry Ford was fiercely anti-union, he hired the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency, known for its brutality, to physically keep the workforce in line and free of union organizers.

Ford also organized an internal “Service Department,” a private security army of armed thugs that was used to defeat the workers’ union movement. Ford appointed a pugnacious ex-navy boxer named Harry Bennett to lead the force of over 8,000 men that used blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, whips, and guns to intimidate the workers in every Ford plant; Bennett quickly became Ford’s most trusted underling. Quoting the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, Volume 1 by Eric Arnesen, in the 1930s the Ford Service Department was “the world’s largest private army, whose purpose was to disrupt union organizing efforts using espionage, physical intimidation, and violence.”

detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock

Extreme detail from the fresco showing workers punching a time clock.

Through Ford’s connections, Harry Bennett was appointed to the Michigan Parole Board. Arnesen wrote that Bennett used that position to have “men who had been convicted of violent crimes released so they could enter his service.”

Service Department thugs regularly attacked union organizers attempting to distribute flyers to the workforce.

Arnesen wrote that the United Auto Workers, then struggling to be recognized by the Ford Motor Company, “compared Ford’s repressive methods to those of European fascism, and branded the Service Department, ‘Ford’s Gestapo.’”

Some of the men recruited into the Ford Service Department were no doubt fanatics from the extreme right-wing terror organization, The Black Legion, a group I wrote about extensively in my January 2013 article, Maurice Merlin & the Black Legion. Based in Michigan, the Black Legion was a white supremacist gang that targeted African Americans, Jews, union organizers, and leftists.

Auto worker union activists were convinced that members of the shadowy Black Legion terror group were employed by the Ford Service Department, the goons of which were to play a loathsome role in attempts to squelch the labor movement.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers line up to receive their pay.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers line up to receive their pay.

Braving bitter cold and snow some 5,000 workers and their families participated in The Ford Hunger March. They carried banners that read, “Give Us Work,” “We Want Bread Not Crumbs!” “Don’t starve to death in the richest land on earth,” “Negro, White, Unite!” “Fight Evictions!” and “Tax the Rich and Feed the Poor.” When the workers finally made it to the Rouge Plant, they were attacked by the Police and the Ford Service Department, who together fired volleys of live ammo at the unarmed protesters, even using machine guns.

Four workers were killed and fifty more were injured. What had been organized as The Ford Hunger March, turned out to be The Ford Massacre.

In the massacre’s aftermath the repression continued; hundreds of workers were fired at Ford plants for having leftwing literature, those who were hospitalized from police violence at the Hunger March were arrested in their hospital beds, some were even handcuffed to their beds! Labor organizations and offices of the Communist Party were raided and their members arrested. The press churned out lies, for instance, the Detroit Free Press reported that “professional Communists” were responsible for “the assaults and killings which took place before the Ford plant.” Despite the propaganda the workers and the burgeoning labor movement held strong. On March 12, 1932, over 80,000 workers held a funeral procession for the four slain workers, who were buried at the Woodmere Cemetery.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers produce parts that will be used to repair factory machinery.

Detail from the south wall fresco, workers produce parts that will be used to repair factory machinery.

A month after the March 12th procession for the martyred workers, Curtis Williams, a committed African American auto worker activist who suffered a vicious police clubbing and inhalation of tear gas at the Ford Massacre, died of his wounds at Ypsilanti State Hospital. The Woodmere Cemetery refused to bury him because he was black. The Communist Party U.S.A. released a statement that in part read:

“At the direct orders of Ford, with the understanding and consent of Mayor Murphy and his police department, the board of directors of the Woodmere Cemetery uncovered their hidden policy of segregation, Jim Crowism, and race discrimination and white chauvinism, by bluntly refusing to permit us to bury the body of Curtis Williams beside that of the rest of our dead. Comrades Joe York, Joe Bussell, Joe DiBlassio, and Coleman Leny, the first victims of the bloody Ford Massacre. This is another attempt by the boss class to split the growing unity of Negro and white workers.”

Mass protests and complaints eventually forced the Woodmere Cemetery to compromise. Williams was admitted to the the cemetery for cremation, but the facility would still not allow a burial. The workers’ movement responded by hiring a plane and scattering the remains of Williams over the cemetery and the Ford River Rouge Plant.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, by-products from coke ovens are made into fertilizer. Iron ore was smelted with limestone and coke in giant blast furnaces to produce steel at the Ford plant.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, by-products from coke ovens are made into fertilizer. Iron ore was smelted with limestone and coke in giant blast furnaces to produce steel at the Ford plant.

This rare silent footage titled Ford Massacre, is the only known film of The Ford Hunger March, the company/state violence that stopped it, and the resulting militant workers funeral march for the slain. It was produced by the Detroit and New York branches of the Film and Photo League, a national collective of filmmakers, photographers, projectionists, writers, and artists dedicated to using film and the photographic arts to bring about radical social change. While a good number of the members were oriented towards Marxism, the league operated independently from the Communist Party U.S.A.

The despair of the Great Depression and the terror of the Ford Massacre describes the political atmosphere of Detroit when Rivera and Kahlo arrived. One cannot truly understand or appreciate the Detroit Industry murals without knowing this history.

This fresco predella depicts Henry Ford giving a lecture on the V8 engine to workers.

This fresco predella depicts Henry Ford giving a lecture on the V8 engine to workers.

I think the predella panel that shows Henry Ford giving a lecture to the workers is the most interesting panel in the series; it certainly illustrates Rivera’s sense of humor. Knowing that Rivera reviled capitalism, the panel is also a swipe at Henry Ford. To me the painting has religious overtones and contains a veiled critique of capitalism as a theology.

The tableau of the godlike Henry Ford, his finger pointed to the heavens as he lectures the workers, is somewhat evocative of The Creation of Adam, the most well-known panel from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel mural series - which was also done as a fresco. But instead of being surrounded by angels as in Michelangelo’s depiction of the Lord, Henry Ford stands before a backdrop of slavish laborers too hard-pressed to look up from their drudgery for even a moment.

A close-up view of Henry Ford reveals how quickly Rivera worked on these panels. Beneath the deftly applied washes of water-based pigments one can see the charcoal outlines of the original sketch on wet plaster.

Close-up view of Ford reveals how quickly Rivera worked on these panels. Beneath the deftly applied washes of water-based pigments one can see the charcoal outlines of the original sketch on wet plaster.

The reference to religion in this image continues to strike me. In Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, the apostle Thomas was painted with his finger pointing to heaven, likewise, Leonardo painted St. John the baptist in the same manner.

In 1921 German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an unfinished essay titled, Capitalism as Religion. If Rivera had not read Benjamin’s tract, he certainly understood the concept as presented by a fellow Marxist. Benjamin wrote:

“One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” Benjamin went on to write, “First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in relation to the cult: it has no special dogma, no theology. From this standpoint, utilitarianism gains its religious coloring.”

Being a Jewish leftist, Benjamin fled Germany for Paris in 1933 when the Nazis took power - the same year Rivera finished his Detroit Industry murals. Benjamin beat a hasty retreat from Paris when the Nazis seized it in 1940, he eventually wound up on the French-Spanish border that same year where he committed suicide at the age of 48 to avoid capture by the fascists.

A close-up view of workers in the Henry Ford panel.

A close-up view of workers in the Henry Ford panel.

Unlike Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam Sistine Chapel painting, Ford is not face to face with Adam, a creation made of dust into which the Lord blew “the breath of life.” Ford stands before a group of workers, who by the looks on their faces have sized up their boss and concluded that they can run the factory just as well without him.

Some have noticed that the V8 engine near Ford resembles a pre-Conquest sculpture of a small, hairless Mexican dog. It is commonly known that the indigenous people of Mexico used the diminutive dogs as a food source, but the spiritual and ritualistic symbology of the dog is not so well known outside of Mexico. As an amateur archaeologist and avid collector of pre-Conquest indigenous art, Rivera knew a thing or two about these dogs.

A close-up view of the zoomorphic V8 engine from the Henry Ford panel.

A close-up view of the zoomorphic V8 engine from the Henry Ford panel.

In ancient Mexico it was thought that a dog accompanied a person’s soul to the underworld. On the famous Mexica-Aztec calendar stone there is a glyph of a dog named Itzcuintli (Eeetz-kween-tlee). He was one of 20 day-sign glyphs that surrounded the depiction of the sun god appearing at the center of the stone. Itzcuintli represented a period of 13 days ruled by Xipe Totec (Our Lord of the Flayed Skin), deity of spring and agricultural renewal.

The Mexica-Aztec people used the hairless dogs in prayer rituals to Tlaloc, Lord of rain and water. The dogs were sacrificed to Tlaloc, one of the most important Aztec deities, and their bodies were then eaten in ritual feasts. Rivera gave a zoomorphic treatment to the V8 by turning the engine into a dog, but he also gave that dog the iconic face of Tlaloc!

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Partial view of Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In late 1933, as Rivera was finishing up work on his murals, a group of some 200 workers marched into the center of the courtyard, the leader shouting “We want Diego Rivera to come here!” The artist descended from his scaffold and walked up to the burly worker who had called for him. One of Rivera’s painting assistants, Cliff Wight, served as a translator, delivering the extraordinary message from the American auto workers to the Mexican artist. Rivera described what the lead worker told him:

“Waiving all ordinary social preliminaries, he acknowledged my presence with a nod of his head. ‘We are Detroit workers from different factories and belonging to different political parties. Some of us are Communists, some are Trotskyites, others are plain Democrats and Republicans, and still others belong to no party at all.

You’re said to be a man of the left opposition, though not a Trotskyite. In any case, you’re reported to have said that, as long as the working class does not hold power, a proletarian art is impossible. You have further qualified this by saying that a proletarian art is feasible only so long as the class in power imposes such an art upon the general population. So you have implied that only in a revolutionary society can a true revolutionary art exist. All right! But can you show me, in all these paintings of yours, a square inch of surface which does not contain a proletarian character, subject, or feeling?

If you can do this, I will immediately join the left opposition myself. If you cannot, you must admit before all these men, that here stands a classic example of proletarian art created exclusively by you for the pleasure of the workers of this city.’”

Rivera was overwhelmed, and agreed with the workers assessment of his mural. He would write later that he “was deeply touched by this tribute from a representative of the working class of the industrial city I wanted so much to impress.” The group of workers also informed the artist that they were well aware of “much talk against your frescoes, and there have been rumors that hoodlums may come here to destroy them. We have therefore organized a guard to protect your work. Eight thousand men have already volunteered.”

The following Sunday Rivera had completed his fresco murals, and they were put on view for the general public to see for the very first time. As promised, the auto worker’s volunteer guardians were there in force. They checked each person that entered the DIA, having each sign their name and address in a registration book. In order to accommodate the massive crowds on that premiere day, the DIA stayed open until half past one on Monday morning. When the museum finally closed its doors on the first day of the exhibit… there were eighty-six thousand signatures in the registration book.

In 1941 the workers movement finally won union recognition and forced the Ford Motor Company to enter a collective bargaining agreement with the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

The Left Front: Defying Established Order

"Unemployed" - Alexander Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1930

"Unemployed" - Alexander Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1930.

The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940, is a significant exhibit of American art created during the Great Depression years in the United States. Presented by the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in New York, the exhibit displays 100 artworks by forty notable artists of the period; including works by John Sloan, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Mabel Dwight, and Louis Lozowick. Lynn Gumpert, the director of the Grey Art Gallery, said the following about the exhibit and its relevance to the present:

“In the wake of our recent ‘Great Recession,’ many artists today find themselves grappling with the same questions of art and activism raised by this exhibition. Indeed, The Left Front both opens a window onto a fascinating period in the history of American art and politics and brings to mind artistic responses to many of the very issues being confronted today, including alarming inequality in income and opportunity. In so doing, it asks what revolutionary art was during the turbulent 1930s, and what it can be in our own era.”

Ms. Gumpert’s concern for what revolutionary art “can be in our own era,” a period where art has become, not subversive, but subservient to wealth and power, is an urgent question for the arts community. Faced with deepening inequality, resurgent racism, ecological catastrophe, and the ever increasing drumbeat of war, artists should strive to offer critical visions of these systemic problems. By necessity this means turning from a self-absorbed, exclusively inward looking art, to one that is engaged with everyday people and the global community.

Workers of the World Unite - Rockwell Kent. Wood engraving. 1937.

"Workers of the World Unite" - Rockwell Kent. Wood engraving. 1937.

Herein lies the value of The Left Front exhibit. It provides an in-depth look at one aspect of Social Realism, a type of art that has almost been erased from historic memory in the U.S., a great irony given that the genre began in America with the painters of the so-called 1908 “Ashcan School.” After a slew of art movements since the close of the 2nd World War; abstraction, pop, conceptual, etc., it has became difficult to imagine that the Social Realist school was once a leading art form in the U.S. and around the world.

The school was varied and nuanced, and included American scene painters like John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, as well as politicized African American artists like Aaron Douglas and Charles White. The Social Realist movement had three great centers, the U.S., Germany, and Mexico, each making their own unique contributions. Mexico gave the world Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco (Mexican creations are included in The Left Front exhibit). Germany gave us Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. Unfortunately Americans on the whole have largely forgotten about their homegrown Social Realist artists; you can attribute that in part to the Witch-hunts of McCarthyism.

Strike Breakers (Company Violence) - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937.

"Strike Breakers, Company Violence" - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937.

The Left Front exhibit presents works from the highly politicized branch of Social Realism, where artists used their work in an agitational manner to confront mass unemployment, class oppression, racism, lynchings, and the drive towards war that characterized the Great Depression years. The exhibit is comprised mostly of prints, although drawings, watercolors, paintings, and photos are also included. Inexpensive prints played a meaningful role for dissident artists during the Depression, they allowed low income people to bring art into their homes, and brought new aesthetics and politics to a wide audience.

Subway No. 2 - Alex R. Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1935

"Subway No. 2" - Alex Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1935. Unemployed and homeless in the U.S.A.

Much of the art in The Left Front exhibit came from artists working with the John Reed Club, a U.S. national federation of left-leaning cultural workers and intellectuals named after American journalist and socialist activist John Reed.

Founded in 1929, the John Reed Club was eventually disbanded in 1935. While associated with the Communist Party U.S.A., members of the John Reed club were not necessarily Marxists or even CP members. I detail some of this in I wanted to tell stories, an Oct. 2006 article I wrote about the American painter Philip Guston.

The young Guston started his art career in Los Angeles as a realist painter before becoming an iconic figure in the New York School of severe abstract painting; thankfully Guston returned to realism, albeit a cartoonish version, in the late 1960s. But as a young man in L.A. Guston attended meetings of the John Reed Club held at the Italian Hall on L.A.’s famous Olvera Street.

The Strike Is Won - Harry Gottlieb. Color silk-screen print. 1940.

"The Strike Is Won" - Harry Gottlieb. Color silk-screen print. 1940.

Guston was one of those artists who worked with Siqueiros when the Mexican muralist came to L.A. in 1932. Guston joined Siqueiros’ Bloc of Mural Painters, artists who assisted Siqueiros in the painting of his famous América Tropical mural on Olvera Street. When the U.S. government unceremoniously deported Siqueiros in 1932, Guston continued working with the Bloc of Mural Painters. That same year the John Reed Club sponsored an exhibit of artworks created by Guston and the Bloc in opposition to racism and police brutality. Before the show’s opening the L.A.P.D. raided the John Reed Club gallery in Hollywood and destroyed the artworks, including Guston’s first public mural… the police shot the portable mural full of bullet holes.

"Workman" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lithograph. 1936.

"Workman" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lithograph. 1936.

The above is a perfect example of the political climate and repression that confronted oppositional artists during the 1930s, one should keep this in mind when thinking about The Left Front exhibition. Those who created prints depicting the terroristic lynching of Blacks won no favor from the art establishment; yet those artists defied the established order and pressed on with their wave-making art.

“Art as a social weapon” was the catchphrase of the John Reed Club. Before you laugh that off as a quaint and antiquated notion, I would suggest that art selected, curated, presented, and sold by elite art institutions has always broadly functioned as a social weapon. This was as true under the Ancien Régime of France’s Sun King as much as it is in the modern era.

It is my philosophy that a Jeff Koons is every bit as political an artist as those included in The Left Front exhibit. This matter is unequivocally nailed in the 1931 song, Which Side Are You On?, written during a miner’s strike by Florence Reese, the illustrious American folksong composer from Tennessee. Reese sang “Don’t scab for the bosses, don’t listen to their lies, poor folks ain’t got a chance unless they organize.” The song was tremendously popular with millions of down-and-out Americans in the 30s. The net worth of Jeff Koons is over $100 million, his kitsch baubles are popular with billionaires who prefer non-threatening art. Given the choice of standing with Koons or Reese, I will choose the poor folksinger every time.

The Mission - Raphael Soyer. Lithograph. 1933.

"The Mission" - Raphael Soyer. Lithograph. 1933.

One last word regarding Florence Reese and her famous workers’ rights song. On Oct. 4, 2014, during a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performance of Johannes Brahms’ Requiem, paying members of the audience who also happened to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement, peacefully delayed the concert when they stood beside their seats while singing an altered version of Which Side Are You On?

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.

"Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934

"Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934. The artist portrayed the Grim Reaper sitting in an expensive theater balcony, wearing an army helmet and gas mask while clutching a bayoneted rifle. The deathly phantom watches a parade of national leaders strutting across the stage. Which one will win Mr. D's respect and patronage? Why all of them of course!

"Christ in Alabama" - Prentiss Taylor. Lithograph. 1932. Taylor depicted the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene as African Americans; the rocky fields of Golgotha replaced by the cotton fields of Alabama. The lithograph was created for the Langston Hughes book, "Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse." The print specifically illustrated Hughes' controversial and fiercely antiracist poem, Christ in Alabama.

"Christ in Alabama" - Prentiss Taylor. Lithograph. 1932. Taylor depicted the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene as African Americans, the rocky ground of Golgotha replaced by cotton fields. The lithograph was created for the Langston Hughes book, "Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse." The print specifically illustrated Hughes' controversial and fiercely antiracist poem, Christ in Alabama.

"Lynching" - Lynd Ward. Wood engraving. 1932.

"Lynching" - Lynd Ward. Wood engraving. 1932.

Moody Park: An Untold Story

As an active participant in the original punk rock underground of 1977 Los Angeles, I created my fair share of subversive graphics designed to provoke the wider society. One arena of intervention I was involved with was the anonymous production of leaflets for mass distribution; some flyers promoted concerts, others were a “poke in the eye” aimed at an increasingly conformist society. In part, this essay is about one such handbill I designed in 1978, a crossover between benefit concert announcement and insurrectionist vituperation. But this article is also about larger issues.

Joe Campos Torres in uniform. Photographer and date unknown.

Joe Campos Torres in uniform, photographer and date unknown.

Before I provide details on the flyer, it is necessary to look back at the incident in Texas that served as the impetus for the concert. Thirty-six-years ago the police in Houston, Texas murdered a 23-year-old Mexican American Vietnam Veteran named Joe Campos Torres. The murder shook the nation, reverberated through the decades, and continues to have relevancy in the present, though today most have never heard of the killing. In this article I will weave a story with threads of history while divulging my own unique connection to those days of old.

On May 5, 1977, six Houston policemen arrested Joe Campos Torres at a bar for disorderly conduct; he was wearing his Army issued fatigues and combat boots when arrested. Instead of taking him to jail, the cops dragged him off to “the hole,” an isolated area behind a warehouse along the Buffalo Bayou in Harris County, Texas. The cops beat the Chicano Vet to within an inch of his life, then they took him to the city jail. Torres was so badly injured that officers at the jail refused to process him, and ordered that he be taken to a nearby hospital; instead his tormentors took him back to the hole for another trouncing.

The Hole - Where six Houston police officers beat and drowned Joe Campos Torres. Photographer unknown.

The Hole - Where six Houston police officers beat and drowned Joe Campos Torres. Photographer unknown.

During the beating one of the six policemen, Officer Denson, said “Let’s see if the wetback can swim,” as he shoved Torres off the raised platform of the warehouse to fall twenty feet into the bayou. His lifeless body was found floating in the bayou on Mother’s Day, May 8, 1977.

Initially only two cops were put on trial for the killing of Torres. Officers Denson and Orlando were tried on murder charges and an all-white jury found them guilty of “negligent homicide” (a misdemeanor). Their sentence was one year probation and a $1 dollar fine! It should come as no surprise that across America in 1977 the word on the street became “A Chicano’s life is only worth a dollar.” There was so much public outrage over that phony trial that Federal charges of civil rights violations and assault were brought against all six officers. That “trial” resulted in all six receiving a ten year suspended sentence for the civil rights charge, and Denson and Orlando getting a nine month prison sentence for the assault charge.

The punishment for murdering a Chicano Vietnam Veteran went from a one dollar fine, to receiving a nine month prison sentence. Discontent simmered in Houston’s Chicano community for a year, until it erupted on the 1st anniversary of Torres’ outrageous murder.

 Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

During the 1978 Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) celebration in Houston’s Moody Park, the police attempted to make an arrest. The crowd resisted the police move and began chanting “Viva Joe Torres” and “Justice for Joe Torres!” The melee turned into a full blown riot with waves of Chicanos hurling rocks, bricks, and bottles at the police, 14 cop cars were overturned and torched. The furious crowd surged out of the park and set fire to local businesses, as unidentified shooters took potshots at the police. In a 2008 interview with Houston Public Media, retired Houston police officer Harold Barthe said that “hundreds of people were chanting, ‘Joe Torres dead, cops go free, that’s what the rich call democracy!’”

Arrest at Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Arrest at Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Needless to say, the authorities responded with overwhelming force, sending in armed SWAT squads to quell the uprising while police helicopters filled the skies. In the end, dozens were arrested and 15 were injured; property damage ranged in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It all became a story on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News broadcast.

Here I must note that the African American bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron, memorialized Torres on his 1978 spoken word album The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron. The emotive track titled José Campos Torres combined a tender and ethereal jazz background with a calmly delivered yet fiercely angry contemplation on racism and police brutality in America. A beautiful act of solidarity with Mexican Americans, the song meant a great deal to us all in 1978; I must have listened to it a thousand times. For me, it set the tone for what an artist could do, not just regarding the murder of Torres, but in confronting social injustice of any kind. I wanted to contribute something as well, and my turn was just around the corner.

Of course the authorities needed someone, other than themselves, to blame for the Moody Park violence. They arrested three communist activists who had been active in the justice for Joe Torres campaign and charged them with “felony riot.” That trio became known as the Moody Park 3, and each faced a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Groups like the Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion started to hold events to raise legal defense funds for the trial of the Moody Park 3, one such event was a punk concert at the old Baces Hall in Hollywood. Frankly, I do not remember who asked me to create the concert announcement flyer, but knowing that three of my favorite Southern California punk bands had signed on to play the gig was enough to get me on board, that and my vexation over the murder of Torres.

I was not impressed with the ultra-left Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion, in fact my only point of agreement with them was that the Moody Park 3 had been framed. The committee was new to punk and gravitated to it because of its reputation for rebellion, but it was clear that they did not know what they were getting into. It must be said that at the time punk was wholly repellent to the wider society, venues in L.A. had closed their doors to it, and it seemed the L.A.P.D. had made a hobby out of suppressing it. So I suppose the committee should get credit for being so bold, or is that reckless, for organizing a punk rock concert when few others would dare.

Punk concert flyer - Mark Vallen 1978 ©. Benefit concert held at Baces Hall in Hollywood, California with the Plugz, Middle Class, and Zeros.

Punk concert flyer - Mark Vallen 1978 ©. Benefit concert held at Baces Hall in Hollywood, California with the Plugz, Middle Class, and Zeros.

It goes without saying that I created the flyer in the days before computer technology. In true punk fashion the crude leaflet was made from newspaper and magazine clippings, combined with the use of rub-down letters and tone films from the Letraset company, supplies widely used in publishing at the time. Letraset also manufactured registration marks, which were used to help align colors and images; I used the symbols in my flyer to approximate the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Thousands of copies of the disposable mess were Xeroxed in glorious black and white.

Like most punk flyers from those fire-eating days, it was posted on lampposts and city walls. On the street it countered the babble of the city’s obnoxious merchandising billboards and neon signage. The flyer’s cryptic message was baffling, like some strange cabalistic language. Who on earth were the Moody Park 3 and what was the significance of the bizarre word combination - Plugz, Middle Class, Zeros? In 1978 the throwaway circular was an unsettling image to see on the streets. One must recall that the U.S. Billboard top 100 songs of 1978 included the likes of How Deep Is Your Love by the Bee Gees, You’re the One That I Want by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, and Boogie Oogie Oogie by A Taste of Honey.

The leaflet brought hundreds of punk rockers, mischief-makers, and juvenile delinquents to the tenebrous punk shindig. I want to make it clear that history has unfairly characterized the early L.A. punk scene as a movement of apolitical spoiled white kids from affluent communities with nothing better to do than cause trouble; the social phenomenon has been “whitewashed” and depoliticized. Sizable numbers of working class youth and minorities were involved in California’s agitated punk scene, including scads of Chicanos. The “Moody Park” punk concert at Baces Hall was evidence enough of this; there were not only Chicanos in the bands and in the audience, but the entire concert was a protest against the murder of a Chicano Vet in one of the largest Mexican American communities in Texas!

The Plugz were one of L.A.’s original punk bands, and two of their three members were Chicano. Their updated sonic rendition of La Bamba offered altered lyrics like the following, “Capitalistas, mas bien fascistas, yo no soy fascista, soy anarchista” (Capitalists, better yet fascists, I am not a fascist, I am an anarchist). La Bamba was actually a famous Son Jarocho folk song from Mexico’s state of Veracruz made famous in the U.S. in 1958 by Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens.

The Zeros were four kids hailing from Chula Vista, the second largest city in San Diego, California. Though Chicanos, some nicknamed them the “Mexican” Ramones. Their first single released in 1977 featured two songs, Wimp and Don’t Push Me Around. The later, with its snotty attitude, three chord minimalism, and defiant title, is a classic punk work. Hindsight allows us to see The Zeros as an extremely influential advance guard for a new music.

  Middle Class at Baces Hall 1978 - Photographer unknown

Middle Class at Baces Hall 1978 - Photographer unknown

The concert also included Middle Class, a group of four young white lads from Orange County, California. Their debut EP, Out of Vogue, was released in 1978, just in time to bludgeon the punks at Baces Hall.

The lyrics to the song Out of Vogue encapsulated punk’s contempt for the wider society, “We don’t need your magazines, we don’t need your fashion shows, we don’t need your TV, we don’t want to know… Get us out of Vogue!”

At the concert the Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion attempted to present a political slide show, but anarchistic punks kept standing in front of the slide projector to block the images. When the organizers tried to present Maoist style guerrilla theater on stage between the acts, they were met by the jeers and catcalls of the nihilistic spiky rabble. All three bands played typically searing sets, with the hoi polloi diving off the stage, bouncing off the walls, and in general kicking up their heels in wild punk abandon.

So there you have it. Baces Hall was torn down long ago and standing in its place today is another one of L.A.’s hideous commercial retail plazas, replete with a hipster juice bar. Punk is as dead as a doornail and there is little opposition to the mindless, dumbed-down, commercial pap that passes for culture in L.A. and beyond. Worst of all, police departments all across the U.S. have been militarized with billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; police now have heavily armored, bomb resistant, MRAP fighting vehicles.

As the Clash once sang in their 1982 song, Know Your Rights, “You have the right to free speech, as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”

– // –

For more information on Joe Campos Torres and the Houston Uprising, watch the oral history series: The Case of José Campos Torres, produced by Ernesto Leon and available on YouTube: Part one, two, three, four, five, and six.

“It feels as if art is failing us”

50 years ago on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York. This short essay is a reflection on Black History Month and how the explosive social events of the 1960s helped to shape my life and viewpoint as an artist. By extension, it is also a rumination on how artists must react to the issues of race and class facing America today.

"No Justice, No Peace" - Mark Vallen 1992 © Pencil on paper. 11 x 16 inches.

"No Justice, No Peace" - Mark Vallen 1992 © Pencil on paper. 11 x 16 inches.

In the wake of four Los Angeles Police Department officers being acquitted for mercilessly beating, clubbing and kicking Rodney King after a high-speed car chase, I created the drawing No Justice, No Peace in the immediate aftermath of the riots that engulfed Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. One of the three young protesters I depicted in my drawing holds a flyer emblazoned with a photo of Malcolm X. I published my drawing as an edition of 5,000 offset litho flyers that were distributed all across the city; the leaflets bore the stencil letter headline of… No Justice, No Peace. It would not be the first time that I created an artwork that examined race in America; I had been making such images since I was a rebellious high school student in 1968.

I was only six-years old in 1960 when I saw newspaper photos of white racist thugs beating up African-Americans who dared to sit at segregated lunch counters in the South. A year later at seven-years old I saw news photos of racist white mobs beating Freedom Riders and burning their buses in Alabama. As a nine-year old in 1963, I watched television broadcasts of African-Americans marching for their human rights on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, and was horrified to see them savagely assaulted by policemen, set upon by snarling police dogs, and attacked by cops using high-pressure water hoses for “crowd dispersal.”

There was so much more: the ‘63 dynamite bombing of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that took the lives of four little girls; the ‘64 police kidnapping and KKK murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; the assassination of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965; the Orangeburg massacre of Feb. ‘68, where hundreds of black students protesting racial segregation in Orangeburg, South Carolina were fired upon by police with carbines and shotguns, killing three young men and wounding 28 (predating the 1970 Kent State killings). Then, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I remember all of those events and so much more, just as if it all happened yesterday.

It is remarkable to think that in the suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles where I grew up as a teenager, I walked every Friday to a local newsstand, a hub in the community, and purchased the weekly edition of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, the party’s self-published newspaper. It is also striking to consider that I submitted a political cartoon to the Panther publication, sometime around 1969 or 1970 (the date escapes me). I received a letter from the Panthers that they had published my cartoon! That cartoon would be my very first published artwork; but that is a story for another time.

But concurrent with my political baptism came an aesthetic, cultural awakening. My interest in the Black liberation movement also led me to discover a plethora of African-American artists; giants like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Charles White, Betye Saar and many others. I have learned from and been inspired by many art movements: the Mexican Muralists, the German Expressionists, the American Social Realists of the late 1930s, but I would not be the artist I am today had it not been for the Black Arts Movement.

As a teenager in the 1960s, I cut my teeth on the social struggles just described, and with my understanding of art and cultural work as a necessary component to social change, I began to make art that confronted war, racism, imperialism, police brutality - the exact same problems that continue to plague us today. As a young artist in the 60’s, these themes filled my sketchbooks.

"Free Huey" - Mark Vallen 1968 © Color linoleum print. 6 x 8 inches.

"Free Huey" - Mark Vallen 1968 © Color linoleum print. 6 x 8 inches.

As a fourteen-year old in 1968, I created my first clumsy attempt at a linoleum cut.

The print was inspired by the “Free Huey” campaign the Black Panther Party was then waging on behalf of its jailed Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton. The drive to free the Panther leader became a cause célèbre in the U.S., especially for young Blacks fed up with racial oppression.

I remember making black and white copies of my linoleum print on a Xerox Machine, a new technology at the time, and posting the facsimiles in my neighborhood. It would be my first foray into hit and run public art.

In 1970 I created a small drawing of Angela Davis after she had been arrested on trumped-up charges of murder. While Davis was never a Panther, she was an ardent supporter. It should be remembered that on Dec. 4, 1969, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago, Illinois were murdered by the police in a raid on Hampton’s apartment… bringing the number of Panthers killed by the police up to that point to 28.

"Angela Davis" - Mark Vallen 1969 © Pen and ink, watercolor on paper. 5 x 7 inches.  Never before published.

"Angela Davis" - Mark Vallen 1970 © Pen and ink, watercolor on paper. 5 x 7 inches. Created when the artist was 16-years old. Never before published.

There were plenty of other non-Panther African-American activists that fell victim to state repression at the time, so the fear that Davis might join them was a realistic one. While I never published my ink and watercolor portrait of Davis, I was very much involved in the international “Free Angela” movement that demanded her freedom.

I am sharing these memories to make a point, that a humanist art that resists and scorns injustice must come from real world experience. Such art grows out of an understanding of history and a great love for common people; more importantly, it springs from communities of people yearning and struggling for a better life. Because of my deep involvement with the civil and human rights movement of African-Americans, I cannot view art in any other way.

The debate regarding the social role of art in America remains as burning a question as it ever was. The protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri over the police killing of Michael Brown; the heinous strangulation death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department and the crushing pathos of the attendant “I Can’t Breathe!” rallying cry; the mass demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement, all give the lie to the nonsense about a “post-racial” society having been ushered in by President Obama.

But where is the art that gives voice to these concerns? Why the full-blown torpor and inattention from the artistic community? It has much to do with the postmodern art quackery that prefers kitsch, detachment, irony, and simulacrum to hard facts and universal truths. Figurative realism and meaningful narrative, let alone heartfelt humanistic concerns, have been considered passé by art world gatekeepers for decades. Combine that toxic mix with art star celebrity worship and the near total commodification of art, and the reasons for art world apathy and unmindfulness becomes crystal clear. It should be recalled that figurative social realism was a vibrant, if not dominant school of art in the U.S. for much of the 20th century, until it was buried by abstract art in the post-WWII period. Still, there are glimmers of hope.

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. While Scott offered no answers to the crisis in art, he did ask some of the right questions. His disquiet regarding how things stand in the arts are a starting point for serious discussions on the future of art.

One thing is certain, now is the time for artists the caliber of Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Catlett to appear on the scene. It is also undeniable that the “culture industry” of 21st century America, so invested in spectacle and distraction, will not present critical artists to the public at large. But what can also be stated with certitude is that such artists will come from the people.


I Am Not The Enemy - Poster by Mark Vallen ©

Poster by Mark Vallen ©

I Am Not The Enemy
Free downloadable, 11 x 17 poster.

Download and publish the poster on any printer that takes 11 x 17 inch paper. Poster available here.

Print and display this poster for solidarity, unity, and compassion, and to express your opposition to xenophobia, and racism.

– // –

I first published this poster in the weeks following the heinous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when thousands of hate crimes directed at Muslim Americans, or those thought to be Arabs, were occurring across the United States. Some of those attacks resulted in murder.

It was the case of Balbir Singh Sodhi that drove me to create my pencil on paper drawing, which I then published as a poster against hate crimes. Mr. Sodhi, a turban-wearing Sikh and proprietor of a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, was gunned down by a “patriot” that hours before, had bragged in a bar about wanting to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11.” That murderer now sits on death row, but the racist xenophobia that motivated him is alive and growing in the United States, where anti-Muslim hatred and incitement has reached a boiling point.

On the afternoon of February 10, 2015, three young Muslims, twenty-three-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his twenty-one-year-old wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were found murdered in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A 46-year old white man was arrested as the suspected killer.

Deah Shaddy Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha had been married for just a month. Deah was a dental student that organized free dental care for the homeless of Durham, North Carolina. He was also raising money to provide free dental care to refugee children in Turkey fleeing the devastating war in Syria. His wife Yusor was a talented artist and videographer. Her sister Razan did fundraising for a charity group that helped deaf Muslims.

It took days for the U.S. press to notice the killings while the twitterverse exploded with horror and outrage, lambasting the media for its almost non-existent coverage of the murders. Downplaying the possibility of a hate crime, the press has been reporting that the shooter might have killed the three over an argument concerning a parking space. But the unarmed students were found in their apartment, each with a bullet hole neatly placed in their heads. That was not an argument over parking… that was an assassination. I am deeply concerned that the media hems and haws over whether or not the killer was angry over a parking space or was actually motivated by a hatred of Muslims. I cannot image the horror and alarm Muslim Americans must feel at this moment.

The murder of the three young Muslims has become an international incident. United Nations spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said: “At a time of troubling tensions stoked by those who seek to twist the teachings of faith and sow division, these three young people represented the best values of global citizenship and active community compassion to build a better world for all.”

On Feb. 11, 2015, at a daily briefing with the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, a reporter asked a question regarding the killing of the students, “Does the White House have any reaction?,” to which Earnest responded, “There’s no specific reaction from the White House.

On Feb. 12, 2015, U.S. ally President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, sharply criticized President Obama for his “telling” silence over the murders. Erdogan remarked: “If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you. As politicians, we are responsible for everything that happens in our countries and we have to show our positions.” Erdogan chided, “I ask Mr. Obama, where are you, Mr. President?”

After mounting criticism, Obama finally made a short statement on Feb. 13, 2015. The president said the killings were “brutal and outrageous,” and that “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” That those words sound refreshing in “the land of the free” should tell you just how deep the crisis of American democracy has become.

While Obama’s words were certainly true, they also smacked of hypocrisy. The president targets people outside of the U.S. for “what they look like, or how they worship.” In five years of his drone attacks on Pakistan, 2,400 people have been blown-up by drone fired hellfire missles. While the majority of fatalities were suffered by terrorists, an estimated 951 innocent civilians were also killed, including up to 200 children. You might say that the victims of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate were simply “collatoral damage,” but I suggest you take that up with their parents.

I do not know what more I can say. I will let my 2001 poster do the talking for me.

LACMA, BP & the Oil Workers Strike

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 10, 2015. Photo Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 10, 2015. Photo Scott Olson/Getty Images.

On February 1, 2015, 4,000 workers belonging to the United Steelworkers Union (USW), walked off their jobs at nine oil refinery and chemical plants across the U.S. By Feb. 10 another 1,400 workers went on strike at two refineries in Indiana and Ohio. The strike now effects 11 oil refinery and chemical plants used by BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, and Lyondell Basell, including those in California, Kentucky, Texas, and Washington. The USW represents 30,000 workers that run more than 200 refineries, terminals, and pipelines. The number of workers on strike and on the picket line is over 5,000… so far.

Workers on the picket line at BP refinery in Indiana. Photo courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana.

Which side are you on? Workers on the picket line at the BP refinery in Indiana. Photo/The Times of Northwest Indiana.

The workers are striking because of unsafe and dangerous working conditions. Their grievances include a stop to “daily occurrences of fires, leaks, emissions, and explosions, brutal and dangerous scheduling practices,” as well as layoffs, speed-ups, and the hiring of inexperienced non-union labor.

The strike kicked-off when talks collapsed with Shell Oil, which is leading the industry-wide negotiations. BP and the other oil companies are now hiring scab labor to keep their operations going.

The work stoppage is the largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Addressing the public and fellow workers both unionized and non-unionized, the strikers made it clear that “138 workers were killed on the job while extracting, producing, or supporting oil and gas in 2012,” a number “more than double” the fatalities suffered in 2009. The workers charge BP and the other oil giants with cutting back on safety protocols and intensifying layoffs and speed-ups to keep profits high. Here it should be remembered that 11 workers were killed when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010.

But what does any of this have to do with the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA)?

I have been writing in opposition to oil giant BP funding LACMA since the oily relationship was publicly announced in June of 2007. I wrote the following in a June 2010 blog post. It is a fair summation of my stance regarding LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan enthusiastically accepting money from BP; which he said was committed “to sustainable energy.”

“In 2007 Mr. Govan accepted $25 million from the oil company and in return the museum built the so-called ‘BP Grand Entrance’ on the LACMA campus. Every time an artist or arts group presents works beneath the BP Grand Entrance, it lends authority, respectability, and quiet approval to the machinations of one of the world’s biggest polluters; even if that presentation is of a ‘challenging’ nature – it nonetheless enables BP to present itself as a generous and ’socially responsible’ supporter of the arts. As one must pass through the BP Grand Entrance in order to enter the LACMA museum complex, BP has succeeded in placing its imprimatur upon every LACMA exhibit, not to mention its entire collection.”

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.

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of the USW.

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of the USW.

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? Can Michael Govan and LACMA really tell the public that the museum has nothing to do with politics or the strike, when LACMA takes BP’s money and museum visitors have to walk through the “BP Grand Entrance” to enter the museum?

And what happens if the workers’ national strike against BP and the other giant oil companies grows larger, drawing in the 30,000 workers of the United Steelworkers Union and affecting the 200 U.S. sites they work at? The union represents the workers that run nearly two-thirds of the oil refining plants in the U.S.

The largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Photo courtesy of the USW.

The largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Photo/USW.

In the glorious labor history of the United States, a movement that gave us the eight-hour day, higher wages, better working conditions, paid vacations, and other benefits… when workers called a strike, other workers and the general population supported it.

That is how the working class in America advanced, not through the largess and goodwill of a super-rich minority, but by workers making demands on them and uniting in the cause to create a better life for the majority.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art makes use of union labor, as well as non-union labor, together with what is euphemistically referred to as “volunteer” labor. Some 350 people are employed at LACMA, but there are also security, janitorial, maintenance technicians, and other contracted laborers that work at LACMA. In June of 2012, LACMA workers were fired as the museum looked for ways to “best deploy resources,” all the while spending $10 dollars on the “Levitated Mass” project and paying director Govan an annual salary of $915,000 - twice the amount of a sitting U.S. president! What if workers at LACMA decided to walk off their jobs in solidarity with the striking workers who wage a life and death struggle with BP?

It has all happened before, you know.

El Retrato de Linda Christian

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, oil on canvas, 1947. 44 x 35 5/8 in.

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, oil on canvas, 1947. 44 x 35 5/8 in.

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.

On Nov. 20, 2012, the painting was exhibited for the first time at Christie’s auction house in New York City. But who was Linda Christian, and how did Rivera come to paint her portrait? Let me begin with a few biographical details on Christian.

In 1923 Blanca Rosa Welter was born in Tampico, a port city in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. As fate would have it, just after she graduated from high school she met the Australian-American actor Errol Flynn, who was filming in Acapulco. Flynn became the young woman’s lover and persuaded her to come to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Not long after her arrival in Tinsel Town, Louis B. Mayer’s MGM studio gave her a seven-year contract.

Mr. Flynn suggested a stage name for her; in 1933 he had played the character of Fletcher Christian in an Australian cinematic version of Mutiny on the Bounty, so Señorita Blanca Rosa Welter became Linda Christian. Thus began Blanca’s wild Gringolandia adventures.

Linda Christian made her U.S. film debut in the 1944 musical comedy Up in Arms, starring Danny Kaye and Dinah Shore. She played minor, decorative roles in other films, like the 1947 Green Dolphin Street starring Lana Turner, where she played a maid to Turner’s character. In 1947 Christian took a starring role in the film Tarzan and the Mermaids, the last of 12 Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. The film was shot in Acapulco, and it was during this time that Rivera met the young star and painted her portrait.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Lana Turner was romantically involved with the popular American actor Tyrone Power, who as fate would have it, met and had his heart stolen by Linda Christian instead while visiting Rome in 1948.  Power, the 35-year old “handsome leading man,” married the lovely 26-year old starlet Linda Christian in a church in Rome, Italy on Jan. 27, 1949; the ceremony was attended by some 10,000 adoring fans. The press called it the “marriage of the century.”

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Christian’s last claim to acting fame was her role as the very first “Bond Girl,” appearing as “Valerie Mathis” in a 1954 TV adaptation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond story Casino Royale. Eight years later Swiss actress Ursula Andress was inaccurately proclaimed to be the first Bond Girl for her role as “Honey Ryder” in Dr. No (starring Sean Connery). In 1959 the Celebrity Register summed up Christian’s acting career with the following: “With a sixth sense for publicity, she parlayed a small talent for acting into an international reputation as a femme fatale.”

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

In ‘47 Rivera painted the young actress as a nude figure, but Christian’s mother objected, insisting that the artist cover up her daughter’s bare breasts. A compromise was reached when Rivera painted a delicate but highly transparent lace blouse on the young woman’s torso. Honestly, I cannot imagine the alteration satisfying the mother one bit; it only heightened the eroticism of the portrait.

Talking heads and so-called art world “experts” have commented that Rivera’s use of the “kissing” hummingbirds was a sexual metaphor.  The depiction of the birds supposedly “exploring the internal cavities of flowers,” is said to be a subtle sexual reference.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

As an avid bird watcher I would like to point out that the pair of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds shown are both males, and that they are not probing the internal cavities of flowers, but rather are displaying the typical male fighting posture of the aggressive and supremely territorial hummingbird.

There is another aspect to Rivera’s hummingbirds that escapes non-Mexican viewers of the painting. Rivera’s love of indigenous Mexico is well known, and he inserted pre-Columbian symbols and legends into his works at every opportunity. One of two supreme deities worshipped by the Aztecs was the war god named Huitzilopochtli (in English, Hummingbird on the left). If you have ever seen male hummingbirds ferociously clashing to protect their territory, you will understand why the Aztecs adopted the diminutive bird as the emblem for their war god.

In the Aztec pantheon of gods, Huitzilopochtli was represented by the image of a hummingbird. The Aztecs made no stone, clay, or wood artifacts of the god, making 3D ritual objects of him only from corn, amaranth, and seed paste. However, hummingbird representations of the deity survived the ages in Aztec mosaics, paintings, and murals. The Aztecs believed the soul of a warrior who died honorably in battle would be reborn as a hummingbird to enjoy eternal bliss. You could say that the birds in Rivera’s painting are two such souls in paradise, or that they were fighting over the enchantress, or both.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Ms. Christian commissioned the painting from Rivera, and thus was the original owner of the portrait. It was never exhibited to the public and only seen outside of Christian’s home when she reproduced it as the cover art for her 1962 autobiography, Linda, my own story.

I do not know how or why, but the painting eventually became the property of Baron Enrico di Portanova, a rich playboy jet-setter that attained his vast fortune through an oil inheritance. Portanova maintained an enormous villa in Acapulco he named Arabesque, the château had 28 bedrooms, 4 swimming pools, indoor waterfalls, a nightclub, and more, including a guard tower with machine-gun toting thugs.

At Arabesque the Baron regaled his coterie of celebrity stars, moneybags, and assorted politicians with endless galas and banquets… even fêting the ignoble Henry Kissinger with Champagne and caviar.  It is distressing to imagine that El retrato de Linda Christian might have watched such dirty dealings from a prominent wall in the lavish mansion. Oh pobrecito Diego, this is why Siqueiros berated easel painting!

 "El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, 1947.

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, 1947.

The Baron died of cancer in March 2000 at the age of 66. Linda Christian died from cancer on July 2011 at the age of 87.

In November 2012 the di Portanova estate put Portrait of Linda Christian up for sale at Christie’s, where it was briefly exhibited at the auction house’s showing of Latin American art before it went under the gavel. The painting sold to an unidentified Mexican buyer for $578,500. If there was any justice in the world, that buyer would loan or donate the painting to the new Casa de los Vientos Diego Rivera cultural center planned for Acapulco, Mexico, where it could be adored by the viewing public forevermore.

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!

L.A. Mexican Consulate: Jan. 2015

Protest in front of the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate-General, Jan. 2015 - Photograph Mark Vallen 2015 ©

Protest at the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate-General, Jan. 2015. Photograph Mark Vallen 2015 ©

In Mexico and around the world, January 6, 2015 became an international day of solidarity with the parents of the missing students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college in Iguala, Mexico.

Vigils and protests took place all across Mexico, as well as in 20 U.S. cities. On the evening of Tuesday Jan. 6, 2015, up to 70 protesters in Los Angeles, California gathered outside of the Mexican Consulate-General across the street from L.A.’s historic MacArthur Park. My poster, Ayotzinapa Somos Todos, played a small role in the significant demonstration. You can view an article and photo essay about the demonstration that I have uploaded on my PATREON website, where you can also become my patron and directly assist in making such poster projects possible.

Obama’s 2016 Arts Budget

Altered logo for the National Endowment for the Arts

Altered logo for the National Endowment for the Arts

President Obama has proposed a Fiscal Year 2016 budget approaching a record $3.99 trillion. It contains money for a $478 billion “public works” program for the construction of upgrades to U.S. transit systems, bridges, and highways, all financed by taxes on profits U.S. corporations have amassed overseas. It is nice that Mr. Obama is promising American workers the world, now that Republicans holding majorities in both the House and Senate of the U.S. Congress will undoubtedly block his faux “Rooseveltian” vision. Obama’s budget is a shell game designed to take advantage of the politically confused.

You see, the president could not offer a public works program earlier in his presidency when democrats had congressional majorities in the House and Senate, because he was too busy bailing out giant financial firms with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. But I am supposed to be writing about Obama’s proposed FY 2016 arts budget.

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.[1]

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.

George W. Bush was certainly no friend of the NEA, but during 2009, the last year of his administration, he gave the NEA a $155 million dollar budget. What might shock the reader… or not, is that under the Obama administration the national arts budget has been consistently slashed since 2010. In that year Obama’s NEA budget was $161 million, in 2011 it was $154 million, in 2012 it dropped to $146 million, in 2013 it bottomed-out at $138 million. In 2014 it “rebounded” like a zombie from The Walking Dead by shambling back up to the shameful sum of $146 million, where it continued to limp and stumble throughout 2015. Now Mr. Obama has requested that the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) should receive a $2 million dollar increase in 2016… which is still lower than George W. Bush’s 2009 funding of the NEA!

That is no mean trick for a senator that cajoled the U.S. arts community into electing him as president. Remember the hard sell from the 2008 presidential election campaign - Barack Obama and Joe Biden: Champions For Art and Culture? Remember the excited chattering amongst artists (save for this one), that Obama was the only candidate to have a platform in support of the arts? The better question is what happened to the voices of all those artists who worked so hard at promoting Mr. Hope and Change? They have all fallen silent, or changed the subject. Laughably, some have even managed to continue packaging themselves as “subversive” artists.

Robert L. Lynch, the CEO of Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit organization that lobbies for the advancement of the arts in the U.S., said the following about the president’s arts budget:

“The Administration’s FY 2016 budget request for the NEA is moving in the right direction with a $2 million increase. Congress will especially embrace the increased focus and expansion on the NEA’s grantmaking work with arts and the military, including the Healing Arts Partnership. However, this proposed funding level still does not meet the needs of the 95,000 nonprofit arts organizations and state and local arts agencies across the country nor does it reflect the value of the arts to help power our nation’s annual economic growth reflected in U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data showing the arts to be an annual $698.7 billion industry or 4.32 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.”

Obama’s request to raise the 2016 NEA budget by a measly $2 million - still keeping the sum lower than it was in 2010 - should not enthrall arts professionals. It reminds me of the folk truism “they break our legs, and we say thank you when they offer us crutches,” so beautifully encapsulated by the U.K. punk band Chumbawamba in their 1987 song, Here’s The Rest of Your Life.

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Reference [1] ArtsBeat/New York Times