Category: America Tropical

Unveiling América Tropical, Oct 9, 2012

Banner featuring the central motif of the América Tropical mural, posted by the City of Los Angeles on Main Street adjacent to Olvera Street. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Banner featuring the central motif of the América Tropical mural, posted by the City of Los Angeles on Main Street adjacent to Olvera Street. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

A specter is haunting the City of Los Angeles - the specter of social realism in art. That spirit stalks Olvera Street, the city’s oldest boulevard; the ghostly apparition is not a lost soul from one of the original inhabitants of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles (The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels), the name given to the small town founded in 1781 by Spanish colonists of mixed European, Native American, and African descent.

Neither is it an apparition of someone from the ancient Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, the first people to inhabit the land that eventually became L.A., though the spirit of indigenous people has much to do with this tale of a phantom returning to the world of the living. No, the phantasm I write of is América Tropical, the Olvera Street mural painted by Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1932. The wall painting’s revolutionary narrative so terrified city officials at the time that they had it whitewashed; the censored mural remained covered up for eighty years.

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, América Tropical was unveiled in a public ceremony that I was thrilled to attend. To announce the mural’s unveiling and the simultaneous opening of the América Tropical Interpretive Center (ATIC), the Getty Conservation Institute and the City of Los Angeles held a press conference on Olvera Street at the Casa Avila Adobe, which was built in 1818 during the Spanish colonial period and today is the oldest standing building in L.A. October 9 was the fulfillment of a decades long effort to have the mural restored and presented to the public. As an artist deeply influenced by Siqueiros and his fellow Mexican Muralists, and as a member of the Board of Directors of Amigos de Siqueiros, the unveiling was a joyous occasion for me, as I have been writing about Siqueiros and his Olvera Street mural on this web log since 2005. But Oct. 9 was also a collective triumph for the hundreds of people who worked so diligently to make the dream come true.

Before inviting those gathered at the press conference to visit the rooftop mural located atop the América Tropical Interpretive Center, the Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, Timothy P. Whalen; the President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, James Cuno; Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, all made poignant statements before the press about the importance of América Tropical to the people of L.A. and the world. The official 2012 unveiling of the Siqueiros mural and the opening of the interpretive center took place eighty years from the mural’s original unveiling on October 11, 1932.

The Mayor’s office and the Getty presented a commemorative plaque to Amigos de Siqueiros, for the group’s role in helping to preserve and promote América Tropical and the legacy of David Alfaro Siqueiros. The inscribed tablet was received by the Chair of Amigos de Siqueiros, Dalila Teresa Sotelo, and Carol Jacques, a commissioner for El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument and a chief liaison for Amigos de Siqueiros.

The whitewash has at last been removed from América Tropical, but it covered more than a mural painted by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century - it concealed the unvarnished truth about Los Angeles and all of the Americas. The unveiling should mark the beginning of serious dialog over the issues evident in the painting, but I hope the work also inspires a new socially engaged art for our time. That would be the real legacy of David Alfaro Siqueiros, and with the world presently in the state it is in, we should call for nothing less.

I took the following photos during the October 9, 2012, América Tropical unveiling ceremony.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©From Main Street one can partially view the América Tropical mural located on the rooftop of the historic Italian Hall. The large wing-like construction is the super-structure that protects the mural from the elements. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©View of the mural as seen from the vender’s area of Olvera Street. To some extent one can catch a glimpse of the painting from street level, but what stands out the most is the super-structure that protects the mural from weather conditions. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©From left to right: the President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, James Cuno; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and L.A. City Councilman José Huizar, announcing the unveiling of  América Tropical at the Casa Avila Adobe October 9, 2012 press conference. Photo by Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, Timothy P. Whalen (shown at right) and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the Avila Adobe press conference. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©The Olvera Street entrance to the América Tropical Interpretive Center (ATIC). The box-like structure on the center’s roof is actually the observation platform where the public can view the Siqueiros mural. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©View of one of two large exhibit rooms in the América Tropical Interpretive Center. The rooms present interactive displays, photos, informative text and other ephemera related to Siqueiros and the América Tropical mural. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©This is the view of América Tropical afforded by the observation platform atop the Interpretive Center. The mural was painted on a rooftop wall of the Italian Hall building. This photo also shows the super-structure that protects the mural. The panels on the side move to block the sun, likewise the wing-like structure above the mural can also be lowered to provide sun-shade. The domed building in the background is the Los Angeles Terminal Annex U.S. Post Office, which was built in 1939 - seven years after Siqueiros created his mural. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©This photo shows a reclining Chacmool sculptural figure Siqueiros used to represent pre-Columbian civilizations. Chacmool were common to the Toltec, Maya, and Aztec, and were utilized in religious ceremonies involving offerings and sacrifices; usually gifts to the Gods were placed on the stomach of a Chacmool figure. Pre-Columbian ruins are strewn throughout the mural, symbolizing the destruction of indigenous people by colonialism.

In the above photo, along the bottom edge of the mural, one can see how the original painting suffered deterioration over the years, which presented a major challenge to Getty restorers. The staff of the Getty Conservation Institute did a world class job of preserving América Tropical, and you can read about their conservation efforts here. This photo was shot from the viewing platform using a telephoto lens. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©This is the thematic focus of the América Tropical mural; the eagle of imperialism sitting atop a crucifix from which hangs a murdered Indian. While the mural is a faded “ghost” image, it is remarkable how bright some of the original pigment remains. There are no known color photos of the original artwork, one of the reasons why Getty conservators decided to preserve rather than recreate the painting. A telephoto lens was used to take this photo from the viewing platform. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©A close-up telephoto lens view of the armed revolutionaries Siqueiros painted in the upper right corner of his mural. Carrying bolt-action combat rifles of the day, the men ready an attack upon the imperialist eagle. In the upper right of the photo you can see how the mural was damaged in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake; the Getty Conservation Institute filled in the shattered area with plaster. I should also note that this is the area of the mural where the painting’s colors remain the brightest. This is most likely do to the fact that this portion of the mural could be seen from the street in 1932, and so city authorities had it whitewashed first before the rest of the mural was covered over. I took the photo from the viewing platform using a telephoto lens. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Photograph by Mark Vallen ©A close-up telephoto lens view of the eagle in América Tropical. This war bird has a mechanized look about it, especially when considering the wings. The rapacious bird is prescient of another eagle Siqueiros would paint seven years later in his 1939 Portrait of the Bourgeoisie mural located in the stairwell of the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas in Mexico City. A full throttle attack against the forces of war and fascism, Portrait of the Bourgeoisie also depicted an eagle as a central design element. That metallic bird was fully mechanized and bristled with sharp knife-like edges. It sat atop a huge mechanical press that crushed humanity while spitting out gold coins. A year prior to creating the 1939 mural, Siqueiros went to Spain and joined the Republican Army in the fight against the fascist military of General Franco. Portrait of the Bourgeoisie foretold what was to befall the world with the outbreak of World War II. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

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The América Tropical Interpretive Center is now open to the public. Admission is free. The center is located on Olvera Street at: 125 Paseo de La Plaza Los Angeles, CA 90012 (click for map). The center is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can phone the center at (213) 485-6855.

Related events that I will write about in future blog posts:

A Civil Defense: Paintings of Estaño
Philip Stein, aka Estaño, was an assistant to David Alfaro Siqueiros and helped the master paint ten of his greatest works in Mexico City during a ten year period. The estate of Philip Stein is currently exhibiting paintings, drawings, and prints by Estaño at the Take My Picture Gallery in downtown L.A. This not to be missed exhibit runs until December 31, 2012.

¡América Tropical! Celebrating a Siqueiros Masterpiece - Saturday November 3, 2012.
Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute, LA Plaza de Culturas y Artes, and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, this festival takes place a short walking distance from the América Tropical mural and the América Tropical Interpretive Center. The festival will include Aztec Dancers, Ballet Folklorico, traditional Mariachi and authentic banda music, street theater, film, food, workshops, and even a performance by the UCLA Philharmonia Orchestra. The festival also includes observance of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). A perfect day to come see the Siqueiros mural! Free admission, the fun begins and 10:30 am and goes on all day. Details and full schedule of events available here.

Oct 9th unveiling of L.A. Siqueiros Mural

Black and white detail from the 1932 "América Tropical" mural by Siqueiros.

Black & white detail from the 1932 América Tropical mural by Siqueiros. "City fathers immediately censored the artwork because of its anti-imperialist sentiments".

I am thrilled to announce the October 9, 2012 public unveiling of David Alfaro Siqueiros’ fully preserved 1932 mural América Tropical, at the site of the mural’s original location, a rooftop wall at the Italian Hall located on Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street.

Concurrent with the unveiling of the mural will be the official public opening of Olvera Street’s América Tropical Interpretive Center.

October 9th will be a momentous occasion for the arts community and the people of L.A., as well as a significant event for people around the world… since it represents a victory for artistic freedom over the forces of reaction and censorship.

If any one person can be credited for bringing about the preservation of América Tropical, it would be the art historian Shifra M. Goldman (1926-2011), who almost single-handedly waged a campaign to save the Siqueiros mural starting in 1968. She even approached Siqueiros in 1972 with a proposal to recreate a modified version of the mural, a plan the artist agreed to but never completed due to his death in 1974 at the age of 78. Certainly the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and all of its dedicated staff must be applauded for their massive efforts in saving and preserving the mural. I believe the preservation of the Siqueiros mural represents one of the GCI’s finest hours, and their keen efforts will add to the deep and meaningful history of Los Angeles.

The director of the GCI, Tim Whalen, said this of the upcoming unveiling, “Providing public access to América Tropical has been central to this project. From the Getty Conservation Institute’s initial involvement in 1988, it has been a persistent advocate for the conservation of the mural, and the construction of the shelter, and a public viewing platform. We are so pleased to bring América Tropical back to the people of Los Angeles.”

There are many others too numerous to credit by name for helping to bring América Tropical back to life, but the most important factor behind the renovation of the mural is the countless numbers of people who refused to forget the mural and its destruction by a coat of whitewash ordered by city authorities in 1932. As a child my parents took me to Olvera Street on numerous occasions in the late 1950s, where my mother told me the story of the whitewashed mural. It was a tale I did not fully understand until the late 1960s, when Chicano movement activists began to rediscover the works of Siqueiros and other Mexican social realist artists, pointing to L.A.’s América Tropical as a symbol of what Chicanarte (Chicano art) could achieve… if only the will could be found. One can easily say that L.A.’s much heralded mural movement actually started when David Alfaro Siqueiros painted his contentious Olvera Street mural.

I must add that the Los Angeles based organization, Amigos de Siqueiros (Friends of Siqueiros), has played a crucial role in the mural preservation project. I was inducted into the group, and now proudly sit on its Board of Directors. Amigos de Siqueiros has as its mission, the protection, conservation, and promotion of América Tropical and the long-term stewardship of the mural, as well as to advance the legacy of Siqueiros. In my capacity as a member of the Board of Directors of Amigos de Siqueiros, I invite people everywhere to come to Olvera Street on October 9, 2012, to join in the historic unveiling and celebration. In 2002 I attended the public unveiling ceremony the Santa Barbara Museum of Art held for its Siqueiros mural, Retrato del Mexico de hoy: 1932 (Portrait of Mexico Today: 1932), thousands attended the event. The América Tropical unveiling will no doubt attract as large, if not a greater crowd of enthusiastic art lovers.

The Getty Conservation Institute has published press releases in English and Spanish, announcing the Oct. 9th unveiling, as well as a number of other public events coordinated with Amigos de Siqueiros; from movie screenings and speakers forums to symposiums and a tour of Eastside Los Angeles murals. The entire schedule of events are listed in the GCI press releases.

The village that became the modern City of Los Angeles now has a new wrinkle in its complex history. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels), was the settlement founded in 1781 by Spanish colonizers; it became the largest city of Mexico’s Alta California after Mexico won its independence from Spain. The municipality was seized by Americans when they invaded Mexico during the American war on Mexico (1846-48), taking 55% of Mexico’s territory under the spurious postwar “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo“. In the late 20th century Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted his América Tropical on a wall in El Pueblo; city fathers immediately censored the artwork because of its anti-imperialist sentiments. In early 21st century Los Angeles the mural returns as a ghost image to remind us all of the folly and transient nature of empire.

América Tropical is not just a faded mural brought back to life, it is a distillation of experiences lived on both sides of the U.S./ Mexico border. It is a collaboration between a master Mexican artist and his “Bloc of Painters” - those 29 U.S. artists that helped paint the Olvera Street mural; the mural is a fusion of cultures and histories, and a sign-post for the way forward in art. It is a consummate example of social realism, that socially engaged school of art that flourished in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe during the years of the Great Depression. Siqueiros and his associates confronted the world crisis of their day through their art, and now artists once again face a global crisis of unparalleled dimension. Perhaps the rebirth of América Tropical will help spark a resurgent social realism for the 21st century…  that just might be the real legacy of Siqueiros.

The public unveiling of América Tropical and the opening of the América Tropical Interpretive Center will occur at noon on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. The ceremony takes place at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, Sepulveda House, 125 Paseo de la Plaza, in downtown L.A.

Why Rescue América Tropical?

Flyer announcing "Why Rescue América Tropical?"

Flyer announcing "Why Rescue América Tropical?"

Amigos de Siqueiros are celebrating the 79th anniversary of Siqueiros’ América Tropical mural being unveiled on L.A.’s Olvera Street, with Why Rescue América Tropical? - conversations on the protection and preservation of the world famous wall painting.

The speakers at the forum are the renowned scholar and historian Dr. Irene Herner Reiss, and the award-winning journalist, author, and musician, Rubén Martínez.

Herner Reiss consulted the Autry Museum when it mounted its dazzling Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied exhibit of 2010. Her book, Siqueiros: From Paradise to Utopia, is considered a definitive work on the art, life, and times of the artist. Herner Reiss has devoted a large part of her career to the study of Siqueiros, so those attending her lecture are bound to leave with new insights and perspectives.

To Angelenos Martínez hardly needs an introduction; born in L.A., he is a prolific writer, a onetime TV host on the KCET (PBS Los Angeles) public affairs show,  Life & Times, and currently holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University in L.A.

In May of this year I was elected to sit on the Board of Directors for Amigos de Siqueiros. Given that the group has as its mission the protection, conservation, and promotion of América Tropical, as well as to uphold the legacy of David Alfaro Siqueiros, I am honored to play a role in the organization.

Co-presented by La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, Why Rescue América Tropical? takes place on Sunday, October 2, 2011 at 2 p.m. at the newly opened La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, located at 501 North Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (map). The event is free to the public and discounted admission to the center’s galleries will be available.

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UPDATE: Approximately 70 people showed up to the Why Rescue América Tropical event held in an outdoor patio/garden setting at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes. Moderated by Amigos de Siqueiros Co-Chairs Dalila Teresa Sotelo and Dan Guerrero, the speakers roster included some surprise guests.

Chris Espinoza, representing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, assured those gathered that the L.A. City government supported Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center on Olvera Street is on track and making progress. Espinoza reported that initial construction at the center has been completed and that the center’s grand opening should be around March of 2012. Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar also spoke to those gathered on the importance of the Siqueiros mural to the people of Los Angeles.

Dr. Irene Herner Reiss at the

Dr. Irene Herner Reiss at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, Oct., 2, 2011. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Next on the roster was Dr. Irene Herner Reiss, who spoke with eloquence and great passion regarding the works of Siqueiros, with an emphasis of course on the artist’s América Tropical mural.

Herner emphasized that Siqueiros’ mural depicted the ruins of Mexico’s indigenous civilizations, and that the mural itself was turned into a ruin of sorts when right-wing city authorities saw to its destruction with a coat of whitewash.

But Herner reminded those gathered that great art can spring from ruins, just as classical European art was influenced by the ruins of ancient Greece. She noted that a full restoration of Siqueiros’ mural was “impossible”, but half-joked that there was nothing “like a strong ghost” to shake things up.

Writer Rubén Martínez and playwright Oliver Mayer then joined Herner in conversation on the legacy of Siqueiros in Los Angeles, a talk that extended to the audience with its many questions and observations concerning Siqueiros and his socially conscious art. Mayer, who wrote the libretto for an opera about Siqueiros aptly titled América Tropical (you can view clips here), directly addressed the many students in the audience - challenging them to use their skills to enact creative social change.

After the event concluded I acquired a copy of Ms. Herner’s just released book, Siqueiros: from Paradise to Utopia, and then had the immense pleasure of talking with Herner for a few minutes. While the Spanish language edition of Herner’s book was released in 2010, there has yet to be an “official” English language release made available to the public. The book is a veritable treasure trove for those with a thirst for knowledge concerning Siqueiros and the Mexican Muralist School. Expect a full review of this invaluable book in a future blog post.

Groundbreaking for Siqueiros Project

Golden shovels used at the Sept. 8, 2010 groundbreaking ceremony for the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center on L.A.'s historic Olvera Street. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Golden shovels used at the Sept. 8, 2010 groundbreaking ceremony for the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center on L.A.'s historic Olvera Street. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The construction of the Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles grows ever closer. Carol Jacques, Commission Vice President of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority, invited me to attend the historic groundbreaking ceremony for the Interpretive Center that took place on September 8, 2010, and as someone who has been writing in-depth coverage on this story for years, it was an opportunity I could not pass by.

At 10 a.m. I arrived at the Avila Adobe House on Olvera Street for the scheduled press conference, and found the bungalow filled to capacity with L.A. City government officials, Getty museum functionaries, foreign dignitaries, art aficionados, news media, and many of those who have worked so diligently over the decades to “bring Siqueiros back” to Los Angeles.

The Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, Timothy P. Whalen, at the press conference held at the historic Avila Adobe House, just prior to the groundbreaking ceremony. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, Timothy P. Whalen, at the press conference held at the historic Avila Adobe House, just prior to the groundbreaking ceremony. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Featured speakers who addressed the press conference included the Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, Timothy P. Whalen, and Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar. Both gave short speeches on the history of the mural, the status of the Interpretive Center project, and their belief that the center will enrich the cultural and intellectual life of Los Angeles.

The setting for the press conference was the aforementioned Avila Adobe House, the oldest house in the city of Los Angeles. It was originally constructed in 1818 by Don Francisco Avila, who was the Mayor of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels). The stucco-clad adobe dwelling was erected before the United States invaded Mexico, forcing it to cede California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Wyoming to the U.S. in 1848. The adobe also stood before Mexico won its Independence from Spain in 1821.

Timothy P. Whalen of the Getty, Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar, along with members of L.A.'s City government and the Getty Center, break ground for the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Timothy P. Whalen of the Getty, Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar, along with members of L.A.'s City government and the Getty Center, break ground for the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

I was overwhelmed thinking that the house made from sun-dried bricks of clay and straw, a building that had seen so much history, was now the setting for a press conference announcing the construction of a 21st century interactive arts center. After completion of the news conference, the assembly was invited to move to the adjacent Italian Hall, where the rooftop Siqueiros mural is located and where the actual groundbreaking was to occur.

Susan Macdonald (left), Head of Field Projects for the Getty Conservation Institute, and Leslie Rainer, Senior Project Specialist for the Getty Conservation Institute, address the public and members of the news media on the rooftop of Olvera Street's Italian Hall, where the Siqueiros mural is located. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Susan Macdonald (left), Head of Field Projects for the Getty Conservation Institute, and Leslie Rainer, Senior Project Specialist for the Getty Conservation Institute, address the public and members of the news media on the rooftop of Olvera Street's Italian Hall, where the Siqueiros mural is located. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

An air of expectation grew as the crowd gathered on the steps of the old Italian Hall, waiting for the historic groundbreaking ceremony to begin as photographers jockeyed for position. In due time representatives of the Getty Center, along with members of L.A.’s City government, took their golden shovels in hand to enact the symbolic breaking of the ground.

With that emblematic gesture, cheers of approval and applause rose up from the crowd, and construction of the Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center was at last underway.

After the groundbreaking ceremony the media and the public were invited to the rooftop of the Italian Hall to view the current state of the mural project. Due to the precarious condition of the old building, city workers would only allow 25 people at a time to visit the roof, but the wait was worthwhile.

Susan Macdonald, Head of Field Projects for the Getty Conservation Institute, and Leslie Rainer, Senior Project Specialist for the Getty Conservation Institute, greeted those who climbed the stairs to the rooftop. The two lectured on various aspects of the project, and with great enthusiasm answered all questions pertaining to the mural venture. Presently the mural is protected from top to bottom by a metal screen and supporting armature. City officials and Getty staff both made assurances that the project would be completed and ready for public unveiling by the end of two years time.

Rendering of the Siqueiros mural shelter as seen from Union Station. Image courtesy of Pugh + Scarpa Architects ©.

Rendering of the Siqueiros mural shelter as seen from Union Station. Image courtesy of Pugh + Scarpa Architects ©.

When Siqueiros came to L.A. in 1932 as a political refugee, the U.S. was in the throws of the Great Depression. Millions of people were out of work and had lost their homes. The government was involved in the mass expulsion of up to one million people of Mexican descent, including tens of thousands of U.S. citizens; Los Angeles County alone deported up to 80,000 people to Mexico, many of them apprehended on or around Olvera Street and its environs. In 1936 the Spanish Civil War was the opening salvo of what would become WWII. Such matters were surely on the mind of the artist when he painted his mural works during his six-month long exile in L.A.

Rendering of the Siqueiros mural shelter from the viewing platform to be constructed atop Italian Hall. Image courtesy of Pugh + Scarpa Architects ©.

Rendering of the Siqueiros mural shelter from the viewing platform to be constructed atop Italian Hall. Image courtesy of Pugh + Scarpa Architects ©.

As Siqueiros’ América Tropical mural is being reborn on Olvera Street in the early 21st century, the U.S. is in the grip of unemployment rates the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. Millions of people have lost their homes, city budgets are collapsing and social services are being cut to the bone. Hatred of immigrants is rampant and escalating, and the nation is fighting multiple foreign wars; which is to say, the present political landscape bears an eerie resemblance to the 1930s. The question is not how David Alfaro Siqueiros would react if he were alive, the question is - how will today’s artists respond to the mounting social crisis.

Siqueiros: L.A. Panel Discussion

Siqueiros in Calle Olvera – Peter Wood. 2008. © All rights reserved. Oil on canvas. 7 x 5 ft.

"Siqueiros in Calle Olvera" – Peter Wood. 2008. © All rights reserved. Oil on canvas. 7 x 5 ft.

Since January 2005, this web log has been following the history of América Tropical – the famous 1932 mural painted by Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. So it is my pleasure to announce the first of three important L.A. panel discussions regarding the mural and the legacy of Siqueiros.

Organized by Amigos de Siqueiros and moderated by painter Raoul De la Sota, América Tropical At Last is an artist organized forum that will present “an overview of the career of David Alfaro Siqueiros and a discussion of the social and political events during which he worked.”

Panelists will include the creative director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, Judy Baca; photographer, writer, and curator of the upcoming Siqueiros: Censorship Defied exhibit at L.A.’s Autry museum, Luis Garza; historian and artist, Raul Herrera; historian Isabel-Rojas-Williams – and artist John Valadez.

The Friday, June 18, 2010, free public event begins at 7 p.m. The round-table discussion takes place at the Mexican Cultural Institute Art Gallery, which is located on the famous avenue where Siqueiros painted his controversial mural. The address for the Mexican Cultural Institute is 125 Paseo de la Plaza – the institute is adjacent to the famous bandshell at La Placita, right next to the historic Plaza Methodist Church. The gallery can be found in the institute’s basement from a street accessible staircase – look for the signage.

The June 18 opening of the Siqueiros panel discussion series at the Mexican Cultural Institute Gallery.

The June 18 opening of the Siqueiros panel discussion series at the Mexican Cultural Institute Gallery in Los Angeles, CA.

Update: The June 18, América Tropical At Last event at the beautiful Mexican Cultural Institute Gallery was well attended by around 100 people.

The forum lasted nearly three hours, which hardly seemed enough time for all of the presentations and audience feedback. Although the event was marred by technical problems and what I feel was a lack of focus, significant questions were still raised, and people were given much food for thought. I will offer a summation of the evening’s proceedings when I file a final report on the entire series of panel discussions – which I urge all Southern Californians to attend. Those outside the region will benefit from that final report, which is sure to reveal new information about Siqueiros, América Tropical, and the possibilities for a new social activism in art.

The next speaker’s forum, Artist Warrior: From Siqueiros to Carrasco and Beyond, is scheduled to take place on July 16, 2010, at the Mexican Cultural Institute Gallery, 7 p.m. According to the organizers, the evening will focus on the artist as a “political and cultural activist,” and “what strength of purpose” it takes to create public art “in these fractious times.” Panelists will include artist Jose Antonio Aguirre, artist Raul Baltazar, artist and teacher Glenna Avila, artist Barbara Carrasco, artist Wayne Healy, and a screening of Bert Corona’s film Artist Warrior. Corona (1918-2001), is considered by many to have been one of the founder’s of the Chicano movement.

The final panel, Freedom of Speech and Censorship, will take place on August 20, 2010, at the L.A. headquarters building of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF). The program starts at 7 p.m. and will feature artist Ernesto de la Loza, artist Gilbert Magu Lujan, artist Eloy Torrez, the President of MALDEF, Thomas Saenz, and a screening of Jesus Trevino’s film, América Tropical. MALDEF is located at 634 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA. 90014. The final two panel discussions will also be moderated by artist and teacher, Raoul De la Sota.

[ The painting of Siqueiros was kindly provided by artist Peter Wood, whose works can be seen here. You may contact Mr. Wood at oaxacamouth@hotmail.com ].

Siqueiros: América Tropical Press Conference

Siqueiros: América Tropical – Event program for the March 31, 2010 presentation on the status of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center.

Siqueiros: América Tropical – Event program for the March 31, 2010 presentation on the status of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center.

The Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros completed his second Los Angeles mural, América Tropical, in 1932. Created on the rooftop of the Italian Hall building located on the city’s historic Olvera Street, the mural was formally presented to the public in an official unveiling that took place on the evening of October 9, 1932. Within six months the portion of the mural visible from the street was whitewashed by conservative city authorities because of the artwork’s political message – a searing attack on U.S. imperialism. Inside of a year the authorities obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. América Tropical has remained hidden from public view for the last 77 years – but that is about to change.

By invitation I attended the March 31, 2010, event at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Taper Auditorium, heralding the progress of the future David Alfaro Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center. Sponsored by Amigos de Siqueiros, the city government of Los Angeles, and the Getty Conservation Institute, the event was the first opportunity for the public to learn the details regarding the upcoming $9 million visitor center – which is on the verge of being constructed. The event was attended by some 200 people, including foreign dignitaries, elected officials, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. The program lasted nearly two hours and included several informative Powerpoint presentations about the future center.

Close to 200 people filled the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium to hear the latest news on the status of the Siqueiros mural project. In this photo, Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, gives a benediction to open the event. Father Estrada blessed Siqueiros, and all artists who work for social justice. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Close to 200 people filled the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium to hear the latest news on the status of the Siqueiros mural project. In this photo, Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, gives a benediction to open the event. Father Estrada blessed Siqueiros, and all artists who work for social justice. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

The moderator for the evening was Armando Vazquez Ramos, co-chair of Amigos de Siqueiros, which has as its mission the conservation, protection, and promotion of the América Tropical mural.

Ramos briefly introduced a number of VIP’s in attendance, such as the Secretary of Culture for Mexico City, Elena Cepeda; the Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, Timothy P. Whalen; the Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West, Jonathan Spaulding; as well as a delegation of staff members from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which houses the only intact U.S. mural by Siqueiros – Portrait of Mexico Today: 1932. After opening remarks by Ramos and fellow co-chair of Amigos, Dalila Sotelo, the two introduced Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, who gave a benediction that blessed Siqueiros and all artists who work for the people and social justice.

Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District of L.A., addressed the gathering of foreign dignitaries, politicians, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District of L.A., addressed the gathering of foreign dignitaries, politicians, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was scheduled to address the gathering but at the last minute could not attend. Consequently, following Father Estrada’s blessing, a representative spoke on the Mayor’s behalf. After assuring the audience of the Mayor’s full commitment to the Siqueiros mural project, she promised those gathered that by “the end of this summer, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony to start this project.”

Here I must note a statement that the Getty’s Timothy P. Whalen gave the press at the event, explaining that once there is a groundbreaking, it will take 18 to 24 months to complete the construction of the center, now scheduled to be finished by 2013.

The Mayor’s representative was followed by L.A. Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District, who delivered an address further confirming the city government’s devotion to seeing the Siqueiros mural project completed. He told those gathered that “We have to uncover this beautiful mural and show it to the world.” Following Councilmember Huizar was California State Assembly Member, Kevin De León, of the 45th Assembly District of Los Angeles.

Assemblyman De León told a humorous but heartfelt story about how he came to discover the América Tropical mural. Mr. De León has a friend with access to the Italian Hall, the building on Olvera Street where Siqueiros painted his mural on the exterior of the second floor rooftop. The friend kept telling De León about the rooftop mural by Siqueiros, but the Assemblyman simply did not believe the story. One day that friend arranged to have De León visit the Italian Hall, and upon entering the building and surveying the dust, disrepair, and general disorder of the historic site (which is presently closed to the public), De León became convinced his friend was playing a practical joke on him – until the two made their way to the rooftop.

When De León set his eyes upon the mural that he never knew existed, he was, in his own words, “blown away.” He described his discovery as a life changing experience, and ended his address by vowing to do everything within his means to see the Siqueiros Mural And Interpretive Center brought to completion. “América Tropical,” De León said “is a treasure we must preserve.”

In this 1933 photograph of Olvera Street, the whitewashed Siqueiros mural América Tropical, can be seen in the upper right half of the photo. The authorities whitewashed the part of the mural that could be seen from the street – which is seen here as a large blank space. City authorities later obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. Photo/Los Angeles Times archives.

In this 1933 photo of Olvera Street, the whitewashed Siqueiros mural América Tropical, can be seen in the upper right half of the photo. The authorities whitewashed the part of the mural that could be seen from the street – seen here as a large blank space. City authorities later obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. Photo/Los Angeles Times archives.

Assemblyman De León’s presentation wrapped up the formal statements issued by members of the city’s government, and the audience then began to receive details on the progress of the Mural And Interpretive Center project. I am certain that, as someone who has followed the story of América Tropical since the late 1960s, I was not alone in feeling a sense of astonishment that at long last the mural was actually being brought back to life; that its regeneration was backed by the City of Los Angeles and the prestigious Getty museum, and that the mural would rightly take its place as a major historic site for L.A. and for the international arts community.

Leslie Rainer, a conservator at the Getty Museum’s Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), was introduced, and her Powerpoint presentation ran through the history of the mural, with a focus on the GCI’s involvement in the mural’s preservation, which began in earnest in 1989. Rainer gave a step by step account of GCI efforts over the years; seismic retrofitting of the wall on which the masterwork is painted, the installment of rigid protection panels over the mural to shield it from the elements, the stabilizing of the mural with protective chemicals, and the analysis of the paints Siqueiros used in creating his mural. Here the artist left conservators a vexing challenge, and while Ms. Rainer did not go into those details, I will share the particulars as I understand them.

In his desire to use the most revolutionary techniques and materials, Siqueiros abandoned the time tested fresco mural technique of painting with water-based pigments on fresh lime plaster – the method fellow muralist Diego Rivera utilized. Siqueiros instead created his mural by painting on cement with automobile lacquer paint applied with a spray gun and brushes. Using a compressed air spray gun powered by a generator was something only Siqueiros had done in his previous works, likewise his use of pyroxylin, the aforementioned auto lacquer paint. A nitrocellulose based lacquer once used to paint cars; pyroxylin was the artist’s favored paint because of its intense pigmentation, rapid drying time, and tendency to produce startling effects when different colors were allowed to flow together.

While previous works by Siqueiros were created on masonite or other stable grounds given an underpainting of gray pyroxylin, América Tropical was painted by direct application of pyroxylin on a single layer of cement – and the two did not bond well; the pyroxylin immediately fixed on the cement surface instead of penetrating it. After some time the pyroxylin began cracking and pulling away from the cement, a process exacerbated by the whitewash coating. GCI conservators have exerted a great amount of energy in successfully arresting the degradation of the mural. They determined that a complete full-color restoration of the original mural would only destroy the integrity of the work, so it was decided to preserve the mural as it is – a ghost of its former appearance.

Ms. Rainer went on to recount how América Tropical became almost entirely lost to memory, until the late 1960s Chicano Power movement in L.A. rediscovered Siqueiros and his mural – which in large part inspired the Chicano Arts Movement. In 1968 the mural came to public attention simply because the whitewash had begun to peel off, exposing tantalizing bits of the long forgotten artwork. Rainer told how in that year Shifra Goldman made photographic documentation of the devastated mural, kicking off a campaign to preserve América Tropical as well as providing impetus to the Chicano Arts Movement. Ms. Goldman has been a pioneer in the study of modern Latin American art, and it is hard to imagine this area of research without her scholarship and fortitude.

View from Main Street – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Watercolor. In this artist’s conception of the future Mural and Interpretive Center, the Siqueiros mural is located on the rooftop pictured at far left. This would be the view from Main Street, parallel to the foot traffic area of Olvera Street.

View from Main Street – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Watercolor. In this artist’s concept of the Mural and Interpretive Center, the Siqueiros mural is located on the rooftop pictured at left. This would be the view from Main Street, parallel to the foot traffic area of Olvera Street.

After Ms. Rainer’s presentation, Gwynne Pugh, the principal and co-founder of Pugh + Scarpa Architects, gave a Powerpoint presentation that was a project overview on architectural matters.

Pugh walked the audience through the floor plans and blueprints for the Interpretive Center, providing great insight into its engineering and structural designs. The center’s two thousand square feet of galleries will include a rooftop viewing platform, where people will be able to view the mural. Following Mr. Pugh’s talk was Thomas Hartman’s presentation. President of IQ Magic, a firm involved in interactive exhibits and displays for museums, Mr. Hartman lectured on a range of topics related to the mural. He described how the various rooms in the Mural Interpretive Center will look and function, using his Powerpoint display to provide digital graphics and artist’s concept drawings to illustrate his firm’s vision and goals for the center.

Perspective Looking Toward Entry – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, the entry room of Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured.

Perspective Looking Toward Entry – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, the entry room of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured.

Hartman described the two-story center as spacious and well lit by natural sunlight, with hand worked materials like field stone and yellow cedar wood commonly used throughout the building. He disclosed that the entryway to the center will be ceremonial in nature, giving the public a good idea of what the center contains, even if the upper floors are closed. A large photograph of Siqueiros will welcome visitors, and when they step into the ground floor entry room they will be faced with multiple wall plaques of text, artworks, and photographs that explain the museum’s concept and purpose. Not a true museum that displays original art and artifacts, the Mural Interpretive Center will instead provide educational and interactive displays that will inform, educate, and engage a wide and varied audience.

Projected Siqueiros Mural – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, one of the many proposed multi-media rooms in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. In this particular room, a 30 ft. wide digital projection of the América Tropical mural will be displayed, along with other audio and visual materials.

Projected Siqueiros Mural – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, one of the many proposed multi-media rooms in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. In this room, a 30 ft. wide digital projection of the América Tropical mural will be displayed, along with other audio and visual materials.

Mr. Hartman described the various multi-media displays that will be central to the Mural Interpretive Center experience; projectors that will throw a 30 foot long full-color reproduction of the mural on an internal gallery wall, where that digital projection will be supplemented by other, smaller projections; details of the mural, photographs of the artist at work, and other images. Some displays will incorporate digital audio systems and speakers that when touched, will transmit audio files of spoken histories and narratives pertaining to the mural’s history.

Likewise, 30 inch flat screen computer monitors placed throughout the center will offer all types of information to viewers. Hartman emphasized the flexible nature of these proposed displays, noting that as technologies change and expand, older displays will easily be rotated out and replaced with updated versions.

Immersive Muralism – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, another proposed multi-media room in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. This display would present audio/visual materials on Siqueiros' ideas regarding "immersive muralism," that is, murals that envelope viewers in architectural space, but also change appearance when viewed from various angles.

Immersive Muralism – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, another proposed multi-media room in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. This display would present audio/visual materials on Siqueiros' ideas regarding "immersive muralism," that is, murals that envelope viewers in architectural space, but also change appearance when viewed from various angles.

Mr. Hartman’s description of the rooftop viewing platform was most engrossing. Ultimately, visitors to the center will find themselves led to the roof, where they will gather on a special 240 square foot viewing platform placed adjacent to, but some 125 feet from the actual mural.

That space will protect the mural from those who will want to touch it, but it will also afford a clear and unobstructed full view of the mural. A specially designed canopy will stretch out above the mural for some thirty feet, protecting it from the harsh L.A. sun, and large perforated copper side screens will also serve the same purpose. The platform is designed to accommodate a steady stream of hundreds of viewers, who will be able to reach the rooftop by stairs or elevator.

In closing, Mr. Hartman invited those gathered to imagine what the original October 9, 1932 unveiling ceremony must have been like. It was, as he noted, “the event of the season,” and much of the city’s intellectual elites were in attendance; writers, artists, photographers, political activists – city politicians and mainstream media as well. Also in attendance that evening were members of the “Bloc of Painters,” those American artists who had assisted Siqueiros in the painting of América Tropical and his first L.A. mural, Mitin Obrero (”Worker’s Meeting” – painted at L.A.’s Chouinard School of Art in 1932). The Bloc included some twenty painters, including the likes of Millard Owen Sheets, Philip Guston, Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, Fletcher Martin, Harold Lehman, Reuben Kadish, and Luis Arenal. Hartman indicated that the accounts of some of the Bloc painters would be included in the center’s interactive displays.

In addition, Mr. Hartman mentioned that Dean Cornwell attended the public unveiling of América Tropical. Cornwell would be responsible for painting the 1933 monolithic mural series, California History, still located on the second floor interior rotunda of L.A.’s magnificent Central Library. Cornwell and Siqueiros both painted murals in L.A. that told the history of the Americas; with América Tropical Siqueiros told a story of imperialist expansion, colonialism, and resistance – Cornwell on the other hand painted a mural that extolled a benevolent and civilizing Western colonialism. The two visions could not have been further apart, needless to say Cornwell’s mural was enthusiastically supported by L.A.’s upstanding citizens and civic leaders, while Siqueiros’ work received a coat of whitewash. In truth the two artists had genial relations, in fact, Cornwell not only helped sponsor the Siqueiros mural, he assisted in its painting (In 1994 L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote about the two murals in his article, Two Murals, Two Histories. You can see a portion of Cornwell’s Central Library mural here).

The closing remarks of the program were given by Gregorio Luke, the former Director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach and currently the Executive Director of Amigos De Siqueiros. I have had my disagreements with Mr. Luke, and I made them public in June of 2007 when I wrote Chicano Artists Need Not Apply, a critique excoriating Luke for his “protracted refusal to exhibit or otherwise collaborate with Chicano/Mexican American artists” at MOLAA. Perhaps Luke has changed his ideas regarding Chicano artists, I am not certain, but his remarks at the L.A. Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium indicated an enlightened position – in fact, I found his lecture inspiring. Luke revealed an obvious passion for the works of Siqueiros, and he spoke with the animated gestures and energy of an old fashioned orator; he can really be quite engaging and persuasive, so Amigos De Siqueiros will no doubt benefit from his leadership.

Self-Portrait – David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1945. Pyroxylin on masonite. A reproduction of this painting will be one of the many reproductions of the artist’s works to be displayed at the Mural and Interpretive Center.

Self-Portrait – David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1945. Pyroxylin on masonite. A reproduction of this painting will be one of the many reproductions of the artist’s works to be displayed at the Mural and Interpretive Center.

Aside from his grand rhetoric in praise of maestro Siqueiros, Luke let loose a few salient remarks I found of great consequence. He divulged that he has been approached by Chicano artists who made it known that in part, they pursued art because of Siqueiros’ influence. I would place myself amongst this group. I discovered Siqueiros in 1968 when I was fifteen years old, and I do not hesitate to say that without his influence I would have been a very different artist. Luke also commended Siqueiros for his revolutionary activism on behalf of the downtrodden, noting that the artist made no distinction between painting and his political acts, to Siqueiros the two were seamlessly integrated. Observing that Siqueiros’ example provides today’s artists with a way forward, Luke chastised those who only want to “paint like the old masters of the past,” but he reserved his ire for today’s detached and indifferent crowd of postmodernists, “who are imprisoned by their own limitations” and “want to be so avant-garde that they become irrelevant to the people.”

Mr. Luke ended with a powerful assertion regarding the soon to be reborn América Tropical mural: “We will reverse an act of censorship, and provide inspiration for another, future revolution.” With that the event ended, but what transpired that evening will provide food for thought for months to come – at least until that promised end of summer groundbreaking for the David Alfaro Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center.

I admit feeling an amused but wary skepticism regarding the whole affair. I can only imagine what Siqueiros, the implacable communist militant, would make of his legacy being blessed by a Catholic Father, warmly embraced by U.S. politicians, and enshrined by a major Yankee art museum. Oh, the contradictions! If Frida Kahlo had painted a mural in Los Angeles during the 1930s, the L.A. city government would have long ago wrapped it in an edifice designed by Frank Gehry. “Gringolandia” might wish to give Siqueiros the Frida Kahlo treatment, i.e., to turn him into a chic handbag or a trendy coffee table book, but the art of Siqueiros may prove difficult to commodify, since it directly speaks the urgent and uncompromising language of revolution. His works continue to be controversial, and goodness knows how we need a contentious and oppositional force in today’s art world – not to mention the rest of society.

I leave you with the inspired words of news reporter Don Ryan, who covered the original 1932 official unveiling of América Tropical in the October 11, 1932 edition of the L.A. Illustrated Daily News, Ryan wrote of that ceremony;

“This night that we are living seems to be fifty to one hundred years in the future. The artist Siqueiros, whom the federal authorities seem so anxious to deport, is without doubt a dangerous type; dangerous for all the snarling and pusillanimous spectators and retailers in art and life. The federal agents justly claim that his art is propaganda, for when the youth confront this gigantic dynamo that pounds in the night under the rain, or clamors boldly when the brilliant sun of midday shines in the plaza, they will possibly find it the inspiration to rise in rebellion in future revolution, in art and in life, exclaiming; ‘Off the road conservatives and old ones, here comes the future!’”

Siqueiros Online Video Stream

An online streaming video is now available for Siqueiros: The Art of Censorship, a recent speakers forum about David Alfaro Siqueiros, his murals, Los Angeles history, and public art. Held last November 9th, 2006, at the Los Angeles Times Harry Chandler Auditorium, the forum was attended by some 300 persons and recorded by L.A. public television station, Channel 36 - who makes the video stream available from their website.

Speakers included Luis Garza - the instigator behind the future exhibition Legacy & Legend: Siqueiros & America Tropical-Censorship Defied, Judith F. Baca - muralist and founder of SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, California), William F. Deverell - director of the Huntington/USC Institute on California and the West, Suzanne Muchnic - Los Angeles Times art writer, and Patt Morrison - writer and columnist. To view the video, go to: www.la36.org/arts.

L.A.’s Siqueiros Mural To Live Again

On August 2nd, 2006, after spending my entire adult life reading about América Tropical, the internationally famous mural painted in Los Angeles by Mexican Muralist master, David Alfaro Siqueiros, there I was, for the very first time - barely inches from the huge masterwork. Just the day before I had received a telephone call from friend and associate, Luis Garza, who sits on the city’s Siqueiros Mural, Events, and Marketing Committee overseeing the restoration of the mural. Garza had called to invite me to the important press conference where L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would have exciting news regarding the mural.

A detail of the famous Olvera Street Siqueiros mural, América Tropical

[ A detail of the famous Olvera Street Siqueiros mural, América Tropical. The image is not the actual mural, but a scale size digital blow-up. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

Mayor Villaraigosa’s press conference took place early in the morning on Olvera Street, the city’s founding avenue and location of the Siqueiros mural. That morning the historic area of the city, known officially as the El Pueblo Historic Monument, was bristling with television, newspaper and radio reporters eager to cover the story. Before a large crowd of city officials, local business people, artists and reporters, the Mayor publicly announced the city’s collaboration with the Getty Foundation on finalizing conservation efforts and providing public access to the mural. At last, the day many of us had dreamed of for years had finally arrived. It was official, a budget for the project had been approved - the renowned mural would live again.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

[ Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the Siqueiros mural press conference. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

At the press conference Mayor Villaraigosa remarked: “The people of the city of Los Angeles will finally be able to view this cultural treasure long obscured from sight. The mural, while controversial in its time, will allow adults and children of all ages to learn about and appreciate the diverse history of this city, the importance of freedom of artistic expression and the origins of the muralist movement in this city.” The Mayor added, “While people can agree or disagree with the message, what’s important is that it was art, and art, while sometimes controversial, is important - because what it does is to lift the soul.” The Mayor’s comment that the mural was “controversial in its time” treats the work as if it were safely and firmly rooted in the past and without relevance to our present political situation. In fact, the work may be more provocative today than when it was first painted - especially during this time of world crisis. Rather than shying away from the artist’s political message to concentrate on his mural as purely an artistic triumph, we should celebrate and defend the anti-Imperialist politics of América Tropical. That being said, I must applaud the Mayor’s bold leadership in campaigning for the conservation of this priceless and influential artwork.

After his comments the Mayor introduced the three representatives from the Getty who were on hand to talk about the museum’s role in the conservation project. Deborah Marrow, Interim President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Timothy Whalen, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), and Joan Weinstein, Interim Director of the Getty Foundation. The three spoke of the Getty Foundation’s commitment to the project, from the construction of a protective shelter and viewing platform for the mural, to the installation of an interpretive center that would place the artwork in historical and artistic context. The overall cost of the project is $7.8 million, with the Getty and the City of Los Angeles basically splitting the expense. The Mayor next introduced Judy Baca, famed L.A. muralist and the Founder/Artistic Director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center of Venice, California. She gave an impassioned speech on the importance of the Siqueiros mural and of muralism in general, noting L.A.’s reputation as the mural capital of the world, and imploring those present to support a revitalization and expansion of the L.A. muralist movement.

Viewing platform to be constructed by the Getty

[ Artist’s rendition of the viewing platform to be constructed by the Getty. ]

As the press conference concluded, officials announced that everyone was invited to the Italian Hall, the historic building on Olvera Street where Siqueiros painted his 80-by-18 foot rooftop mural on an outside second-story wall. We were given a rare opportunity to stand on the roof where we could examine the mural. In actuality, the artwork is now sheltered by a metal covering, over which is stretched a digital reproduction of the mural as it looked before it was censored by a coat of whitewash in 1932. The Getty’s plan is to preserve the mural just as it is - a ghost image - and not to repaint or fully restore it. There are several reasons for this approach, the chief cause being that the artist painted his work in a way that had not yet been proven. Abandoning the traditional method of fresco painting whereupon tempera pigments are painted onto fresh limestone plaster, the experimentally minded Siqueiros painted his mural on concrete using Pyroxylin, a newly developed material that was primarily used to paint automobiles. Conservators have found that the paint’s adhesion to the wall was flawed, adding to the problems of restoration.

Artist Mark Vallen

[ Artist Mark Vallen - Photo by Gary Leonard, echobark@aol.com. ]

From atop Italian Hall there is a dazzling view of downtown L.A., and one can just imagine the splendor of the site once the Getty builds the mural’s protective shelter and viewing platform. A representative of the Mayor’s office requested that all of the artists present stand before the mural so as to be photographed - a tribute to Siqueiros and the impact the Mexican Muralist had upon the artistic community of Los Angeles. I noticed that one of the photographers taking pictures of the proceedings was an old acquaintance - L.A.’s own Gary Leonard. He deftly took a quick shot of me, and naturally we ended up talking about the significance of the day. Interestingly enough, Leonard is related by marriage to Philip Stein (aka Estaño), the American social realist artist who for ten years worked in Mexico with Siqueiros on creating some of the master’s finest works.

Fleeing repression and persecution in Mexico, Siqueiros came to Los Angeles in 1932. During his six month stay here he painted three important murals before being brusquely deported by the U.S. government. His first mural was Mitin Obrero (Worker’s Meeting), a two story creation painted on the side of a building at Chouinard School of Art - where he had been teaching mural painting techniques. It was the very first time anyone in the world had used an industrial spray gun to paint a mural directly on cement. Finished in July 1932, the mural was almost immediately painted over by right-wing authorities. Siqueiros’ second mural was América Tropical, and his third, Retrato del Mexico de Hoy (Portrait of Mexico Today), only survived because it had been painted on the wall of an outdoor patio at the private residence of film director, Dudley Murphy.

A full view of the rooftop mural

[ A full view of the rooftop mural. Again, this is not the actual mural, but a scale size photographic blow-up. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

Back in 2002, I wrote about the experience of attending the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s unveiling of Portrait of Mexico Today, a work acquired and placed on permanent display by the museum. Thousands attended the unveiling ceremony, and countless others have since visited to see the mural. Unquestionably that painting has enriched us all and contributed to the general prosperity of Santa Barbara. The fact that América Tropical is a more well known and significant work, indicates that its reinvigorated presence will no doubt render tremendous positive effects for the people and city of Los Angeles.

[ UPDATE: On August 8, 2006, I received the following e-mail from Peter Lincroft, the son of famed American muralist, Eva Cockcroft. Peter’s letter seemed an appropriate update to my original article:

"Excellent blog entry on the exciting news about America Tropical. In addition to its historical importance, the mural has a personal meaning for me, because it was the subject of the last mural ever painted by my mother, Eva Cockcroft, before she passed away on April 1, 1999. My mother's mural, which she painted in collaboration with Alessandra Moctezuma, is in East LA and is a reproduction of (and tribute to) the original. You can get more info, as well as see pictures of the mural at this website." ]

Siqueiros: Spirit of a Revolutionary

The works of David Alfaro Siqueiros are being exhibited at The Museo de las Américas in Denver Colorado through April 23rd, 2005. Siqueiros: Spirit of a Revolutionary, will feature 22 paintings and drawings by the revolutionary artist that bridge his entire career. A highlight of the exhibit is the 12-foot long study for the 108-foot-long mosaic mural Siqueiros created on the exterior of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

The works on display demonstrate Siqueiros’ fondness for experimentation and improvising. He was one of the first to paint with the newly developed acrylic medium, and he also used a spray gun and lustrous enamel automobile paint called pyroxylin for his murals and small paintings. Many of the works in the Denver Colorado exhibit come from the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, where they were shown in 2004 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Siqueiros’ death.

There has been much renewed interest in the art of Siqueiros, and for good reason… his works offer profound and meaningful content delivered with masterful figurative realist style. Philip Stein (aka Estaño), an artist who painted alongside Siqueiros for ten years, put it this way, “When an artist is having a problem in seriously seeking a meaningful basis for their artistic endeavors, they could consider it a stroke of good luck if they should stumble on to the Mexican Mural Movement.”