Category: Social Realism

Coit Tower Crisis

View of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

View of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

I visited San Francisco, California in late 2011, for the most part to photograph the impressive murals in the Bay Area that were painted in the 1930s and 1940s. A few of the murals are still well known, especially to those living in San Francisco, but by and large the great majority of these public works have long been forgotten - even by arts professionals. Furthermore, nearly all of the artists that painted the murals have largely fallen into obscurity, and very few people today can recall their names.

In months to come I will publish on this web log my photographs of a number of the murals, along with biographical information on those artists responsible for their creation. I have long been perplexed by the small number of high-quality, close-up photos of the murals to be found online, something I hope to correct to some small degree with this series of posts. More importantly, my upcoming illustrated essays will offer insights into how the murals were actually produced, providing a unique artist’s viewpoint of the historic paintings.

The plaque affixed to Coit Tower. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The plaque affixed to Coit Tower. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Constructed in 1933, Coit Tower is unquestionably the most well known locale for some of the best 1930s era murals; currently around 200,000 people, mainly tourists, visit the historic landmark each year. In all likelihood the majority of tourists visit because the tower affords the most remarkable view of San Francisco and the entire Bay Area. On any given day one can see hundreds of vacationers disembarking from sightseeing buses to view the famous building that sits atop Telegraph Hill. But all is not well for one of the city’s best known tourist attractions.

Since their creation in 1934, the Coit Tower murals have undergone several restorations. Photos from 1960 show the murals so disfigured by graffiti that the city sealed the paintings off from public view in order to conduct an extensive restoration that lasted from 1987 to 1990. Today the murals are again in poor shape, mostly from water and salt damage due to San Francisco’s well-known fog. During my visit to the tower I was shocked at the level of disrepair; chips and scratches have certainly taken their toll, and water damage is apparent everywhere; the walls and ceiling are peeling, and salt build-up has caused streaks on a number of paintings.

Detail from the Coit Tower mural, "Animal Force", by artist Ray Boynton. The artist painted the celestial eyes over an  elevator doorway on the building's first floor. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail from the Coit Tower mural, "Animal Force", by artist Ray Boynton. The artist painted the celestial eyes over an elevator doorway on the building's first floor. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

An October 2011 article titled Depression-era Coit Tower murals need touch-up published by the San Francisco Chronicle details some of the problems. A January 2012 PBS NewsHour ran a special segment about the Coit Tower murals that detailed the state of disrepair of the historic wall paintings as well as efforts to preserve the murals.

It was Diego Rivera’s 1930-31 visit to San Francisco that truly began the explosion of mural painting in the Bay Area, which I noted in the first essay of this series, Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco. At the time many Bay Area artists were involved in the school of American social realism, and more than a few of them traveled to Mexico in order to encounter first hand the masters of the Mexican Muralist School. Bernard Baruch Zakheim comes to mind; having made the trek to Mexico City to meet and work with Diego Rivera in 1930, Zakheim and fellow artist Ralph Stackpole successfully lobbied the U.S. government for a commission allowing artists to paint murals on interior walls of San Francisco’s newly constructed Coit Tower.

Upcoming posts will include close-up views of the Coit Tower murals by Zakheim and Stackpole, but also extreme close-up shots of mural paintings by John Langley Howard, William Hesthal, Clifford Wight, Maxine Albro, Suzanne Scheuer, George Harris, Frede Vidar, Ray Boynton, Victor Arnautoff, Otis Oldfield, Jose Moya del Pino, Rinaldo Cuneo, and other notable masters of American social realism.

The Teaching American History Project of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, and the Oakland Museum, provides an overview of the Coit Tower Murals titled “A Social Narrative Depicting ‘Aspects of California Life’ in 1934” (click here for the .pdf document). The online teaching guide quotes extensively from this writer regarding some of the finer details and controversies around the Coit Tower mural project. The document also presents some reasonably sized, clear photos of the Coit murals.

Homeless Woman at Coit Tower. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

"Homeless Woman at Coit Tower". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When I visited the historic landmark that is Coit Tower, I found a destitute woman sleeping near the building entrance; her worldly possessions were held in a small pushcart adorned by the American flag.

It is no small irony that the depression era realities depicted in the Coit Tower murals are today seen on the streets of the U.S. during the reign of the Obama administration. One difference between the mid-30s and the present is that contemporary artists have yet to challenge the systemic failures that give rise to economic collapse, mass poverty, and war.


Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio
Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco
Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity

Biberman Redux

In February of 2009 I wrote about one of California’s great modernist painters from the post WWII period, Edward Biberman. At the time the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park was running its splendid exhibition Edward Biberman Revisited, so my timely article was not simply a review, but an in depth look at one of L.A.’s forgotten artistic geniuses. If you are not familiar with the life and work of Mr. Biberman, I encourage you to read my ‘09 article.

I recently acquired a long out of print hardback copy of Time and Circumstance: Forty Years of Painting, a book Biberman wrote in 1968 that detailed his life and works. To further the reader’s appreciation of Mr. Biberman, I am posting reproductions of five paintings from his book along with his original captions. Published by Ward Richie Press, the rare hardback presents 118 full-page illustrations accompanied by the artist’s comments and observations. Unfortunately only a handful of the illustrations were printed in color, one of which - The Headless Horseman - I present here.

Edward Biberman wrote the following paragraph, which appeared in the foreword to his book; his artwork and captions follow:

“By pure coincidence, just as I was wondering how I might mark the fortieth year of my career as a professional painter, Mr. Joseph Simon, of The Ward Ritchie Press, asked me if I would be interested in having his company publish a book of my work. I was very intrigued with the idea and suggested that the book combine selected photographs of my paintings with enough written material to establish an autobiographical continuity. The publishers agreed, and as I began to choose the paintings and write the text, all the material seemed to fall into place quite easily and naturally. Here then, with my own narrative comments and a few quotes, are the paintings which I chose from the full body of work done in forty years span, 1927 to 1967.”

"The Unseen Wind" - Edward Biberman

"The Unseen Wind" - Edward Biberman

The Unseen Wind. “By the late 1930s all of us looked with fear and foreboding at a world which was careening toward a holocaust. Mussolini’s dive bombers were cutting down the spear-carrying soldiers of Ethiopia: Spain was wracked by civil war and the silence of most of the world; and Picasso, outraged by the destruction of a Spanish town by German Stukas, became one of an increasing number of artists who felt impelled to protest directly through their art. And Guernica became a household word. Concentration camps, a foretaste of the genocide to come, were filling, and Hitler was preparing his march across Europe.”

"Still Life With Rope" - Edward Biberman

"Still Life With Rope" - Edward Biberman

Still Life With Rope. “In our own land, there remained an old and recurring sickness. I began to turn more frequently now, to a world in ferment for my themes. But it soon became obvious to me that the technique which had served me well for other ideas and circumstances was inadequate for these new concepts. The basically two-dimensional, highly pigmented idiom which I had been using for almost ten years, was simply not able to carry the weight of these new intentions. I needed a more solid, three-dimensional, less chromatic approach. I had no hesitancy in making these changes. For then, as now, the form of my work was basically determined by its content.”

"The Headless Horseman" - Edward Biberman

"The Headless Horseman" - Edward Biberman

The Headless Horseman. “The specter of another world war filled our mind’s eye. But this was totally unlike the mood which had unified our country almost to a man after Pearl Harbor. This vision was of something foreboding and divisive – needless, cruel, corrosive.”

"Woman of Mexico" - Edward Biberman

"Woman of Mexico" - Edward Biberman

Woman of Mexico. “Though this head was painted a few years later, it belongs emotionally to the work of that summer. It is a free interpretation of the Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played the leading role in the motion picture, Salt of the Earth, directed by my brother in 1953. The present director of the Los Angeles Municipal Arts Commission, Mr. Kenneth Ross, was at this time art critic on a Pasadena newspaper. He had written, ‘Biberman can affect a striking balance of heart and mind.’” [Editor's comment: You can view the entire Salt of the Earth film as a streaming video on YouTube. Read about the history of the film here].

"Winged Victory of Los Angeles" - Edward Biberman

"Winged Victory of Los Angeles" - Edward Biberman

Winged Victory of Los Angeles. “Once, by chance, I happened to drive under an uncompleted section of one of these soaring ribbons of concrete. I suddenly felt the same sensation of imminent flight that I experienced when I first saw the “Winged Victory” at the head of the stairway, at the end of the long corridor in the Louvre. I could not resist this slightly facetious title for the painting. Most of these urban landscapes were shown at my one-man exhibition at the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962, and this gallery has remained by representative since that time.”


Workers/Obreros - Mark Vallen. Work in progress. Oil on masonite 2012 ©.

"Workers/Obreros" - Mark Vallen. Work in progress. Oil on masonite 2012 ©.

“No more deluded by reaction, on tyrants only we’ll make war. The soldiers too will take strike action, they’ll break ranks and fight no more.” - Excerpt from L’Internationale, written by Eugène Pottier - Paris, June 1871.

¡ADELANTE! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond

I will be premiering two new oil paintings at ¡ADELANTE! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond, the latest museum exhibition to explore the world of Chicano art. Presented by the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale, California, the exhibit runs from September 9, 2011 through January 1, 2012, and offers the paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographs of some forty artists. Included are artworks from “veteranos” of the 1960s Chicano Arts Movement, as well as from a whole new generation of artists involved in creating Chicanarte (Chicano art).

Those influential artists participating in the exhibit include the likes of Judith F. Baca; David Rivas Botello; Barbara Carrasco; Margaret García; Ignacio Gomez; Wayne Healy; Leo Limón; Frank Romero; Patssi Valdez, and a host of others. A few of the works on view are from the Cheech Marin Collection, one of the most important private collections of Chicano art in the United States. Adelante is Spanish for “advance” or “forward”, making the perfect title for an exhibit that surveys Chicano art as it moves into the second decade of the 21st century.

La Causa (The Cause) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 40" x 36" inches. 2011. On exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum, Sept. 9, 2011 through Jan. 1, 2012.

"La Causa" (The Cause) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 40" x 36" inches. 2011. On exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum, Sept. 9, 2011 through Jan. 1, 2012.

When Joan Adan, curator and exhibit designer for the Forest Lawn Museum, requested my participation in the Adelante show, I made a commitment to create a pair of new oil paintings especially for the occasion. I would have barely four months to complete the works. I had been conceptualizing a number of large canvasses based upon observed life in the city of Los Angeles, so when Ms. Adan offered inclusion in Adelante - my ideas became concrete. I was determined to paint narratives that typically get little attention in Chicanarte exhibits. I chose to create paintings inspired by a major event in Mexican-American history, the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, telling the story of how that event continues to resonate in the present.

The Chicano Moratorium march took place in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, and was partly organized by the Brown Berets, a militant Chicano group that fought for the civil and human rights of Mexican-Americans. The Brown Berets were originally organized in East L.A. in 1967 as an outgrowth of the burgeoning Chicano civil rights movement. In 1968 the group organized the first student walkouts to protest racism and substandard schools in East L.A., electrifying an entire generation. Soon Brown Beret chapters sprang up throughout California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and beyond - but it all started in the city of Los Angeles.

Some 30,000 people took part in the 1970 moratorium march, which culminated in a rally at Laguna Park; dozens of Brown Berets acted as marshals, providing security for the protest. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department attacked the gathering, initiating a riot. Ultimately police killed four citizens that day, Lyn Ward, José Diaz (both Brown Berets), Gustav Montag, and L.A. Times reporter Rubén Salazar. Salazar was slain as he sat in the Silver Dollar Café; a deputy sheriff fired a tear gas projectile into the cafe, striking Salazar in the head and killing him instantly.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, on August 27, 2010 I joined 5,000 others in walking the original march route along Whittier Blvd. Instead of the Vietnam War, we protested the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new generation of Brown Berets provided security for the march - as well as inspiration for my painting, La Causa. The Brown Berets disbanded in 1972, but were re-activated in 1993 under the group’s original charter and mission statement; the organization currently seems to be flourishing. As the multitudes passed where the Silver Dollar Café once stood, piles of flowers were placed on the spot where Rubén Salazar was killed. We rallied at Rubén Salazar Park (formerly known as Laguna Park), where forty-years ago the police provoked the riot now recorded by history.

 La Causa (Detail) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas.

"La Causa" (Detail) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas.

My oil painting, La Causa (The Cause), is a depiction of two of the female Brown Beret cadre I caught a glimpse of at the 40th anniversary protest march. The title of my canvas is taken from the words that appear on the emblematic patch worn on the berets of the organization’s members, the “cause” being the liberation of the people.

I felt it important to portray these young Chicana activists as a counter-balance to the stereotypical images of Latinas. Despite their legendary public image, at least as it is known in the greater South West of the U.S., I think mine might be the first serious painting of Brown Beret members. My canvas is not a wholesale endorsement of the group’s cultural nationalist political philosophy, but rather an acknowledgement of the role the organization has played in the history and collective consciousness of Mexican-Americans.

It is ironic that while working on my La Causa painting, I received word that the FBI and the SWAT Team of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department raided the home of Carlos Montes on May 17, 2011. Montes, a co-founder of the Brown Berets and a leader of the historic student walkouts in East L.A., had his cell phones, computer, notes, and other personal affects seized by the authorities. Apparently the Obama administration has targeted Montes for his antiwar activities, part of an underreported repressive sweep the Obama Justice Department has initiated against antiwar activists as reported in the Washington Post. As of this writing, the government’s case against Carlos Montes is still pending.

What initially attracted me to the Chicano Arts Movement in the early 1970s was its innovative merging of aesthetics and political concerns; it was a populist, anti-elitist school of art that sprang from a people’s struggle for equality, democratic rights, and self-determination. Chicanarte took inspiration from the Mexican Muralist School of social activist art, but it succeeded in creating its own unique visual language that reflected the distinctive Mexican-American experience. While the elite art world discarded painting altogether in favor of postmodern conceptualism and its rejection of “grand narratives”, Chicanarte never abandoned figurative realism in paintings, drawings, prints, or sculpture; a fact that largely remains so today.

Chicano artists continue to address the dreams, aspirations, history, and lived experience of la gente (the people), which is the genre’s one consistent and unbreakable grand narrative. The Chicano Arts Movement has certainly expanded since the early 1970s, nowadays incorporating performance, installation, abstraction, and other disciplines, but for the most part it still retains the activist spark of its founding years. The state of U.S. society today, with its austerity budgets, numerous wars, economic decay, and xenophobic anti-immigrant stance, gives impetus for the social realist activist component of Chicanarte to once again move front and center.

¡ADELANTE! runs from September 9, 2011 through January 1, 2012. The Forest Lawn Museum is located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 1712 South Glendale Avenue, Glendale, California. 91205. The museum is open every day except Monday, from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission and parking is free. Phone: 1-800-204-3131. Website: A larger reproduction of La Causa can be viewed here.