Diego Rivera’s Return to MoMa 80 Years After Rockefeller Destroyed His Mural



Diego Rivera's "The Uprising," (1931) is one of the featured portable, fresco murals on display at the Museum of Modern Art, located at 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The exhibition, Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art, runs though May 2012. Photo: Museum of Modern Art

New York has not always been kind to Diego Rivera’s work.  In fact, Nelson Rockefeller holds the dubious distinction of destroying one of the artist’s most influential murals, Man at the Crossroads, in 1934 because of startling, political imagery that created controversy at the mural’s home, the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. However, now Rivera is receiving a hero’s welcome from the Museum of Modern Art with an exhibition of his portable frescoes.

Since mid-November, MoMa, located on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, has been celebrating Rivera in its newest exhibition titled Diego Rivera:  Murals for the Museum of Modern Art.  The homecoming for Rivera is the second exhibition at MoMA featuring the Mexican artist’s murals; Rivera’s first installation of frescoes ran a five-week stint between December 1931 and January 1932.

“The story of this extraordinary commission offers insights into the aims of the Museum during its initial years, and also reminds us of the international relevance of Rivera’s work during the Great Depression–a period of economic and political crisis,” said Jodi Roberts, a curatorial assistant at MoMA who specializes in 20th century Latin American art. “This exhibition allows us to explore that period again, and reveals Rivera to be a highly cosmopolitan figure who played a crucial role in shaping international debates about the value of public art.”

Roberts believes Rivera invented the “portable” fresco, the method used when the museum invited Rivera six weeks before his 1931 exhibition to craft the movable murals.  “The portable murals on view also demonstrate Rivera’s incredible command of fresco technique—a medium he considered ideal for creating works intended for a large audience,” said Roberts.  This was a revolutionary idea to mural making at the time.

Fresco is a “’race against drying,’” said Daniel Okrent, author of Great Fortune:  The Epic of Rockefeller Center.  It involves a grueling and meticulous process, where Rivera’s assistants had to apply fresh plaster and wipe it down on two-yard sections of the giant mural before Rivera could begin.  “Then Rivera had about 18 hours to conjure the world he had created in sketch and commit it to the wall before the plaster began to set,” said Okrent.  Rivera used powdered clays and metal oxides to make “the cobalt blues and Venetian reds and other vivid hues that gave all his work its extraordinary, vibrating life.”

“The portable murals allowed Rivera to show works in fresco —the painting technique he used to create his monumental mural cycles in Mexico—to a New York audience,” said Roberts.

Underlying themes of social and political revolution remain at the heart of Rivera’s artwork and message.  “This exhibition allows visitors to explore the types of subjects Rivera devised in the course of his career to address themes of political revolution and advance the cause of workers’ rights,” said Leah Dickerman, curator for the Museum of Modern Art.

Not only do Rivera’s motifs speak to a Latin American audience, they also speak uniquely to New York City. Many patrons of the museum are familiar with Rivera’s mural cycles in Mexico but yearn to understand Rivera’s approach to working in New York City.  “This show underscores Rivera’s intense engagement with current events in New York and reveals that he was keenly aware of his surroundings,” said Dickerman.

“Rivera crafted his images carefully to express both his fascination with the city’s advanced industry and relay his revolutionary social and political ideals to a New York audience,” said Roberts.  “It shows that he was very much in a dialogue with New York artists of the period and at home in the city’s art world.”

Welcoming the return of Rivera’s work, the Museum rekindles the fervor surrounding the 1931 exhibition, and also engenders a new conversation.  “We have taken this opportunity to commemorate the 1931-32 exhibition and recognize Rivera’s incredible importance to the international art world of the 1930s,” said Dickerman.

‘“The show underscores that [Rivera’s] work played a crucial role in vigorous debates about the value of public art during a politically and economically volatile moment in history. As such, it raises thought-provoking questions about the role of public art today,” said Roberts.

Both Dickerman and Roberts reference Rivera’s 1933 public mural Man at the Crossroads, commissioned by Rockefeller to adorn the RCA building (more commonly known as the GE Building or 30 Rock) in Rockefeller Center on 49th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.  Okrent, scheduled to give a lecture on the Rivera exhibition at MoMa on Jan. 4, devoted a chapter of Great Fortune to the controversy surrounding Man at the Crossroads for the RCA Building.

Except the mural no longer lives there; it was destroyed amid political controversy.

A downfall to Rivera’s egoism was his effervescent and controversial politics. Focusing on completing the mural by May 1, 1933, the same day the RCA building would open, Rivera portrayed his vision of Russian revolutionary and politician Vladimir Lenin, which signified Rivera’s portrayal of communism within the mural.  Rivera “painted to please the working classes and considered ‘hostility and attack from the enemies of workers’ the highest of compliments,” said Okrent.

Rivera invited the press for a private tour before the debut of the mural, and newspapers slammed the Rockefellers for allowing Rivera to depict communism in the mural.  While communism may be incongruous with Rockefeller’s and America’s politics, Rivera would not budge on his position, stating, “I am a worker.  I am painting for my class—the working class.

“’I paint what I see,” said Rivera defending his mural.

Concerned the mural would not be well received, Nelson Rockefeller wrote a letter to Rivera urging him to make substitutions for the communism imagery.  “[Nelson] said nothing about the rampaging police, nothing about the May Day parade, nothing about the syphilitic spirochetes and gonorrheal bacteria swirling over the heads of card-playing socialites,” said Okrent describing other quarrelsome themes within the mural.  “Lenin alone was the offense.”

To mask the controversy of Lenin, the Rockefellers ordered the mural be covered, and eventually destroyed the artwork nine months later during the mural’s removal from the RCA Building.

“This may have been the Rockefellers’ wall, but it was [Rivera’s] painting,”  said Okrent.

However, a sketch of Man at the Crossroads can now be found on display in the Rivera mural exhibition at MoMa, preserving Rivera’s artistry at least.  Diego Rivera:  Murals for the Museum of Modern Art runs through May 14.