Helen A. Harrison
Eighty years ago this month, the fledgling Museum of Modern Art opened a solo show devoted to Diego Rivera, described in the New York Sun as “the most talked about artist on this side of the Atlantic.” To commemorate that occasion, MoMA has reassembled a selection of the frescoes he painted for the exhibition, together with supporting material. Although it’s far from complete — only five of the eight so-called portable murals are on view — the current show (on view through May 14) and its excellent catalogue make it clear why Rivera and his art were so notorious, as well as illustrating his relevance today.
Celebrated for acres of murals in his native Mexico, Rivera was a supersize personality with a talent for self-promotion that rivaled his artistic gifts. By the time he arrived in Gotham in November 1931 to prepare for his MoMA exhibition, he had generated more ink than a giant squid. His recent expulsion from the Communist Party (he took money from capitalist patrons, and even worse, dared to criticize Stalin) made him a cause célèbre on the left, and his announcement that he would paint fresco panels at the museum sparked the general public’s interest. They had read about his marvelous murals in Mexico City, Cuernavaca and San Francisco, where people could watch him at work on the scaffold like an American incarnation of Michelangelo, and wanted to see the performance for themselves.
For its part, MoMA was looking for a crowd-pleaser. Opened only two weeks after the 1929 stock market crash, and already viewed as a plaything of those we now call the 1%, the museum was still struggling to find its audience. Rivera’s international renown and devotion to “art for the masses,” plus the popularity of Mexican folk art and crafts, helped redirect traffic that normally bypassed the museum’s first home in the Heckscher Building.
Notwithstanding the disappointment that Rivera painted his frescoes in a makeshift studio that was closed to the public, the show was a hit. He completed five panels in time for the December 23rd opening, and finished three more during the exhibition’s run. Four of them are details of his Mexican murals, and one is an original composition dealing with the repression of workers during the recent Mexican revolution. The last three were inspired by his impressions of New York City, where, in spite of the worsening economy, a building boom was in progress. The Empire State, Irving Trust, McGraw-Hill and Chrysler Buildings were brand new, and Rockefeller Center was under construction. These and other American Century landmarks found their way into “Frozen Assets,” the most famous of his MoMA frescoes. (Since the Rockefellers, major MoMA patrons, were paying Rivera’s bills, it’s hardly surprising that the center is prominently featured.) The painting now belongs to the museum in the former home of one of his Mexican mistresses, Dolores Olmedo, but for this occasion it has returned to the city of its birth.
It’s a timely visit, to be sure. The three-tiered composition — monolithic skyscrapers looming over a human warehouse of homeless people laid out like corpses on a municipal pier, below which a wealthy few visit their heavily guarded safe deposit boxes — could be, as they say, ripped from today’s headlines. Compared to Rivera’s colorful slices of Mexican life, filled with vivid personalities and drama, this fresco is dull and static, but that’s in keeping with the elaborate visual metaphor. Construction cranes abound, straphangers crowd the el, but the city is strangely paralyzed. Even the plutocrat — who, patronage be damned, looks a lot like a Rockefeller — waiting to count his stash seems to be in a trance. It’s as if everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop, which it did the following July, when the stock market hit bottom.
Whether Rivera actually said “I paint what I see,” a quote famously ascribed to him by E.B. White, from today’s perspective his vision of “Frozen Assets” was 20-20. In the winter of 1931-32, the economic temperature was low and falling. Eight decades on, we’re in the grip of another cold spell.