Diego Rivera in America
Public Art, Private Funding
Diego Rivera was known for his commitment to public art, and the very medium he chose, fresco, was an expression of his dedication. When Rivera came to New York in 1931 to create works funded by the Museum of Modern Art, commercial, artistic and public interests harmonized. But a later commission for the Rockefeller family erupted in controversy. This map explores the question “To whom does public art belong?”
The December 1931 solo show at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was ambitious—a mounting of five frescoes by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Rivera was the best-known representative of Mexican muralism, a movement that reflected the socialist and agrarian values of the Mexican Revolution and dominated Mexico’s art scene for much of the 20th century. The exhibition posed a challenge, not because of Rivera’s radical politics but because of the medium: Frescoes are typically fixed in place.
Since it was impossible to transport Rivera’s existing murals to New York, the museum offered him fresh plaster so he could paint five new frescoes, these portable. Although exhibiting in a commercial gallery ran counter to Rivera’s commitment to public art, he accepted. Among the images that emerged was Agrarian Leader Zapata, a depiction of the revolutionary general Emiliano Zapata leading campesinos (peasants) and a white horse past a fallen Porfirio Díaz supporter—a sly subversion of traditional imagery that showed victorious Spanish conquistadors on horseback subjugating the natives.
The exhibit was such a success that Rivera was inspired to contribute three more murals. It helped define MoMA as a dynamic cultural center, cementing its place in the art world.
A fresco isn’t just a large painting. The word—“fresh” in Italian—indicates the signature technique: Working in buon fresco means applying raw, untempered pigment onto fresh plaster. The moisture in the plaster binds with the pigment, making the image more than just a coat of paint on a building—the art becomes an intrinsic part of the structure. Michelangelo’s frescoes at the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City represent the pinnacle of fresco painting.
Diego Rivera found his medium, and revived the art of fresco, after studying the frescoes created by Michelangelo and his Renaissance contemporaries in Italy. Frescoes had a grandness and universality that Rivera wanted to capture in his own art; plus, they were public almost by definition, and Rivera was interested in painting for (and about) the masses.
Rivera brought this fresh perspective and technique back to Mexico and renewed his study of the great Mayan and Aztec artworks that were incorporated into pre-Colombian buildings and temples. He became one of the major contributors to the Mexican muralism movement (1920–1960), which was funded primarily by Mexico’s board of education and other government agencies that were active in the reconstruction period after the Mexican Revolution.
The relationship between the capitalist Nelson Rockefeller, son of Rockefeller Center financer John D. Rockefeller Jr., and the Marxist Diego Rivera has long excited the imagination of artists and thinkers—from the poet Archibald MacLeish, who published the satirical Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City in 1933, to Tim Robbins, who dramatized their encounters in his film Cradle Will Rock in 1999.
When Rivera was commissioned in 1934 to paint a fresco for the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center (then the RCA Building), anticommunism was somewhat nascent in the U.S. Nevertheless, Rivera’s earlier Detroit Industry frescoes, painted at the Detroit Institute of Arts, were called un-American and Marxist propaganda, so it could hardly have been a shocker when his Rockefeller Center mural, Man at the Crossroads, included imagery evoking communism. Concerned that the mural’s inclusion of Soviet Communist Party founder Vladimir Lenin might incense the public, Nelson Rockefeller asked Rivera to paint over Lenin’s face. Rivera declared he would rather the mural be destroyed than altered; Rockefeller ordered it “smashed to powder.” Rivera later painted a new version of the mural in Mexico City, with the addition of Rockefeller in the nightclub scene, a syphilis cell floating above his head.
When Nelson Rockefeller demolished Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural because of its depiction of Soviet Communist Party leader Vladimir Lenin, two questions surfaced immediately. First, did a private patron have the right to destroy an artist’s creation? Second, what would replace the fresco in the lobby of Rockefeller Center’s flagship RCA Building?
The destruction of the mural raised the question “To whom does art belong?” On a New York City radio station, Rivera, supposing that an American millionaire bought the Sistine Chapel, asked, “Would that millionaire have the right to destroy [it]?” Rivera’s point was clear: Even privately owned masterpieces belong to humanity as a whole. He called the demolition of his fresco “cultural vandalism.” The Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 brought similar charges, as did the restoration and cleaning of the Sistine Chapel frescoes in the 1980s and 1990s, igniting anew the discussion about humankind’s instinct and responsibility to preserve great cultural masterpieces.
The Rockefellers commissioned Spanish artist Josep Maria Sert to replace Rivera’s work. Sert’s striking floor-to-ceiling frescoes American Progress, Time and Abolition of War employ grisaille, a monochromatic technique used in some portions of the Sistine Chapel frescoes.
Tourists who buy a MoMA–Rockefeller Center joint ticket may not immediately understand the relationship between 30 Rock, shrine to the lowbrow medium of television, and MoMA, perhaps the most prestigious gallery of contemporary art in the world. There was once a walkway planned between the two institutions, which might have made it easier for today’s visitors to take in both spectacular art collections: Rockefeller Center’s public works by Paul Manship, Lee Lawrie, Isamu Noguchi and others, and MoMA’s Matisse, Picasso, Pollock and Warhol holdings.
Yet the two cultural meccas are deeply intertwined not only by proximity but also by history. When MoMA opened, in 1929, it was born of the determination of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of Rockefeller Center financer John D. Jr.) and her pals, art collector Lillie P. Bliss and teacher Mary Quinn Sullivan. The trio became known as the “adamantine ladies,” an indication of their steely resolve to give New York City a center of modern art. Their art “matronage” plan was successful despite deep cultural suspicion of modern art among many critics and the cultural elite, including Abby’s husband, who helped with funding for MoMA but whose taste ran toward the traditional.
Although America was two years into the Great Depression when Diego Rivera first saw the New York City skyline in November 1931, he was impressed by the dynamism and machinery of Mexico’s northern neighbor. Upon visiting a Ford Motor Company factory in Detroit, he exulted, “Here it is—the might, the power, the energy, the sadness, the glory, the youthfulness of our lands.” Detroit Industry, two frescoes commissioned by Edsel Ford for the Detroit Institute of Arts, is Rivera’s spectacular tribute to the modern assembly line and its developer.
While muralism was relatively unknown in the U.S. before Rivera’s visit, his presence stirred up interest in public art. The movement was already an important component of Mexico’s post-revolution reconstruction; murals depicting the Mexican people and their history helped define the country’s struggle. The American artist George Biddle, who studied with Rivera in Mexico, suggested to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Biddle’s schoolboy chum) that a homegrown version of muralism could help America, struggling with its own reconstruction during the Depression. The result was the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (the WPA), which employed such artists as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, Berenice Abbott and Louise Nevelson to create public artworks.
A gambler might have bet against a modern art gallery that opened on November 7, 1929—nine days after the Wall Street stock market crash that kick-started the Great Depression. That would have been a losing bet, however, since MoMA soon established itself as an invaluable cultural institution.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller thought New York City needed a contemporary gallery to secure its status as a world-class cultural center, and her husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr., agreed. Still, it was difficult to wrangle money from the Standard Oil heir in MoMA’s early days: John D. was somewhat straitened by the massive cost of funding Rockefeller Center, which opened in 1933, when the demand for office space in New York had plummeted.
As it turned out, the Depression was the right time to stir public interest in primitive and folk art, important components of MoMA’s early collection. They represented a change from the 18th- and 19th-century oil paintings that dominated traditional galleries and were associated with elite tastes. Under the stewardship of young art historian and director Alfred Barr, MoMA managed to expand its collection, acquiring pieces at rock-bottom prices at a time when the private collector’s art market had collapsed.
In its first monographic exhibition, the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed the works of Henri Matisse—and it’s no wonder, since the artist was part of the reason MoMA had come to be. The “adamantine ladies,” Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, were the driving force behind MoMA. Abby Rockefeller had amassed a private collection of European modernists, including several Matisse paintings. She admired Matisse’s execution and philosophy and had met him several times in Europe.
In 1931, two years after opening, MoMA mounted a retrospective exhibit of Matisse’s art and promoted him as a visionary who had profoundly influenced modernism’s aesthetics. Abby managed to convince him to come to America to see the show, but her son, David Rockefeller, recalled that it may have been a private victory over her husband, John D. Jr., that she enjoyed even more: “She induced my father, who disliked modern art and was quite suspicious of ‘modern artists,’ to host a dinner in honor of Matisse,” said David. “While Father graciously complied with Mother’s request and is reported to have enjoyed conversing in French with Matisse, he never changed his mind about modern art!”