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Appreciation: David Alfaro Siqueiros in Los Angeles
by margarita nieto
Nov 2010

Photo of David Alfaro Siqueiros
Budapest, Hungary-1971
Photo: © Luis C. Garza, courtesy The Autry national Center, Los Angeles

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America Tropical
Digital Rendering, 2007 © Luis C. Garza Photo: courtesy The Autry National Center, Los Angeles

When David Alfaro Siqueiros arrived in Los Angeles in April, 1932, his fame as both painter and polemist not only preceded him, but also heralded his arrival. Nelbert Murphy Chouinard, the founder of the school bearing her name, had met him in Taxco where he was under house arrest after spending two years in the Lecumberri Prison in Mexico City, accused of inciting pro-Communist May-Day riots in 1930. Born in Camargo, Chihuahua in 1896, Siqueiros revealed his artistic talents at an early age; after moving to Mexico City to live with his father, he studied at the San Carlos Academy. In 1914 he took part in a student strike, aimed at dismissing the then-director who advocated academic formalism and replacing him with his mentor, the painter-pedagogue, Alfredo Ramos Martinez. By age 17, he joined Venustiano Carranza's Constitutional Army, experiencing the violence and tragedy of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). That searing experience developed his passionate commitment to fighting for the rights of the masses.

Mrs. Chouinard's invitation to teach a class on fresco painting came at a propitious moment. Although Taxco offered a unique artistic and intellectual environment; Los Angeles, after all, included Hollywood, a creative world of Leftist intellectuals and emigres. But the city also offered a lively artists environment. Artist groups abounded, including the California Arts Club and the Los Angeles Art Association. There were galleries, Stendhal, Barker Brothers, Jake Zeitlin and Stanley Rose Bookstore and art spaces such as Barnsdall Park and the Plaza Art Center. Moreover, the city buzzed with political fervor from Leftists to Conservatives.

The energizing effect of his arrival would become apparent almost immediately. An exhibition of works at Stendahl's began his stay and he began organizing the course on fresco painting at the Chouinard Art Institute. He was joined by a prominent group of painters in this effort, among them Luis Arenal Bastar, Reuben Kadish, Barse Miller, Merrell Gage, Phil Paradise, Fletcher Martin, Philip Guston, Henri de Kruif, Paul Sample and Millard Sheets. This "Mural Bloc" as it would be called, began working on Siqueiros' first mural in the city, Street Meeting, located on the school's exterior wall near downtown LA. The site posed problems and after consulting with architects Richard Neutra and Sumner Spaulding, Siqueiros decided to experiment for the first time with waterproof cement, stencils and spray gun to apply the pigment. Instead of sketches, he also used photographs collected by the Mural Bloc. The mural was completed in record time, in two weeks. The dedication in early July, sponsored by the "Art Committee of Founding the New School of Social Research in Los Angeles" became the occasion for a discourse by Siqueiros on "The Mexican Renaissance," in which he attacked "American Imperialism," "Capitalism" and "snob easel painting." The mural, depicting a union leader addressing a group of some twenty people drew both tumultuous praise and protests for its social content.

Three more murals were planned, including one at the John Reed Club where in September Siqueiros delivered one of his most famous discourses on mural painting, "The Vehicles of Dialectic-Subversive Painting." It was to cover the four walls of the meeting hall but was never executed. Two more followed, the controversial America Tropical, which was painted on the second story of the Sons of Italy building on Olvera Street, facing Main Street. A third mural, Portrait of Present-Day Mexico, was commissioned by Hollywood producer/director Dudley Murphy--the director of "Emperor Jones" and a collaborator with Ferdinand Leger and Man Ray on "Ballet Mechanique"--for his home in Santa Monica Canyon where in October, Siqueiros spent his last days in Los Angeles. Later donated to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, this work was carefully removed and trucked up the coast in 2001 and now adorns the facade of the museum.

The buzz surrounding Street Meeting is what led F.C. Ferenc, the Director of the Plaza Art Center, on Olvera Street, to approach Siqueiros about executing a mural there. That commission remains a painful dramatic and contentious example of perceptions gone awry, and culminated in the most censorious act in the art history of the city. The theme, "America Tropical," suggested by Christine Sterling, the owner of the site, was based on a preconception of a work that would fit in with the "pueblo" image of the street itself that, with its cobblestones and "folk art" stalls, resembled a colonized re-invention of a marketplace in "Old Mexico." In keeping with the surroundings, Ferenc proposed a rendition of a "tropical paradise" and Siqueiros began the mural in mid-August.

The moment the mural was unveiled on October 9, however, the audience gasped with astonishment. Instead of tropical fruits and flowers, what the viewers saw was the inert body of an Indigenous man tied and hung from a wooden structure. Broken images lay around the central figure. Armed soldiers pointed rifles toward the viewer. Immediately interpreted as "a crucifixion," the figure was possibly drawn from pre-Columbian codices, and in a recent interpretation (Herrera) may represent the flayed god, Xipe Totec. As a visual commentary on American Imperialism and colonialism itself, it drew the ire of the City Fathers and of Mrs. Sterling. Although praised by LA Times critic Arthur Millier and mural painter Dean Cromwell, the painter of the Los Angeles Library murals, it was also rejected as "Communist Propaganda." As a result, the mural would be condemned and eventually, "disappeared."

Its death however would be slow and grim. By spring 1934, the sections seen from the street had disappeared under a coat of whitewash. Then, bowing to Mrs. Sterling's wishes to do away with "the ugly painting," the entire work was whitewashed. The whitewash, which was both physical and verbal, along with the force of the intense sun, "benign" neglect, and civic indifference, finally erased the mural from the city's collective memory.

Under the pressure of an emerging consciousness, spearheaded by Chicano artists and art historians, including the muralist Judy Baca and art historian Shifra Goldman, the city again became aware of the mural and its history. An attempt to restore the mural in the 1970s deemed it was too late, but in the '90s, the Getty Conservation Institute, under then-director Miguel Angel Corzo, launched a new restoration project. As of this year, a new dedication of the site promises that the mural will again be made visible to the public. What they will see is a digital reproduction based on the archival photos of the mural taken after its completion that hangs above the ghostly remnants of the original work. A raised viewing platform and visitor center for the work are also planned, to be completed by 2013. Providing further belated validation for Siqueiros, two museum shows highlighting his work will be on view around Los Angeles this fall: "Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied," at the Autry National Center in Griffith Park, which emphasizes his turbulent sojourn in LA, and "Siqueiros Paisajista / Siqueiros: Landscape Painter," at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach.

Siqueiros' visa expired about the time of the unveiling; fearing deportation, he spent his final days in LA in "hiding" at Dudley Murphy's house in Santa Monica. Yet his presence in Los Angeles marked a new direction in public art for the city. His keen intellect, innovative mind, fearless resolve, and passionate social commitment to mural painting inspired the WPA mural painters of his time who chafed under the stringent government guidelines that prohibited social content, including artists such as Fletcher Martin and Barse Miller. His spirit lives on in the mural painters who worked with him and those who followed him, particularly in the mural movements of the 1970s and '80s. Nearly eight decades later, he still looms above us, a larger-than-life figure whose energetic and controversial being could not be stifled.

"Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied," at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, runs from September 24, 2010 -- January 9, 2011.

"Siqueiros Paisajista / Siqueiros: Landscape Painter," at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, CA, runs September 12, 2010 -- January 30, 2011

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