Bringing A Controversial Mural in LA Back To Life
In 1932, David Alfaro Siqueiros got kicked out of Mexico for his political leanings so the artist spent six months in Los Angeles, California, where he produced a controversial mural called América Tropical.
Siqueiros may not be as well-known as his teacher and contemporary Diego Rivera, but these two, along with José Orozco, formed “Los Tres Grandes,” the big three Mexican muralists of the early 20th century.
During his stint in LA, Siqueiros was asked to paint a mural on a second story wall that overlooked Olvera Street, which was--and still is--a romanticized, somewhat kitschy Mexican market set up for tourists.
The idea was for Siqueiros to produce something that celebrated tropical America. The expectation was probably that it might be a romanticized vision of Mexico—just like the street below.
Instead Siqueiros, who was a die-hard Communist, produced a profoundly political piece of art: A crucified indigenous Mexican is at the forefront of the mural, with an American Eagle flying ominously above. A sharp shooter approaches from the right with his gun aimed at the Eagle.
To say the piece made a splash is a pretty major understatement.
Some praised the artwork for the potency of its political and social statement. But city officials were not impressed and they pushed successfully for the mural to be whitewashed, explains Leslie Rainer, a senior project officer at the Getty Conservation Institute who is leading the mural’s conservation, and who gave me and a few others a tour of the mural’s site in downtown LA.
By David Alfaro Siqueiros. From www.olvera-street.com
Since the site is under construction, the mural was covered for protection, as you can see in the photo below. The site will hopefully be reopened for public viewing in the next year or two—fingers crossed. (The $8.95 million project, which is being paid for jointly by the Getty and the City of LA, has faced many delays).
Many decades of outdoor exposure as well as the whitewashing took a serious toll on the artwork, Rainer says. The mural has lost all of its color, leaving just a shadow of the original piece.
Conservation efforts won’t reintroduce color. This is because there’s no color documentation of the artwork, so any addition of pigment would be a misrepresentation, explains Susan MacDonald, head of GCI Field Projects.
The 80-foot long and 17-foot high mural is currently covered while the space is being renovated for public viewing.
Instead, Rainer and the GCI team have carefully cleaned off the whitewashing and reattached parts of the crumbled plaster.
They’ve also been doing non-invasive analyses of the artwork, which is an unusual marriage of traditional fresco painting and cement (instead of lime plaster), Rainer says.
Siqueiros was really enamored with the (new-to-him) cement and concrete materials that he encountered during his stint in LA. So much so that the artist even “wrote a manifesto about fresco on cement,” Rainer adds.
I’m looking forward to learning more about what her team discovers about the unusual fresco technique.
And I’ll have to return to LA after the reopening to see the mural in all of its conserved and controversial glory.
Rainer at work cleaning the mural. Credit: The Getty Conservation Institute.