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Manual Labor: Diego Rivera Paints New York City

The big man arrived in New York just as the town was going bust, sliding into the Great Depression, yet the city maintained its frenetic pace of building anyway. He saw everything with his big eyes, so uncannily large that his flamboyant wife suggested they allowed him as an artist to see more. The occasion of the visit by Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, was his retrospective (1931-32) at the Museum of Modern Art, a young institution then housed in the Heckscher Building at 730 Fifth Avenue and which offered its second-only solo retrospective to Rivera, the first being to Henri Matisse.

For the MoMA exhibition, Rivera created new murals, complicated in their execution, portraying power relationships in revolutionary Mexico. After the exhibition opened, he painted three more murals inspired by New York. Excited by the experiment in the Soviet Union, Rivera trained his eye on the industrial worker and the dazzling built environment of this new city. At the same time, he was also trying to suck up to Junior, meaning the prominent capitalist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was building the giant center in the middle of town.

Diego Rivera. 
Frozen Assets. 1931-32. 
Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework, 94 1/8 x 74 3/16 in (239 x 188.5 cm).
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico 
© 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In a gallery on its second floor, the Museum of Modern Art has brought together five of Rivera's eight "portable murals" from its 1931-32 show, supplementing them with drawings, watercolors, prints, and ephemera for a well-rounded fascinating new exhibition. Rivera is a potent figure to reintroduce to a politicized New York art public, especially in light of his own preoccupations with Wall Street capital, a stressed labor force, an economic system in crisis, and a city literally socially stratified above and below ground. An international artist, Rivera sought to ennoble Mexican peasants, the new Soviet proletariat, and workers of more advanced industrial countries across their respective and irregular boundaries of economic development. His visit to New York City afforded him the chance to witness and to portray the industrial workers of the world's most advanced economy.

Consider the mural splendidly titled Frozen Assets (above)Many artists in the early decades of the 20th century developed a keen interest in speed, power, urbanization, and the city as machine, and Rivera was no exception. They were fascinated by the new complex city of many layers, apparent in the real New York with its dizzying skyscraper race to the skies and the construction of subterranean worlds below. Fritz Lang's film Metropolis of 1927, recently restored with twenty-five minutes of material previously thought lost, depicts a multi-level city where the upper class literally commands the upper strata of society while the lowly lower classes labor at machines in a light-deprived world below ground. Lang's vision, in part inspired by the director's visit to New York, should not be considered a prefiguring of the content of Rivera's conception of the city but simply another manifestation of a shared generational fascination with the mechanisms of the city of the future. Consider also Charlie Chaplin's 1936 comedy, Modern Times, where the Little Tramp mentally breaks down on the assembly line.

When not working out of an empty sixth floor gallery in the Heckscher Building, Rivera made trips around New York City to sketch construction sites, skyscrapers, a Wall Street vault, and the Municipal Pier at E. 25th Street, the interior of which housed sleeping men. Frozen Assets includes a fuller realization of these drawing tours.

The lowest section of Frozen Assets illustrates the upper class waiting to count their surplus capital in a bank vault. Curator Leah Dickerman, in her essay for the published exhibition catalogue, writes in a parenthetical remark that the vault "is loosely based one one at One Wall Street, better known as the Irving Trust Building." (p. 33). The cross section of Depression-era New York continues above ground in a representation of the sleeping bodies at the waterside pier, anonymous men watched by a guard. Behind the pier, one third from the top of the mural, city residents await transportation at an elevated train station, considered to be in all likelihood the Third Avenue Line.

At top of the mural, Rivera's vertical city includes well-known skyscrapers, all completed within three years of the artist's arrival in New York. The image, however, is a composite and not a realistic rendering of their relative locations. For the exhibition, MoMA has included a useful key and map of the sites, all of which, by the way, are still with us. Reading left to right, the buildings are identified as - Irving Trust Building (One Wall Street, now called Bank of New York Mellon), Daily News Building (220 E. 42nd St.), Bank of Manhattan Company Building (now Trump Building, 40 Wall), Bankers Trust (14 Wall St., later extension completed in 1933), Rockefeller Center (in the middle of the mural), Chrysler Building (42nd St. and Lexington), McGraw-Hill Building (in its blue-green tile at 330 W. 42nd St.), Empire State Building (Fifth Ave. and W. 34th St.), and the Equitable Trust Building (15 Broad St.).

Three of these buildings - Daily News, Rockefeller Center, and McGraw-Hill - are skyscrapers by Raymond Hood, a favorite architect of John D. Rockefeller's. While working on the MoMA murals, Rivera was in talks chiefly with Junior's son, Nelson Rockefeller, for the commission of a new work in Rockefeller Center. His mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was a huge fan and Rivera's patron. (Without Abby, her modern art-loving ways, and fund raising efforts, the Museum of Modern Art would probably never have opened just days after the stock market crash of 1929. The museum's sculpture garden is named in her honor.) Hence, Rivera may have been making a PR play with Frozen Assets. Most Rivera aficionados know the end of "the battle of Rockefeller Center" story, and the episode with his painting of Lenin (Nelson saw it first, horrified that it would offend people), the portrayal of Rockefeller as a drinker of alcohol (he wasn't), and the ultimate decision by management to destroy the mural is rather discretely documented in the current exhibition.

While the complexity and heavy labor of mural-making serves as one focal point of MoMA's exhibit (dries fast, work quickly), equally fascinating are Rivera's scenic drawings - all so expressive with his signature curvaceous lines - and the artist's sketches of his trip to the Soviet Union. These latter small works sport a playful, festive and energetic air, like illustrations for a socialist school reader. Perhaps it's all that red.

Consider, fellow citizens of New York, the social worlds we sustain in the 21st century. What has changed since Diego Rivera painted Frozen Assets? This is art that works.

Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art

Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art
continues at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, through May 14, 2012.
The museum is offering several special programs in conjunction with the exhibition.

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