Conservators work on the controversial, whitewashed mural, painted in downtown L.A. in 1932 on Olvera Street near downtown Los Angeles. (Christina House, For The Times / September 30, 2012)
By Suzanne Muchnic
September 29, 2012
The Los Angele Times
“America Tropical” must be Los Angeles’ most famous invisible artwork.
Born in drama and buried in anger, Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros’ monumental mural on Olvera Street has been a cause célèbre for decades. Siqueiros was commissioned to paint the 18-by-80-foot fresco in 1932 as a decoration for a rooftop beer garden, but it disappeared behind whitewash amid a controversy over its central image: a Mexican Indian lashed to a double cross with an American eagle proudly perched above him, wings spread.
Painted on a second-story exterior wall of Italian Hall, the artwork has suffered from exposure to sun, rain and pollution, and it lost its two upper corners in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Even after the Getty Conservation Institute stepped up to the challenge of saving the mural in 1988, the project lurched along a rocky road of engineering challenges, bureaucratic quagmires and political inertia.
But on Oct. 9, 80 years to the day since its first unveiling, “America Tropical” will go on public view. The long-awaited event will mark the conclusion of a $9.95-million public-private enterprise that includes a protective shelter for the mural, a viewing platform for visitors and an interpretive center that will explain the artwork’s troubled history and the conservation process.
In its present state, the mural is a ghost of its original, vividly colored self, but every last inch of it has been meticulously cleaned, repaired and stabilized.
Restoration was never an option because there are no color photographs of the mural in its early days, says Timothy P. Whalen, who has directed the Conservation Institute since 1998. The artist himself didn’t want the damaged artwork to be repainted, and current codes of art conservation preclude speculative re-creations.
But pale as it is, “America Tropical” is loaded with history — artistic, social and political.
“Part of the significance of this mural is not just the importance of Siqueiros, a major 20th century figure,” Whalen says, “but the fact that it was censored and vandalized. That contributes to our understanding of it as much as what he originally painted.”
A $6-million contribution from Los Angeles, which owns and manages El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, including the Olvera Street complex, financed seismic upgrading and much of the construction. A $3.95-million grant from the Getty Foundation helped pay for the shelter, platform and interpretive center. The Conservation Institute conserved the mural at its own expense and spent considerable time and expertise in overseeing the 24-year effort.
“Without a doubt, this is our longest standing project,” Whalen says. “We never gave up on it. There were times when we thought we would have to or felt like we wanted to. But it’s something that we can now give back to the city of Los Angeles. ”
City support was a long time coming, but a statement from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who rallied to the cause after his election in 2005, says that conserving the Siqueiros and making it accessible is an “important investment in public art.”
Chris Espinoza, Villaraigosa’s former director of capital projects and now general manager of El Pueblo, calls the mural’s emergence “the capstone” of a $30-million capital improvement project in the historic district.
“It’s so exciting to have this finally done,” he says.
Visitors will approach the mural through the America Tropical Interpretive Center (shortened to ATIC on signage). Housed on the ground floor of an 1887 building known as Sepulveda House and managed by El Pueblo, the center offers a lively multimedia exhibition designed by the Los Angeles firm IQ Magic. Two galleries of photographs, text panels and interactive computer stations elucidate Siqueiros’ life, work and legacy, as well as the history of Olvera Street and the campaign to save the enormous painting.
Born in 1896, Siqueiros was a leading Mexican muralist, fervent communist and decorated veteran of the Mexican revolution who arrived in Los Angeles in April 1932 as a political exile. Welcomed by the art community, he taught classes, gave lectures and, with the help of local artists, painted three murals.
The first, “Street Meeting,” at what was then the home of Chouinard Art Institute and is now a Korean church, depicts a communist organizer with an audience of workers. Painted over soon after its completion, the mural is still at least partly intact, but there are no plans to resurrect it.
“America Tropical,” Siqueiros’ second and most ambitious L.A. mural, was commissioned by F.K. Ferenz, who ran the Plaza Art Center in Italian Hall. He suggested the theme, probably hoping to enhance the romantic notion of a Mexican marketplace promoted on Olvera Street, and invited students to “learn fresco with this master” at a two-week, $30 class.
Siqueiros, who had a different agenda, got busy designing a huge composition. He borrowed the crucifixion from “Execution of the Servant Sokichi,” a photograph taken in the 1860s in Japan by Felice Beato, but changed the man’s ethnicity and placed him in front of a Maya temple with revolutionary sharpshooters in the upper right corner, one aiming at the eagle.
By then, Siqueiros was enthralled with modern methods and materials he had discovered in Los Angeles. Leslie Rainer, the Conservation Institute’s senior project specialist, says that he and his assistants covered the brick wall with cement-plaster rather than traditional lime-plaster, projected photographic images of the composition onto the plaster and applied most of the paint with spray guns instead of brushes.
Siqueiros is thought to have painted the incendiary image at the last minute, so that objections wouldn’t arise before the unveiling. The finished product got raves from artists, but Olvera Street backers were not pleased. Although the entire artwork could be seen only from the roof of an adjacent building, the section most visible from the marketplace was whitewashed in 1934. The mural was completely painted over in or after 1938.
Siqueiros was forced to leave the U.S. at the end of 1932, when his application to extend his visa was denied, but not before he painted a dark allegory of post-Revolutionary Mexico called “Portrait of Mexico Today.” Commissioned for the patio of film director Dudley Murphy’s home in Pacific Palisades, the mural was moved in 2002 to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
“America Tropical” had long since faded from public awareness by 1968, when parts of it began to show through the badly eroded whitewash. Art historian Shifra Goldman, later joined by filmmaker Jésus Salvador Treviño and other advocates, launched a campaign to save what was left of the mural. Visiting conservators from Mexico weighed in, stating that the mural should be conserved, not restored, thus concurring with a statement from the aging artist. But there was never enough money to do much more than erect a temporary wood shelter.
The Getty came to the rescue in 1988, at the suggestion of Miguel Angel Corzo, who worked with special projects at the Conservation Institute and went on to direct it, from 1991 to ’98. After the institute entered into an official partnership with El Pueblo, conservation scientists and technicians analyzed Siqueiros’ materials, measured environmental conditions and documented the mural’s condition in highly detailed digital images.
Art conservators removed the remaining whitewash with a mild solution of formic acid and used more powerful solvents to obliterate nasty black roofing tar along the base of the mural, Rainer says. Sections that had pulled away from the wall had to be reattached by drilling tiny holes in the plaster and inserting liquid mortar with a syringe.
Although the bright colors had vanished and a faulty binder had probably accelerated paint losses, Rainer and her colleagues patched the missing corners, filled cracks and removed stains and scratches. They also did a lot of subtle toning to unify the composition. The final step was to apply a thin, removable layer of resin dissolved in mineral spirits and acrylic to consolidate the paint layer.
“It won’t have Siqueiros’ vivid palette,” she says of the mural, “but it’s much improved. We have reconnected a lot of dots to integrate the composition. We wanted to make it legible and harmonic without going too far. We want people to be able to read it.”
The project dragged on far longer than expected partly because of changes in El Pueblo’s management and, for many years, an apparent lack of interest at City Hall. But Whalen praises Villaraigosa and Espinoza for providing essential leadership, noting that some delays were caused by redesigns of the shelter and viewing platform to cut costs and avoid harming fragile, historic buildings.
When visitors take an interior stairway or elevator from the exhibition to the outdoor platform, they will stand on a smaller structure than planned, at a greater distance from the mural than originally intended. Weight limits and engineering issues led to alterations. The steel-frame canopy over the mural has been streamlined and mounted on two beams that go directly into the ground, not the building.
When all is said and done, what the Getty brought to the project, Whalen says, was “patience and longevity and resources to invest in it for many years.”
For Rainer, the biggest challenge was “seeing it through, just getting it done.” But it isn’t over. The Getty will monitor and maintain the mural for 10 years and develop a plan for its long-term care.