what happens when public art isn't public?

By Oscar Barragan

You must find this
What does it mean for a Diego Rivera mural to be locked away in a building that was built to serve, has always served and is still serving the interests of San Francisco’s most powerful and wealthy citizens? It seems absurd. Rivera is synonymous with the Mexican muralist movement, a movement known for its Marxist sympathies and working class populism. His murals depict the struggles of ordinary people locked in the thrall of an economic system hostile to their needs and desires. You can’t look at a Rivera mural and not be moved at the plight of those who don’t hold the reins of power and yet right here in San Francisco is one that for the most part only the rich and privileged have the opportunity to see. So I decided I had to see it and to understand how it got to the Pacific Stock Exchange building, what it feels like and does it seem misplaced there. It was an unsettling quest, but one that provided a few answers about the tenuous relationship between art and capital.

After a long walk and getting lost in the fog, Google maps said I was just a few feet away. The first thing you notice as you walk in the Pacific Stock Exchange Building is how stable and controlling the architecture is. This does not seem a likely place for art and especially one that espouses any kind of leftist politics. As I entered a security guard looked at me suspiciously and asked if I needed something and what I was looking for. I guess my attire was not businessman’s proper, although I am a somewhat conservatively dressed art student, as they go. I politely responded and asked the guard if this was the building where the Diego Rivera mural was. I was expecting a large-scale mural at the front of the building, but there was nothing there.

I have come to see Rivera
Photo: Molly Atkinson
The guard told me it was not open for the public until three and that it was located on the tenth floor. So I waited in the lobby for a life wasting forty-nine minutes and twenty-four seconds. I hope the ghost of Rivera appreciated this, since I was the only one there. When I was finally allowed in, I was anxious to experience a major work by an artist I have long admired. Before taking the elevator to the tenth floor it was mandatory to sign their “public entrance sheet.” I signed so that they would know at least one member of the public was there and then thought it strange to have to be admitted in this way, especially for an artist so attuned to public life. Still, I was happy I was on my way.

After this strange and formal anti-Riveran ritual, I headed to the elevator. The doors opened and I was confronted with a hard working catering crew cleaning and packing decorations and plates. It looked as if there was a party or some fancy dinner. We rode up the elevator together. I wanted to interview them, but they didn’t seem approachable. It was a long ride to the tenth floor, or at least it felt like it was, and I was wondering what I was doing when the doors opened. I walked a few steps and I knew, just knew that I was standing in the same place where Rivera stood when he painted his fresco.

This is where he worked
It was a stunning sight. The mural is thirty feet high and covers part of the ceiling of the eleventh floor. The colors and the characters jump out at you. At the bottom left corner are two miners in a mine. Both are wearing helmets with lights strapped to them, a wonderful juxtaposition of light and dark. One of the miners is holding machinery used to find coal. Next to him is a column that supports the cave. A woman’s hand rests next to the column and appears to be holding the whole thing up—impossible, but a great effect.

Apart from the cave is a small tree that Rivera uses to create visual separation between the mining for coal underground and the mining of gold in the outdoors. Again, Rivera is especially effective at contrasting light and dark within the same symbolic space. The two miners searching for gold nuggets in a river or pond wear bright orange shirts, brown hats, working pants, beards and boots. The front man ominously wears a gun. He kneels down looking for gold while the other man holds his shoulder and with his other hand holds a plate of gold nuggets. There is an undeniable tension and sense of conflict in these powerful and competing symbols: miners, dirt, gold and guns. Rivera never presents a simple iconography, but makes a clear presentation of complexity and especially economic complexity. Maybe he does belong in the Pacific Stock Exchange Building.

It makes you feel like flying
Moving to the bottom middle of the composition there is a young Anglo man holding a toy airplane. He wears khaki yellow pants, a brown bomber jacket and boots. To the left there is an older man looking at the young one. He is sitting next to a chopped tree trunk. This man wears denim overalls and a red flannel shirt. To the right there is another man. He is older, possibly elderly. He kneels to the ground and is surrounded by leaves and flowers. He has grey hair and wears a dark khaki suit. Rivera deftly shows us the different stages of a man’s life, from youth to middle age and finally old.

On the middle left side there is another pair of men. They appear to have a close connection, as if they are discussing a project. A pressure gauge appears in front of them. Another man on the back left is bald with glasses and holds a math compass. He wears a light red shirt. The other man is wearing working clothes, denim overalls, blue shirt, gloves and a black hat. He is holding a metal tool. It appears as if the man holding the compass is the architect and the other one is the engineer. One of the interesting aspects of the mural is how almost everything in it both references actual work and becomes an allegory of how the artist works. We often think of work in the abstract, but here Rivera is direct in both what the mural is about and what he is doing to create it. As a socialist and Marxist sympathizer, the idea of work is central to Rivera’s aesthetic choices.

Everyone's in California, allegorically speaking
A huge, gorgeous woman is the center and main focus of the mural. With blue eyes, short dark brown hair and a thick gold necklace, Rivera gives her a Hollywood glamour. As I mentioned before, her left hand is holding the miners’ cave in place, but with the right hand she is holding pears, apples, grapes, oranges and wheat. In the background we can see different industries, such as the mining, oil and aviation; Rivera paints the oil towers, machinery and factories in dark and cold colors. Far away we can see the ocean, probably the port of San Francisco, an important port for trade and shipping at the time. Again, what Rivera is interested in is the various ways both industry and work becomes intertwined with the landscape. Rivera paints beautiful landscapes, but they are always suffused with people’s labor.

The second part of the mural begins at the ceiling. There is a gold diagonal line that goes across both corners. Inside the diagonal line the central woman appears, but this time as a full nude figure. Her hands are positioned as if she is reaching to the corner. Rivera paints the rest with brush strokes of different tones of light blue representing the sky. On the left Rivera stylized the sun with human features. It is a bright yellowish-orange with rays that look like the petals of a sunflower, but so human, too. Next to the sun there is a red airplane. On the other half of the ceiling there is another nude figure. This figure plays with the other three airplanes as if they were toys. Rivera is amazing in how he captures an entire world, as if everyone appears in his work.

You must look up
I was struck by the power of Rivera’s marshaling of subject matter, technique, composition and his incredible use of bright colors. I wanted to go upstairs and get a closer look, but was not sure if I would be allowed. I wasn’t even sure whom to ask. Should I talk to the catering personal or wait for someone else to arrive who looked more official—talk about a Riverian paradox, I felt awful. A lady appeared from out of the elevator and I asked if the public was allowed to go upstairs. She said yes and was nice enough to give the “public”, me, Oscar, an art and d├ęcor information sheet. As I got closer, I was impressed by the detail of the brushwork, but at the same time I felt a bitter frustration when I realized that I was the only one on the tenth floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange Building looking at this beautiful mural. Apart from the workers, who was there to admire this “public” piece? And were the workers even admiring it? I’ve never felt so alone with a great piece of art.

Later on I started talking with the lady in charge of the front desk of the City Club. It might have been coincidence that she was also Mexican and knew who Diego Rivera was. Of course, it was a coincidence, lots of people know Rivera, but again in the moment it felt more charged, like something just right, that we were there together, two Mexicans, and talking about Rivera. She commented that it was a treasure that San Francisco had Rivera murals and that not enough people knew of this one. She did perk up when she mentioned that the mural has been well preserved. Obviously not enough people know about it, because it is hidden from the public; and of course it is well preserved, because it receives no natural light—perhaps that’s why Rivera put so many references to light in it. But even if it were drenched in sunlight and pawed over by an adoring public, it still would be there. It’s a fresco and the paint is now part of the wall and not a surface effect. It’s as if Rivera’s DNA, his special vision of the world, has wormed its way into the city’s most symbolic representation of Capitalism.

This is what City Club membership brings you

Lastly she informed me about the services and membership of The City Club. She sounded convincing offering different rates for events: “This is a great place to have a wedding reception, you might take The City Club of San Francisco in consideration. You never know!” What she will never know is that The City Club will be one of the last places I would have a wedding reception, but maybe I should talk to my future, as of now, non-existent, spouse about that. After thirty-six minutes and seventeen seconds of basking in the glow of San Francisco’s greatest hidden public mural, I left the building and on my way home I thought about what had happened, what I had experienced. It is so close to the people’s eyes yet far away from view. I wonder if Rivera thought about that or intuited what was going to happen.

Rivera is by far the most famous artist of the Mexican muralist movement and was an ambassador for Mexican culture during his lifetime. His murals reflect the culture and the work of Mexicans, recorded from the pre-Columbian era to the agricultural labor of Mexican immigrants in the United States. Rivera felt close to indigenous Mexicans and their struggles to gain independence from Spain. He also saw the hard work they were doing to try to obtain a decent life. That is why Rivera wanted his work to be public, so that people could see and reflect on their lives. By painting these types of murals he was giving hope to the disempowered and that there was hope for a better world.

Diego Rivera and Timothy Pflueger
In 1930, Rivera was given the opportunity to work in the United States for the first time. This was a great chance for him to gain greater recognition. His first stop was San Francisco. Rivera was “invited by architect Timothy Pflueger to paint a fresco at an exclusive private club on the eleventh floor of the Stock Exchange Tower,” now The City Club of San Francisco in the Financial District. It was under these conditions, a combination of greater fame, financial power and artistic ambition that The Allegory of California was painted, finished, hidden and perhaps forgotten. The Stock Exchange Tower is a building that represents the status and power of money; it is not a place where working class people drop by for lunch or where their sons or daughters get married. They have no reason to be there, unless they’re serving food, cleaning or performing some other form of service work. Yet, they are the ones on the mural and the ones Rivera cared about.

Clearly, most of the people who work on the building cannot afford the membership to join and enjoy the benefits of being part of the club. The most likely viewers of Rivera’s mural are powerful rich businessmen and rich girls partying at their wedding receptions. These people are there to have a good time, not to take a moment and observe a mural that celebrates the average worker. Perhaps they don’t even know who he is or what this mural represents. Okay, I’m getting a little art school and lefty elitist, but I wonder. The City Club does have open hours for the public. They are from three to five in the afternoon Monday through Friday. It gives exactly two hours, five days a week for the public to get a quick glance. I imagine that many people who would find solace in Rivera’s mural don’t have two hours off in the afternoon to come and see it and that is a cultural shame.

You must see it!
The mural is thirty-feet high and it covers the entire wall of the stairwell. It is painted through the ceiling of the eleventh floor. Rivera’s style is recognizable at a glance. The brush strokes are big in some parts, but there is beautiful, intricate detail in others. The colors are vivid, as if it was painted yesterday. In so much social realist art there is a sense of deadness and despair, but not here. Here, you look up and see the whole of California, from the architects like Pflueger to the farm workers doing their laborious work. In this mural Rivera recognizes the diversity of this country and specifically the state of California. The vivid colors show the life of this land and its abundance. Nothing is dead, but rather vivid and bursting with life. Finally, nothing is less than anything else, as if the world were suddenly equal. There are social classes in Rivera’s Allegory of California, but none is allowed to dominate the other. That’s a vision worth seeking out and finding, no matter how deeply it’s embedded into the architecture of power.

©Oscar Barragan and the CCA Arts Review

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