Plans are afoot to relocate Diego Rivera's mural Pan-American Unity from its current cramped quarters to a new building on the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) campus. We had a long visit there with the mural's curator, Will Maynez, plus a chat with architect Jim Diaz of KMD Architects, to talk about the mural, its history, and a proposal to create a new exhibition space for the 22 x 75-foot mural. It's a a dazzling work of art with a global sweep- a huge cast of characters, with everyone from Mayan gods to Josef Stalin, Rivera's wife Frida Kahlo and three of his girlfriends, Charlie Chaplin, and a women's diving team in the pool at the Fairmont Hotel- in remarkably bright and fresh condition.
The year was 1940, and the world was a troubled place. That spring, architect Timothy Pflueger, whom RIvera had worked with previously in San Francisco, invited him to participate in the second year of the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island in a program called Art in Action, where RIvera would paint a fresco- a mural on wet plaster- "live" before fairgoers. There is amazingly, a video of him doing just that.
Communists like Rivera had been demoralized by Stalin's alliance with Hitler, and Rivera feared that his support for Stalin's nemesis, Leon Trotsky, would end in his death. Trotsky would be bludgeoned to death in Mexico City not long after after Rivera fled to San Francisco. As one of the founders of Mexico's Muralismo movement, Rivera saw his murals as vehicles for political expression and painted Pan American Unity as an appeal for North and South America to come together against fascism.
Pflueger had a plan for the finished mural- in the midst of designing CIty College's new Ocean Avenue campus, he intended for the mural to be dismantled and reinstalled in the a library there. World War II intervened, Pflueger died in 1946, and his plans for the campus were never realized. We had our own post-war Red Scare, making artists like Diego Rivera deeply suspect. The mural sections had been stored in a shed on the campus, almost forgotten, until they were installed in the lobby of CCSF's theater in 1961. The lobby is cramped and narrow, and the new building on Phelan Avenue proposed by Jim Diaz of KMD Architects would place the mural in a wide space with plenty of viewing room plus a glass wall allowing it to be visible from the street. There would be additional room for the school's extensive Rivera archive.
While most of us see the mural as just a great work of art, with the mural's political, historic and ethnic context, CCSF sees it as an enduring teaching moment. As for the future building, CCSF is just at the beginning, looking at how best to preserve it for the next two hundred years. Meanwhile, to say it's worth a visit is an understatement.
· 1940 Art in Action Video[SFSU]
· Diego Rivera Mural Project [CCSF]
[Images of Diego Rivera's Pan American Unity courtesy of City College of San Francisco, © 1998-2004]