It is almost certainly because the art-work is supposed to carry its sacral immunities into public space that murmurs of “Philistine” are heard when the public insists that other priorities trump those of artistic edification. So it is not surprising that when public art meant something profoundly more political than it does now–when art was in public spaces not to transform the public into aesthetes but to express and validate its social aspirations–the aura of sacrilege attached to treating art badly could be cleverly utilized by artistic guerrillas like Diego Rivera. It is widely appreciated that one of the most powerful weapons the guerrilla possesses is the moral self-image of the immeasurably more powerful enemy. The terrorist would be powerless, for instance, if the attacked nation were indifferent to the fate of hostages, or if the possibility of execution were regarded as a moral opportunity by travelers who ventured abroad in the hope of being martyrized. Hunger strikes would be counterproductive if the public found starvation a form of entertainment and giggled at emaciation. Rivera imagined that no one, least of all a Rockefeller, would treat an artwork with anything but devout restraint and used this belief as a shield to carry the class struggle behind the lines, as it were, into the RCA building at Rockefeller Center. In a mural that bore a title that defines the period in which it was undertaken–“Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future”–Rivera placed an unmistable portrait of Lenin to Man’s left.
Now, Rivera put the portraits of actual persons everywhere in his murals–Edsel Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Cantinflas, Jean Harlow, his wife Frida Kahlo and often himself–but this was always done in the spirit of metaphor: Ford as Donor, Cantinflas as Saint, Rivera as Worker, Harlow as Ministering Angel, Kahlo as Victory or the Spirit of Fertility. But Lenin’s mug, like the American flag, is too potent an image to be transfigured, or is already so powerful a metaphoric presence than any further effort at metaphorization must fall. That the same universally recognized features that dominated Red Square or May Day demonstrations the world round could be rendered innocuous when placed in a work of art, over the bank of elevators in a building explicitly intended to stimulate the recovery of capitalism–“because it was art!”–was hardly something even an art lover like Nelson Rockefeller would have been prepared to accept. Just as there are certain words whose very appearance in a next transforms it into obscenity, there are images that eat through art and turn it into weaponry. It was exactly such images that public artists of Rivera’s period sought, and in ordering that Rivera’s mural be chiseled off the wall, Rockefeller demonstrated that he took the art seriously, and on its own terms, and treated it with the respect wit which a soldier treats another soldier when he shoots him through the head, despite the camouflage of the priest’s costume. A la guerre comme a la guerre!
With true fresco, which Rivera revived and used brilliantly, there is no alternative to the chisel. Fresco is a watercolor medium and depends for its effect on the transparency of washes. As with any watercolor, overpainting renders opaque and dead those qualities for which fresco is precisely sought. Beyond that there are the chemical facts that make fresco so natural a choice for an art intended to endure. Washed onto damp plaster, pigment is absorbed by capillary action and a film of calcium hydroxide is formed which interacts with air to become calcium carbonate. Impervious so water, an indiferrent to light as tiles, physically one with its surface, the fresco lasts as long as the wall, and under ideal circumstances should retain its freshness forever. (Of course, smoke from candles and oil lamps, the depredations of graffitists and hooligans, may interpose a screen of decay between the viewer and the fresco.) Rivera could have chiseled out Lenin’s portrait. He did not hesitate to alter his Mexican murals when it suited him, for example, removing the phrase “God does not exist” from his mural at the Hotel de Prado some months before his death on November 24, 1957. Nor do I know what reasons he gave Rockefeller for not doing so–after all, the portrait might have saved the building when revolutionary hordes swept up Sixth Avenue, intent on hanging capitalists from Paul Manship’s Prometheus Fountain by the skating rink. But he preferred to leave the excision to his antagonist, allowing him to be the barbarian–and Rockefeller responded with characteristic overkill, chipping off the whole thing, 100 square meters in all.
For the next New York commission, Rivera prudently used the portable mural format–plaster over cement in steel frames–which he had invented in response to a commission from the Museum of Modern Art, for his exhibition in 1931. And the portable murals–from MoMA and from the New Workers School of East 14th Street, which he painted in 1933, after Rockefeller discharged him–found their way into private collections and onto museum walls. These murals are somewhat inconsistent with the intentions of a public art advanced by the great revolutionary Mexican muralist movement Rivera joined in 1922, and which he dominated to its end. The portable mural is, in fact, simply an unwieldy easel painting, and it was precisely the easel painting that was anathema to the Mexican muralists: “We repudiate,” their manifesto had proclaimed, “the so-called easel painting and all the art of ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic and we glorify the expression of Monumental Art because it is a public possession.”
In subscribing to this credo at almost the exact middle of the road of his life, Rivera in effect repudiated his career up to that point, for his art until then had been precisely ultra-intellectual and aristocratic. In the beautifully installed centennial exhibition of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (until August 10), one can trace his wandering through the wilderness of Cubist experimentation. Had he not been summoned back to Mexico, after his protracted Wanderjahre in Europe, to participate in the great program of public art sponsored by the visionary minister of culture Jose Vasconcelos, Rivera would have had a place, but perhaps not an especially important place, in the history of twentieth-century art–a B to B-plus Cubist, of about the rank of De la Fesnaye. Perhaps by 1922 he was already looking for a way to stop being a Cubist, and muralism gave him that. Rivera’s place in twentieth-century art is still a problem, but that is because it is difficult for us to come to terms with the mission of public art to which he so colossally and ambiguously contributed. The history of world art since 1945 has been pretty much the history of American art, centered in New York, where the great New York School shifted the direction of artistic expression decisively away from public concerns. The New York painters were absorbed, instead, with abstract questions of the nature of art and concrete questions of personal expression, and at least one major critic, Harold Rosenberg, connected these two preoccupations in a single powerful theory: that painting is the act of painting and that action is personal expression.
But the personal is the political, as feminists often say, and seeing the public works of Riverathrough the lens of a revolution in the concept of art to which he did not contribute, makes me appreciate the degree to which the personal preoccupations of the New York painters must have been a form of political reaction against what one might term public politics–the politics which, whether in Mexico or Germany or Italy, or in the Soviet Union and among its satellites, found its artistic expression in heavily muscled members of the heroicized class–or race–resisting some suitably allegorized embodiment of evil. (Or in depicting selectively swollen women sacrificing the emblemata of their fertility to the fatherland, the master race, the working class, the agency of the bright future of an exalted humanity.) These severe groupings–the worker, the soldier, the athlete, the mother–look more and more like moral cartoons, and it is easy to sympathize with those who responded at last to those forms and that function of public political art with a kind of nausea and turned away from public celebration. And since our attitude toward art today, though its roots stretch back to ancient formulations, was formed in that period when American artists, and especially New York artists, took up the philosophical tasks that have defined the modern movement since its inception, it is hardly a matter for wonder that when we think of public art, we think of art in public spaces, where the intended effect is the transformation of the public into an extended museum audience, with the stance and values appropriate to that order of appreciation.
But nothing of the sort was intended by the public artists of the 1920s and 1930s, who had turned their backs on “ultra-intellectual” aesthetics and sought instead to give artistic embodiment to the general will. As an experiment, spend a while hanging out in the Equitable Building’s atrium lobby, where Thomas Hart Benton’s mural cycle, “America Today,” is flattened out against the marble walls like a zebra hide fresh from the taxidermist–and eavesdrop on the comments. The sophisticated visitors invariably talk about the Art Deco moldings Benton used to solve the problem of partitioning spaces. The less sophisticated comment on the dated costumes and quaint machinery. The least sophisticated speculate on whether someone has his hand up the girl’s skirt. But Benton had undertaken, in “America Today,” to magically connect the viewer with the continent, which, from the board room of the New School for Social Research where it was originally installed, opened up in every direction, so that sitting in that room one was part of America rather than the viewer of a series of paintings with some modern touches and style-trente figurations. Benton’s work was not generated by the principles of museum installation but was a stimulant to patriotic identification. The Equitable lobby is a museum annex (it contains two galleries on furlough from the Whitney), in which Benton’s work is reduced to an aesthetic artifact, a disjunction of tableaux which we address from without rather than participate in from within–a trophy brought back to symbolize the cultural goodness of the corporation.
Although I cannot speculate at length here, the corporation’s impulse to proclaim its cultural goodness through the acquisition and public display of art cannot be terribly remote from the Mexican government’s impulse to proclaim the goodness of its revolutionary aims through the commissioning of art. One must suppose that it was to have been a matter of spontaneous popular pride that the Mexican people could behold, on vast walls and in open spaces, the epic of themselves in an art that belonged to them–that the prerogatives of wealth and cultivation that art has always connoted were being exercised by a people through its artists. What is something of a miracle is that there should have been great artists capable of responding to the imperatives of a public art so conceived. The huge and powerful images, which went up on wall after wall, in public building after public building, were meant to celebrate the donors who were also its subjects, to teach them their past and paint their future. The peon could point to those paintings and say that he was them. Of course such an art had to be recognizable and idealized, and though Rivera drew upon what he had learned in France and Spain and Italy in order to organize his immense panoramas, it was a condition of their being public art that they be directly accessible at some basic level to the artistically illiterate and the historically ignorant.
In truth, Rivera’s mural programs are icongraphically complex. The Philadelphia Museum’s show originated at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which houses Rivera’s masterpiece, the stupendous “Detroit Industry,” which Rivera painted in the Garden Court of the museum. I was taken there as a child, my mother feeling it important that I see the great master at work, and I cannot count the times when, at various stages of my youth, I stood before those walls and tried to puzzle out their meanings, some of which are extremely abstruse and require archaeological information, even if, on a certain level it is obvious enough what is going on. The north and south walls depict the automobile industry, which almost everyone in Detroit was involved with in one way or another. Rivera painted in a group of tourists: a trip to the plant at River Rouge was a standard school child excursion in the 1930s.
It was on the occasion of discovering a roll of large cartoons Rivera had given the museum that it was decided to plan an exhibition to mark the centenary year of his birth. Some of these are to be seen in Philadelphia–a characteristic “Figure Representing the Black Race” will give you some idea of the scale and form of the figures in the upper register of the Detroit murals–but the Philadelphia show, in concession to necessity, cannot give you more of the public artist than, perhaps, the few portable murals installed there may afford. This is not a crushing difficulty. The show sensibly stresses the private Rivera and places his life at the center. It unfolds as you progress, from some early prodigy drawings until the final, moving last painting, which is of watermelons–a tableful of gargantuan fruits as a nature morte for a dying giant–through all the stages of a life that can no longer be lived.
The lives of the artists, as Vasari knew, tell us a lot about the meaning of art, different lives going with different arts. If someone were to juxtapose the life of Andy Warhol with the life of Diego Rivera, no better key to the art history of our century could be found. Rivera’s life is as inaccessible to artists today as the life of a knight was to Don Quixote, and it is not to Rivera’s discredit that we cannot assimilate him to our aesthetic. Wandering through the wonderful exhibition, I was reminded of something John Maynard Keynes wrote about the geometrical proofs Isaac Newton used the Principia. They were Keynes thought, like great and ancient weapons in some museaum, and he marveled that men could fight with what he could barely lift. Rivera is not for our times, but for just that reason it is important that we look at him intensely. It tells us as much about ourselves as about him that he is not.