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ART

A Wall of Painstaking Effort

Twenty-one years of red tape and funding woes have slowed--but not defeated--conservation of David Alfaro Siqueiros' controversial 'America Tropical' mural.

November 22, 1998|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Getty Conservation Institute Director Miguel Angel Corzo predicted, in a recent interview, that by the end of the year funding will finally be in place for a long-delayed venture: The $3.5-million conservation of "America Tropical," the controversial Olvera Street mural that was created in 1932 by celebrated Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Whitewashed almost immediately after it was painted because of its politically charged imagery, it nevertheless continues to be an influential icon of L.A. art history, and seminal to the city's subsequent mural movement.

Officials on the project--the globe-trotting conservation institute's first treatment program at home in California--say that, by February 1999, construction should begin on a protective covering and a public viewing space for the 80-by-16-foot rooftop mural.

Also part of the plan is a Siqueiros Exhibition Center, an educational space to occupy 2,500 square feet of an adjacent historic building. Both are scheduled to be completed and open to the public in spring 2000.

Visitors may be able to watch as Getty conservationists put final touches on their work after the facility opens. Over the years, various civic-minded artists have proposed repainting the mural, but, in keeping with the Getty philosophy, what's left of the mural will be conserved, rather than restored to its original vivid colors.

Sounds good--and looks good in the glossy new brochure featuring floor plans for the educational exhibition center, connected by walkway to the rooftop and divided into four futuristic-sounding exhibits: Paradise, Reality/Legacy, Utopia and the Renewal Exhibit Computer Stations.

Yet Corzo would be the first to admit that since 1987--the year the Getty Conservation Institute became involved with the mural--this is hardly the first time a pending grand opening of "America Tropical" has been predicted.

It's somewhat like peeling back the layers of whitewash, dirt and tar that Getty conservationists are painstakingly stripping from the mural to go back through newspaper clippings hailing the planned reopening. They turn up like slow clockwork every few years.

* June 3, 1996: "Delayed by earthquake safety precautions and bureaucratic entanglements involving historic monuments, the project is expected to be complete in two to three years."

* Feb. 20, 1994: "If all goes as planned, the site could at last be opened to the public as early as next year."

* Sept. 13, 1990: "Funding for the remaining work must still be secured, but the leaders hope the mural will be open for public viewing as early as September 1991."

* Oct. 27, 1989: "If the campaign goes as well as expected . . the mural might be on display as early as next year."

"I am an optimist, and every time something would come up I would say, 'We will solve this, we will be ready in a couple of years,' " Corzo said.

"And then something else would come up."

*

No more than the ghost of a mural now, "America Tropical" was painted atop the former Italian Hall, on an outdoor wall adjacent to a rooftop that once served as a beer garden. The now-deserted building was once a popular gathering place for leftist groups of all sorts.

For most of its history, the mural was abandoned to the ravages of sun, rain, smog and earthquakes because of its explosive politics. An avowed communist, Siqueiros painted a tropical scene in a hybrid style that had echoes of various forms of Indian and pre-Columbian art.

When the mural was almost finished, Siqueiros dismissed his assistants and privately added its final element--a bold image of a crucified Mexican Indian, with an American eagle perched above his head and two revolutionary soldiers aiming rifles at the eagle. When the mural was unveiled, it shocked the city, and the portion of the mural visible from Olvera Street was painted over with white Duco paint soon after the opening, and the rest was whitewashed by 1933.

A renewal of Siqueiros' visa was refused, and he was forced to flee the country. Ironically, the white paint served to better preserve the images local politicos most wanted to destroy.

In more recent years, however, this piece of Los Angeles' cultural legacy has been less a victim of "red scare" than red tape.

The mural's last decade has been dogged by politics of a different sort--a morass of city government approvals required by half a dozen departments; architectural designs and redesigns; new seismic codes; safety regulations and handicap accessibility requirements; concerns of local merchants; and, always, money.

Giora Solar, group director for conservation at the Getty Conservation Institute, jokingly calls the mural's recent history the "via dolorosa," or trail of tears. And its twists and turns serve to indicate that when it comes to a highly visible public project overseen by multiple interests, red tape isn't easy to cut, even when the golden name of Getty is attached.

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