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South From Mexico

San Antonio museum opens Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art.

October 31, 1998|CARY CARDWELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN ANTONIO — For 70 years, the portrait of a bricklayer by one of Mexico's premier artists, Diego Rivera, gathered dust, hanging undisturbed and unrecognized behind a bedroom door in the home of a prominent local family.

Last weekend, restored to its original vigor, the canvas--titled "El Albanil"--took its place among other prized works representing 3,000 years of Latin American artistic endeavor in a new $11-million wing of the San Antonio Museum of Art named for a legendary business and political figure who was a lifelong avid collector of Mexican folk art.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art houses 10,000 artworks, encompassing four specialized areas within its three-story, 30,000 square feet--an extensive folk art collection, pre-Columbian artifacts, Spanish Colonial works and contemporary art.

"Other museums have more extensive individual collections," said Marion Oettinger, curator of Latin American art at the museum, "but this is certainly the most comprehensive in the United States."

The history of the "lost" Rivera painting serves as a metaphor for much of the art of Latin America, especially folk art, which had been neglected by scholars in the United States until recently.

The family that owned the Rivera, which has asked to remain anonymous, had been told the work was not authentic, in part because Rivera's signature differed from his later works. So it remained behind the door.

Oettinger said the artwork "looked as though it had been run through a Cuisinart."

Fortunately, a recent examination by experts concluded that the work was indeed authentic, painted by the 18-year-old Rivera in 1904 while he was attending Mexico City's famed Bellas Artes national academy. The mason came to the school as a model for a student competition, Oettinger said, a competition Rivera won. Rivera's signature matched his handwriting of that time period, and a pamphlet from that era mentioned the painting and Rivera.

A painstaking restoration followed, and the family has loaned the Rivera to the museum. Now, Oettinger is planning to hold the center's first international symposium early next year, introducing the work to scholars.

There is a sublime bit of irony in a Rivera painting being the centerpiece of the opening exhibition in the Rockefeller wing. In the early 1930s, Rivera was commissioned to execute a mural in the lobby of the RCA building in Manhattan as part of Rockefeller Center. But after beginning work on the fresco, Rivera strayed from the drawings he had submitted and included an image of Lenin opposite a group of high society types playing bridge.

It was Nelson Rockefeller--likely acting at the behest of his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and the managers of the Rockefeller Center development--who initially asked Rivera to amend the mural. The artist refused and after months of negotiation, including an effort by Nelson Rockefeller to have the unfinished fresco moved to the Museum of Modern Art, the mural was destroyed.

Nelson Rockefeller's love of Mexican folk art, in particular, endured throughout his life. His guides into this world early on were painter Roberto Montenegro and writer-caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias. Rockefeller's last collecting trip to Mexico occurred only months before his death in 1978. Rockefeller's belief that the values and character of a people are reflected in utilitarian folk art was a fascinating counterpoint to his usual haunts, the corridors of international power. But it also reflected his belief as an internationalist that the first world must take responsibility for developing economies and eliminating poverty in the Third World. In addition to holding various government posts, Rockefeller established two private international development agencies after World War II to help the people of Latin America.

The Rockefeller Center is directing the art world's attention on this city, which is attempting to build on the interest spurred in 1991, when the San Antonio Museum of Art became one of only three museums in the United States, along with Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to present "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries."

The San Antonio museum's architecture is uniquely suited to this city, known for its dedication to historic preservation. Opened in 1981, the museum is housed in what was once a brick brewery, built in 1884, and is located on the banks of the San Antonio River, north of the city's popular commercial River Walk. The city plans to extend the river's commercial sector to reach the museum in the future.

Six members of the Rockefeller family attended the festive opening ceremonies, including New York Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, Nelson A. Rockefeller Jr., and were led by Ann Rockefeller Roberts, who made a gift of her father's 2,500-piece folk art collection to the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1985.

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