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A 30-Year Rescue Mission

L.A.'s famous Siqueiros mural is still not ready for public scrutiny. Will new leadership at El Pueblo and renewed focus at the Getty get the job done?

August 06, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros conceived and painted his Los Angeles masterpiece--an 18-foot-by-80-foot painting known as "America Tropical"--in a mere two months during the late summer and early fall of 1932. Commissioned by the owner of an art gallery on the city's historic Olvera Street, Siqueiros designed a vast painting for an exterior, second-floor wall of Italian Hall, facing a rooftop beer garden that overlooked the pedestrian zone lined with Mexican shops.

With the help of other artists, he painted images of a pre-Columbian pyramid and statuary in a jungle-like setting dominated by a huge twisting tree. But on the night before the Oct. 9 unveiling of the mural, Siqueiros worked alone, quickly adding the explosive, central motif: an Indian peon lashed to a double cross with an eagle over his head and two Mexican revolutionaries off to the side, one of whom aims a rifle at the eagle.

The mural's depiction of exploitation--which some see as an indictment of Mexican history and others as an attack on U.S. policies--provoked an immediate reaction. Siqueiros had applied for an extension of his six-month visa, but permission was denied after he finished the mural. By the end of the year, the portion of the artwork that could be seen from Olvera Street was whitewashed; the rest was covered two years later.

But since then, almost everything concerning "America Tropical" has occurred with glacial speed. Although the painting is recognized by scholars as a major work by Siqueiros (a founder of the Mexican muralist movement with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco), and although it's his only surviving public mural in this country, efforts to restore the artwork and put it back on view have dragged on for 30 years.

The last decade or so has seemed particularly glacial. The Getty Conservation Institute--a branch of the J. Paul Getty Trust devoted to preserving the world's cultural heritage--joined the rescue effort in 1987 and subsequently committed staff, expertise and about $1.1 million to what will be a $3.7-million project (other funders are the city, the National Endowment for the Arts and local foundations). Thirteen years later, the mural's conservation is essentially complete--although badly weathered and a ghost of the original artwork, it has been cleaned and stabilized--but still no one can see it. A campaign to raise an additional $1 million to pay for a protective canopy, a viewing platform and an explanatory exhibition has yet to be launched. In the meantime, the mural is shielded with a fiberglass cover.

If recent predictions by both the city and the Getty are accurate, the public may actually get to see the mural before the next Ice Age--spring 2002 to be exact. Skeptics aren't holding their breath, however: Completion of the project has been forecast every year or so since 1990.

Nonetheless, there will be something to see soon. "The Preservation of 'America Tropical': A 30-Year Project"--a temporary exhibition that is expected to provide some insight into the fitful restoration effort--is being installed at Pico House, a former hotel across the plaza from Olvera Street, and, like the mural and Olvera Street, part of the city's El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument.

The show will be inaugurated during the Democratic National Convention, as part of a slate of private events at El Pueblo, but it will be on view to the public for two to three months starting Aug. 16.

The display of 28 photographs and drawings, eight text panels and a 2 1/2-foot-by-10-foot reproduction of the mural "will tell people what's been going on for the past 30 years," said Jean Bruce Poole, director of El Pueblo Historic Museum. "It doesn't cover everything, but it shows some of the things we tried to do."


Rallying support for the mural has been "hideously frustrating," Poole said, "but with the city, you have to learn to be patient." When people burst into her office demanding to know why the mural project is taking so long, she answers: "In governmental circles, everything takes long."

The drive to save "America Tropical" began in 1969, with Los Angeles-based art historian Shifra Goldman leading the way. Filmmaker Jesus Salvador Trevino furthered the cause by documenting the artwork's importance and fragility in a KCET-TV film that aired in 1971. After Poole arrived at her museum job in 1977, she joined Goldman and Trevino in organizing a committee to save the mural. "We weren't very effective," Poole said. "It took more political clout and money than we had."

But "everything changed" with the entrance of the Getty, Poole said, because the wealthy institution not only had the resources and expertise to get the job done, but the prestige to persuade city authorities of the artwork's importance. Poole appealed to Miguel Angel Corzo in 1986. Then president of the Friends of the Arts of Mexico Foundation and director of special projects at the Getty Conservation Institute, he would take charge of the institute in 1990.

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