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Siqueiros' 'America Tropical': A Tangled Tale of Conservation

October 06, 2002|Suzanne Muchnic

David Alfaro Siqueiros' other extant mural in Southern California, "America Tropical," also painted in 1932, has a long preservation tale of its own. Like "Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932" it too has been hidden from view for most of its life, but not because it was created on private property.

The problem began with the image on the 18-foot-by-80-foot mural: a crucified Indian peon with an American eagle perched on top of the cross. Predictably, local authorities were outraged by what they interpreted as an indictment of U.S. economic imperialism. Only a small portion of the artwork was visible from Olvera Street because the mural was painted on a second-floor wall, facing a rooftop beer garden. But what could be seen from the street was promptly whitewashed. The rest disappeared under a coat of paint two years later.

In 1969, a drive to uncover "America Tropical" got underway, but its proponents didn't have enough money or political clout to achieve their goal. That changed in 1987, when the Getty Conservation Institute joined forces with El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the city department that administers the historic site. Plans developed for a $4.5-million project funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust, the city, the National Endowment for the Arts, local foundations and in-kind contributions.

The goal was to clean, stabilize and document the badly faded mural--and in keeping with current conservation philosophies, to conserve what was left of the painting rather than try to restore it to what it might have looked like in 1932. The project also included funds to create an interpretive center to tell the mural's story, and to build a viewing platform on the second-floor roof where the beer garden once operated.

Completion of the project has been forecast every year or so since 1990, but bureaucratic tangles, changes of personnel, a multilayered approval process and technical problems have caused repeated delays. At this point, most of the conservation is done and designs for new structures are complete, but construction has yet to begin.

The next step is a meeting on Tuesday, when the mural project team will request final approval of the viewing platform, shelter and interpretive center from the eight-member El Pueblo Commission. A building permit is also pending.

"We hope to obtain a final go-ahead from the commission," says Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute. Whalen won't venture a guess as to when the project might actually be finished, but he offers a provisional time frame: "Once all the approvals are received, including the building permit, we expect the work to take about 12 months."

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