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Wall gone

October 13, 2002

The removal of the Siqueiros mural -- "Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932" -- from its original location in Pacific Palisades to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art earlier this year is to be profoundly regretted ("A Wall on the Fly," Oct. 6).

His only other surviving work in L.A. -- "America Tropical" -- has been the object of intense efforts over the last decade by the Getty Conservation Institute to conserve it in situ. By contrast, the small, private and discrete "Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932" has largely avoided public attention, with seemingly few objections being raised to its removal and shipment to Santa Barbara.

What seems to have been entirely overlooked are the devastating consequences for this action. Not only will the painting have been mutilated by its removal (even if concealed by retouching), it will forever have lost its sociopolitical context -- surely one of the defining aspects for any mural.

Prevailing conservation ethics unambiguously reject such action and consider detachment of wall paintings only as an absolute last resort to ensure their preservation. There has never been any suggestion that this was the case at Amalfi Drive. As such, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has unwittingly been instrumental in the harming of an important work of art through its eagerness in accepting this donation.

Siqueiros was a key progenitor of a sociopolitical mural-painting tradition that thrives to this day in its many diverse forms in Los Angeles. What a loss to the city for one of its best preserved and most important works to be hewn from its rightful place and freighted off to join an assembly of aesthetic objects divorced from any context in a museum in Santa Barbara. Would one really wish to see Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling in a gallery in New York?

Stephen Paine

London

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The Chouinard Art School was not in Pasadena, but on Grand View Street in L.A., just a block south of MacArthur Park. The concrete wall on which Siqueiros painted his first California mural faced the north parking lot.

His student assistants during the experiment were Millard Sheets, Lee Blair and Scollard Mass. I have a good photo of the group on the scaffold watching Siqueiros spraying paint into the wet plaster. Sheets had been a liaison between Nelbert Chouinard and Siqueiros when the muralist was hired to teach in summer 1932. There was an incorrect rumor that Chouinard was horrified at the communist-inspired theme and had had the fresco painted out. In truth, she was naively apolitical and always put good art first. In this case, she saw the attempt as bad art, an occasional occurrence with students at Chouinard, where everyone learned together.

Sheets, Blair and painting instructor Richard Haines all told me that when the mural was dry, the colors appeared weak and faded. For Siqueiros, who had wanted to experiment with the spray gun, it was probably a failure. Within a year or two, the plaster was chipped off the wall. It is hard to believe, however, that no one photographed his attempt. Sheets, of course, went on to create his own murals and mosaics, and Lee and Mary Blair became shiny cogs in the Disney Studios wheel.

Robert Perine

South Pasadena

Robert Perine is the co-founder of the Chouinard Foundation.

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