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David Alfaro Siqueiros' 'America Tropical' awaits new unveiling

The controversial, whitewashed mural, painted in downtown L.A. in 1932, will soon be back in the public eye.

September 29, 2012|By Suzanne Muchnic
  • Conservators work on in-fillling small areas of damage to the "America Tropical" mural on Olvera Street near downtown Los Angeles.
Conservators work on in-fillling small areas of damage to the "America… (Christina House, For The…)

"America Tropical" must be Los Angeles' most famous invisible artwork.

Born in drama and buried in anger, Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros' monumental mural on Olvera Street has been a cause célèbre for decades. Siqueiros was commissioned to paint the 18-by-80-foot fresco in 1932 as a decoration for a rooftop beer garden, but it disappeared behind whitewash amid a controversy over its central image: a Mexican Indian lashed to a double cross with an American eagle proudly perched above him, wings spread.

Painted on a second-story exterior wall of Italian Hall, the artwork has suffered from exposure to sun, rain and pollution, and it lost its two upper corners in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Even after the Getty Conservation Institute stepped up to the challenge of saving the mural in 1988, the project lurched along a rocky road of engineering challenges, bureaucratic quagmires and political inertia.

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But on Oct. 9, 80 years to the day since its first unveiling, "America Tropical" will go on public view. The long-awaited event will mark the conclusion of a $9.95-million public-private enterprise that includes a protective shelter for the mural, a viewing platform for visitors and an interpretive center that will explain the artwork's troubled history and the conservation process.

In its present state, the mural is a ghost of its original, vividly colored self, but every last inch of it has been meticulously cleaned, repaired and stabilized.

Restoration was never an option because there are no color photographs of the mural in its early days, says Timothy P. Whalen, who has directed the Conservation Institute since 1998. The artist himself didn't want the damaged artwork to be repainted, and current codes of art conservation preclude speculative re-creations.

But pale as it is, "America Tropical" is loaded with history — artistic, social and political.

"Part of the significance of this mural is not just the importance of Siqueiros, a major 20th century figure," Whalen says, "but the fact that it was censored and vandalized. That contributes to our understanding of it as much as what he originally painted."

A $6-million contribution from Los Angeles, which owns and manages El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, including the Olvera Street complex, financed seismic upgrading and much of the construction. A $3.95-million grant from the Getty Foundation helped pay for the shelter, platform and interpretive center. The Conservation Institute conserved the mural at its own expense and spent considerable time and expertise in overseeing the 24-year effort.

"Without a doubt, this is our longest standing project," Whalen says. "We never gave up on it. There were times when we thought we would have to or felt like we wanted to. But it's something that we can now give back to the city of Los Angeles. "

City support was a long time coming, but a statement from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who rallied to the cause after his election in 2005, says that conserving the Siqueiros and making it accessible is an "important investment in public art."

Chris Espinoza, Villaraigosa's former director of capital projects and now general manager of El Pueblo, calls the mural's emergence "the capstone" of a $30-million capital improvement project in the historic district.

"It's so exciting to have this finally done," he says.

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Visitors will approach the mural through the America Tropical Interpretive Center (shortened to ATIC on signage). Housed on the ground floor of an 1887 building known as Sepulveda House and managed by El Pueblo, the center offers a lively multimedia exhibition designed by the Los Angeles firm IQ Magic. Two galleries of photographs, text panels and interactive computer stations elucidate Siqueiros' life, work and legacy, as well as the history of Olvera Street and the campaign to save the enormous painting.

Born in 1896, Siqueiros was a leading Mexican muralist, fervent communist and decorated veteran of the Mexican revolution who arrived in Los Angeles in April 1932 as a political exile. Welcomed by the art community, he taught classes, gave lectures and, with the help of local artists, painted three murals.

The first, "Street Meeting," at what was then the home of Chouinard Art Institute and is now a Korean church, depicts a communist organizer with an audience of workers. Painted over soon after its completion, the mural is still at least partly intact, but there are no plans to resurrect it.

"America Tropical," Siqueiros' second and most ambitious L.A. mural, was commissioned by F.K. Ferenz, who ran the Plaza Art Center in Italian Hall. He suggested the theme, probably hoping to enhance the romantic notion of a Mexican marketplace promoted on Olvera Street, and invited students to "learn fresco with this master" at a two-week, $30 class.

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