Siqueiros mural ‘America Tropical’ to reopen in 2012-13. Maybe.
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Writing about Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros’ famously censored 1932 mural ‘America Tropical’ a while ago, I noted that a talented team from the Getty Conservation Institute was in the process of helping to restore a critically important piece of Los Angeles’ cultural history, hidden since the downtown Olvera Street mural was whitewashed shortly after completion. That chapter ‘should be unveiled in the next year or so,’ I wrote, after conservation work was completed and a protective shelter, viewing platform and interpretive center were erected at the old Italian Hall, where the 36-year-old muralist had painted his blunt image of resistance to imperialist persecution on a rooftop wall.
That column appeared on Feb. 20, 1994. It was based on assurances from those involved that the project, a legacy of Chicano consciousness-raising since the 1960s, would soon be finished. You may have noticed that a conserved ‘America Tropical’ was never unveiled. Over the next 16 years it became a rather grim joke around the office that perhaps it was time for the annual ‘mural not yet open’ story. Several indeed got written.
The Getty had done its part, but the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument around Olvera Street is a complicated tangle of civic jurisdictions that kept completion of the project on hold. In 2003, the frustrated Getty finally issued an ultimatum, threatening to pull out of the deal if L.A. city officials did not raise their share of necessary funds. The Getty’s July 1, 2005, deadline came -- and went.
On Wednesday, however, the earth moved. The shovels finally came out, along with assorted dignitaries -- GCI stalwart Tim Whalen, Getty Trust acting President Deborah Marrow, L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar and more -- and earth was turned before assembled cameras, journalists and invited guests to begin actual construction on that shelter and interpretive center.
Ars longa and all that.
If you’re wondering why the only remaining public work in the U.S. by the great Mexican muralist is on an El Pueblo building called Italian Hall, it’s because the area was also once the center of a substantial Italian community. Jean Bruce Poole, former senior curator of El Pueblo, has noted that in 1832 Giovanni Leandri opened a general store and built his home where the Plaza Firehouse now stands.
An Italian grocery was located on the corner of Main Street and the Plaza from the 1890s until the late 1960s. Nearby Pico House, a graceful 33-room hotel built in 1869 by Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alta California, was rented to or owned by Italian families for half a century. Seven of the 13 buildings on Olvera Street were either built or used for long periods by Angelenos of Italian origin.
Siqueiros, of course, was profoundly influenced by Italian Renaissance frescoes -- he made studies of Masaccio’s early 15th century Brancacci Chapel in Florence -- as well as by the fervent industrial motifs of early 20th century Italian Futurist painting. And he was partly inspired in this by the urging of Dr. Atl -- Gerardo Murillo -- the spiritual guide of Mexican Modernism, who had studied at the University of Rome. So a politically trenchant fresco of a crucified Indian peasant painted on an upstairs wall of El Pueblo’s Italian Hall doesn’t seem a stretch.
It is important to know that when ‘America Tropical’ finally reopens to the public, it will be but a shadow of its former self. Time, weather and whitewash have all done their part to turn the once vibrant colors pale, through which only ghostly shapes can be glimpsed. No matter. The ruin is itself a poignant element of an important story, and its restoration to public view is long overdue.
When will we all be able to see it? With a certain trepidation I’ll note that, according to those involved, construction will be completed in about two years. Keep your fingers crossed.
(Incidentally, exhibitions of Siqueiros’ work, including background on the mural, will open soon at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park and the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. The shows, like the mural announcement, coincide with the bicentennial celebration of Mexican independence. Suzanne Muchnic has the full story on the two shows in Sunday’s Arts & Books fall preview.)
-- Christopher Knight
Upper photo: An assistant at David Alfaro Siqueiros’ ‘America Tropical’ mural, 1832. Credit: Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar kneels by a pale exposed patch of the mural, currently covered by a protective wall. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
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