When the Getty announced the three-day project of raising a protective canopy atop David Alfaro Siqueiros’ “América Tropical” mural in downtown Los Angeles, the museum really undersold the complexity involved.
As hard hats scuttled around a buzzing, cordoned-off section of Main Street on Tuesday footsteps away from the bells of Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles, a massive crane churned to life over the elegantly curved, futuristic structure, which more resembled an aerospace prototype than something charged with protecting a work of art.
But if there were a work that was deserving of such special measures, it’s “América Tropical,” the last surviving mural in its original location by Mexican painter Siqueiros. The piece inspired such controversy that it was partially whitewashed over just months after its completion in 1932. Centered around a striking image of a Mexican Indian tied to a cross as an American Eagle looms overhead and revolutionaries gather around them, the work was fully covered 10 years later.
Bringing it back to life has taken far longer, but the day’s effort marked a crucial step toward completing the project, which project manager and mural conservator Leslie Rainer from the Getty said was on track for opening in the fall.
Gesturing at a metal armature behind a fence on Main that will serve as a support for the structure on the Italian Hall, Rainer described the complex procedure for attaching the mural’s 73,000-pound canopy, which will also include a screen that will come down over the mural at 4 p.m. every day once the restoration is completed. She said the screen will act as a “physical barrier” to protect Siqueiros’ work from both the elements and damage from potentially less-than-appreciative hands.
The layer will also feature a screened image of the mural on its surface, allowing it to maintain a presence of sorts after hours. “Maybe one day we can do a projection of it,” Rainer joked. At a time when dead hip-hop stars are performing onstage at Coachella, it didn’t sound that far-fetched.
Up a paint-spattered flight of steel stairs is the nearly completed observation platform facing the mural, which is still hidden behind a protective covering that Rainer described as nearly flush with the surface of the wall. Once the canopy is in place and the rolldown screen has been attached, the current covering can be removed and restoration team will get to work on the mural. Though the restorers have done extensive research and such preliminary tasks as plaster stabilization, “We haven’t been back behind to see the mural for 10 years now,” Rainer said.
“We’re pretty close to being able to start the conservation work during the summer, the hottest months in Los Angeles. But at least there’ll be a cover,” she added.
Atop the nearly completed observation area, which will eventually protect visitors from the heat as well with a canopy of its own stretched over a white metal frame, Chris Espinoza from the mayor’s office described feeling pride as the restoration project’s 30 years of planning and delays seemed near a conclusion.
Espinoza spoke excitedly of the project’s earliest renderings and of the visitor center in progress on the first floor below the observation area, which will allow the public to learn more about Siqueiros’ work. Espinoza described immersing himself in the artist’s work during a backpacking trip across Mexico in his 20s, though he knew little about the mural while growing up.
Espinoza compared the project to how water first came to the city. “This is going to be one of those classic stories of Los Angeles,” Espinoza said, adding that the 90-foot canopy will alter the shape of this corner of a downtown skyline punctuated by the domes of the nearby post office.
The hard-hatted heads turned as the white crane churned to life and telescoped into the sky, inspiring one observer to compare its reach to something from a steam ship. “LACMA’s got nothing on us with their rock,” Rainer said with a laugh.