Art review: 'America Tropical' transformed once more

Eighty years ago today, civic leaders gathered outdoors on the second floor of an Olvera Street social club to dedicate a remarkable painting.

"América Tropical," by visiting Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, was being unveiled on an outside wall of Italian Hall. Dean Cornwell, a prominent local illustrator who had just finished a sugary mural cycle about California history for the rotunda of the Central Library, said a few congratulatory words. Arthur Millier, The Times' art critic, would soon praise the politically trenchant painting for being "stern, strong, tragic."

History gets whitewashed every day, but Siqueiros' "América Tropical" was infamously painted over within eight years of its 1932 completion. The obliteration transformed it from a blistering emblem of social justice into a gnawing symbol of suppression.

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It has been transformed once more. On the anniversary of the unveiling, civic leaders will gather again Tuesday at the site, now El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, to unveil major conservation work on the mural. The triumphant result, an extraordinary refusal of artistic censorship, is now a symbol of the resiliency of free speech.

The rescue of the artist's only public mural in the United States still in its original location started and stopped innumerable times during the last 30 years. Sometimes it seemed it would never happen. The city and the Getty Conservation Institute collaborated on the $9.95-million project.

A protective shelter has been built to limit exposure to sun, rain and pesky birds. The canopy evens out the natural light playing across the 80-foot-wide mural, adding visual clarity to what had been a sun-blasted site.

Down below, the América Tropical Interpretive Center has been built in historic Sepulveda House. Smart exhibits by design firm IQ Magic explore the mural's history, materials, conservation and significance. (The interpretive center, with an entrance from pedestrian Olvera Street, will be open to the public Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) Displays offer insights, bust some myths and expose still-unanswered questions.

One delightful surprise is a large, black-and-white painting by Barbara Carrasco and John Valadez, artists whose own work has been influenced by Siqueiros. Their mural imagines a gathering at "América Tropical" by dozens of artists, Hollywood notables and others linked to the Mexican muralist during his seven months in L.A. Portraits include Marcel Duchamp, Dolores del Rio, Merle Armitage, Charles Laughton, Rudolph Schindler, Nelbert Chouinard and Marlene Dietrich — a fascinating cross-referencing.

All of it prepares a visitor for the trip upstairs, where a rooftop viewing platform has been erected. It accommodates about 20 visitors at a time.

The immense wall-painting depicts muscular jungle flora curling around a mammoth, Mayan-style temple. A perpetual struggle between powerful forces of nature and culture frames a startling central image. Based on a grim, 19th century Japanese photograph by Felice Beato, arguably history's first photojournalist, it shows a dead peasant lashed to a double cross. His spread-eagle body echoes the eagle with outstretched wings and razor-sharp talons perched above him.

To the right, two revolutionary descendants of Spain's old vice-royalty in Mexico and Peru take aim at the fearsome eagle. The bird is as much a symbol of modern American imperialism as of the 17th century Hapsburg incursion into Latin America.

Siqueiros' social-justice subject matter, especially volatile as the Great Depression ground on, got the mural shut down. A year or so after its unveiling, the two resistance fighters, visible from the street below, were painted out.

Within a decade, the entire 80-foot painting was whitewashed. Siqueiros, a committed Communist, had rendered a withering pictorial truth: Imperial ambitions, always deadly, deserve resistance. The powers that be were not amused, and erasure of the "stern, strong, tragic" mural followed.

Keep in mind: "América Tropical" is now just a ghost of what it once was. Don't go looking for a masterpiece in its prime. If you expect a full-throated Siqueiros, filled with his patented brand of painterly Sturm und Drang, you will be disappointed.

Decades of benign neglect, earthquake disruptions and hostile abuse have left it a pale memory of what was once there. So did the artist's own experimental technique, which is one reason for the mural's art historical significance.

Rather than troweled plaster and brushed paint, Siqueiros used cement and a spray gun, adding brushed highlights later. Like Leonardo da Vinci's experimental — and ruined — "Last Supper" mural, his technical research was exciting, if not a resounding success. Geared not toward a stuffy Renaissance revival but to the rough realities of the modern world, "América Tropical" is an industrial-age fresco.

As befits a ghost, the almost-gone mural feels vexed. The past is resurrected, and it haunts the present.

In January 1932 Congress established the Reconstruction Finance Corp. to help deal with the devastated American economy. With the support of conservative Republican President Herbert Hoover, the first businessman ever to occupy the White House, the RFC lent $2 billion to banks, insurance companies and railroads. Critics who wanted those funds directed to struggling workers derided the plan as "the millionaires' dole."

By July, upward of 25,000 destitute World War I veterans had set up protest encampments between the White House and the Capitol. Hoover ordered Army troops to clear them out. Violence erupted. In the melee, two vets were killed.

In L.A., Hoover's Mexican Repatriation program was in full swing — as if Latinos were responsible for the economic catastrophe. ("We need their jobs for needy citizens," wrote the spokesman for the L.A. Citizens Committee for Coordination of Unemployment Relief.) Within a year, socialist writer Upton Sinclair would launch his second run for governor on a platform called EPIC — End Poverty in California — stirring the ire of this newspaper's conservative owners. A month after the mural unveiling, Franklin D. Roosevelt crushed Hoover in a landslide election.

Amid that grinding turmoil, Siqueiros painted his huge mural. In our own volatile election year, marked by not dissimilar commotions and shocking expressions of racial animus, those events don't sound quite so remote. Think of "América Tropical" as Occupy Olvera Street, circa 1932.

The painting, mostly forgotten until the emergence of the Chicano mural movement in the mid-1960s, was unearthed in 1968 by art historian Shifra Goldman. Dozens of people deserve credit for the preservation effort that will be celebrated today, but her tenacity deserves special mention. (Goldman died last year at 85.) An activist in radical causes, she certainly sympathized with Siqueiros' vision.

The long-aborning project does require two small tweaks. Most important: The site's handsome outdoor entry announces the América Tropical Interpretive Center, but the artist's name is nowhere to be seen. It should be added.

Upstairs, the viewing platform is 150 feet from the mural — unfortunate but necessary for structural demands at the historic preservation site. The general view is excellent, but seeing details matters. Art museums often provide magnifying glasses for up-close examination of manuscript illuminations, Indian miniatures and other small artworks. For this monumental painting, handy binoculars would do the trick.

A nice serendipity: Street signs neatly framing the mural view announce "Alameda" on one side and "Cesar E. Chavez" on the other. With the ruined-and-revived Siqueiros mural nestled in between, better captions to civic history are hard to imagine.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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