Spring Rise and Autumn Exit: David Alfaro Siqueiros in Los Angeles

On the south wall of Italian Hall, 2005 banner replicating América Tropical taken by City Project / Photo used under Creative Commons.

When David Alfaro Siqueiros arrived in Los Angeles in 1932 at the age of 35 as a political exile, he was already an intriguing figure.

Detail from conceptual recreation of America Tropical colors I Courtesy of Luis Garza

Even with the consequence of his work documented thoroughly, there will be more conversation about the remains of his U.S. masterpiece, "América Tropical," when it returns to public viewing October, 2012.

There is also a storyline before Siqueiros changed muralism 80 years ago on October 9, 1932.

By the start of the 1930s, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera's fame increased by producing major works in the U.S. So, by spring of 1932, the Los Angeles avant-garde art leaders were ready to embrace the sociopolitical Siqueiros, one of Los Tres Grandes (The Three Great Ones, along with Orozco and Rivera), once it was heard he was fleeing to the U.S. to escape surveillance by the Mexican government.

Siqueiros had been arrested for helping to incite May Day riots in 1930, then restricted to live in Taxco. There, he continued small works with themes of indigenismo, the Latin-American movement that began in the 1920s identifying national pride and cultural identity, and openly criticized the condition of Indians.

Even as he was sequestered, he was visited by other artists, including Nelbert Murphy Chouinard, who invited him to teach courses in fresco painting at her new institution, Chouinard School of Art.

"Although Taxco offered a unique artistic and intellectual environment; Los Angeles, after all, included Hollywood, a creative world of Leftist intellectuals and emigres" writes Margarita Nieto in art ltd article about the 2010 exhibition "Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied," curated by photographer and historian Luis Garza.

During Siqueiros' stay in Los Angeles, he painted three murals, his only works in the U.S. "Encuento en las Calles (Street Meeting)" was painted with students at the former Chouinard Art Institute building as a class project. It was thought to be destroyed due to its political themes, or worse, the idea of a multi-ethnic workers, by the LAPD Red Squad, the city's crusaders against Labor Unions, and later Communism, lead by Captain Bill "Red" Hynes.

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In 2004, while researching for "Censorship Defied," Garza had records and an old photograph that prompted him to make an initial inquiry that led to a discovery: most of the "Street Meeting" mural still existed. Former Chouinard student and teacher Nobuyuki Hadeishi, who happened to be at a meeting, recognized the windows in the photograph.

Also during 1932, "Portrait of Present Day Mexico" was painted for film director Dudley Murphy's Pacific Palisades Spanish style residence. In 2001, new home owners donated it to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and it was carefully transported and unveiled in October 2002. It is still exhibited in a environ simulating its place in the private residence.

Even before the murals, then 35-year-old Siqueiros' was embraced by the art community as smaller works were quickly showcased. Upon arriving in early May, his lithographs, paintings, and mural designs held court at Earl Stendahl's gallery at the Ambassador Hotel, wrote Eric Merrell in a Spring 2010 article for California Art Club (CAC). Also in May, Siqueiros' newer lithographs, mostly based in indigenismo and created while in Taxco, were exhibited at a center of bohemian intellectualism: Jake Zeitlin's second downtown Los Angeles bookstore at 705 ½ W. Sixth St.

Siqueiros was also on a panel of judges that surveyed art entries for the Games of the X Olympiad, held that same year.

At the end of May, the Stendahl-hosted Siqueiros exhibition traveled to the newly opened Plaza Art Center on Olvera Street, where it was on view for the first ten days of June.

The exterior wall of Italian Hall is home to Siqueiros' iconic mural. It opens later this year as home to the Italian American Museum | Photo by CIty Project used under Creative Commons
The exterior wall of Italian Hall is home to Siqueiros' iconic mural. It opens later this year as home to the Italian American Museum | Photo by CIty Project used under Creative Commons

Franz K. Ferenz, a member of California Art Club and leader in the Los Angeles avant-garde, was director of the Plaza Art Center since it opened in 1931 with an exhibition of contemporary Mexican Art. Due to the controversy of the Chouinard mural, it was reasoned that a new work by Siqueiros, by reputation, would bring public awareness to the new center.

Ferenz commissioned Siqueiros to use the exterior wall of the second floor and fill it with scenes of "lush tropical" foliage and exotic "colorful birds." Christine Sterling, founder and matriarch of Olvera Street, approved of the idea, as it aligned with her visions of the former alley that she had transformed into a tranquil and commercial "Mexican village" in 1930.

But it was the history of anarchy in Los Angeles Plaza that may have caught Siqueiros' interest.

"Siqueiros discovered that the Los Angeles Plaza had played an integral role in radical politics since the turn of the century," said Marianna Gatto, Executive Director of The Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, stating that before the creation of tourist friendly Olvera Street, the Plaza had visits from revolutionaries, including Dr. Sun-Yat Sen in 1905 to organize support for the defeat of the Manchu Dynasty; brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magon's Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) spoke frequently at the Plaza and Italian Hall; and feminist and anarchist Emma Goldman used Italian Hall from 1907 to 1919 to speak to immigrant groups.

Italian Hall was also a target of LAPD's Red Squad, adds Gatto.

The mural was completed quickly with Siquieros' new technique of spraying paint, and the assistance from up to twenty-nine artists. Many were from additional Chouinard master fresco classes, organized by Millard Sheets, that were made of professional artists and graduate students.

The project began in August, and toward the end of the mural's completion, Siqueiros worked into the night, as often happened when fatigue took over the younger artists. Just as the October debut approached, and his visa was expiring, he added the final details working in the glow of artificial light, but kept covered away from prying eyes. It was in the very early morning hours leading up to the unveiling, said Garza, when he completed the mural's main image: a crucified native, representing indigenous people, under an eagle, a symbol of imperialism, in front of a pyramid. Lush writhing trees were there, but they hid armed men ready to take aim at the feathered symbol of oppression.

When the mural was revealed October 9, 1932, reports were that the crowd of 800 gasped. Some in response to the scale and color. Others to the sight of the native under outstretched talons of an angry eagle.

"I painted a man . . . crucified on a double cross, which had, proudly perched on the top, the eagle of North American coins," later said Siquerios, according to Garza.

City Fathers, and one city mother, Sterling, demanded that the armed revolutionaries, visible from Olvera Street, be whitewashed. Plaza Art Center's Ferenz did so. The rest of the mural, best viewable from a platform along the wall, was painted over months later.

As well known by now, the whitewash began to fade in the 1960s and at the time, as Garza noted for "Censorship Defied," the work to save the mural by art historian Shifra Goldman, documentary filmmaker Jesus Treviño, El Pueblo curator Jean Bruce Poole, and other artists, led to the mural becoming a muse for today's public art relationship to outdoor exteriors, Latino aesthetic, and the start of the technique used by street arts.

Yet, Siqueiros' impact on the ideology of art was immediate. His mural assistants were taught how to apply fresco technique in small blocks. They dubbed themselves Bloc of Mural Painters. Some joined the Marxist John Reed Club of Hollywood in support the Scottsboro Nine, the young Black men facing Southern lynch justice.

In "El Pueblo: The Historic Heart of Los Angeles," Jean Bruce Poole points to a Los Angeles Herald-Express article reporting that in February 1933, LAPD Red Squad raided the John Reed Club to confiscate portable murals and frescos. The works by artists directly influenced by Siqueiros teachings and methods were riddled with bullets.

Siqueiros himself was deported in November 1932.

KCET's Life & Times report on the 2004 discovery of Siqueiros' mural at Chouinard Art Institute.

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