Mike Newton Mar 30, 2012

“Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art”
Museum of Modern Art
11 W. 53rd St.
Through May 14


If legendary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera had, like most painters, worked on canvas instead of on buildings and walls, then maybe he could have airmailed his paintings to the Museum of Modern Art for his 1931 exhibition, rather than hastily creating a brand-new collection of work. Further, if he hadn’t chosen to create this new work on portable chunks of wall — squares of iron, steel and plaster — maybe these paintings wouldn’t have weighed hundreds of pounds apiece, requiring dedicated teams of laborers to transport them from gallery to gallery. And, if Rivera’s masterworks hadn’t been locked to particular sites, then maybe Man at the Crossroads, his mural at Rockefeller Center, wouldn’t have been decimated at the Rockefellers’ behest. But, this is all silly talk: it was exactly these aspects of Rivera’s work and life — the outsized heroism, the literal weightiness and the desire to be rooted within particular places and periods — that has kept his art relevant for more than half a century since his death.

“Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art” brings five of the eight “portable murals” that Rivera created from 1931 to 1932 back to MoMA, along with auxiliary works and historical artifacts. Agrarian Leader Zapata (1931) shows the famed revolutionary general, solemnly leading a group of working men over the slain body of a plantation owner. The Uprising (1931) shows a raging wave of workers fending off a line of thuggish guards; the setting is somewhat generic, but red flags in the background posit the work as a scene from a socialist rebellion. New Yorkers may feel a bit too familiar with Frozen Assets (1931-32), which juxtaposes the glittering New York skyline with the marginalized masses responsible for its construction; and the piece reminds us that many famous New York skyscrapers were built with cheap, Depression-era labor. Meanwhile, The Rivals (1931), a colorful work on canvas projects the sort of airy slightness that the murals seem precisely built to avoid. A 1927 sketchbook of drawings depicting home life and public celebrations in Moscow is an unexpected exhibition highlight.

Looked at in the present day, Rivera’s paintings possess a boldness that also creates some vexing contextual complications — the macho hubris that makes his art so great also dates his work considerably. By now, the visceral, surreal, proto-feminist paintings of Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, have outpaced her husband’s murals in terms of fame and influence. Rivera was a Marxist, creating images meant to champion and galvanize popular struggle. He populated complex scenes with simplified, cartoonish people, always with a sense of action and movement.

He also produced small works for wealthy art dealers, and received big commissions from major industrialists and powerful elites: painting beautiful, epic struggles inside San Francisco’s stock exchange and Mexico’s National Palace (controversy over his benefactors led to Rivera’s expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party).

In January, a group of Occupy protesters staged an action at the MoMA exhibit, calling attention to the museum’s corporate sponsorship and reading aloud from Rivera and André Breton’s “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art” (“The independence of art — for the revolution. The revolution — for the complete liberation of art!”) As in 1931, the Museum of Modern Art is still largely funded by the Rockefeller family. The ways that capital and power shape artistic discourse should certainly be debated, but did Rivera really oppose this commingling of art and industry? After all, it was how his paintings got made.

The current exhibition includes some sketches and clandestine photos of Man at the Crossroads — which are all that remains of the ill-fated mural. The piece was meant as a celebration of progress, including (in no small part) the advancements of Soviet communism. The 1934 destruction of Man at the Crossroads helped cement Rivera’s status as a revolutionary rebel, but what does it tell us that members of the wealthy elite such as the Rockefellers and the Fords were willing to even consider having such an artist outfit their buildings forever? Rivera’s legacy highlights both the power and powerlessness of radical art. That Occupiers recognized Rivera’s paintings as a rallying point speaks volumes — as with so much Depression-era political art, the basic problems of inequality and exploitation haven’t changed all that much. The walls still stand.

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