Preview: A Monumental Diego Rivera Survey Will Open at SFMOMA in July

Above image: Diego Rivera, Weaving, 1936, oil and tempera on canvas, 26 x 42 in. (66 x 106.7 cm)
Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Josephine Wallace KixMiller in memory of her
mother, Julie F. Miller, who purchased the painting from the artist at his studio in Mexico in 1936, 1998.529

Though Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957) was hardly predictable in his life or in his work, one particular story actually explains so much about the essence of his ultimate way of seeing and dealing with the world around him. Commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in 1933 to create a mural for the lobby of NYC’s 30 Rock office tower, and paid the equivalent of more than $400,000 in today’s money to do it, he delivered a finished product, titled Man at the Crossroads, in which Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin was a provocatively visible figure – Diego throwing it decisively in the face of the capitalists who were picking up the tab, but who were generally the subject of his scorn and suspicion.

It was quickly destroyed, though a reproduction was exhibited at the Whitney in New York in 2020.

Rivera was a committed “capital C” Communist (Trotsky was a pal), who yes, sometimes took on high profile corporate commissions. And it is just such contradictions that will be viscerally explored in SFMOMA’s comprehensive upcoming survey Diego Rivera’s America, opening July 16. Of course, he was/is just as famous/infamous for his turbulent marriage to fellow painter Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954), the pair representing probably the first great modern cultural power couple. Over a period of about 25 years together, they fought bitterly and constantly, carried on extramarital affairs, and even divorced once, only to remarry shortly after.

Diego Rivera, La bordadora (The Embroiderer), 1928
oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x 39 in. (79.4 x 99.1 cm)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by the Caroline
Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund, 2022.45

And though that volatile but fiery romantic passion clearly informed his work, it was also his relentless determination for challenging the social injustices of a newly and often callously technologically driven modern world – lorded over by ruthless new technocrats – that inspired so much of his oeuvre. Initially swept up in the avant-garde of the early 20th Century, Rivera enthusiastically embraced the radical new perspectives of Cubism. (He famously quipped, “I’ve never believed in God, but I believe in Picasso.” Haha.) Yet his focus would shift later to a more naturalist style, informed partly by Mexican folk traditions. And his Head of a Miner, 1930, as well as Tehuanas in the Market, 1935, and the meditative Weaving, 1936, all included in the exhibition, are poignant, beautifully realized encomiums to the dignity of labor.

The Flower Carrier, 1935, especially represents the kind of quiet heroism of the working people, art in service of the proletarian ideal, if you will.

For the event, SFMOMA has drawn upon its impressive existing collection of 70-plus Rivera works. But the more than 150 paintings, frescoes and drawings in total will also include loans from private collections, as well as from such venerable institutions as the Brooklyn Museum, the Honolulu Museum of Art, and New York’s MoMA, the latter’s contribution including a suite of humorous designs he created for the modernist ballet H.P. (Horsepower).

Diego Rivera
The Man, costume design for the ballet H.P. (Horsepower), 1927
graphite, ink and watercolor on paper, 20 7/8 x 29 3/8 in. (53 x 74.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller

A significant highlight will be his genuinely very famous Pan American Unity (1940), his final US mural, painted for San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. The monumental 22 x 74, 10-panel fresco expressed his earnest vision for a common history between Mexico and the United States, as well as that for a shared future ahead – one which sadly never quite materialized. But preliminary sketches for the doomed Rockefeller Center project should also prove genuine fascinations.

Three additional galleries will be devoted to large-scale film projections.

Of course, one cannot view such a momentous exhibition as this, without acknowledging that Rivera was also a deeply flawed human being, even once admitting, “If I ever loved a woman, the more I loved her, the more I wanted to hurt her. Frida was only the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait.”

Diego Rivera, Tehuanas in the Market, 1935
oil on linen, 23 1/2 x 28 7/8 in. (59.7 x 73.3 cm)
Collection of the Tobin Theater Arts Fund

Yet it is also impossible to ignore that at a time when art had so much greater potential as a tool for social agitation and transformation than it does now, Rivera stood up steadfastly as a powerful voice for the forgotten and the voiceless.

“Rivera was one of the most aesthetically, socially and politically ambitious artists of the 20th century,” enthuses guest curator James Oles. “He was deeply concerned with transforming society and shaping identity – Mexican identity, of course, but also American identity, in the broadest sense of the term. Because of his utopian belief in the power of art to change the world, Rivera is an essential artist to explore anew today, from a contemporary perspective.”

Diego Rivera’s America runs from July 16, 2022 to January 2, 2023 at San Francisco’s SFMOMA.

Above images from top:

Diego Rivera, The Flower Seller, 1938
pastel on paper, 31 1/2 x 36 1/2 in. (80 x 92.7 cm)
Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., gift
of Mary McDermott Cook in honor of Agustín Arteaga, 2019.56.McD

Diego Rivera, Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees, 1931
fresco on steel frame base, 55 1/2 x 106 in. (141 x 269.2 cm)
Stern Hall, University of California, Berkeley, gift of Rosalie M. Stern

Diego Rivera, Woman with Calla Lilies, 1945
oil on Masonite, 47 5/8 x 47 1/2 in. (121 x 120.7 cm)
Private Collection, U.S.A., courtesy Galeria Interart

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