Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied

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Luis C. Garza

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Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied For the times, they were a’changin’ . . .


t was 1971—an era of worldwide turbulence and social unrest. The United States was at odds with itself over an unpopular war being fought in far-off Vietnam. Student protests, civil rights demonstrations, and assassinations were the rules of the day. Within this setting, as fate would have it, I first came to meet famed Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros at the World Peace Conference held in Budapest, Hungary. This was an international gathering of representatives voicing party lines over current political issues, and he and I were members of the Mexican and American delegations, respectively. During those troubled times I was a UCLA film student and staff photographer for La Raza magazine, the journalistic voice of the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. I was also the magazine’s designated speaker at this auspicious assembly. Siqueiros, upon hearing that there was a Chicano in attendance, called for an introduction—“Compañero, cuentame de este movimiento Chicano”—and invited me to join him and fellow delegates in conversation, drinks, and laughter that lasted well into the wee hours of la mañana.


Introduction It was the intensity of his green-eyed gaze, his shock of unruly hair, a testing playfulness or seriousness that would suddenly penetrate the moment. We moved about one another, visually engaged. Eye to camera eye, my finger upon the shutter release, recording our last seconds together . . . “Budapest, Hungary . . . . 1971; what the hell were you doing there?” That’s what I’m most often asked after recounting that extraordinary journey. Then, after seeing my Siqueiros photographs and hearing of my decades-old involvement to restore to public view his América Tropical mural at Olvera Street, the next question is, “Have you written any of this down?” From those conversations the concept for the Siqueiros in Los Angeles exhibition took root and began to evolve to its present form. My introduction to David Alfaro Siqueiros led to my self-education about Los Angeles history, early 20th-century art, politics, and good ole commerce, all of which gave birth to this now infamous América Tropical mural affair. Actually, as in all good stories, it’s a novella of epic implications, loaded with drama, and filled with an intriguing cast of characters, romance, art, and politics. q

Opposite: Luis C. Garza (born 1943), Siqueiros Portrait, Budapest, Hungary, 1971, giclée print. Collection of the artist: Luis C. Garza



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S iqueiros is in political exile from post-revolutionary Mexico, fleeing to a Depressionridden, xenophobic, isolationist America that was deporting Mexicans—U.S. citizens or not—en masse back across the border.

contentment. No sweeter, finer people live, on this earth, than the men and women of Mexico and what ever evil anyone believes about them has been bred in the darkness of ignorance and prejudice.

Luis C. Garza (born 1943), Angélica Arenal Siqueiros, Budapest, Hungary, 1971, giclée print. Collection of the artist: Luis C. Garza

And, like all edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers, just when you think it is over… stay tuned! Another chapter is set to unfold. As I narrate this story into existence, tacked to the wall in front of me is a rare photograph of the U.S. freighter SS West Nilus. In November 1932, from aboard this steamship and the port of San Pedro, Blanca Luz Brum and Siqueiros bid a fond farewell to accompanying friends, grim-faced INS agents, and the revolutionary seed of a future art movement. Weighing anchor, they turned towards Buenos Aires, Argentina, bound for further adventures.



Siqueiros in Los Angeles: A Seed Is Planted Our narrative opens on a bright Easter Sunday, in April 1930, during the public ceremony of the newly created Mexican village marketplace. El Paseo de Los Angeles is a romantic, folkloric setting, as envisioned by socialite Mrs. Christine Sterling. As its founding godmother, Sterling proudly proclaims that this is truly the historic heart and official birthplace of Los Angeles. She is quoted to sentimentally say, Olvera Street holds for me all the charm and beauty which I dreamed for it, because out of the hearts of the Mexican people is spun the gold of romance and

In 1932, artist and political activist David Alfaro Siqueiros, accompanied by Uruguayan poet Blanca Luz Brum and her four-year-old son, arrives in Los Angeles. He has secured a six-month visa through the influence of American supporters and in particular that of Paramount Studios director and art collector Josef von Sternberg. Siqueiros is in political exile from post-revolutionary Mexico, fleeing to a Depression-ridden, xenophobic, isolationist America that was deporting Mexicans—U.S. citizens or not—en masse back across the border. Between May and November of 1932, Siqueiros would paint three murals before the U.S. Immigration Service denied an extension of his six-month visa, as a persona non grata. His brief stay marked the beginning of a profound break with past artistic traditions. Here in Los Angeles, he would modernize the fresco mural technique. It was a very decisive period in his development as a revolutionary artist. For the first time, Siqueiros combined team painting and photographic and technical experimentation with the use of spray-paint guns and concrete mixtures. He creatively applied the newfound tools of American industrial technology to a strident sociopolitical critique against U.S. imperialism, racism, and the then-current political situation in Mexico. After having been invited to teach a mural class and completing Street Meeting—his first experimental large-scale outdoor mural at the Chouinard Art School, whose thematic content was cause for controversy and an immediate demand for its removal by the LAPD Red Squad—Siqueiros was approached and commissioned to paint his second mural. Created on a much larger scale, this new assignment was destined to have an unforeseen future impact upon the art and politics of Los Angeles. Plaza Art Center Director F. K. Ferenz, with the approval of Mrs. Sterling, bids Siqueiros to paint an idyllic scene, to be titled Tropical America, on an 18-by-82-foot, second-story exterior rooftop wall of the Italian Hall building at El Paseo de Los Angeles. The purpose of the mural’s creation is to further complement the nostalgic tourist atmosphere of Olvera Street and the Summer Games of the Tenth Olympiad, being hosted by the City of Los Angeles. Though Siqueiros’s politics as a communist are known, the innocuous title is intended to thematically contain him to a vision of Latin America as a tropical paradise, “a continent of happy men, surrounded by palms

and parrots where the fruit voluntarily detached itself to fall into the mouths of happy mortals.” This is not quite the folkloric imagery Siqueiros has in mind when he accepts the challenge to interpret the seemingly benign title. Within two months he completes his inspired vision of La América Tropical Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos (Tropical America Oppressed and Destroyed Through Imperialism). Siqueiros later commented, “I painted a man . . . crucified on a double cross, which had, proudly perched on the top, the eagle of North American coins.” On October 9, 1932, Daily Illustrated News columnist Don Ryan writes,

Luis C. Garza (born 1943), César Chávez, Los Angeles, California, 1974, giclée print. Collection of the artist: Luis C. Garza

Flaring in the night, the Siqueiros fresco seems to be embedded in the sky above Olvera Street. . . . Bathed in the white glare from stands of floodlights, it seems to recede and advance with the depth of the modeling. . . . Rain is falling white and glistening on the roof at the base of this strange new power that has come to dominate the Old Spanish quarter of Los Angeles. The night, the rain, the glaring floodlights, all together make the unveiling of this fresco like a well-staged performance at the opera. q



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Siqueiros’s representation of political realities in the form of U.S. imperialism in Latin America would turn into a protracted struggle, setting off debates over art, ideology, and censorship . . .

At the unveiling of this monumental mural, the assembled audience gasps in awe. It is vibrant and lush in illustration, symbolically provocative in content—and more strikingly, anything but what was expected of its intended title. As artist Lorser Feitelson writes, “My God! It had guts in it! It made everything else of the time look like candy box illustrations.” Mrs. Sterling is shocked and indignant at the betrayal of her romanticized vision of a quaint Mexican marketplace. On October 11, 1932, the Illustrated Daily News’s Don Ryan continues: There is certainly something unknown, something prophetic of a new pattern in living on that cement wall. Being here tonight is like being somewhere 50 or 100 years hence. This artist, Siqueiros, whom the federal authorities are so eager to deport to Mexico, is a dangerous character all right. Dangerous to all the fussy, pussyfooting old second-hand dealers in life, as well as art. The federals are right when they say his art is propaganda. For when young people come into the presence of this gigantic dynamo, beating away in the night under the rain, or singing out boldly when the noonday sun glares over the Plaza, young people are likely to find in it their inspiration for revolt—for the coming revolution in art and life that says, out of the way, old-timers, here comes the future! After seeking cautionary advice from City Fathers, Mrs. Sterling sets about purging this outrage from public view. L.A. Times art critic Arthur Millier writes on March 18, 1934, A week ago fifteen feet of the fresco was whitewashed, thus hiding it from the street. This brings up once more the question of artist rights versus owner’s rights. . . . But property right is, finally, the right of money, which is not always synonymous with good judgment. The fresco is not destroyed, but merely partially covered. Someday we may find that decisions of this kind will be referred to properly constituted boards on which art and property are both represented.


What ensues at El Pueblo, over the following decades, becomes a micro-study of competing ideologies fought on the larger world stage. Siqueiros’s representation of political realities in the form of U.S. imperialism in Latin America would turn into a protracted struggle, setting off debates over art, ideology, and censorship that would reverberate far into the future.

Like a Rolling Stone Life is a voyage, a compilation of experiences and events that are piled into a memory bank. Like an old house attic, information is stored away, just lying around waiting to be rediscovered, dusted off, and made use of. Past and present, light and shadows—if you can, you try to connect the disconnected dots to make sense of it all. It was soon after a series of major Chicano anti– Vietnam war demonstrations that a tall and lanky Irving Sarnoff entered the offices of La Raza. He was connected with the Los Angeles Peace Action Council and was seeking Chicano representation within the American delegation that was being formed to attend the World Peace Conference. This assembly was to be held in Budapest, Hungary, May 13–18, 1971. It was the Eastern q

Above: Unknown photographer, SS West Nilus, circa 1940s. Courtesy of the L.A. Public Library Opposite page: David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974), América Tropical (central figure), 1932, photograph. Courtesy of Glenna and Jesse Avila



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hat follows, although sporadic, is the beginning of an unrelenting effort to W . . . restore the entire América Tropical mural back to public view.

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974), Conference Hemispherique, Montreal, Canada, 1968, Art Dealers Association of Southern California, offset print. From the collection of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles, California.


Block equivalent of the United Nations, with 124 world countries being represented. The United States delegation was composed of American Quakers, student peace activists, Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Muhammad Speaks (then the U.S.’s largest black-owned newspaper), journalists, and other civil rights and anti-war advocates. I was the only Chicano within the delegation. No one from the La Raza staff had time; there was just too much going on. And me, having just returned from burying my father in New York City and breaking up with my girlfriend, Aiko . . . ah, what the hell! I volunteered. Once a week, out of New York City’s Kennedy airport, a Russian commercial airline, Aeroflot, arrived and departed. I flew out on a rainy Los Angeles night, arriving at an equally rain-drenched, moonlit JFK airport in New York. I carried my Nikon camera strapped about my neck, two cord-bound, hip-high stacks of La Raza issues, and a suitcase of clothing mixed in with 35mm film, plus tortillas by the dozen and cans of chili peppers for la familia; these latter two items were rare, unstocked commodities in New York markets.

“¡Russia! ¿Mijo, estas loco?” was mom’s wide-eyed grito as she unpacked the foodstuff onto the kitchen table of our small apartment. The rest of the family was in agreement. The Chicano movement was a remote cause in these Bronx tenements. Not that I didn’t have any support, especially when Pop was alive. But my having grown up within a Mexican immigrant family in the multiethnic setting of the South Bronx, where there were no other Mexicans, was truly a surreal experience, à la Fellini. When I finally arrived in Budapest in 1971, it was during an era of worldwide turbulence and social unrest. The Cold War was hot. Richard Nixon was U.S. President; Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev was his USSR counterpart. “Compañero, cuentame de este movimiento Chicano.” In the evenings, drinking vodka and chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, Siqueiros and I would talk of art and revolution; or rather, he did. I was in way over my head and holding up as best I could, though becoming bolder with every shot of vodka that passed my way. He spoke, at times in broken English, of his Los Angeles murals. Did

I know of them and the beginning effort to restore them? Did I know Frank Lopez and the Plaza de la Raza art center being built in East Los Angeles? I responded as best I could in my pocho Spanglish, sending Siqueiros, Angelica Arenal, and art historian–journalist Raquel Tibol into fits of laughter at my linguistic abilities. So much so that Ms. Tibol saw fit to include our meeting in an article she wrote for Excelsior newspaper. I returned to Los Angeles, never to forget that fateful encounter, and determined to somehow contribute to creating a greater awareness of Siqueiros in Los Angeles. However, by the mid-1980s I had put aside all the exasperating committee meetings of those early 1970s efforts to save the América Tropical mural and moved on to less time-consuming frustrations. Dedicated as we were, the abilities of art historian Shifra Goldman, film director Jesus Treviño, El Pueblo curator Jean Bruce Poole, and artists such as Josefina Quezada and Isabel Castro (to name the dedicated few), were simply no match for and unable to overcome the absolute political indifference, cynical apathy, and financial demands they encountered. Still, what Professor Goldman initiated was a course of action, beginning in 1968 with her direct communication to Siqueiros, that would continue over many decades. That initial introduction garnered support for those early efforts from Maestro Siqueiros, support that was sustained over the following years until his death in 1974. From those first contacts with Siqueiros the activities of El Movimiento, the Chicano civil rights movement, is of growing interest to him. In 1970, film director Jesus Treviño travels to Mexico to interview Siqueiros for his upcoming KCET documentary, América Tropical; Treviño is the first to record this unfolding story. Hearing from trusted conservator Jaime Mejia and artist Josefina Quezada that the mural is in dire condition, Siqueiros commits himself to re-create, to scale, the central crucified figure, intending to present it as a gift to the City of Los Angeles. His interest in the Chicano movement is further heightened as media coverage reaches Mexico detailing the many demonstrations taking place, and in particular, the tragic and controversial death of Los Angeles Times journalist and KMEX–Channel 34 News Director Rúben Salazar at the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War on August 29, 1970. Siqueiros authors a limited 125-lithograph edition honoring Salazar. It is struck and sold here in Los Angeles through his longtime friend Jake Zeitlin of the La Brea Art Dealers Association. An additional 1,500 commemorative prints are struck, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting

the aspiring Plaza de la Raza Cultural Art Center. In January 1973, Siqueiros also writes out the terms and conditions of his donation of the re-created América Tropical crucified central figure to the City of Los Angeles, and specifically to the Mexican American community. Among the potential recipients is the newborn Plaza de la Raza Cultural Art Center. Unfortunately, on January 6, 1974, Día de los Reyes, Siqueiros passes away, and his desire to express solidarity with the Chicano community goes unfulfilled. However, what follows, although sporadic, is the beginning of an unrelenting effort to secure community and political support, funds, media coverage, and conservation efforts to restore the entire América Tropical mural back to public view.

Censorship Defied “Censorship has many faces,” writes art historian Shifra Goldman. “Siqueiros’s Los Angeles mural is [the] victim of a double censorship. It died two deaths: [the first], in 1932, open censorship in the blatant form of white paint; and the second, since the late 1960s to the ‘recent’ present, in the more subtle technique of official indifference. In other words, not-so-benign neglect . . . a whitewash of complete indifference.” It isn’t until the late 1970s, with the arrival of newly appointed art historian/curator Ms. Jean Bruce Poole, a most proper woman of English-Scottish demeanor, that the first efforts of conservation truly begin at El Pueblo. Immediately recognizing the historic and artistic value of the Siqueiros mural, she diligently sets about overcoming all obstacles and has the first of several wood-frame protective shelters built. In 1988, her efforts lead to the Getty Conservation Institute’s undertaking of the restoration of this historic work of art back to public view under the direction of Miguel Angel Corzo. However, renewed hope clashes with El Pueblo and City Hall politics, which prove to be more of a challenge. The impasse results in further delays, requiring far greater attention than the Getty had anticipated. Beginning in December 1993, the Getty Conservation Institute hired me for a three-year period as a consultant to help expedite their efforts on behalf of the Siqueiros mural project. The immediate task was to overcome the bureaucratic maze of a tri-part ownership, competing departments, entrenched cynicism, merchant infighting, and community apathy. q



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Above: Luis C. Garza (born 1943), América Tropical (Tropical America), 1932, digital color rendering. Collection of the artist: Luis C. Garza Opposite: Luis C. Garza (born 1943), Siqueiros Pointing, Budapest, Hungary, 1971, giclée print. Collection of the artist: Luis C. Garza


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In 1997 the Getty Center consolidated itself into a new hilltop residence and restructured its administrative operations. In 1998 Mr. Corzo resigned from his position as Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, as did several other Getty department directors. The following year Councilman Richard Alatorre retired from his 14th Council District seat and his oversight of El Pueblo Historic Monument affairs. Then, in 2001, the citizens of Los Angeles voted and elected Mayor James Hahn. New city commissioners were appointed, as were a succession of new general managers. And in a series of disparaging news reports, El Pueblo Historic Monument was once again the subject of intense fiscal scrutiny and mismanagement reports. In 2001 Ms. Poole retired, and inquiries from Mexico and local news reporters came to me asking about the fate of Siqueiros’s América Tropical mural. Because I was no longer in the loop (who was?), all I could say was that it was on the back burner . . . at least, I hoped it was. Then, in 2003, former State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa announced his candidacy for the Los Angeles City Council seat of the 14th district. Since we were in the early stages of developing the Siqueiros in Los Angeles exhibition, arrangements were made for me to introduce the newly elected Councilman to the Siqueiros mural project at Olvera Street. “Why hasn’t it been completed?” he asked. “A lack of political will and money,” was my response. The Getty

Foundation and Mr. Tim Whalen, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, began renewed efforts to revive the dormant project, asking for closure. There was unanimous approval of a motion by the Los Angeles City Council to match funds. Finally, on August 2, 2006, nearly twenty years after the Getty Conservation Institute first became involved, newly elected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Getty Foundation made a joint public announcement that completion of the Siqueiros project would be realized.

Adelante Con El Arte Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied presents a decisive chapter in the lives of the artist, community, and city. The seed that Siqueiros planted in the womb of Los Angeles, at Olvera Street, represents a dual birth: that of a city and, in turn, that of a modern international art movement. Under the bold direction of its Executive Director, Mr. Jonathan Spaulding, the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West, situated in the heart of Los Angeles, is the perfect setting in which to convey the legend and legacy of Siqueiros. I sincerely thank him and his dedicated staff for creatively engaging and sharing the vision. It has given me the opportunity to once again collaborate with mi muy estimada amiga, Irene Herner, whose knowledge of Maestro Siqueiros is a deep well of understanding. From Mexico comes artistic


support from various notable institutions and in particular that of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Institute of Fine Arts) and the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (National Council for Culture and Arts), also known as CONACULTA. The ongoing efforts of the El Pueblo Historic Monument Commission, particularly that of Ms. Carol Jacques, continue to give momentum to the public restitution of the Siqueiros project at Calle Olvera. To ensure that future generations may appreciate the historic importance of this artist and his work, the City of Los Angeles has formed a partnership with Amigos de Siqueiros. As stated by its codirector, Mr. Armando Vazquez, this nonprofit organization is entrusted with the mission to protect, conserve, and promote the newly constructed Siqueiros Mural Center so that the entire world can appreciate this internationally renowned Mexican artist, David Alfaro Siqueiros. As my good friend Margo Albert would say, “We are but a conduit, a vehicle of expression; so, extend yourself and let the energy flow!” ■

Siqueiros exhibition originator and cocurator Luis C. Garza began his career as a photojournalist for La Raza magazine during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s and has been active in the television, theater, film, and arts community for many years. As a consultant to the Getty Conservation Institute in the mid-1990s, he helped facilitate public restoration plans for América Tropical.


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