- At the Crossroads: Diego Rivera and His Patrons at MoMA, Rockefeller Center, and the Palace of Fine Arts by Catha Paquette
Potential readers noting the title of this book might think that the world does not need yet another discussion of Diego Rivera and the mural proposed for Rockefeller Center. Has not everything about that incident already been said and written? Yet, as Paquette shows in this study, there are still more facts and insights to be explored. And those in turn lead to still more interesting ones yet to be examined.
Thanks in part to Diego Rivera, but also to Jose´Clemente Orozco and others, Mexico enjoyed a vogue in the United States in the 1930s, as represented in Helen Delpar's work, The Enormous Vogue of All Things Mexican (1995). Certainly that was true of the New York art scene, spearheaded by the newly founded Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, largely a Rockefeller project. Its first three one-man shows featured Henri Matisse, followed by Diego Rivera and then Pablo Picasso. Rivera and Orozco got mural painting commissions in Detroit and Dartmouth as they became better known. Then came Rockefeller Center.
Paquette situates the entire project in the history of the Great Depression, in the struggle between capitalism and communism, in the streets and in the plans of the Rockefellers, and in the role Rockefeller Center was to play in all. Central to this drama is the figure of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was the ultimate "decider" for the center and the Man at the Crossroads mural. Although Rivera was known to be a Communist, his agent in New York, Frances Flynn Payne, a noted gallery owner herself, presented the artist as a painter first and a devotee of politics secondarily. After all, was not he completing a mural for Henry Ford in Detroit? Conversely, Rockefeller's wife Abby bought the sketchbook of May Day marches that Rivera had produced in the Soviet Union. As it happened, Rivera had been kicked out of the Mexican Communist Party for his sympathy with Leon Trotsky, leading his patrons to think he would shed his Marxist beliefs. Rivera, for his part, was intent on seeing just how far artistic expression could go.
As is well known, Rivera insisted on putting a portrait of Lenin in the mural to represent Communism while denigrating the rich and powerful under capitalism as idle and degenerate. Rockefeller Jr. decided that such a display, which would include syphilis organisms near his painted face, was not suitable for a shrine of capitalism like Rockefeller Center. While Abby and his son Nelson tried to get the mural moved to MoMA, the work of art was destroyed. The New York left used that obliteration to mobilize their followers in New York.
Rivera soon repainted the mural on a smaller scale at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Paquette does an excellent job in discussing the Mexico City phase of the mural and its rebirth, particularly on the ways in which the aims of the mural fit with those of Mexican politicians at the time. Yet, she does not go much farther in looking at the life and work of this important artist. For example, she does not look at how the conflictive situation in New York affected Rivera's art and how it came to be that he would never again paint a major mural for a capitalist in the United States. We may never know if and how marriage to another Communist artist, Frida Kahlo, affected his work, and whether she pulled him even further toward the political left. [End Page 446]
The book itself is beautiful, filled with stunning plates in color and black-and-white. However, it is oversized, and wherever there are no works of art depicted, the text can be rather slow going. Yet, Paquette has given us a...