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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

How do you move a 30-ton Diego Rivera Fresco? Very carefully.

Plans to expand the mural and make it the centerpiece of a library at the college were derailed by World War II. For years, it was stashed in a shed at the college. In 1961, it was moved to the campus theater building, now called Diego Rivera Theater (at 50 Frida Kahlo Way), where it was wedged into too small a space

By: New York Times | San Francico |
June 26, 2021 10:30:59 pm
It has been mounted in the lobby of a theater at City College of San Francisco for decades. (Source: New York Times)

Written by Carol Pogash

For decades the monumental 10-panel fresco by Diego Rivera depicting a continent linked by creativity has been mounted in the lobby of a theater at City College of San Francisco. There, somewhat tucked away from the art world, it has been cared for as a labor of love by a de facto guardian who has long dreamed of finding a way to allow more people to experience it.

Now, after a four-year, multimillion-dollar undertaking involving mechanical engineers, architects, art historians, fresco experts, art handlers and riggers from the United States and Mexico, the 30-ton, 74-foot-wide-by-22-foot mural has been carefully extracted and moved across town to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will go on display June 28.

Moving the fresco to SFMOMA was a mammoth undertaking. (Source: New York Times)

“Diego was building a metaphoric bridge between the Mexican culture and the tech culture of the United States,” said Will Maynez, the former lab manager of the physics department at City College, who became the unlikely guardian of the work, which is owned by the college.

Maynez, who is Mexican American, speaks fluent Rivera and has spent 25 years researching and promoting the fresco, “Pan American Unity.” Its panels are a kaleidoscope of Rivera’s thoughts: the looming goddess of earth, Coatlicue; Mexican artisans; American industrialists; historical leaders of both nations; dictators; Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, and himself. Its full title is “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent.” Moving the fresco to SFMOMA was a mammoth undertaking.

“This is one of the most ambitious things this museum has ever done — to move something this large, this fragile and this important,” said Neal Benezra, director of the museum. Paco Link, the project manager for the fresco, likened the fresco to “a 70-foot eggshell.” (The work will be exhibited in a free gallery on the first floor of the museum as it prepares for its “Diego Rivera’s America” exhibition, which opens next year; the mural will remain on view at the museum until sometime in 2023 and will then be returned to the college. A new performing arts center, funded by a voter-approved bond measure, will house the fresco. It is not clear when the new building will be ready, though.) It is not the first time the giant fresco has been moved.

 

For years, it was stashed in a shed at the college. (Source: New York Times)

Thousands of people watched Rivera paint it at the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. Plans to expand the mural and make it the centerpiece of a library at the college were derailed by World War II. For years, it was stashed in a shed at the college. In 1961, it was moved to the campus theater building, now called Diego Rivera Theater (at 50 Frida Kahlo Way), where it was wedged into too small a space.

Each month, about 100 art students and Rivera tourists might have seen it at the college, Maynez estimated. He has formed a symbiotic relationship with the mural. Years ago, when his wife became ill with Alzheimer’s, the fresco work sustained him. And when she died in May 2020, he said, “It saved my life.”

Maynez, 74, is self-taught. Traveling around the world, he (along with Julia Bergman, a college librarian who died in 2017) unearthed letters, diaries, oral histories and even some of Rivera’s notes for his autobiography, “My Art, My Life.” Maynez translated some of Rivera’s writings, built a robust website with a blog and has worked on preserving the mural’s legacy with 3D pictures online.

Benezra, SFMOMA’s director, said that he saw the work as “Rivera’s painterly plea for a kind of unity of the Americas.”

 

It is not the first time the giant fresco has been moved. (Source: New York Times)

“We’re living in a time of tremendous resurgent nationalism around the world,” he continued, “and this is an anti-nationalist way of looking at things.”

In 2011, wanting more people to see the mural and hoping he could find a better campus location, Maynez, with approval from administrators, used funds from a Rivera account at the college’s foundation to pay for a study on the feasibility of moving the mural. When the answer came back that it would cost a huge amount of money and be close to impossible, Maynez took that as a yes.

At a meeting at the museum once it was involved in the project, Maynez recalls that Benezra had told him: “‘The mural will never be little-known again.’”

In an interview, Maynez said, “This is all I’ve ever wanted.”

Maynez, unearthed letters, diaries, oral histories and even some of Rivera’s notes for his autobiography, “My Art, My Life.” (Source: New York Times)

The museum took the thorough route: It engaged engineers from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s multidisciplinary design center, which has been known to tackle the near-impossible.

Alejandro Ramirez Reivich, a professor of engineering design at the university who led the investigation into how the murals could be safely moved, described the project as “an opportunity to try to bring these two countries together.”

Reivich said he had been fascinated by Rivera’s art since he was a child, and his American-born artist mother took him to Rivera’s studio.

Rivera, who intended for the fresco to be moved to City College, did not paint directly onto a wall, but on plaster with steel frames. But when the panels were put into the theater building, studs attached to the back of them were embedded into the concrete wall with no apparent thought that they would be moved again.

Knowing that the biggest threat to the fresco would be vibrations, Reivich’s team tested mock-ups. Three university artists painted nearly exact replicas of two panels, using the same type of lime and paintbrushes as Rivera. Reivich’s students built a wall like the one at City College, placing bolts and welding in the same locations. They experimented with tools to determine how to extract the panels with minimal vibrations. Then they shook, bent and hammered them, Reivich said, to learn the maximum resistance they could support.

This spring, movers began the task of extricating the panels from the concrete wall. Threaded rods were slowly twisted into place above and below the mural by teams of movers situated inside and outside the building, who wore headsets to synchronize their actions as they simultaneously turned the rods — one-sixteenth of an inch at a time. It took two hours for one panel to move 6 inches.

Then, before dawn one Sunday last month, a truck holding a panel encased with custom-made shock absorbers rode at 5 mph across town and delivered it to the museum, where it was hoisted into place. (This was the first of seven trips.)

Maynez was there when they arrived. “It’s one of the best days of my life,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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