Secret Rivera

Four decades after it was rescued from a storage shed, Diego Rivera's magnificent City College mural remains a hidden treasure

After Trotsky's murder, Rivera moved between Treasure Island and his quarters on Telegraph Hill accompanied by a bodyguard. Yet, there is nothing to suggest that security concerns deterred the A-list of literati and other celebrities who kept the artist company during his stay, including writer Aldous Huxley, actor Edward G. Robinson, and the voluptuous Goddard.

A man of limitless sexual proclivities, Rivera was rumored to have included the actress among his conquests during his stay. (He was famous for keeping a list of his liaisons and rating the women he slept with by denoting either a plus or a zero.) Emmy Lou Packard, his young assistant, recently widowed at the time, "took pride in saying she was the only woman close to Rivera whom he never succeeded in getting into bed," recalls her son, Donald Kairns.

If Rivera's San Francisco experience was high drama, the final act was shared with Kahlo, whose haunting self-portraits (not to mention scandalously tempestuous relationship with Rivera) have -- long after her death in 1954 -- helped her attain cultlike status.

Former instructor Masha Zakheim was one 
of the mural's early college boosters.
Paolo Vescia
Former instructor Masha Zakheim was one of the mural's early college boosters.
Librarian Julia Bergman directs the college's 
mural archive.
Paolo Vescia
Librarian Julia Bergman directs the college's mural archive.

Having divorced Rivera in 1939 for "artistic differences," Kahlo nonetheless put in a brief appearance in San Francisco before leaving for New York. There, before returning to remarry him in a municipal judge's chambers at City Hall, she wrote letters to her friend and confidante Packard, brooding over Rivera's health and a book deal that his second wife, Guadalupe Marin, had signed with an American publisher, which Kahlo deemed money-grubbing. "She is absolutely a son of a bitch," Kahlo wrote in a letter that is part of the college archive. "Everything she does is so low and dirty that sometimes I feel like going back to Mexico and [killing] her. ... Sometimes I wonder why Diego could stand that type of wench for seven years."

Unlike some of his predecessors at the City College helm, Philip Day immediately appreciated the mural's real and potential value to the school -- and the extent to which others wanted to get their hands on it. Within two months of becoming chancellor in 1998, he received an unexpected invitation to have lunch with Harry Parker, director of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, which include the de Young. Day had just arrived from being head of a college in Florida and had no idea who Parker was.

The lunch was arranged by Day's predecessor, Del Anderson, who -- perhaps portentously -- had been invited a short time earlier to join the de Young's board of directors. Parker wanted to acquire the mural for the new de Young, now under construction. "I just looked at Del and said, 'Look, you know the issue with that. If I offered my cooperation I would be the shortest-lived chancellor in the history of the college.'" Day says that "it was all very pleasant, but in less than five minutes there was nothing more to talk about."

It wasn't the first attempt by a museum to acquire the mural. In fact, it wasn't the de Young's first try. According to Robert Gabriner, the college's dean of research, planning, and grants, Parker and another de Young official put out a feeler in 1995, just as planning for the museum's new facility in Golden Gate Park was taking shape. (Parker did not respond to interview requests.) "They said they were interested in using [the mural] prominently near the entrance in some fashion," Gabriner recalls. "They really wanted it."

So did Peter Rodriguez, founder and former executive director of the Mexican Museum, whose overtures ruffled feathers at the college. Gabriner had an idea for promoting the mural after seeing an information kiosk at a museum in Italy while on vacation. With help from a multimedia company, his idea morphed into a portable reproduction of the mural that the college sends to educational conferences and school and civic events.

During the unveiling of the traveling exhibit at a reception hosted by the college in 1995, Rodriguez created a stir by criticizing CCSF's stewardship of the mural, saying it ought to be housed at the Mexican Museum. "It's a great work of art, and I wanted it where people are going to see it, and still do," says Rodriguez, 77, now retired.

Two members of the museum's board -- Guadalupe Rivera Marin, the artist's daughter, and John Pflueger, Timothy Pflueger's nephew -- have important ties to the mural. But the museum's current director, William Moreno, calls the ties "purely coincidental" and insists that "as much as we might have loved to have had it, the mural is pretty much off our radar screen now." (Rivera Marin, in fact, continues to be highly supportive of the college's own plans for the mural's future, Day and others say. Attempts to contact her for this article were unsuccessful.) Gabriner says that "after so many years of inattention, to suddenly have so much institutional interest was an eye-opener for us." Even a former Mexican consular officer in San Francisco got into the act, he says, briefly promoting an idea to house the mural at San Francisco International Airport.

It isn't difficult to see why the college's role in caring for the mural has come under fire. Even in the four decades since its rescue from the shed, the piece has been housed in a performing arts theater -- renamed the Diego Rivera Theater in 1993 -- that is a less-than-ideal venue for such a monumental work. Because of the lobby's shallow depth, it is impossible to glimpse the mural from afar. Instead, viewers are thrust against it, creating a viewing experience akin to sitting in the front row of a movie theater. Although the mural's 10 panels were intended to be viewed as a contiguous flat surface, to accommodate the limited space available when the lobby was designed, the panels rest against the wall in a distorted, slightly circular fashion.

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