By coincidence David Alfaro Siqueiros’ 80-foot mural América Tropical (1932) has reopened to the public almost simultaneously with MOCA’s “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962.” Talk about destroying the picture… The analogy isn’t entirely flippant. The MOCA artists “destroyed” their pictures intentionally, as a political act; Siqueiros must have made his political painting in the expectation that it would be censored or destroyed by others. He had been commissioned to decorate a proto-Disney Main Street U.S.A. and responded with a Llyn Foulkes evisceration of Mickey Mouse.
The central motif of América Tropical is a crucified Native American. This part was closely based on a Felice Beato photograph (c. 1866, below right), Execution of the Servant Sokichi. The 25-year-old Japanese servant had murdered his employer’s son in the course of a robbery: something like a Meiji-era Fargo. Siqueiros appropiated both the rightward tilt of the head and the telephone-pole-style cross. Local authorities had América Tropical whitewashed out of existence within a few years of its creation. Though the whitewash afforded some protection from light, Siqueiros’s experimental technique compromised the painting’s condition.
Aided by the Getty Conservation Institute, the city has conserved the painting and created the América Tropical Interpretative Center, entered via Olvera Street. They had challenges far beyond the usual. One is that no color photos of the 1932 mural exist. That and the crumbly support ruled out an attempt to restore the original appearance. The second challenge: How do you prepare the public to view a masterpiece that is a remnant of its former self?
That’s the job of the Interpretative Center, a two-room space with numerous text panels and touch screens. It includes two mural-size black-and-white replicas of the Siqueiros. One is a blown-up photo of the mural’s original appearance. More engaging is a clever grisaille painting by Barbara Carrasco and John Valadez. It shows a crowd of celebrities attending the mural’s rain-soaked debut, 80 years ago. Below is a detail featuring Marcel Duchamp (to the left, in profile) and Marlene Dietrich (lower right). The bespectacled man at center is Hollywood mega-collector Walter Arensberg.
From the orientation galleries you climb a staircase to emerge into an observation deck blasted in desert light. The Siqueiros must be viewed across 150 feet of rooftops and air-conditioning intakes. That’s not the most congenial of frames. A new sunshade has been constructed to shield the mural from the elements. It’s blinding white, and on a sunny day—not so unusual hereabouts—the mural is cast in June gloom. The snapshot at top conveys the initial impression. But once your eyes adjust, you’ll see that América Tropical is considerably more legible than it looks in photographs. Some of the color, especially the reds, survive.
Those who’d prefer a “colorized” América Tropical aren’t entirely out of luck. A Google Image search will show various attempts at restoration by PhotoShop. Below is Luis Garza’s rendering.
The América Tropical Interpretive Center will be open every day except Mondays, 10 to 3.