Left My People Go:
MoMa was only two years old when Diego Rivera occupied it for the first time. It was the fall of 1931, during the Depression, and the museum brought the artist from Mexico to New York six weeks before his solo show to create what we now might describe as semi-site-specific works. On blocks of frescoed plaster, slaked lime, and wood, he painted five “portable murals”—some on themes from Mexican history (his famous Agrarian Leader Zapata); others on class inequity, and revolution. After the opening, RIvera added three more murals about social injustice in New York—or, as we might say now, the 99 percent.
That’s the theme of Frozen Assets, shown here, which looks awfully fresh for a 1931 painting. MoMA is reuniting it with other works from the original exhibition in “Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art,” opening November 13. Also featured are designs for Rivera’s Rockefeller Center murals, which were destroyed in 1934 after a scandal over the artist’s “unauthorized” depiction of Lenin.
”Diego Rivera” is but one amazing show on art and politics at an institution built on oil money this fall. At the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, “Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1950–1980” chronicles how artists took to the streets—and exploited the mass media— to support social and political movements advocating for feminism, peace, and more. The website documents works like The Peace Tower, a massive 1966 protest against the Vietnam War featuring hundreds of paintings sent from artists from around the world, and the elegiac performance In Mourning and Rage, staged by Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus in 1978.
How this might impress the Occupy Museums protestors who’ve branched off from Occupy Wall Street to picket MoMA and other museums isn’t clear, since their message seems to have morphed from a critique of cultural elitism to a collective sharing of information and empowerment. In which case they should do a field trip inside the museums too, where they will find (in addition to more Communist art) evidence of the cultural elitism they rightly detect—as well as many programs offering information and empowerment. Sometimes the radicals are on the inside.
Which is to say, there are a lot of ways to occupy museums. At MoMA, Tony Shafrazi spray-painted Picasso’s Guernica in 1974 to get his protest against the Vietnam War on front pages around the world; that was a bad way. Occupy Museums has been deeply controversial in the art world regarding its targets and intentions. But initiating conversations with people outside the museum about cultural elitism, underpaid art handlers, and issues that keep people out of museums? Funny thing—that sounds just like the art inside the museum.
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico
© 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York