Highly controversial artist David Alfaro Siquieros (1896-1974) has been honored with two major re-inaugurations within the last month. The City of Los Angeles and the Getty Institute unveiled restored "América Tropical" on Olvera Street, eighty years to the day after Siqueiros himself unveiled the outdoor mural for the first time. The 9.95 million dollar project includes a viewing platform and interpretive center about the artist and the mural.
Timothy Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute explained "Part of the significance of this mural is not just the importance of Siqueiros, a major 20th century figure, but the fact that it was censored. . . That contributes to our understanding of it as much as what he originally painted."
Almost concurrently, Siqueiros' Cuernavaca workshop known as La Tallera was re-inaugurated by the federal government as a museum. I visited La Tallera last weekend and was welcomed to the newly refurbished museum by Public Relations Chief, Yolanda Rodriguez. I asked her that question I've often wanted to ask but didn't so as to not let on that I didn't know -- "why did he refer to his workshop as feminine?"
"Siqueiros gave it that name because it is a place of gestation, fecundity, creation, hence its femininity. He designed it as an industrial-sized workshop to give birth to mural art projects."
My first visit to La Tallera was shortly after Siqueiros' death, in the company of Roberto Berdecio, a Bolivian artist and muralist in his own right, who had worked closely with Siqueiros on América Tropical in 1932 as well as other projects in New York and Mexico.
From Berdecio I learned Siqueiros knew La Tallera was where he would produce his last big project -- the Siqueiros Polyforum. He had worn out his welcome with the Mexican government -- to the point of being incarcerated. Marcos Manuel Suarez became his backer and financier. It was Suarez's architects who built Siqueiros' Tallera just a couple of kilometers from Suarez's Casino de la Selva Hotel, which was to host the Polyforum.
Suarez, had been one of those many teenagers who sailed from Sevilla to Veracruz, sent, by their Spanish mothers, to America "to become a man". It was sink or swim for the boys armed with more names of family members who had preceded them than cash. Suarez did very well, but adhered to his mantra of having nothing to do with bandits -- his name for bankers. He worked with his own money. When Mexico City was awarded the 1968 Olympic Games, Suarez said "there's not enough hotel space for such an event," and he undertook the project of building Mexico City's largest hotel -- Hotel de Mexico (now World Trade Center Mexico). The Olympics came and went and the Hotel de Mexico wasn't finished until after Suarez's death when his sons enlisted the aid of bandits.
To make his new hotel more attractive, Suarez, over Siqueiros' objections, changed the location of the Polyforum from Cuernavaca to Mexico City. Indeed, long before the Hotel de Mexico was functioning, the rooftop revolving restaurant and the ground level Polyforum, with the world's largest mural, were open and generating income.
The financial demands of the construction of the Hotel de Mexico sucked resources from the Polyforum. After her husband's death, Angelica Arenal viuda de Siqueiros took out a full-page ad in Excelsior complaining to Suarez that what her husband had foreseen was indeed happening -- forcing him to scrimp and save meant the Polyforum was deteriorating quickly and hence affecting her husband's artistic reputation.
Despite the change in venue of the Polyforum it was at La Tallera that Siqeiros' turned out murals that are inside, outside, even on top of, his artistic extravaganza close to the intersection of Mexico City's Insurgentes Avenue and Viaducto Miguel Aleman.
As an artist, Siqueiros took us, as viewers, into account. Back in 1932 he painted América Tropical with the pedestrian in mind. "A mural visible from the street on the second floor of a building should not just be a large-scale painting hanging on the wall. It needs to be painted with the viewer-in-motion, in mind."
Though La Tallera's main exhibit revolves around the design and content of the murals that make up the Polyforum, another deals with Siqueiros' concept of polyangularity -- taking into account where the viewer will be standing, sitting, or walking. At his Palace of Fine Arts murals he imagines us leaning against a cool marble column while our arm rests on a brass railing. On Olvera Street we're viewing América Tropical day after day as we walk to work. Some viewers of the Polyforum are airline passengers on approach to MEX looking down on the roof of the building.
Siqueiros' last words, inscribed on a plaque that used to lie on his bed in his Cuernavaca home, were "I fear I don't have much time, and I have so much yet to do." One year earlier he had intended to restore América Tropical, but was denied a U.S. visa. I wonder which illuminated consul was responsible for that. That censored mural was still on his mind.