How to move a fresco by Diego Rivera weighing 30 tons? Very carefully.


SAN FRANCISCO – For decades, Diego Rivera’s monumental 10-panel mural depicting a continent bound by creativity has been mounted in the lobby of a theater at City College San Francisco. There, a bit removed from the art world, it was nurtured as a labor of love by a de facto tutor who has long dreamed of finding a way to allow more people to do it. experience.

Now, after a four-year, multi-million dollar venture involving mechanical engineers, architects, art historians, fresco experts, art manipulators and riggers from the United States and Mexico, La Feet fresco was carefully extracted and moved across town to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be on display on June 28.

“Diego was building a metaphorical bridge between Mexican culture and the technological culture of the United States,” said Will Maynez, former laboratory director of the City College physics department, who has become the unlikely keeper of the work, which belongs to the middle School.

Maynez, who is of Mexican descent, is fluent in Rivera and has spent 25 years researching and promoting the “Pan American Unity” mural. Its panels are a kaleidoscope of Rivera’s thoughts: the menacing goddess of the earth, Coatlicue; Mexican artisans; American industrialists; the historic rulers of the two nations; dictators; Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, and himself. Its full title is “The Marriage of North and South Artistic Expression on this Continent”.

Moving the mural to SFMOMA was a gigantic undertaking.

“This is one of the most ambitious things this museum has ever done – move something so big, so fragile and so important,” said Neal Benezra, the museum’s director. Paco Link, the museum’s fresco manager for this project, likened the fresco to “a 70 foot eggshell”. (The artwork will be on display in a free gallery on the museum’s first floor as it prepares for its ‘America by Diego Rivera’ exhibition, which opens next year; the mural will remain on view at the museum until ‘in 2023 and will then be returned to college. A new performing arts center, funded by a voter-approved bail measure, will house the mural. It’s unclear when the new building will be ready, however.)

Every month, around 100 art students and tourists from Rivera may have seen him in college, Maynez estimated. He established a symbiotic relationship with mural painting. Years ago, when his wife fell ill with Alzheimer’s disease, the fresco work supported him. And when she passed away in May 2020, he said, “It saved my life.”

Maynez, 74, is self-taught. Traveling the world, he (along with Julia Bergman, a university 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, created a strong website with a blog, and worked to preserve the legacy of the mural with 3D imagery online.

He can tell you why Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, and Robert Fulton, who designed the steamboat, are prominent in part of the mural: Because the two men were also painters, Maynez said, “They have defined the theme of reconciliation. of art and science.

Take a step back and the arch of people through the mural stands out. Notice it looks like the arch of the Golden Gate Bridge, he said. What about the mother hovering over a dead child? It is Rivera who pays homage to “Guernica”, painted by his friend Picasso.

Almost every day of the week since retiring nine years ago, Maynez walks or takes public transport to City College to take care of the mural. When he received honoraria for lectures, he donated the money to the restoration of the mural; he was not paid by City College for his work with the mural.

“Anytime someone has a question, they say, ‘Oh, Will will know,’” said Michelle Barger, conservation manager at SFMOMA. “He is the custodian of everything related to ‘Pan American unity’,” she added.

Benezra, director of SFMOMA, said he saw the work as “Rivera’s pictorial plea for some kind of unity in the Americas.”

“We live in a time of tremendous resurgence of nationalism in the world,” he continued, “and that’s an anti-nationalist way of looking at it. “

In 2011, wanting more people to see the mural and hoping it could find a better location on campus, Maynez, with the approval of the administrators, used funds from a Rivera account at the college 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 nearly impossible, Maynez took it for a yes.

During a meeting at the museum once involved in the project, Maynez remembers Benezra telling her, “’The fresco will never be overlooked again.’ “

In an interview, Maynez said, “It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

The museum went the bottom line: it hired engineers from the multidisciplinary design center at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known for tackling the near-impossible.

Alejandro Ramirez Reivich, a technical design professor at the university who conducted the survey on how the murals could be moved safely, described the project as “an opportunity to try to bring these two countries closer together.”

Dr Reivich said he had been fascinated with Rivera’s art from childhood and his US-born artist mother took him to Rivera’s studio.

Rivera, who intended to move the mural to City College, did not paint directly on a wall, but  on plaster with steel frames. But when the panels were placed in the theater building, the posts attached to the back of them were embedded in the concrete wall without it being known that they would be moved again.

Two summers ago, while engineers were investigating the mural, they drilled 18-inch-wide holes resembling Swiss cheese in the exterior walls of the university theater. Wearing a bicycle helmet, Dr Reivich climbed inside to see how the panels were attached. “He was like the mad scientist,” Barger said.

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

This spring, the movers began removing the panels from the concrete wall. Threaded rods were slowly twisted into place above and below the mural by teams of movers inside and outside the building, who wore helmets to synchronize their actions as they spun. simultaneously the stems – one sixteenth of an inch at a time. It took two hours for a panel to move six inches.

Then, before dawn on a Sunday last month, a truck holding a panel covered with custom shock absorbers drove through town at 8 km / h and delivered it to the museum, where it was hoisted into place. (This was the first of seven trips.)

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


Corina C. Butler

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