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Historic Olvera street Siqueiros mural, museum opens to the public

By Hayley Fox
Published: Tuesday, October 09, 2012, at 01:49PM
courtesy of the Getty Trust

The mural was conserved, not restored, in order to preserve the "artist's hand."



"América Tropical," the historic David Alfaro Siqueiros mural located on a building on Olvera Street, was unveiled today on its 80th birthday after years of conservation efforts by the Getty and the City.

Tim Whalen, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), said that with the completion of the "fated and fabled" mural, "the history of Los Angeles is a little more complete."

Whalen is referring to the controversial art work's tumultuous past. "Tropical" was painted in 1932 on the exterior wall of the Italian Hall, and features a Mexican Indian tied to a double cross with an American eagle descending on top of him and revolutionary soldiers closing in on his sides. The mural was quickly whitewashed over because of its politically charged imagery.

"It's not going away this time," said Whalen.

In fact, the mural is now accompanied by a rooftop viewing platform and the América Tropical Interpretive Center dedicated to Siqueiros' life and body of work. The almost $10 million project funded by the City of L.A. and the GCI, includes high-tech interactive and bilingual screens throughout the museum that help narrate the course of Siqueiros' life.

The conservation process was complicated and expensive; years in-the-making and relying on experts from all fields including architecture, chemistry and engineers, said Whalen.

Susan MacDonald, the Getty's project director who oversaw the process, said they chose conservation instead of restoration, because restoration would mean bringing the piece back to its former state -- accomplished by painting over Siqueiros' original work.

As it is now: “Everything on there is the hand of Siqueiros, the hand of the artist,” said MacDonald.

The original mural has eroded overtime and there are no color photographs of what it looked like when it was first created, she added, which would make color-matching nearly impossible even if the Getty had chosen to restore it.

"We want it to be authentic, we want it to be true to the artist's original vision but also his actual physical presence on the mural," said MacDonald.

The conservation process included cleaning the art work and getting rid of built-up grime and dirt, she said, in addition to filling in holes to ensure that the plaster was securely attached to the wall behind it. The project also include "dotting in" paint along certain lines and figures in the mural that had faded over the years.

In addition to its artistic value, Councilman José Huizar said he hopes the mural will inspire people to learn more about Mexican artists and the life of Siqueiros in Los Angeles.

"It's about history, it's about censorship, it's about art..." he said.

Huizar credits Siqueiros with jump-starting the mural movement in L.A. and for inspiring people to paint their cultural and political beliefs on walls. Earlier this year the councilman helped dedicate April 20 as Dia de Siqueiros (Siqueiros Day), in honor of the Mexican artist Huizar called the "father of L.A.'s mural movement."

Mayor Villaraigosa spoke multiple times (in English and Spanish) at the press conference Tuesday and said the day was "decades in-the-making."

"Today we pay a debt," said the mayor, fulfilling our responsibility to defend Siqueiros' work on his behalf since he wasn't able to defend it himself. The artist's visa ran out shortly after he painted the mural, and he was forced to leave the U.S.

By conserving and showcasing Siqueiros' mural, the city is confronting the "uncomfortable truths" of its history and finding "inspiration in the humanity of 'América Tropical.'"

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