The Battle of Rockefeller Center

Principal Personages:

DIEGO RIVERA (1886-1957), painter and muralist.

NELSON A. ROCKEFELLER (1908-1979), millionaire philanthropist and art collector.

ABBY ALDRICH ROCKEFELLER (1874-1948), mother of Nelson Rockefeller, founder of Museum of Modern Art, and supporter of Rivera’s work.

RAYMOND HOOD (1881-1934), architect for Rockefeller Center.

HUGH ROBERTSON, manager of Rockefeller Center.

There are many contradictory reports of the incident between Rivera and Rockefellerin the contemporary media and in subsequent biographical and autobiographical accounts. But these are the undisputed facts surrounding the Battle of Rockefeller Center of 1933-1934.

By the early 1930’s, Diego Rivera was one of the best-known and most controversial artists in the world. An avowed Communist-—despite his expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party in 1929-—Rivera’s populist murals utilized vibrant colors and simple vernacular images to illustrate his Marxist ideals and the plight of the working class throughout Mexican history.

Rivera’s American debut took place in San Francisco in 1930 with the commission to paint a mural in the local stock exchange and in the California School of Fine Arts. Although his political views raised some eyebrows, ultimately the job was completed without incident. In the winter of 1931, the Museum of Modern Art in New York—founded by Abby Aldritch Rockefeller—presented a one-man show of Rivera's murals.

His next major American commission foreshadowed what would eventually take place in New York City. The Detroit Art Commission, under the chairmanship of automaker Edsel Ford, chose Rivera to paint a mural in the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The resulting twenty-seven-panel fresco, aroused the ire Catholics who called the mural irreligious and charged that one panel in particular, the “Vaccination” panel, was a caricature of the Holy Family. The artist denied this, maintaining that his intention had been to sanctify science as contributing to the saving of life. Other panels were attacked as Communist propaganda, and the City Council was urged to order the paintings removed from the walls. The critics did not prevail, however, and the murals were formally accepted by the Detroit Arts Commission on April 12, 1933.

Meanwhile, in New York City, controversy was arising over the possible selection of “alien” artists to decorate the lobby of the soon-to-be completed R.C.A. Building in Rockefeller Center. Many in American art circles felt that native artists were inerently better equipped to portray American life. Despite this debate, Rockefeller’s contractors sent proposals to three chosen artists-—Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Diego Rivera-—inviting each to participate in a “contest.” Instructions were clear, down to the material (canvas, not fresco), color scheme (black and white), and even the varnishing requirements (5 coats). And all three artists rejected the offer. As Rivera explained twenty-five years later in his autobiography, “there are few indignities that can be thrown in the face of an established painter greater than to offer him a commission on terms which imply any doubts as to his abilities.” Architect Raymond Hood was ready to drop Rivera, but Nelson Rockefeller-—executive vice-president for Rockefeller Center-—intervened, and his mother backed him up. Nelson praised Diego’s Detroit murals and wrote notes containing such flattering statements as “Please let me know when your frescoes in Detroit are finished so that we can arrange to come up and see them. Everybody is terribly anxious to see how you have interpreted the industrial life of Detroit” (letter of October 13, 1932). Rivera eventually agreed to do the mural, although negotiations dragged on over the summer between architect and artist over Rivera’s demands. According to Rivera, Nelson Rockefeller intervened in May 1932 and, in the end Rivera won out—he would be permitted to use color and the material could be fresco rather than canvas.

Rivera submitted a sketch addressing the agreed upon theme: “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.” The design concept, although eulogizing workers and indicting the more flagrant facets of American industrial society, was approved by Nelson and the architects. In March of 1933, Rivera set to work with a cadre of assistants.

As the painting neared completion in late April, a New York World-Telegram reporter, Joseph Lilly, visited the R.C.A. building for a preview. The resulting April 24 article, titled “Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Rockefeller Foots Bill,” highlighted many themes that were not at all new to those familiar with Rivera’s work. The abundance of the color red and the representation of toxic materials, for example, had also appeared in the Detroit murals. On April 28, however, an element was added that would almost seemed calculated to create controversy, the figure of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Illich Lenin.

Several days later, Raymond Hood the architect was on the scaffold examining some ceiling paint that had dripped onto Rivera’s mural and noticed the addition. And then, as Rivera’s assistant remembered, “the fun began.” On May 4, Rivera received a letter from Nelson Rockefeller. Claiming to find the mural “thrilling,” he nevertheless requested that another figure be substituted for that of Lenin because it “might seriously offend a great many people.” Although the figure of Lenin had not appeared in his original sketches, Rivera refused to budge. Lenin would remain, but he did offer to compromise by balancing Lenin's mural with that of some great American such as Abraham Lincoln. (The Correspondence between Rivera and Rockefeller)

At this point, the matter was turned over to the management team of Todd, Robertson, and Todd. Several days later, the Rockefeller Center management team—-along with security guards-—escorted Rivera off the scaffold, handed him a check for $14,000—the balance of his $21,000 commission—and placed tarpaper over the mural. Workers protested by picketing outside. Intellectuals, artists, and activists mounted both pro- and anti-Rivera campaigns.

The mural remained covered for about ten months. During the fall and winter, Nelson, Abby, and people from MoMA, tried to find a way for the fresco to be removed intact and transported to the museum, but no technique for removing it proved workable. At midnight on Saturday, February 9, 1934, the mural was destroyed and the chunks of plaster carted off in fifty-gallon oil drums.

Before we proceed to explore the cultural drama behind the creation and destruction of the most famous mural of the twentieth century, we should pause to consider what it looked like -- more or less. In 1934, Rivera recreated the design orginially intended for Rockefeller Center in the Palacio de Bella Artes, Mexico City. He entitled it, "Man, Controller of the Universe," and, in three obviously pointed gestures, kept the image of Lenin and added portraits of Trotsky and Nelson Rockefeller himself shown enjoying a drink in the nightclub scene beneath the hovering syphilis cells. For details, click on the image.