Man at the Crossroads, photograph by Lucienne Bloch, 1933

During the final week of March, 1933 Diego Rivera began work on a mural for the lobby of RCA Building One in Rockefeller Center. The title, chosen by the architects of the building, was to be Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future (Hamill 164). On May 9, 1933 Rivera was fired. The largely unseen public mural was destroyed approximately a year later, after storms of protest. Public art can be a profoundly moving rhetorical act. The differences of opinion surrounding this artwork reward close scrutiny. It was a complex design failure.

The central actors in this drama were the communist painter Diego Rivera and the Rockefeller family. While in retrospect, the combination seems doomed from the onset, the arrangement made sense at the time. The Rockefeller family heritage is filled with both philanthropy and ruthless capitalist practices. John Rockefeller and his son John D. Rockefeller founded the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913 with profits from Standard Oil Corporation (Rockefeller 347). In 1929, John D. Rockefeller’s wife, Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller, along with two other wealthy patrons, founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. With her son Nelson, Abbey Rockefeller championed modern art. John D. Rockefeller himself despised modern art, considering it “unlifelike, ugly, and disturbing” (Rockefeller 348). However, despite his reservations, Rockefeller was still a patron of the arts. Rockefeller Center, the scene of the crime, began as a combination of self-interest and philanthropy.

The blocks surrounding the Rockefeller home in New York City were becoming a social problem. “With the advent of prohibition nightclubs and speakeasies selling bootleg liquor appeared” and “there were rumors that a number of brothels had opened as well” (Rockefeller 354). The property was owned by Columbia University, and the majority of the leases were due to expire from 1928-1931. The university wanted to attract the Metropolitan Opera as a tenant for their redevelopment project, and John D. Rockefeller was pulled into the project as a land developer in 1928. The stock market crash of 1929 caused most of the tenants, including the Metropolitan Opera, to pull out. John D. Rockefeller was forced to seek other tenants, including RCA (Rockefeller 355). The shift in economic situation was reflected in the political climate of the country. Communism was on the rise due to the deepening depression. As Peter Hamill puts it:

Groucho Marx said that things were so bad that “the pigeons started feeding people in Central Park.” Those who were not consoled by Groucho sought refuge with Karl. More young people turned to Marxism, and membership in the Communist Party soared to the largest numbers in history (about 80,000). (154)

The relationship between the Mexican Communist painter Diego Rivera and the Rockefeller family began in the 1920s. But after his successful show at MoMA in 1931, Rivera became a frequent visitor at their home. Rivera submitted a sketch for the lobby of the RCA building, was accepted at the urging of Nelson and Mrs. Rockefeller (Rockefeller 356). Rivera campaigned heavily to produce public art in the United States. In a unique blend of religious fervor and technocracy, Rivera extolled both the virtues of the worker and of the machine age. “Machinery does not destroy,” he said, “it creates, provided always that the controlling hand is strong enough to dominate it” (Hamill 155). In this sense, Rivera was ideally suited for the RCA project, because radio was one of the most rapidly growing industries in America. However, it would be two years before work on the mural commenced, and in this time the rhetorical scene shifted dramatically.

Rivera arrived in Detroit in January 1932 with a sense that the ideals of the Mexican Revolution were in decline due to the rise of Stalin. The ranks of the American communists were also split between terror over what the Russian revolution had wrought, and support of the basic principles of the party. Rivera was also jolted by the miscarriage of his wife Frida Kahlo in July 1932. She returned to Mexico in September, due to the death of her mother. But by March of 1933, despite persistent personal illness, Rivera completed masterful murals for the Detroit Institute of the Arts, partially funded by Edsel Ford (Hamill 154). Controversy was generated by the Detroit murals, not due to any political overtones, but because of a purported blasphemy. A right wing radio priest named Charles Coughlin accused Rivera of parodying the nativity, with Jean Harlow presenting the world with the Lindberg baby. The museum directors held firm, and the mural remains there today (Hamill 162).

Detail from Detroit Mural

While Rivera was finishing the Detroit murals, Adolph Hitler took over as Chancellor of Germany. US Banks collapsed, and when Franklin Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, he inherited a bankrupt nation. On March 20, the day that Rivera arrived in New York City, the first concentration camp opened in Dachau. Three days later, Hitler was granted dictatorial powers. The title for Rivera’s mural (chosen by the architects, not by Rivera) Man at the Crossroads seems apt. The original specification was for three flanking murals, one by Picasso, one by Matisse, and one by Rivera. However, the other two artists dropped out leaving the entire wall to be filled by Rivera (Hamill 164). The world political situation was tense.

Work on the mural proceeded rapidly, but came to a sharp halt when in a gesture of solidarity with the original spirit of the Russian Revolution, Rivera painted an image of Lenin joining hands with workers around the world. As David Rockefeller explains:

It was wonderfully executed but not appropriate for the lobby of the RCA building. Nelson tried to persuade Rivera to eliminate, at the very least, the portrait of Lenin. But the artist refused to change anything, saying that rather than mutilate his great work he would have the whole mural destroyed! Nelson pointed out that he had not been commissioned to paint Communist propaganda and that, based on the original, much less provocative sketch, there was no reason to accept the work as finally executed. In the end, when no compromise could be reached, Rivera was paid in full and dismissed. An attempt was made to remove the fresco, but it proved impossible, and the work of art had to be destroyed. (356-7)

While from the Rockefeller’s perspective the problem was a lack of professionalism on the part of Rivera, the situation is even more complex given possible audiences for the work. According to Rivera, he was not allowed to photograph the incomplete work and was barred from access. Rivera’s assistant Lucienne Bloch smuggled in a camera in her bosom and took the only known photographs of the mural, making Rockefeller’s account of an attempt to “save” the mural seem highly unlikely.

Another assistant on the project, American artist Ben Shahn, sent a note to Rivera claiming that he would “strike” if Lenin’s head were altered. Shahn arranged protest marches to protest the cessation of the mural, unifying the momentarily divided American Communist Party factions (Kao 46). However, the results were mixed. Many Communist groups railed that Rivera was not a true Communist for accepting the commission at all. Others saw Rivera’s use of Lenin in the mural as a dig at Stalin, and boycotted him. Shahn resigned from the Communist party, saying in a lecture from 1949: “This was the first of the statements against vandalism and injustice that I’ve been making or signing every since” (Kao 48). Rather than being a simple case of propaganda, Rivera’s mural seemed to fail on both ends of the political spectrum.

As a work for hire, did Rivera fail to deliver on his contract? It seems almost certain that he did. But were the Rockefeller Center representatives within their rights to destroy the mural? Could better information management or audience analysis prevent the failure? It seems unlikely. Predicting the events of 1933 seems beyond the scope of even the best planning. In the handling of the situation, it seems that both parties were at fault. The “hope and high vision” on both sides seems myopic. Socially responsible art will always reflect on the circumstances of its creation.

However, as a result of this failure and others like it, definitions of the responsibilities of art patrons have been attempted. “Do Artists have Moral Rights?” by Joseph Zuber describes legislation meant to preserve public art. Under California and New York statutes, artists have been granted more reasonable rights to remove or preserve their work if it is deemed inappropriate by their patrons. However, the legal position of these statutes is in question due to the national Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which unlike the California statute, does not specifically prohibit the destruction of works of art. Public art will probably never be safe from public outcry.

Works Cited:

Hamill, Pete. Diego Rivera. New York, Abrams: 1999.

Kao, Deborah Marin. “Ben Shahn and the Public Use of Art.” Ben Shan’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times. New Haven, Yale University Press: 2002.

Rockefeller, David. “To Be a Rockefeller.” Vanity Fair. Oct. 2002. 343-358.

Zuber, Joseph. “Do artists have moral rights?” Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society. 21:4. 1992. 284-308.

*Response to an assignment to research a design failure and analyze if better strategies for information management might have prevented it.