March 13, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
A Tour of New York City with Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera. Pneumatic Drill (cartoon for Pneumatic Drilling). 1931. Charcoal on paper, 97 1/4 x 76 7/8″ (247 x 195.2 cm). Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Diego Rivera was enthralled with New York City from the moment he arrived here in November 1931, six weeks before the opening of his retrospective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art. Fascinated by modern technology, he felt an immediate connection to the city, which at the time was in the throes of one of the largest construction booms in U.S. history, known as the skyscraper race. Rivera funneled his fascination into the creation of three New York–themed portable murals, which were included in his 1931–32 MoMA show. Two of these fresco panels, as well as an 8-foot drawing for the third, are currently on view in the exhibition Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art. We have identified most of the sites referenced in these works, and with this information plotted the various places Rivera visited while here. You can compare present-day views of these sites with photos taken around the time of the artist’s visit on the exhibition’s website.

Rivera left clues about the places pictured in his murals in his autobiography. He described Pneumatic Drilling, for instance, as a scene of workers boring into the bedrock under Rockefeller Center, and documents in his private archives confirm that Rivera received special permission to sketch there. However, his writings can also be misleading. Rivera said the plant in Electric Power belonged to the General Electric company, but after some long hours of research, I realized there were no GE plants within eyeshot of New York City in 1931. So, what did Rivera have in mind?

Diego Rivera. Electric Power. 1931–32. Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework, 58 1/16 x 94 1/8″ (147.5 x 239 cm). Private collection, Mexico. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

We first approached this question by thinking in broader terms. Given his passion for new technology, we thought perhaps Rivera envisioned the scene as a general celebration of modern industry and power production in the U.S. After all, the Federal Power Act had been revised in 1930, and construction began on the Hoover Dam in 1931. Rivera, like many on the left, believed technological advances would liberate manual laborers, who regularly toiled long hours to complete physically grueling tasks. Taking this into account, his excitement at witnessing the world’s most up-to-date building and manufacturing techniques while here in New York, and his decision to make those technologies the focus of his portable murals, makes sense.

Hudson Avenue Power Station in Brooklyn

We were satisfied with this interpretation of Electric Power until we received a wonderful e-mail from a visitor to the exhibition several weeks after it opened. Much to our delight, an employee of Consolidated Edison, New York City’s local power company, informed us that the mural actually captures the Hudson Avenue Power Station, a steam plant in Brooklyn that received four new boilers in 1932. In fact, the station supplied MoMA with steam heat until early 2011. This discovery is a prime example of the insights revealed when important works of art are exhibited after long stints in storage or private collections. Electric Power hasn’t been seen by a large New York audience since January 1932!

Diego Rivera. Frozen Assets. 1931. Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework, 94 1/8 x 74 3/16″ (239 x 188.5 cm). Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frozen Assets, the most ambitious of Rivera’s New York–themed portable murals, also contains specific references to the city’s major landmarks. With the help of a few expert architectural historians, we were able to name most of the dramatic skyscrapers in its upper register, a passage that captures the artist’s enchantment with New York City’s distinctive architecture. That said, Rivera combined his homage to the city’s physical makeup with a stinging critique of its social and economic inequity. We found an article in Fortune magazine from February 1932 identifying the steel-and-glass shed in the mural’s middle section as a homeless shelter on the East 25th Street pier, and according to the New Yorker, the bank vault pictured below was inspired by a visit to the Irving Trust building, a bank at One Wall Street. Taken as a whole, the work’s message is clear: the intense growth New York experienced in the early 1930s was made possible by the exploitation of many and the extreme wealth of very few.

Diego Rivera. Production and Manufacture of Engine and Transmission from the mural cycle Detroit Industry. 1932–33. Fresco, approx. 17′ 8 5/8″ x 45′ 1/4″ (5.4 x 13.72 m). The Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The interest in technology, industry, and urban life seen in these portable murals proved to be a fruitful point of departure for Rivera. He made similar subjects the central focus of his monumental mural cycle at the Detroit Institute of Arts, completed soon after his exhibition at MoMA, and his ill-fated commission at Rockefeller Center. We are thrilled to have uncovered the pivotal role Rivera’s 1931–32 stay in New York played in the development of one of his signature themes.

Diego Rivera’s fresco, Man at the Crossroads, in progress. May 1933. RCA building, Rockefeller Center, New York. Photograph by Lucienne Bloch, courtesy of Old State Studios, Gualala, California


amazing work of Diego Rivera in New York

most wonderful site, thank you


What would the manufacturing mural like today, more circuits, robots? And people sitting in computer chairs with zombie like gazes, or perhaps rows of unemployed dreamers watching in horror?

For Art is the invisible fuel for pilgrims to travel that earthly plane though countless Jordan rivers, leading safely boundless shores of Canaan Lands on earthly planes of ease as well as heaven mansions and pillows of the skies.
For the redeemed have already said A men.

Your article is misleading. Rivera went from NYC in 1932 to Detroit to create his murals there. After Detroit, he returned to NYC to do the murals (destroyed) for the lobby of Rockefeller Center.

What a great Muralist Diego was. He put into his work all the color and technique that he learned in Europe from the frescoes in Italy to the main stream painters in France. He also depicted the social dilemma the world was going through at that time. Today it is common to see even what we dislike to know it exists, Diego was a great artist man in his own right and even today, muralists learn from his work. His only defect is that he was born Mexican, and that in itself has diminished his global recognition as it should be. We know that now Mexico is treated mistakenly as a bad word…and the sole sound of this word makes you think of lesser people, that is such a big big mistake, but nevertheless, if Diego would have been born in France ….all collectors would pay in the 9 figure digits for his incredible work.

Saw his work in Mexico City! It is magical!


Thank you all for your wonderful comments. In case there is some confusion, I would like to clarify the chronology of Rivera’s stay in the United States. As noted in a comment above and in the last paragraph of my text, Rivera went to Detroit after his exhibition at MoMA. He then returned to New York in 1933 to work on a mural at Rockefeller Center. This work was destroyed in 1934.

Thank you for the wonderful web documentation on a show I enjoyed very much. The layout of the show was very well thought out.
Here is a link to the last mural Rivera did in the US:

What a facinating and creative man. Thank you for this recap of Rivera’s work!

I see d. rivera’s work looks like the mural in a
assembly hall in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s
in elementary school , P S 193 NYC.
Did he do the Mural at P S 193. it was above the
stage and on each side of wall of the stage.
It still is very clear to me of the picture of man
working on machinery in factories.

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