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?
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.
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!
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.
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.