The skyline of Frozen Assets offers a pantheon of the moment’s newest architectural icons. Fueled by the labor made available by vast unemployment during the Depression, giant structures were built across the city at breakneck speed, rapidly transforming New York’s topography. Rivera departs from Manhattan’s true layout: this is a composite image, made by moving landmarks from their actual positions in the city’s grid to create a dense, almost uninterrupted sequence of towering modern buildings.
In July 1931 the architect Raymond Hood and his team broke ground on Rockefeller Center, at the time the largest building project ever funded wholly by private capital. The site, which took seven years to complete, was a vital source of employment in New York. During a moment when 64 percent of the city's construction workers were unemployed, the building of Rockefeller Center was second only to the undertakings of the Works Progress Administration in temporary job creation.
At the time of Rivera's visit to New York, the city’s system of elevated trains was still operational. This is probably a stop on the Third Avenue line. Rivera’s passengers, an anonymous mass crowded onto a station platform, are dwarfed by the enormous buildings that rise behind them. His bleak vision contrasts with images of the city’s transit system by American artists like Reginald Marsh, who similarly pinpointed trains as a hallmark of urban life in the city. In images like The El (c. 1928), Marsh focuses on the spectacle that unfolds inside the train, offering a relatively picturesque view.
The central section of Frozen Assets pictures a steel-and-glass shed—identified by Fortune magazine as the Municipal Pier at East 25th Street—filled with sleeping men who are watched by a guard. The Depression’s impact on the city would have been immediately visible to Rivera in the winter of 1931–32: bread lines served tens of thousands of meals a day, roughly half of New York's manufacturing plants were closed, and makeshift shacks housed scores of newly homeless men and women throughout the city.
In 1931, The New Yorker reported that the bank vault found in this fresco panel's lower section was inspired by Rivera's trip to the Irving Trust building at One Wall Street, which at the time bragged that its underground repository was "the most impregnable ever constructed." Financial institutions figure prominently in this work's imagined skyline, creating a constellation of buildings that connect to the theme of hidden wealth.
Rivera seems to have included a sly jab at the Rockefellers—key backers of his show at MoMA and future patrons of his ill-fated mural at Rockefeller Center—in the lower register of Frozen Assets. The man waiting to examine his security box bears more than a passing likeness to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the craggy profile of the of the clerk on the far left brings to mind John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Years earlier, Rivera had used a portrait of the elder Rockefeller in a panel at the Secretaría de Educación Pública in Mexico that openly disparaged U.S. capitalism.