The Mural that Never Was

5 Oct

In 1928, John Rockefeller,Jr. leased 22 acres between 48th and 51st Street in Manhattan from Columbia University with the intention of building a home for the Metropolitan Opera. After the crash of 1929 he changed his mind and took on the task of financing the entire project himself at a staggering cost in 1930 of $250,000,000. The complete complex, which took nine years to complete, comprised 14 buildings designed in the Art Deco style.

Discussions concerning a lobby mural by the famous American painter and muralist Diego Rivera began as early as 1931. Rivera had been commissioned by Rockefeller’s wife Abby, and son, Nelson to execute a series of murals for the Museum of Modern Art. Nelson, developed the theme: “man at the crossroads and looking with uncertainty but with hope and high vision to the choosing of a course leading to a new and better future.”

Rivera responded with a statement outlining a technocratic fantasy, involving telescopes, microscopes and cinematographs, fore runners to what bevame television, with the reason that technology brings enlightenment, a world in which workers understand their rights in relation to the means of production. He also submitted several drawings for approval one of which featured a diverse medley of workers standing in front of a television-like machine that illuminates a celestial panorama. On either side of the scene, amid masses of figures engaged in work and leisure, are pairs of projected images framed by ductlike structures and flanked by people in soup lines and soldiers in gas masks.

Though the commission’s guidelines specified that the mural was to be painted on canvas using a monochromatic palette that would match the subtle colors of the lobby marble, Rivera convinced the Center’s management to have it done in fresco, a lime paster mix, and in full color.

Abby and Nelson watched the mural’s progress even as its subject matter turned distinctly “left” emphasizing he battle of classes and competing social and ethical issues. A new section of the mural depicted a May Day demonstration, and Rivera’s assistant Lucien Bloch wrote,  “I expect some commotion about this new turn.” But Diego’s mistress Frida Kahlo assured her that Mrs. Rockefeller climbed the scaffolding every night and seemed to have “radical taste.”

As the work continued, the center section focused on a single worker guiding a massive energy emitting machine that seemed to be powering the universe and the microbiology of mankind. On the left side a giant projector illuminated images of the May Day demonstration, female athletes at a starting line and a small group of multi-national farmers and workers joining hands in solidarity with a man not to be mistaken as anyone but the former communist leader, Vladimir Lenin. On the right, a similar projector focused on tanks, airships and soldiers with bayonets raised. It also spot lit a small group of woman playing cards in a club, a couple dancing, and a man looking remarkably like Mr. Rockefeller drinking from a martini glass while chatting with a young woman.

The combination of the introduction of Lenin into the mural and the likeness of John Rockefeller holding a drink, when the man had taken the pledge against alcohol as early as 10 years of age, forced Nelson Rockefeller to confront the artist and suggest some modifications. With Rivera’s communist credentials on the line, the artist staunchly refused to change his work, a stance that resulted in his dismissal from the project. On May 9, 1933, Rivera was escorted from the building and paid the balance of his fee. The mural was covered over in canvas….unfinished and unviewed except for black and white photo surreptitious taken by Bloch. Nine months later, the fresco was chiseled off the lobby wall.

In time, Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads” was replaced by a much larger monochromatic mural by the Spanish Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert, entitled American Progress, depicting a vast allegorical scene of men constructing modern America. It contains the figures of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and spans several walls of the lobby.


President John F. Kennedy stated in an address Amherst college in 1963, “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

In 2011, George Rothacker began researching New York in the 1930s for an intended portfolio of paintings focusing on the City during the Great Depression, including the Harlem Renaissance, and the art, literature and music of the era. During this process, Rothacker was reminded of a mural by Rivera and learned the story of its creation and demise. After completing 6 paintings, he and his wife, Barbara visited New York, attended a showing of Rivera’s murals at the Museum of Modern Art, photographed the lobby of the Rock, and learned more about the controversial artwork.

Returning home, the painter stretched a 4 foot x 6 foot canvas and began recreating Rivera’s masterwork, filling in incomplete areas and unknowns from reference from a smaller painting based on the original work entitled “Man, Controller of the Universe,” and unraveling the paintings proportions and content from his photos of the Center and Bloch’s black and white’s. Wherever possible, the artist retained the design and feeling of the original uncompleted Rivera work.

In the new painting, Rothacker shows the Rivera work on the center wall behind the information desk at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and has painted in celebrated figures of the time, who might have attended a reception for Rivera. Characters include John Rockefeller, Jr., George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Groucho Marx, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy Parker, Clark Gable, and several others as well as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.


In the long run art outlives politics. Picasso’s painting, Guernica , and Hemingway’s Book, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, are better remembered today than the events leading to the Spanish Civil War which inspired the artist and writer; and Shostakovitch’s 4th Symphony has outlived the condemnations of Joseph Stalin. It may not have been a wise move for Abby Rockefeller to enlist Rivera for the Rockefeller Center project, but the artist did only what he felt was surely right, standing on his principles and the power of art to stimulate change.

As Kennedy added in his Amhearst speech, “ If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”

A month later Kennedy died, but two years later. President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating The National Endowment for the Arts.


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