By Leslie Rainer
On October 9, 1932, David Alfaro Siqueiros completed his monumental mural América Tropical, on the second story of the Italian Hall on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. The mural, commissioned by La Plaza Art Center, was intended to depict a romanticized view of tropical America, a land of plenty, with fruits falling into the hands of the people. Siqueiros, a political activist and revolutionary artist, instead painted a scene of Maya ruins, with a central, crucified Indian figure. An American eagle looms above him, while two sharp–shooters take aim at the eagle from nearby.
The mural was controversial from the moment it was unveiled, and the scene with the sharpshooters, which could be seen from Olvera Street, was whitewashed within a year. By the end of the decade, the entire mural had been whitewashed. Censored, then neglected and largely forgotten, América Tropical was only rediscovered in the late 1960s, and it soon became a touchstone for the Chicano mural movement.
In the early 1990s, the Getty Conservation Institute and the City of Los Angeles conceived a project to conserve, protect, and make publicly accessible América Tropical. The coordination, design, and implementation of the project lasted over twenty years, and in October 2012, on the eightieth anniversary of its original unveiling, the GCI and the city reopened the mural to the public.
During the project, a multidisciplinary team of conservators, scientists, architects, engineers, and exhibit designers faced a number of challenges. First were the scientific analysis and conservation treatment of the badly deteriorated mural. In addition, a shelter for the mural that would protect it from the elements and provide optimum viewing conditions needed to be designed and engineered; along with the shelter, the project required a platform to allow viewing of América Tropical by the public. Due to the location of the mural in a historic district, a public approval process was also necessary for the design of these elements. Finally, the design and installation of an interpretive center were critical for providing information about the mural, as well as placing it in the context of Siqueiros's life and work.
Conserving América Tropical
Efforts to conserve the mural began in the late 1960s with art historian Shifra Goldman. In 1971 Goldman recruited film–maker Jesus Terviño to make a documentary film about América Tropical. For that film, Treviño brought two conservators from Mexico to examine the mural and propose a treatment. The conservators concluded that because of the mural's overall deterioration, it could not, and should not, be restored to its original color; rather, it should be stabilized and conserved in its current state. Siqueiros, then living in Mexico City, was consulted, and he proposed re-creating the mural on portable panels. Siqueiros actually began work on these panels in his studio, but he was unable to complete them before he died in 1974.
In 1977 Jean Bruce Poole, a curator at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument (the city entity that oversees Olvera Street), joined Goldman in an effort to preserve the mural. Together they brought in additional experts to examine América Tropical and built a series of shelters to protect it while funds were sought for its conservation.
In 1987 Poole and Goldman approached the GCI to conduct materials analysis on the paint and plaster used on América Tropical. Following this study, a weather station was installed to monitor conditions at the site and to assess the possible adverse effects of light and atmospheric pollution on the mural. These studies laid the groundwork for the GCI to develop a comprehensive plan for the mural's protection, conservation, and presentation. At the same time, an interpretive center was conceived that would provide information on the mural and its artist.
The first phase of conservation was carried out in 1990 by a team of conservators led by Agustín Espinosa from Mexico; two other treatment campaigns, in 2002 and 2012, have followed. Since the visit of the Mexican conservators in the 1970s, there has been a consensus among the interested parties that the guiding principle for the conservation of América Tropical should be to preserve the history of the mural and the original paint, retaining the authenticity of the artist's hand. The original materials that remain are a testament of the revolutionary fresco painting technique that Siqueiros was developing in Los Angeles at the time, a technique that formed the basis for some of his later innovations on murals in Mexico and South America.
Conservation has also aimed to preserve the story of América Tropical, its controversial subject matter, its whitewashing, neglect, and eventual exposure over decades. The current state of the image—which is much fainter than when originally painted—is a result of these factors. Therefore, any significant repainting or restoration would, to a large degree, erase the history of the mural. With this in mind, the GCI's treatment of the mural focused on cleaning, consolidation, plaster and paint reattachment, tar and stain removal, filling of losses, and minimal aesthetic reintegration. In addition to the completed treatment, the project to conserve América Tropical also includes long-term monitoring and maintenance, to which the GCI is committed for the next ten years.
Protecting the mural
Integral to the América Tropical project was the design and construction of a shelter to protect it. The objective was to shade the mural from direct sunlight, keep rain off, and give visitors an optimal viewing experience.
Several plans for a shelter were explored. The final design, by Brooks + Scarpa Architects (formerly Pugh + Scarpa), is a fabric-wrapped structural steel canopy with a roll-down screen that protects the mural when the site is closed to the public. The canopy spans the entire eighty-foot length of the mural, allowing for an unobstructed view from the nearby viewing platform. The sheer weight of the canopy, over seventy thousand pounds, required that load-bearing columns extend through the foundation of an adjacent building. An additional complication was encountered when archaeological investigations revealed that the proposed columns were positioned directly above the location of the zanja madre, an underground brick aqueduct from the original water system for El Pueblo and Los Angeles that dated from the early nineteenth century. The columns were engineered to prevent damage to this important archaeological artifact.
The viewing platform, located on a nearby rooftop, is accessed through the América Tropical Interpretive Center. The platform, which is accessible during the open hours of the center, can accommodate up to twenty people at a time.
The challenges of designing and building a contemporary canopy and viewing platform in a historic district were difficult, but their final design is sensitive to the surrounding historic fabric. As an example, the color palette of Olvera Street and El Pueblo are integrated into the design of their key elements.
Interpretation and Presentation
Given América Tropical's deteriorated state and the faintness of its image, interpreting the mural for the public posed a challenge for the exhibit's designers. The aim of the interpretive center is to offer visitors a fuller understanding of América Tropical in the context of Siqueiros's work and life. To achieve this, designers created a series of interactive exhibits and didactic displays on a range of topics, including the story of Siqueiros as an artist and political activist; the milieu of Los Angeles in the 1930s; the iconography and meaning of the mural, as well as its conservation; and the impact of Siqueiros's legacy on Los Angeles and the contemporary mural movement. The complex story of the mural is seen through these many lenses, providing visitors with a deeper knowledge of who Siqueiros was, what he was saying in the mural, and how the mural influenced subsequent generations of artists.
From the early attempts to preserve the mural in the late 1960s to the comprehensive project undertaken by the GCI and the City of Los Angeles (supported in part by Friends of Heritage Preservation, a group of private individuals based in the United States), the perseverance and commitment of individuals and institutions, along with the work of a multidisciplinary team, have made it possible for people to finally view the only remaining public mural in Los Angeles painted by Siqueiros. These combined efforts have served to preserve América Tropical, so that its artistic, social, and historic legacy can be appreciated for generations to come.