A detail from Diego Rivera's "Dance in Tehuantepec," 1928, from the collection of Eduardo F. Costantini, Buenos Aires; © 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Credit: Juan Millás

“Diego Rivera’s America” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) opens July 16, bringing together more than 150 of the global artist’s works. The exhibition focuses on Rivera’s practice from the 1920s to the mid-1940s, the richest years of his prolific career. During these two key decades, Rivera created a new vision for North America, informed by his travels in Mexico and the United States.  He considered art to be an essential tool in the utopian struggle for greater social equality and justice.

“He was deeply concerned with transforming society and shaping identity — Mexican identity, of course, but also American identity, in the broadest sense of the term,” notes guest curator James Oles. “Because of his utopian belief in the power of art to change the world, Rivera is an essential artist to explore anew today, from a contemporary perspective.”

A gallery at SFMOMA features Frida Kahlo’s “Frieda and Diego Rivera,” 1931; Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender; and Diego Rivera’s “The Flower Carrier,” 1935; Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender in memory of Caroline Walter; and Diego Rivera’s “Girl with Coral Necklace,” 1926; Albert M. Bender Collection, Albert M. Bender Bequest Fund purchase; Credit: Henrik Kam. All images © 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Diego Rivera’s America

“Diego Rivera’s America” opens July 16; member previews start July 14.  Tickets at sfmoma.org, $2 discount online. Exhibit surcharge for adults.

SFMOMA is open Thursdays, 1-8 p.m., and Fridays through Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Wednesdays.

Rivera (Mexican, 1886-1957) believed in the power of art to educate, inspire action and transform society. Paintings such as “The Tortilla Maker” (1926) and “Weaving” (1936) focus on everyday people as the protagonists of national narratives. From the early 1920s to the mid-1940s, Rivera reimagined Mexican national identity on a vast scale, embraced the industrial age in the U.S. and conceived of a greater America in which unity was paramount. 

Rivera’s idea of “America” did not refer to only the United States. “I mean by America, the territory included between the two ice barriers of the two poles. A fig for your barriers of wire and frontier guards,” he said in 1931. Above all, he believed that the U.S. and Mexico shared a similar historical foundation in which a rich Indigenous past had been suppressed by colonial violence. He believed that a shared creative force and revolutionary impulse distinguished the two countries from those in Europe. 

The SFMOMA exhibition is the first to examine Rivera’s work thematically. The galleries devoted to Rivera’s U.S. murals feature large-scale preliminary sketches and cartoons for works such as his censored 1933 Rockefeller Center project in New York, as well as two fresco panels painted in New York. 

Diego Rivera and the Bay Area

Rivera’s timely return to San Francisco in 1940 to paint a large mural in front of a live audience at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island allowed him the opportunity to envision a collective American response to a world collapsing again into war. The vast fresco, “Pan American Unity,” was his last mural in the U.S. After the fair, “Pan American Unity” was moved to the campus of City College of San Francisco (CCSF). More than half a century later, the mural is on display at SFMOMA in the museum’s free-to-the-public Roberts Family gallery. 

San Francisco was particularly important to Rivera; it was the first place he painted murals in the United States. Likewise, his work was deeply influential to artists and muralists across the Bay Area. Through their work, Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo became deeply connected to local cultural figures. The exhibition will present portraits of their wide circle of friends in San Francisco, including three important paintings by Kahlo.

“Diego Rivera’s America” features two galleries dedicated to projects that might be familiar to those from the Bay Area, including preparatory drawing from two of his San Francisco murals from 1930-31: “Allegory of California” at the City Club on Sansome Street and “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” at the San Francisco Art Institute. The exhibition will also incorporate Rivera’s portable fresco “Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees” (1931), originally painted for a private home and now in the collection of UC Berkeley. 

Brought together for the first time, these works provide insight into Rivera’s time in San Francisco and highlight the artist’s role in helping to establish a legacy of politically engaged muralism that remains a part of the city’s identity and built environment. 

A details from Diego Rivera’s “Woman with Calla Lilies,” 1945; private collection, U.S.A.; courtesy Galeria Interart; © 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Public Programs 

On Sunday, July 17, SFMOMA will offer a free community celebration including free admission and a lively day of music, dance performances, screenings, and other revelry throughout the museum. All day long, experience the vibrant creativity of San Francisco’s Mission District with music and dance performances curated by Accíon Latina; a mercado featuring crafts by local artisans; a lowrider display; the public’s first peek at “Diego Rivera’s America” and more. 

In addition, on the first Thursday of every month, 1-8 p.m., Bay Area residents can enjoy SFMOMA for free. First Thursdays in August, September, and October will celebrate the Rivera exhibition with live performances, readings, and music.