In San Francisco, New Deal mural painting was particularly energetic, in part because of the direct influence of the radical Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
In 1930, just a few short years before the New Deal art programs were launched, Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo traveled to San Francisco, where he had been commissioned to paint murals at the Pacific Stock Exchange, now known as the City Club of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Art Institute. The famous couple's much-anticipated arrival made headlines in the city's newspapers, and the city's artists were mesmerized by the couple's elegance and avant-garde creativity.
"When Rivera showed up, he brought with him the possibility of transforming the San Francisco artistic environment with the energies of the Mexican artistic environment," says art historian Tony Lee. "He brought with him a different version of modernist painting, he brought with him a different vision of what public art might be like, and he brought with him a different vision of leftist politics as they might pertain to artists, all of which were both sources of energy, enthusiasm and excitement and tremendous anxiety."
Rivera's mural at the San Francisco Art Institute entitled "The Making of a Fresco" triggered a dramatic change in the consciousness of San Francisco's artists. "It visually demonstrates the relationship between wall painting and labor politics," says Lee. "It provided a way for students who were studying at the Art Institute to see right away the kind of political efficacy of wall painting. Somehow or other with that mural, light bulbs went on in students' eyes and minds about how to go about painting for a radical public. When the Art Institute mural was painted and unveiled, it was extraordinarily scandalous and also energizing for a lot of the young painters in San Francisco."
Even after he left, Rivera kept in touch with the artists in San Francisco, asking about commissions that might bring him back. Over the next few years, his notoriety grew and as the Depression set in, San Francisco's intellectual and artistic community had moved several degrees to the left, thereby further solidifying their solidarity with Rivera and his politics.
When work started on the frescoes at Coit Tower, some of the artists declared their solidarity with their hero – and with the laborers who were striking on San Francisco's docks – by infusing their frescoes with political messages, like Victor Arnautoff's "Metropolitan Life," which shows radical leftist newspapers in a newsstand, and Bernard Zakheim's "Library," which shows not only radical newspapers but even Karl Marx' Das Kapital.
Then in February 1934, just a month after the artists began their work on Coit Tower, a shot was heard around the art world: Rivera had been commissioned by the Rockefeller family to paint a mural for the RCA Building in New York City, and in it, he had drawn Lenin in his depiction of a workers' utopia. When Rivera refused to remove the Russian Communist leader from his masterpiece, the Rockefellers fired Rivera and destroyed the mural.
Artists around the country were outraged by what they saw as a violation of an artist's freedom of expression, and the muralists at Coit Tower went on strike in protest. "They were well aware that a painting could be censored now for speaking about leftism. A mere portrait of a person who was associated with the left could be grounds for censorship and destruction," says Lee.
Over the course of the next few years, Rivera's commissions dropped off. When Rivera's friend, San Francisco architect Timothy Pfleuger, was in Mexico City in 1939, he invited Rivera to the Bay Area to paint at "Art in Action," a program of the World's Fair on Treasure Island, partly to attract an audience with an artist of enormous stature, and partly to reinvigorate Rivera's career.
At "Art in Action," Rivera painted his great mural "Pan American Unity" in public, modeling the transparency and spirit that had become a part of his legacy. Over 30,000 people watched Rivera paint the mural, which includes a wide angle view of the city. "His job is to exhibit himself as a painter restoring himself to public significance," says Lee. "So there he is on the scaffold painting away, well aware of the fact that he's performing for an audience who is interested in him."
Rivera painted murals in several cities in the United States, including New York and Detroit, but San Francisco was the only city where he returned multiple times to paint multiple murals.