From 1931-1932, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera created eight large-scale, “portable” murals for a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Eighty years later, five of these works—freestanding murals as large as six by eight feet, made of steel armature, reinforced concrete and frescoed plaster— have been reunited in “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art,” on view at MoMA through May 14.
Visiting on a recent Sunday, I was struck by how contemporary the themes of the works—which are divided into a Mexico and a New York series—felt. They span questions of national identity, class inequality and the role of public art in an increasingly commercialized art world.
The first half of the exhibition, dedicated to the Mexico-themed works, offers a somewhat mythologized chronology of Mexican history, from its pre-Columbian and conquista past to its revolution and then its industrial present. Though painted in New York in the six weeks leading up to the exhibition’s opening, they reflect themes Rivera explored in fixed murals he painted in Mexico during the 1920s, when the country was still emerging from revolution and was in the process of actively forging a new cultural identity. They were all produced in the classical fresco style, which Rivera studied in Italy in 1921 at the request of Mexico’s Minister of Education as part of a public art initiative by the Álvaro Obregón government.
When songwriter Billy Joel penned this classic song about New York City, it had a big nostalgic overtone. In short, it is very hard to be away from New York City for long. The new Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has sounded a similar tone about New York State and its past leadership role among the 50 states—a time when the Empire State was the “go-to” state and not a “move-from” state.
With statistics at hand, the Governor pointed a somber picture of where New York State is and convincingly argued that the state was at a crossroads. Lagging behind in economic development, healthcare performance, education results on a national level and along with the highest taxation in the nation, he has argued for reinventing, reorganizing and redesigning the state and its government. He has also promised to make the necessary cuts—about $10 billion—in the next budget, due within a few weeks. Finally, he has sounded a realistic tone that clearly indicated that his program and agenda were not a short term, quick fix approach. Rather, it would require an effort over the long haul and would involve both the executive and legislative branches of the government.
It is heady stuff. Using impressive technological support and an unconventional venue, Cuomo demonstrated to his audience at his swearing-in ceremony a command of the situation, and more importantly, he engaged his most crucial partners, Assembly Speaker and fellow Democrat, Sheldon Silver, and new Senate Republican Majority Leader, Dean Skelos in the exercise. The message was clear: we are all on the same ship sailing in one direction.
At the swearing in, both Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Skelos struck a tone of cooperation and promised to work together looking for common solutions, encouraging bipartisanship, and displaying a firm commitment to work beyond the partisan divide. The bar will be high and there will be many difficult choices ahead, but for the over 2,000 people present in the Albany State Convention Center, it marked a new beginning and indicated new opportunities to turn things around.
Cuomo closed his first remarks as governor by reminding the audience that New York State was once the beacon for problem solving and innovation. This was his “New York state of mind” moment. While it is too early to predict how all this will turn out, it was a moment of attention and encouragement that New Yorkers seem to have longed for many years. Just that in itself makes it a good start for the new administration and legislature, and a moment to savor for our New York friends.
*John Parisella is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is Québec's Delegate General in New York, the province's top ranking position in the United States.