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Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Staff Writer

Mexico had to start its revolution without Diego Rivera. And if the bloody, internecine upheavals of 1910-20 had engulfed him, the history of modern art in North America might look quite different today.

But while his homeland, ablaze with socialist fervor, was putting the torch to its colonial past, Rivera was in Paris, burning with new ideas and preparing to spark a revolution of his own.

That quieter insurrection, an aesthetic one, is the subject of ``Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution,'' the large-scale retrospective that opens Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Consejo Nacional Para la Cultura y las Artes, through the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, the exhibition of more than 100 paintings, prints and drawings aims to make the case for Rivera not only as a political radical, but a stylistic one as well.

Emphasizing the lasting influence of the 14 years (1907-1921) he spent in Europe as a young man, the exhibition traces the impact on Rivera of such critical modern art currents as cubism, expressionism and surrealism.

While in Europe, Rivera studied the rounded sensuality of Ingres nudes and the representational hierarchies of Renaissance fresco paintings by Giotto and Michelangelo. He assimilated the melancholy subjectivity of Spanish modernismo, the attenuated elegance of El Greco's saints and the scientific precision of the Dutch masters.

He made friends with Picasso, Modigliani and Edward Weston, lived for a while in the same building as Mondrian, acquired a cosmopolitan circle of colleagues and paramours, and systematically began searching for a way to fuse Old World art concepts with New World political and cultural agendas.

Contrary to Rivera's popular image as a rough-hewn poet of the masses, the artist who emerges from ``Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution'' is a complex thinker and wily aesthetic strategist, part of whose genius, like Picasso's, was to seize on the affinities between ancient and avant-garde forms and conflate them into a bold, contemporary style.

``I think that this show goes a long way toward counteracting a popular idea of Rivera as somebody from south of the border who comes up almost as a local artist or an indigenous artist from his roots,'' says Lynn Zelevansky, LACMA curator of modern and contemporary art. ``I think that's a very nice, romantic notion, but I don't know that it's true.''

It's also a notion that Rivera, a skillful stage manager of his own myth, had a big hand in perpetrating.

To casual art enthusiasts, especially those north of the 32nd parallel, Rivera is most frequently thought of as a painter of picturesque peasants and dense Marxist murals, a pear-shaped populist precariously balanced on the work-in-progress of modern Mexico.

We recall his iconic bulk, his Gargantuan appetites for new commissions, new Hollywood admirers, new lovers. He seemed to devour the whole of pre-Colombian art, which he collected avidly. Then he refashioned its primal, abstract, iconographic shapes as a powerful visual syntax for a nation hungering for a new cultural identity.

His murals have been regarded as mythically inflated cartoon strips through which the allegorical import of Mexico's turbulent history could be grasped by an illiterate peasantry. Together with Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rivera constituted a holy trinity of high-guerrilla art, self-contained and violently opposed to whatever smacked of European elitism or gringo imperialism.

It's this view of Rivera as a sort of Latinized, Bolshevik Norman Rockwell - provincial, sentimental, crudely propagandistic - that for decades has held sway in art-criticism circles. Such views have tended to wall off Rivera from the continuum of mainstream (i.e. European-based) modern art, much as they've also excluded, for example, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

This tendency was reinforced by the nationalistic thrust of 20th-century Mexican culture, just as abstract expressionism in the United States declared its independence from Europe. The desire to shake off a foreign heritage was especially strong in Mexico, which had suffered not only two revolutions but the bizarre French occupation of the 1860s.

Building on the curatorial revisionism of previous retrospectives at the Detroit Institute of Arts and elsewhere, LACMA's exhibition offers a counter-view of Rivera.

Far from being a naive outsider who burst fully formed from the revolutionary soil, Rivera was a savvy, well-traveled disciple of European art history when he returned to his homeland in 1921. The lessons he learned in the galleries of London, Paris and Madrid would later serve him well when Mexico's minister of education, Jose Vasconcellos, began instituting his vast mural projects for public buildings.

``What the muralists teach us is that innovation comes from tradition,'' says Gregorio Luke, executive director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, who'll be giving an Aug. 8 lecture on Rivera at LACMA.

``Diego is a man that embraces all different styles and techniques. He tries everything. He says that the only way you can liberate yourself from these things is by embracing them. So he paints like El Greco and he paints like Cezanne and he paints like the Dutch masters.''

Sampling Cezanne, Gris and Mondrian, Rivera experimented with compacted foregrounds and backgrounds in the cubist manner. A key early work in the exhibition is the 1913 ``Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard (Young Man at Balcony).''

In this groundbreaking picture, Rivera renders the Parisian cityscape as a geometric cluster of angled buildings, speeding trains and industrial smoke. In the foreground, the dandyish young Mexican artist, a friend of Rivera's, adjusts his leather gloves while seeming to spin an enormous Ferris wheel on his fingertip. His elongated body and translucent skin make him the unmistakable offspring of El Greco. The picture's reverence of speed and technological progress links the image with Italian futurism.

Another key work is the 1915 oil painting ``Zapatista Landscape (The Guerilla).'' In this vitally colorful still life, a multiplaned collage of rifle, sombrero and serape contrasts with a rugged mountainscape. Apparently depicting an abstract fighter in the revolutionary army of Emiliano Zapata, the painting integrates Mexican motifs into a cubist mathematical framework.

Other works in the exhibition flash references to Mexico's national heroes in scraps of cigar labels or other seemingly innocuous details.

``If you think of cubism as an art of everyday life, if you think of cubism as an art of the cafes and the newspapers, that kind of stuff ... dominates Rivera's cubist work,'' says LACMA's Zelevansky.

Still, it's not always easy to detect Europe's lingering influence on Rivera's later work. Some scholars have concluded that, once back on native soil, Rivera dropped cubism altogether. But hints of it resurface here and there.

``There's a nonlinear nature to the way the murals are constructed. It's like all of history is happening at one moment, and you're seeing it from all different angles,'' Zelevansky observes. ``It's tempting to think that that has a conceptual relationship to cubism.''

Perhaps a greater legacy of Rivera's continental sojourn was that it gave him the tools to excavate Mexico's indigenous past, which had been hidden like one of those Aztec pyramids buried beneath a Catholic cathedral. In the same way that Rivera found a way to blend Marxist dogma with his homegrown, anarchistic Pan-Americanism, Rivera bent European expressionism into an expressive new bilingual art.

In doing so, he uncovered ``an alternative voice for modernism'' says Paul J. Karlstrom, West Coast regional director of the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, based at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino. By proving that an artist could serve community and ethnicity while heeding the ``siren call'' of a passionate personal vision, Rivera opened a pathway for the Chicano muralists and for Latin-American and even Asian-American artists of today, Karlstrom says.

Today, 42 years after his death, Rivera remains an art-world celebrity, especially when linked with post-feminist It Girl Frida Kahlo, his sometime wife and partner in radical chic.

Meanwhile, a new generation of artists is grappling with Rivera's legacy. Some embrace it, while others are trying to break through the so-called ``Tortilla Curtain'' of nationalistic art in search of a more universal platform.

No doubt the old revolutionary would enjoy knowing that the revolution, and the counter-revolution, go on.

``I think today, in many cases, we are in dead ends where young artists don't know where to go,'' says the Museum of Latin American Art's Gregorio Luke. ``Diego Rivera teaches us where to go.''


What: ``Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution.''

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: Opens Sunday, continues through Aug. 16. Museum hours are noon to 8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; noon to 9 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed Wednesdays.

Admission: Adults $7; students 18 and older with ID and seniors 62 and older $5; children/younger students $1; children 5 and under admitted free. The second Tuesday of every month is free to all.

L.A.-area venues abound with Latino art

``Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution'' is this season's big event in Latin American art, the largest Rivera retrospective in the United States in 13 years. But there are other venues in greater Los Angeles in which to see works by Latino artists, including Rivera and his contemporaries.

California State University, Northridge, Art Galleries, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge; (818) 677-2226. The campus galleries have presented a number of recent shows, including Patssi Valdez, ``Private Landscapes''; Christina Fernandez, ``The Body Is an Analog and Bend: Two Works on Sight''; and ``Raices - Roots: Tres Generaciones.''

J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood; (310) 440-7300. The Getty's permanent collection includes works by David Alfaro Siqueiros, Graciela Iturbide, Joaquin Torres-Garcia and others. The Getty Conservation Institute is supervising the conservation/restoration of Siqueiros' destroyed mural ``America Tropical'' at Olvera Plaza in downtown Los Angeles.

Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, 112 S. Main St., Los Angeles; (213) 626-7600. While still putting together a permanent collection, the museum sponsors educational programs in Latin American art history.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 857-6000. LACMA's holdings of Latin American art increased dramatically with its 1997 acquisition of more than 2,000 paintings and works on paper from the collection of Bernard and Edith Lewin. Among those artists represented in the collection are Carlos Merida, Rufino Tamayo, Rivera and Siqueiros. Rivera's only known easel painting of his wife Frida Kahlo, also from the Lewin collection, is currently on view as part of LACMA's Rivera retrospective.

Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 626-6222. Recent exhibitions of Latino artists' work have included ``Cicatriz'' and ``Ana Mendieta: Siluetas.'' The permanent collection offers works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jorge Pardo, Gabriel Orozco, Laura Aguilar and others.

Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; (562) 437-1689. Founded in 1996, this museum focuses on work by emerging, midcareer and established artists from Mexico, Central and South America such as Daniel Senise (Brazil), Ignacio Iturria (Uruguay), Fernando Botero (Columbia) and Alfredo Castaneda (Mexico).

Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara; (805) 963-4364. Outfitted with a solid permanent collection, this 58-year-old institution has hosted more than three dozen exhibitions of Latin American art, including shows of works by Siqueiros, Tamayo and Maria Izquierdo.

Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building 1, Santa Monica; (310) 586-6488. Exhibitions have included ``Big Fish Eat Little Fish - Daniel J. Martinez With Composer Vinzulu Kara.'' Upcoming exhibition: ``East of the River: Chicano Art Collectors Anonymous,'' in March 2000.

- Reed Johnson


5 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) On the cover: The oil painting ``Zapatista Landscape'' (1915) is part of the LACMA exhibition ``Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution.''

(2--Color) Diego Rivera's ``Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard (Young Man at Balcony)'' (1913), painted in Europe and featuring a cubist-influenced geometric background, is one of the artist's influential early works.

(3--4--Color) Above, Realism and reflection combine in Rivera's 1938 ``Portrait of Lupe Marin.'' At left, Rivera's early, pre-Europe ``Self-Portrait'' (1906).

(5--Color) There's a cartoon-strip quality in the multiple panels of ``History of Religion V'' (1950-57).

Box: L.A.-area venues abound with Latino art (See text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 26, 1999

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