Art In Action

In 1939, the Golden Gate International Exposition opened on Treasure Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. It provided thousands of visitors with new glimpses of the world; past, present and future. Thousands of cars drove over the newly opened San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and parked on the flat man-made outskirts of Treasure Island. Fairgoers were treated to hundreds of exhibits from across the country and around the world.

One special exhibit, called Art in Action (June 1 - September 29, 1940) was designed so that the public could watch artists in the process of creating their paintings, sculptures, and frescoes. Timothy Pflueger, a well-known San Francisco architect and one of the organizers of the fair, invited Diego Rivera to participate. Rivera was commissioned to paint a giant fresco to be installed in the new library building to be constructed on the grounds of the San Francisco Junior College (now called City College of San Francisco), of which Pflueger was the principle architect.

Rivera arrived in San Francisco in 1940, divorced from his second wife, artist Frida Kahlo, and moved into artist Ralph Stackpole's studio at 42 Calhoun Street on Telegraph Hill. During the time Rivera was working on the Treasure Island fresco, Frida joined him in San Francisco and the couple remarried.

Work on the fresco began after the Rivera's sketches for the mural were approved by the San Francisco Art Commission on July 25, 1940. The mural was not completed by the closing of the Exposition on September 29, 1940. Rivera and his two assistants, Emmy Lou Packard and Arthur Niendorff, continued to work for two months after the Fair closed in the empty echoing exhibit space (which was really an airplane hangar) using only a waffle iron for heat.

At the end of 1940, the public was again invited to Treasure Island, this time to view Rivera's finished work. On Friday, November 30th, an estimated five thousand people previewed the mural. A public viewing of the mural was open on Sunday, December 2nd. An estimated 25-30,000 people crowded into the building to celebrate the masterpiece and to mourn the end of the Exposition. The fresco was then packed into ten crates and put into storage.

Pflueger's plans for the new library building at City College had included a gallery space intended as the permanent location for Rivera's mural. Pflueger died in 1946 and his library was never built. Rivera's politics made him the frequent subject of controversy. That reputation, fueled by the depiction of dictators in Panel 4 and the budget crunches of World War II, kept the fresco in storage until after Rivera's death in 1957.

The mural panels were initially stored on Treasure Island where one of them was partially damaged during a warehouse fire. For a brief period, there was a plan to store them at the de Young Museum, but the panels would have had to be lowered through a skylight with the use of a crane and the cost was prohibitive. They were eventually stored in a shed on the grounds of San Francisco Junior College.

In 1957, Timothy Pflueger's brother, Milton went to the San Francisco Unified School District Board with a plan to keep the Rivera mural and have it installed in a City College building. The construction documents for a new Theater had been approved. Milton suggested that the drawing for the Lobby be modified to accommodate the mural. In 1961, the ten panels were finally lined up, welded together, and surrounded by a protective wall.

Art in Action Exhibition