In 1941, shortly after the close of the Golden Gate International Exposition (World's Fair) on Treasure Island, curators packed up six giant murals created for the fair by acclaimed Mexican artist José Miguel Covarrubias and sent them on loan to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Eighteen years later, when the paintings' San Francisco sponsor terminated the loan and designated the artwork for display at the Ferry Building, only five of the decorative "anthropological maps" turned up.
Officials at the New York museum have long insisted that all six paintings were returned to San Francisco. But only five were ever installed at the Ferry Building. They languished there in neglect for more than 40 years until being taken down and put into storage when the century-old landmark was renovated in 2001.
What happened to the other mural, measuring 15 by 24 feet, is a mystery that has long aroused curiosity in art circles on both coasts and in Mexico, where Covarrubias died in 1957 at age 52.
Titled "Art Forms of the Pacific Area," the mural was more or less the same size as the other so-called maps, each celebrating different aspects of the fair's "Pacific" theme. The others depicted native people, fauna and flora, the economy, native dwellings, and means of transportation.
Adriana Williams, Covarrubias' San Francisco biographer, has served as a voice in the wilderness on behalf of finding the missing artwork, and, more significantly, as an advocate for the surviving World's Fair pieces.
Partly owing to her efforts, the remaining five murals were recently rescued from a Treasure Island warehouse, where they had been banished after the Ferry Building remodeling left no place for them. For the past year or so, they have been on loan to various museums in Mexico, where Covarrubias is revered as one of the country's most important 20th-century artists. In the United States, he is best known for helping define the Jazz Age with his Art Deco–like caricatures in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker; he also worked as an illustrator for jazz and blues legend W.C. Handy's books.
"The [murals] were extraordinarily well received," says Maria Elena Rico Covarrubias, the artist's niece, who was on hand for their unveilings at Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology and three other venues. "The resurgence of interest in his work should contribute to the realization of their importance in San Francisco."
In contrast to the murals' obscurity here, the exhibitions have drawn huge and enthusiastic crowds, including lavish press coverage and gala opening events hosted by high-level government officials.
But now that the triumphant Mexico tour is drawing to a close, and the murals are slated to return to San Francisco at the end of January, there's a problem.
No institution here is willing or able to display them.
It's a prospect that understandably has Williams and other supporters of the murals up in arms. "It's a complete tragedy," she says. "This has to be some of the most underappreciated significant artwork you'll find anywhere."
As the murals' champion for two decades, Williams takes an interest as much personal as curatorial, which pre-dates Covarrubias, her well-received biography of the artist published in 1994.
Considering her family's roots in New York and Mexico, Williams is perhaps ideally suited as a sustainer of the Covarrubias legacy. She is the granddaughter of former Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles. Her father, a New York dermatologist who was friends with a Mexican army general, met her mother upon being summoned to Mexico to treat a growth on the president's face. Her mother married her father at age 16, and Williams was born a year later.
Williams' first memories of Covarrubias and his American-born wife, Rosa Cowan, an accomplished photographer and interpretive dancer who also dabbled in painting, date to 1940, when Williams was seven and they attended one of Cowan's dinner parties in her native New York. After Covarrubias' death, Williams became Cowan's close friend and confidant.
When Cowan died in 1970, Luis Barragan, the renowned architect who was executor of her estate, asked Williams to help organize her possessions. They included many of Covarrubias' papers that Cowan had carefully maintained.
As Williams recounts, the settlement of Covarrubias' estate in 1957 had been a mess. Some of his brothers were suspected of colluding with the National Anthropology Museum to help it acquire the bulk of his fabulous antiquities collection — and to keep it from Cowan, from whom the artist was estranged when he died. Covarrubias bigamously married a young dancer from Mexico City's famed Palacio de Bellas Artes while artistic director there during his final years.
Cowan made sure that many of her husband's early papers and drawings went to the Library of Congress. Included were other materials from their tumultuous life together in New York, Mexico, and Bali, where Covarrubias went in the 1930s to blend his fascination with art and anthropology.
After resettling in his native Mexico, Covarrubias followed a similar path, becoming an expert on the ancient Olmec civilization. He helped raise money to excavate some of the country's most important archaeological sites. The couple's home in Tizapan on the outskirts of Mexico City became (along with that of close friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo) a magnet for intellectuals and international notables.
The couple kept a multidisciplinary list of friends, from Amelia Earhart and Georgia O'Keeffe to Dolores del Rio and John Huston. Legend has it that it was at their kitchen table (Cowan was a gourmet cook) that Nelson Rockefeller, a frequent visitor, agreed to finance a major excavation of Palenque in the Yucatán. As Williams notes in her book, the couple's salon "was what Virginia Woolf's home was for the London crowd [and] what Gertrude Stein's was for Paris, except the food was inarguably better."
Guadalupe Rivera Marín, daughter of Diego Rivera, recalls being at the house with her father as a child, when the guest list included D.H. Lawrence and Orson Welles. "Covarrubias took great pride in his magnificent [archaeological] collection," she says. "He would say to my father, 'Diego, I have just bought some Olmec pieces better than yours,' to which my father would laugh and reply, 'You practically discovered the Olmecs. You deserve them.'"