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Neglected Treasures 

A famed Mexican artist painted six murals for the 1939 World's Fair in S.F. One famously disappeared. The others have practically been ignored.

Wednesday, Jan 16 2008
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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.'"

Covarrubias' lifelong fascination with anthropology was more than an avocation. For instance, his study of iconography led him to determine that the Olmecs preceded the so-called Classic Era in Mexico (200-900 A.D.), long before archaeologists arrived at the same conclusion. In turn, admirers say, Covarrubias' interest in other cultures (he wrote about African Americans, the Balinese, and pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico) play out vividly in his modernist murals, easel paintings, sketches, and illustrations.

María Elena Rico Covarrubias, who was a teenager when her uncle moved from Tizapan after the breakup of his marriage to her family's Mexico City compound, says he rarely slept and "left the light on in his apartment until daybreak, working day and night" near the end of his life. "He always smiled despite the ulcer that was killing him," she recalls. "Seeing and hearing him left me feeling calm."

Despite being a repository of stories from Cowan about her life with Covarrubias (including her bitterness over his leaving her for another woman), Williams says she had no intention of writing a biography until after she moved to the Bay Area in the mid-'80s and married for a second time (to San Francisco attorney Tom Williams), when friends prevailed upon her to do so.

By then, Covarrubias' work had begun to enjoy a resurgence of popularity, not only in Mexico and the United States, but also in Asia, where his evocative depictions of the Balinese were snatched up by collectors in Singapore and elsewhere.

Yet, in San Francisco, there remained the "appreciation gap," Williams says. And with the murals' status as curatorial orphans looming once again, she says, "that certainly hasn't changed."

The recent fuss in Mexico over the murals makes their history of neglect in San Francisco all the more extraordinary. "People here clearly haven't appreciated what they had," says art collector Bob Marcus, a retired aluminum company executive, who has admired the paintings since moving to the city in the early 1970s.

From the time they were installed at the Ferry Building in 1959 until their removal in 2001, the murals received little if any maintenance, observers say. "They were gray and dirty with years of grime, and splattered with God knows what," says San Francisco caricaturist Zach Trenholm, a huge Covarrubias fan who has the artist's self-portrait tattooed on his left arm. "It was really kind of pathetic."

Williams says she was just as appalled by the institutional apathy she encountered in the mid-'90s upon starting a campaign to rescue the paintings. Talk of renovating the Ferry Building had surfaced, and the time seemed right to push for finding the murals a new home.

Her appeals to then-Mayor Willie Brown and the Arts Commission, the agency charged with championing public art in the city, went nowhere, she says. Through her and Rivera Marín's efforts, a team of Mexican government art restorers wrote to the commission, offering to come to San Francisco at their own expense to consult on how best to restore the paintings. The letter went unanswered, Williams says.

But a bigger indignity occurred in 2001, after the work of renovating the Ferry Building had already begun, with the murals — uncovered and unprotected — still on the walls.

"To me, that was simply unconscionable," says Williams, recalling the swirling dirt and dust the day she visited. She and Rivera Marín voiced their displeasure in front of TV news cameras. The story didn't play well, especially in Mexico, where news of the artwork's treatment was perceived as a cultural affront. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors took up the matter in a special hearing. Although insisting that the murals were unharmed, red-faced officials of the Port of San Francisco, which operates the Ferry Building, scurried to have them taken down and placed in storage.

"Unfortunately, during all the years [at the Ferry Building], the [murals] were treated more as wall decoration than as art," says art appraiser George Belcher, who in 2004 appraised the five murals as worth $1 million apiece. "That was then, and that was being very conservative."

As is the situation now, officials didn't seem to know what to do with the murals once they were removed. Although they were technically part of the Arts Commission's inventory, there was no place to put them and no money to restore them. Since Covarrubias produced them on Treasure Island for the 1939 World's Fair, someone suggested sending the paintings to the island, where there was plenty of storage space at the abandoned naval air station. As a consequence, curatorial responsibility fell to the Treasure Island Development Authority.

Wrapped in plastic, the soiled and deteriorated paintings were leaned against a wall inside a building secured and maintained by the Navy, next to a hodgepodge of mothballed artifacts from the defunct Treasure Island Museum.

They might still be there collecting dust, if it weren't for attorney Philip Hudner.

In 1939, Hudner was a third-grader living on a ranch near the Central Valley town of Hollister when he visited the fair on a school trip. He was instantly smitten with the anthropological maps, he says: "There was something about those murals and the enormity of them that just captivated me. I couldn't take my eyes off them."

Like many other people, he'd seen the five surviving murals over the years at the Ferry Building, not far from his Montgomery Street law office. But it wasn't until the building reopened after renovation — minus the murals — that he learned their future was in jeopardy. Hudner was uniquely positioned to play a role in the murals' rescue: He is the head of the Field Fund, a trust established by philanthropic San Francisco couple Charles D. and Frances Field that funds a wide range of charitable endeavors.

Courtesy of the foundation, Hudner made available more than $150,000 to pay for the murals' restoration. After prodding by Williams and others, the Mexican consulate made overtures to the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom. The result: The murals were shipped to Mexico City to be cleaned and restored under the auspices of the Fine Arts Museums, and the Treasure Island Development Authority agreed to the exhibition loans.

Williams was relieved. Having been snatched from oblivion and restored, Covarrubias' surviving World's Fair handiwork would be — for a time, at least — safe and secure, not to mention admired, while displayed at some of Mexico's leading cultural institutions.

The artwork was packed off to Mexico, as quietly as the mystery mural had disappeared four decades earlier.

Within art circles, Covarrubias' famously missing mural elicits both fascination and frustration. If the painting (consisting of 12 separate panels) had disappeared in the immediate aftermath of the Exposition, it wouldn't have shocked anyone. The World's Fair was dismantled in haste, even as the Navy prepared to procure the island for use during World War II.

But unlike numerous other pieces of art from the fair — including some relatively large sculptures — that are known to have become "lost" when the Exposition closed, the mural didn't vanish until long after it left Treasure Island.

The caricaturist, artist, and anthropologist executed the murals over several months before the fair began after agreeing to travel from Mexico with Cowan for the princely sum of $1,000 per month. The murals adorned the Exposition's largest pavilion, Pacific House. The artist's sponsors with Pacific House arranged the couple's accommodations at the Plaza Hotel on Union Square.

Pacific House was more than a mere pavilion. It was a nonprofit whose board members included Bay Area social and business luminaries who hosted visiting dignitaries from around the world. Its chairwoman, Leslie Van Ness Denman, was an art enthusiast and the wife of William Denman, the presiding federal judge for the Ninth District.

Casting about for somewhere to display the spectacular, if oversize, artworks after the fair, Denman and her board in 1941 found a prestigious taker in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It assigned the murals a choice spot in its towering 77th St. lobby.

But in 1953, the museum remodeled the lobby and placed the murals in storage. Pacific House offered to donate the murals to the museum, provided that they would be displayed permanently, a condition to which museum managers couldn't agree.

For five years, the paintings languished in storage in New York. Finally, in 1959, Pacific House — which by then existed essentially in name only, and whose sole function was as legal steward of the murals — notified the museum that it had decided to donate the artwork to the now-defunct World Trade Center at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

Enter intrigue.

That only five of the six murals were ever installed at the Ferry Building is easily explainable: There was no room to hang a sixth painting. Artist Eduardo Pineda, former director of education at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has long been fascinated by the disappearance. He believes the folks at Pacific House surely realized there was a space shortage beforehand.

Or did they?

While researching her book, Williams interviewed officials at the American Museum of Natural History, including its then-director, in the early 1990s. She says they "dug up every piece of paper they could find related to the maps, which wasn't much." The museum's records include a notation that six murals were shipped to San Francisco. But the records offer few details, including who was responsible for transporting them or even how they were shipped, she says.

Williams finds it difficult to imagine that the mystery mural would have stayed in New York; nor does she think it was lost or stolen in transit. In either scenario, she believes the stellar citizens of Pacific House — who exhibited interest in the paintings when they could have easily left them in the museum's care — would have voiced public concern if one of the artworks had not made it to San Francisco, something for which there is no evidence.

Interest in the mural's disappearance revived briefly in 2001 after the hubbub over the paintings at the Ferry Building. There was even a renewed push to locate the mural after the head of the Mexican Cultural Institute, a government agency, came to San Francisco and publicly exhorted port officials to look for it.

The Arts Commission led the search. A 1959 internal memo says that commission staffers were "unable to find any archive for the World Trade Center to see if they have a paper trail of acceptance or record of what works were received." The state offered little help. An archivist with the California State Museum in Sacramento told the commission that while the existing murals appeared on an old property list for the Ferry Building, there was no record of a sixth painting.

With little to go on, the Arts Commission's search was reduced to a staffer who visited Pier 50 (the Port Commission's primary storage area) to ask workers if they had run across any old crates containing art.

"It's one of those mysteries where there is little left to us but to speculate," Pineda says. Along with others who've studied the disappearance, he believes it "highly unlikely" that the mural was merely lost, either in New York or in transit, citing the Museum of Natural History's reputation and the artwork's sheer size.

Pineda speculates that there may have been some "horse trading" on the part of people at Pacific House once they learned that not all the paintings would fit at the Ferry Building, regardless of when they came to realize it.

"These people obviously cared enough about the maps to have them returned to San Francisco to a public venue when the easy thing would have been to give them to the museum," he says. "Once they realized that there wasn't enough space [at the Ferry Building], it could be that someone decided that the sixth map would be better off in a private collection."

Others offer a similar view. "My guess is that the mural most likely wound up in someone's private collection," says Belcher, the art appraiser. "Considering the time that's passed, it isn't far-fetched to think it could even be in someone's basement."

New York fine-art dealer Mary-Anne Martin, who opened the Latin American department at Sotheby's in the 1970s and has long admired Covarrubias' work, agrees. "It was probably stolen," she says, "which is not to say that it will never surface." She cites a painting by Mexican master Rufino Tamayo that was stolen in Houston in 1987 and reappeared in 2006 at auction in New York. "These things happen. We can only hope."

"It's a mystery that may never be solved, but unless or until it is, people will probably never stop wondering about it," Williams says.

Covarrubias' admirers could be forgiven for wondering why such acclaimed works should find themselves orphaned in a city that prides itself on its public art.

That isn't to suggest that there hasn't been some interest in displaying the murals locally. Both before and after they were removed from the Ferry Building and warehoused on the island, several institutions have inquired about them. The Mexican Museum, the recipient of much of Covarrubias' folk art collection in 1976, has long coveted the paintings. But it has no place to display them. Its tiny Fort Mason facility is currently closed to the public, and its dream of a new museum in SOMA is stalled for lack of funds.

The proposed Museum of San Francisco and the Bay Area, slated to move into the historic Old Mint building South of Market following renovation, has expressed interest, until determining that the paintings "wouldn't really work" because of their size, says Charles Fracchia, museum founder and president emeritus. The shuttered Treasure Island Museum, whose collection is also in storage, faces an uncertain future until long-range redevelopment plans for the island are decided.

Before San Francisco International Airport was renovated, Williams and others lobbied the Arts Commission to house the murals there, but were rebuffed, she says. "There seemed to be very little interest" on the part of the commission, she says: "The explanation we heard was that the space was already spoken for."

One institution whose interest hasn't wavered is City College of San Francisco, which wants the murals for the expansive glass-enclosed lobby in its planned new $110 million performing arts center, for which it hopes to break ground next year. The college already houses a much-celebrated Diego Rivera mural also executed for the 1939 World's Fair. "Let me say, with an exclamation point and underscore, that we have the highest level of interest in providing a home for the Covarrubias maps," says Philip Day, the college's chancellor.

For the college to get its wish, however, would require the murals' owner, the Treasure Island Development Authority, to let them go — something the agency, despite having nowhere to show them, has in the past been unwilling to discuss.

The college made overtures to Treasure Island officials in 2002 and was told "thanks but no thanks," Day says. Asked about the matter, the island's operations director, Mirian Saez, who was hired in 2006, says she's willing to talk with the college, but isn't ready to make commitments.

Meanwhile, at the end of January, when the Mexico run ends, the murals will be crated and returned to San Francisco, where — in the absence of anywhere suitable to showcase them — they are once again destined to be put away.

"That's a matter for San Francisco officials to decide, but we certainly do not want to see them remain in storage," says Jonathan Chait, a cultural affairs officer with the Mexican consulate here, which helped negotiate the Mexico tour.

TIDA officials say that in the near term, they would like to make an arrangement with the de Young Museum — which is believed to have no interest in the murals for its permanent collection primarily because of their size — for a temporary exhibition.

But de Young curator Kathleen Berrin says that even if the museum were to give the green light for an exhibition, it would likely be three to five years before it happened.

"They're wonderful pieces and certainly merit our attention," says Berrin, who admits to having had "tears in my eyes" upon visiting the murals in Mexico. "But what are we to do?"

As Saez of TIDA puts it, the status of the murals "could probably best be described as 'to be determined.'" And until that changes, agency cultural resources coordinator Peter Summerville says they will be going back to a familiar place where the public can't see them: storage.

About The Author

Ron Russell

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