SAN FRANCISCO — For decades the monumental 10-panel fresco by Diego Rivera depicting a continent linked by creativity has been mounted in the lobby of a theater at City College of San Francisco. There, somewhat tucked away from the art world, it has been cared for as a labor of love by a de facto guardian who has long dreamed of finding a way to allow more people to experience it.
Now, after a four-year, multimillion-dollar undertaking involving mechanical engineers, architects, art historians, fresco experts, art handlers and riggers from the United States and Mexico, the 30-ton, 74-foot-wide-by-22-foot mural has been carefully extracted and moved across town to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will go on display on June 28.
“Diego was building a metaphoric bridge between the Mexican culture and the tech culture of the United States,” said Will Maynez, the former lab manager of the physics department at City College, who became the unlikely guardian of the work, which is owned by the College.
Maynez, who is Mexican American, speaks fluent Rivera and has spent 25 years researching and promoting the fresco, “Pan American Unity.” Its panels are a kaleidoscope of Rivera’s thoughts: the looming goddess of earth, Coatlicue; Mexican artisans; American industrialists; historical leaders of both nations; dictators; Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, and himself. Its full title is “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent.”
Moving the fresco to SFMOMA was a mammoth undertaking.
“This is one of the most ambitious things this museum has ever done — to move something this large, this fragile and this important,” said Neal Benezra, the director of the museum. Paco Link, the museum’s fresco manager, likened the fresco to “a 70-foot eggshell.” (The work will be exhibited in a free gallery on the first floor of the museum as it prepares for its “Diego Rivera’s America” exhibition, which opens next year; the mural will remain on view at the museum until sometime in 2023 and will then be returned to the college. A new performing arts center, funded by a voter-approved bond measure, will house the fresco. It is not clear when the new building will be ready, though.)
Each month, about 100 art students and Rivera tourists might have seen it at the college, Maynez estimated. He has formed a symbiotic relationship with the mural. Years ago, when his wife became ill with Alzheimer’s, the fresco work sustained him. And when she died in May 2020, he said, “It saved my life.”
Maynez, 74, is self-taught. Traveling around the world, he (along with Julia Bergman, a college librarian who died in 2017) unearthed letters, diaries, oral histories and even some of Rivera’s notes for his autobiography, “My Art, My Life.” Maynez translated some of Rivera’s writings, built a robust website with a blog and has worked on preserving the mural’s legacy with 3-D pictures online.
He can tell you why Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, and Robert Fulton, who engineered the steamboat, are in the foreground of part of the mural: Because both men also were painters, Maynez said, “They set the theme of reconciliation of art and science.”
Take a step back, and the arc of people across the fresco stands out. Notice that it resembles the arc of the Golden Gate Bridge, he said. And the mother hovering over a distraught child? That’s Rivera paying homage to “Guernica,” painted by his friend Picasso.
Nearly every weekday since he retired nine years ago, Maynez walks or takes public transit to City College to care for the fresco. When he received honorariums for talks, he donated the money to the mural’s restoration; he has not been paid by City College for his work with the mural.
“Whenever someone has a question, they’ll say, ‘Oh, Will will know that,’” said Michelle Barger, head of conservation at SFMOMA. “He’s the keeper of all things ‘Pan American Unity,’” she added.
Benezra, SFMOMA’s director, said that he saw the work as “Rivera’s painterly plea for a kind of unity of the Americas.”
“We’re living in a time of tremendous resurgent nationalism around the world,” he continued, “and this is an anti-nationalist way of looking at things.”
In 2011, wanting more people to see the mural and hoping he could find a better campus location, Maynez, with approval from administrators, used funds from a Rivera account at the college’s foundation to pay for a study on the feasibility of moving the mural. When the answer came back that it would cost a huge amount of money and be close to impossible, Maynez took that as a yes.
At a meeting at the museum once it was involved in the project, Maynez recalls that Benezra had told him: “‘The mural will never be little-known again.’”
In an interview, Maynez said, “This is all I’ve ever wanted.”
The museum took the thorough route: It hired engineers from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s multidisciplinary design center, which has been known to tackle the near-impossible.
Alejandro Ramirez Reivich, a professor of engineering design at the university who led the investigation into how the murals could be safely moved, described the project as “an opportunity to try to bring these two countries together.”
Dr. Reivich said he had been fascinated by Rivera’s art since he was a child, and his American-born artist mother took him to Rivera’s studio.
Rivera, who intended for the fresco to be moved to City College, did not paint directly onto a wall, but on plaster with steel frames. But when the panels were put into the theater building, studs attached to the back of them were embedded into the concrete wall with no apparent thought that they would be moved again.
Two summers ago, as engineers were investigating the mural, they drilled 18-inch-wide Swiss-cheese-like holes in the college theater’s exterior walls. Wearing a bicycle helmet, Dr. Reivich climbed in to see how the panels were attached. “He was like the mad scientist,” Barger said.
Knowing that the biggest threat to the fresco would be vibrations, Dr. Reivich’s team tested mock-ups. Three university artists painted nearly exact replicas of two panels, using the same type of lime and paintbrushes as Rivera. Dr. Reivich’s students built a wall like the one at City College, placing bolts and welding in the same locations. They experimented with tools to determine how to extract the panels with minimal vibrations. Then they shook, bent and hammered them, Dr. Reivich said, to learn the maximum resistance they could support.
This spring, movers began the task of extricating the panels from the concrete wall. Threaded rods were slowly twisted into place above and below the mural by teams of movers situated inside and outside the building, who wore headsets to synchronize their actions as they simultaneously turned the rods — one-sixteenth of an inch at a time. It took two hours for one panel to move six inches.
Then, before dawn one Sunday last month, a truck holding two panels encased with custom-made shock absorbers rode at 5 miles per hour across town and delivered them to the museum, where they were hoisted into place. (This was the first of seven trips.)
Maynez was there when they arrived. “It’s one of the best days of my life,” he said.