The proposed facade for the Museo.
The proposed facade for the Museo.

Raising the Bar

In an effort to become more visible, the unassuming little Museo de las Américas will host a series of big-name exhibits in the coming years, beginning with its current summer attraction, Diego Rivera: The Brilliance Before the Brush, now heading into its final month. At the same time, the Museo, using these shows as a draw, has launched a nationwide capital campaign to raise money to fund the construction of a new building.

The Rivera exhibit, though small, is significant and unusual. When we think of Rivera, who was the most important Latin American artist of the twentieth century, we recall his heroically large paintings that cover entire walls. And although there are three easel-sized paintings at the Museo, most of the Riveras are small preparatory sketches, in pencil on paper. It's this unexpected take that makes the show worth seeing, as the sketches demonstrate how Rivera worked out the compositions that he later used for larger paintings and enormous murals.

Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886. At age ten, he began taking art classes at Mexico City's famous art school, the Academia de San Carlos, and remained there until 1906. In that year, Rivera first exhibited his work at the Academia and received a government-funded scholarship to continue his studies in Spain.


Diego Rivera: The Brilliance Before the Brush

Museo de las Amricas, 861-865 Santa Fe Drive


Through August 25

He arrived in Europe in 1907 and pursued his art education for several years. It was there that Rivera became connected with the avant-garde movement, first in Spain and later in Paris, where in 1913 he abandoned the traditional Hispanic representational style of his earlier work and adopted a cubist style instead. The following year, Rivera met Picasso in Spain, where both men had fled to wait out WWI. Picasso was the unrivaled master of cubism and had been one of the style's inventors. He was said to have admired Rivera's stylistically sympathetic work.

In 1920, Rivera moved to Italy to study the fresco technique associated with that country. Frescoes are murals made with tinted plaster instead of paint. Perhaps because of the power of the Renaissance masterpieces he studied, Rivera denounced cubism and developed a signature representational style that's essentially an updated version of the Italian classical styles he was exposed to on his trip.

Returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera immediately established himself both as the country's premier painter and one of its most high-profile communists and political radicals. He was also granted some important commissions, the first of which was a mural for the Escuela Nacional Prepatoria, which showcases his Italian-influenced style. The next year, he made his first trip to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where he sketched the daily life of the people. For his second mural, done in 1923 for the Ministerio de Educación Pública, Rivera painted the first panel with a scene of Tehuantepec.

The drawings in the exhibit at the Museo are all from a single sketchbook that Rivera brought with him to Tehuantepec in 1923. He admired the people there because they had resisted the influence of Spanish culture and were perceived as being more purely Mexican. His lengthy stay in Europe had given him a keen understanding of which parts of Mexican culture were the result of Spanish conquest and which were not, leaving him with a preference for what was not.

Rivera became involved in the Mexicanidad movement, which sought to encourage non-Spanish Mexican culture. He later married Frida Kahlo, another important twentieth-century Mexican artist who was also involved in the movement. In fact, Kahlo, who lived in Mexico City and was thus a big-city woman, began to dress in the manner of her country cousins from Tehuantepec.

The women of Tehuantepec, called Tehuana, were clearly favorite subjects, as illustrated by the many views of women seen in this group of sketches. In the drawings, Rivera depicts the Tehuana in a variety of candid poses. There are portraits as well as full-figure studies showing the women at work, at rest, and in group activities.

The portraits are by far the most detailed and the most carefully executed. In "Tehuana Sketch #1," a pencil-on-paper drawing, he captures in relatively few strokes an almond-eyed young girl, her head turned to one side, revealing her braided hair. The sketch is obviously not the direct preparatory study for the painting with which it has been paired -- "Niña con Flores," an oil on board done in the early 1920s -- but it's close. The woman in the painting is older than the one in the sketch, but the pose she has taken is the same, and she is also revealing her elaborately braided hair.

Some of the most interesting sketches of the Tehuana are those that are the least detailed and the most abstract, such as "Sketch for Tehuana with fruit basket," a pencil on paper. With little more than a couple of scribbled lines, Rivera conveys a walking woman balancing a basket on her head. It's supremely economical in its execution; it must have taken less time for Rivera to draw it than it did for him to sign it.

Brilliance Before the Brush was organized by the Museo's curator, Tariana Navas-Nieves, who went to Mexico City last year and selected the pieces from a private collection owned by Gumercindo Paredes, a well-known dealer and art conservator. Paredes and his business partner, Luis Aguirre, have committed to providing work for future Museo exhibits as well. The first of these, set for late next year, will be devoted to Mexican painter David Siqueiros; the year after, the work of Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo will be presented. This impressive roster of big names in Latin American art is part of a program to boost the profile of the Museo nationally and in this way increase membership and raise funds for a complete transformation of the institution's building on Santa Fe Drive.

The project, announced earlier this summer, really began a year and a half ago, when the Museo purchased an adjacent building, nearly doubling its 20,000 square feet of space. Since buying the building, the Museo has mostly warehoused the space, using only a couple of offices and a conference room. It also purchased three residential properties across the alley on Kalamath Street. With this added property, the institution's board of trustees began to discuss putting the various parcels together into a single planned facility.

"It was Mary Lou [Robles] who urged us to find an architect who worked on a national scale," says José Aguayo, the Museo's founding director and its resident visionary. Robles, an architect with the Boulder firm of Studio Points Architecture, is on the Museo's board. "We needed to find an architect with a commitment to do things out of the ordinary and who would also be willing to work with a nonprofit with only limited resources," Aguayo explains.

The Museo found four architects who filled the bill, with the ultimate winner being RoTo Architects from Los Angeles. RoTo is headed up by Michael Rotondi, who founded the firm in 1991 after leaving the world-renowned Morphosis. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, known as SCI-Arc.

Working with Robles, Rotondi has developed a two-stage plan for the Museo, which was unveiled in June. Phase I, estimated at $2 million, is set to get under way this fall with the construction of a temporary billboard facade supported by scaffolding. This feature is meant both to project what the new Museo will look like and to allow the institution to remain at least partially open all during construction. In town for the unveiling, Rotondi explained his approach.

"I immediately jumped into the architectural plan, in particular the design of the facade," he said. "I started by asking myself what the building represents to the community. I have traveled extensively in Central and South America and observed that in the ancient buildings, celestial events determine many details. But there's a predicament: The Museo faces east, so the sun moves across the face of the building in the morning, and it's in shadow in the afternoon. So I started to look at how the sun moves through the sky and moves across the face of the building. I began with a plane, and I cut away volumes to catch the movement of the sun."

The facade will be the first thing to be done, with the actual work hidden behind that billboard barricade. As seen in the preliminary model and in a computer-generated streetscape, the new facade will definitely give the Museo some badly needed presence, rising in a complicated cluster of planes running parallel to the street or on the diagonal, as it does to mark the front entrance. That entrance is a void in the planes, and the facade is pierced in other places to allow sunlight in or, alternately, to create shadows. The facade will be made of common brick, and although the color hasn't been selected, the computer-generated conceptual drawing has it as a light buff color. (Another part of Phase I is a plan to join the interiors of the two Museo buildings with the facade, unifying both into a single building on the exterior.)

The more ambitious Phase II calls for the construction of a mixed-use project that includes, in addition to facilities for the Museo, commercial space, housing, and pavilions for community and commercial uses. In this plan, the Museo's main entrance will be moved to the alley that runs between Santa Fe and Kalamath. Though Phase II is at least five years down the road, the Museo has already applied for approval from the city's zoning department.

"We've just started to raise funds," Aguayo says. "We were awarded seed money from the National Park Service, and we received an additional grant from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development to launch the capital campaign." That campaign is being headed up by Steve Hillard, an executive with Council Tree Communications, which owns Telemundo, one of the nation's largest Spanish-language television networks; KMAS-Telemundo is the Denver affiliate.

In actuality, there is even a Phase III, which calls for the Museo to acquire the rest of the block north of its current holdings. Aguayo describes that as "blue sky," but he believes the first two phases will soon be a reality.

Aguayo was prescient when he founded the Museo some ten years ago: The time was obviously right. Now, with the undeniable political influence and increasing economic clout of the Hispanic community not just here in Denver, but across the country, the timing seems just as right for a big expansion.


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