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Power of Erasure


In preparation for a new mural commission I've been looking at quite a few large scale paintings and murals, most noticeably those of John Pugh and Kent Twitchell. I would love to inspect the paintings in person and analyze the methodology, perspective and paint applique but this is unfortunately neither financially nor temporally realistic. In my quest to find digital images I was surprised to discover that many of their most important works have been either destroyed or currently threatened.


Pugh's signature break-through (pun intended) painting at Chico State's Taylor Hall titled Academe will be destroyed with the construction of a new fine arts and humanities building in 2013. He has asked or has been offered $75,000 to repaint it near the original site but the university has yet to approve the measure at the time of this writing. Siete Punto Uno, a work in Los Gatos, California suffers horribly from an application of anti-graffiti sealant which has degraded and is literally peeling the mural off the wall. According to the Los Gatos Weekly-Times (February 8th 2006), Pugh contacted Donna Williams of Williams Art Conservation in Los Angeles and did consider legal action against the sealant manufacturer. Oliver Crane Professional Corp. in San Francisco along with at least one other [anonymous] expert indicated the urethane coating caused the majority, if not the entirety, of the damage to the mural. Pugh thought it best to help reinvigorate the town's restoration fund through art auctioning and by other means due to the difficulty involved with winning such a case. The estimated need of fund is somewhere between $30 - $50,000. Unfortunately, the product is not named in the article. The newspaper did report the the sealant began to fail within 5 or 6 years of its application.

Kent Twitchell's The Freeway Lady was modeled on actress Lillian Bronson (1902–1995) and is claimed to be the first recognized freeway mural in the United States. She was completed in 1974. It was partially obscured by a neighboring building and was then painted over in 1987. VIVA Gallery which is located in Sherman Oaks, Ca is currently calling on any volunteer artists to help with its restoration at their facility or at Kent's studio. Information can be found at http://www.vivagallery.org/freewaylady.html.

Kent's Seventh Street Altarpiece was at least partially destroyed then moved to the 7th Street underpass CA-101 but today is almost completely covered by tagging. The Ed Ruscha Monument was abruptly whitewashed in 2006. According to an interview by the LA Times, Twitchell said, "Not be notified, to have it be a fait accompli.... It will take a while for the shock to wear off. It was sort of my 'Mona Lisa'; I worked on it for nine years." The artist sued the US Government since they owned the building and 12 other defendants. In 2008 a settlement was reached with the government paying at least $250,000. The total settlement of $1.1 million remains the largest prize yet won in court by an artist over a defaced work.

On a related note, in 1990, Judge Harvey A. Schneiderman ruled in a case involving Shell Oil Corp. and the owners of a Boyle Heights gasoline station who, in 1988, demolished most of a mural erected by the East Los Streetscapers. Ironically, the oil company had originally hired the group to paint the mural at the station for $3,500 - $4000 but destroyed the wall for expanded parking lot use. According to lamurals.org and the again the LA Times, in summer 1992 the Streetscapers reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with Shell Oil Company. The artists were quoted to have been "really happy with the amount..."

The law that supposedly prevents public art works from abrupt erasure is the the Federal Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 and the California Art Preservation Act of 1980. Humorously, one of Los Angeles's own beloved modern institutions, MOCA, whitewashed one of its commissioned works hours after its completion because of the sensitive context. The L.A. Veterans' Affairs Hospital and the Go For Broke monument are MOCA's immediate neighboring structures. Read more of that fiasco here.

I find Section E of the CAPA statute particularly disturbing as it could potentially void any property rights of an individual. Furthermore, the penal code soundly rests on the idea that the public work must be defined as "of recognized quality, but shall not include work prepared under contract for commercial use by its purchaser" - in other words, subjectively determined "whether a work of fine art is of recognized quality the trier of fact shall rely on the opinions of artists, art dealers, collectors of fine art, curators of art museums, and other persons involved with the creation or marketing of fine art" (CA Civil Code §987 Section E). See the wonderful Dec. 2011 article by Tamara Mann titled The Brouhaha: When the Bird Became Art and Art Became Anything.

It is not lost to me that the contract the East Los Streetscapers took for painting the commercial mural on private/commercial property should have fallen well out of any purview of the Federal VARA or the state CAPA, or any judicial interpretation since it was part of Shell's marketing campaign to educate its customers and/or competitors on the origins and utility and benefits of their petroleum products. Furthermore, I question the legality of MOCA's actions based on the facts so far presented to me in destroying their own work to save face with the public when it realized the public would be outraged at street artist Blu's completed piece which featured dozens of dollar-draped coffins. Regardless of my own artistic preferences which are clear and often reiterated, laws should not be enacted or enforced on the whims and/or socioeconomic status of those they fall upon on any particular day of the week.

I tend to agree with the 2002 film Frida, where we are witness to the powerful moment between Edward Norton's Nelson Rockefeller and Alfred Molina's Diego Rivera (1:09:19 - 1:10:16):

Nelson Rockefeller: SeƱor Rivera, I must ask you one last time to reconsider your position.
Diego Rivera: I will not compromise my vision.
Nelson Rockefeller: In that case, this is your fee, paid in full, as agreed, but your services are no longer required.
Diego Rivera: It's my painting!
Nelson Rockefeller: On my wall.
Diego Rivera: It's the people's wall, you bastard!
*Rockefeller walks out, the dust curtains drop and the demolition-men begin to swing*