New York is not much fun for the slow minded, especially at a time of depression, such as ours. Take the New York Public Library, which annually welcomes 15 million scholars and homeless alike. Its limited hours, 11 AM-5 PM and closed on Sundays, make it hard for both the studious and the lost to get anything done.
That aside, few know that the library was created in the early 19th century, thanks to a bequest from the Tilden family, to which was added money from the Lenox and the Astor families.
One might say, hallelujah, such wonderfully generous people, except when one understands that those families’ interest in the masses and their literacy
was only aroused at the moment of stepping into eternity, when all that was left was hope for unlimited gratitude, which no heirs but the dispossessed can give so well.
To add an unexpected turn to the depressed but quizzical urban mind, here comes the sun … Abby Rockefeller’s MoMA. This is an institution I visit regularly despite the fact that its board of trustees seems largely preoccupied with promoting artists (read Marina) skilled in inconspicuously peeing in a bottle while holding a spectator’s gaze for hours, and artists (read Allora & Callzadila) who can play Beethoven upside down and backwards from a hole they have carved for themselves in the center of a grand piano.
But MoMA recently changed its tone.
Through the remarkable work of curator Leah Dickerman, MoMA has brought to public attention what only the remorse of the very rich can bring to those of lesser means: the extraordinary murals of Diego Rivera. Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter with a social conscious, was first introduced to the New York arts’ scene almost a century ago. That was in the days of the publicly acknowledged Depression which produced a national hero, FDR, not the ludicrous anti-hero, BHO.
In 1932, one of the few rich men of his day, Abby Rockefeller’s husband, decided to make his building, now known as 30 Rock, a space for art. I only wish I knew what Abby whispered in the old man’s ear to convince him to hire the unruly Diego Rivera to paint murals inside the Rockefeller Center. As anybody but his patron would have expected, Rivera depicted the hero of the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin with great respect and his patron with derision: While the Rockefellers famously supported the prohibition, Rivera’s portrait of his patron is that of an alcohol lover. You guessed the rest. The powerful patron had Rivera’s mural at 30 Rock destroyed before its inaugural. On the other hand, the patron’s wife, Abby, had her museum, MoMA, organize Rivera’s first NYC exhibit which broke attendance records in its five week run from December 22, 1931 till January 27, 1932.
Almost a century later, the artistic genius and social responsibility of the artist occupy center stage at MoMA and the result, paid for with Rockefeller money, is spellbinding and on display until May 14, 2012. Matrons in furs are showing the Rivera murals to their yawning, confused offspring who protest, “Mom, I thought we were supposed to despise this (read Frozen Assests).” The response comes, “No, no, Dear. Not if it’s chic.”