Bohemian Nexus

Bohemian Nexus

Siqueiros and Stein reunite at Take My Picture Gallery

By Lionel Rolfe 05/24/2012

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Longtime Echo Park residents Anne Stein and Gary Leonard are planning to showcase the paintings of Anne’s father, Philip Stein, at their Take My Picture Gallery in downtown Los Angeles.
 
With the restored mural “América Tropical” by legendary revolutionary Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros — Philip Stein’s mentor — about to be unveiled on Olvera Street in October, the timing of the new exhibit is not coincidental.
 
When Stein died at 90 in 2009, Anne Stein and Leonard — perhaps best known for his “Take My Picture” column, which first gained attention in the old Los Angeles Reader, then LA CityBeat and the Downtown News and now LA Observed — rented a truck and drove the artwork from New York to Echo Park, then installed the paintings at Take My Picture Gallery.
 
Anne Stein was born in Mexico City in the 1950s, after her father left Los Angeles on the GI bill to study art in San Miguel. He ended up working with the great Siqueiros between 1948 and 1958 on most of the artist’s major murals. Stein then brought his family back to the New York area and, except for an eight-year sojourn in Spain, spent the rest of his life as an artist and activist on the East Coast.
 
Siqueiros — considered, along with Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco, among the greatest muralists of modern times — had been commissioned to paint three murals in Los Angeles. One was “América Tropical” at El Pueblo, which depicted a crucified man with an American Bald Eagle sitting atop the cross. Within a few months of its unveiling in 1932, the work was whitewashed by local authorities. Shortly after that, Siqueiros was deported. Mexican revolutionaries — or any revolutionaries — never found Los Angeles to be a friendly place.
 
In the 1940s, Stein had done set design for New York theaters, studied art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn then arrived in Los Angeles, where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute. Later, as a Columbia Studios set designer, he became involved in the great 1946 Hollywood strike and spent several months in jail in Lincoln Heights for his efforts.
 
When he and his wife left Los Angeles and moved to Mexico City, Stein was a veteran of the Great Depression as well as World War II, where he had served as a meteorologist. After the war, with the help of the GI bill, he pursued a career in the one area he had cared about most — art.
 
According to Mark Vallen, a well-known artist and art historian with his own blog , Stein had a very special relationship with Siqueiros. “Stein went to work for Siqueiros for 10 years and that relationship grew and deepened. Siqueiros gave him the name Estaño. Stein-Estaño was at first one of several Siqueiros assistants, but he became the main assistant and got involved with several of his greatest murals in Mexico City during that time,” Vallen said.
 
In the 1980s, Stein wrote “Siqueiros: His Life and Works,” which is still the definitive biography of the artist. Vallen said that Stein became so “closely aligned” with Siqueiros that people hardly knew Stein was a significant artist in his own right, or that he had been heavily influenced by the American jazz scene. In fact, when Stein died in 2009, The New York Times noted his passing with a substantial article titled, “Phil Stein, Muralist Who Adorned Village Vanguard Club, Dies at 90.”
 
The famed jazz club, which is still operating, was run and founded by Stein's sister, Lorraine Gordon, and her husband, Max Gordon. For years, there were three large Stein murals on the club’s triangle of walls. Two were removed due to water damage, but the mural on the back wall remains. Stein loved hot jazz like Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, but was less enthused by the cool jazz being performed at the Vanguard. 
 
“What sustained Stein and enabled him to go to hell and back, what sustained his art, was the thought that art could make the world a better place, and that was the school of American realism,” Vallen said. For Stein, the great Mexican muralist was the inevitable mentor.
 
“Unfortunately, fame eluded Stein because he was persistent in following realism when the abstract was dominating,” Vallen said, noting that Stein wasn’t going to go anywhere anyway, because this was the time of Joseph McCarthy, when the United States flirted heavily with fascism. “Maybe things will be different with the passing of time,” Vallen said.
 
Vallen said his own interest in Siqueiros began when his parents took him downtown and showed him the mural on Olvera Street. This was in the 1950s, and Vallen was 6 or 7 years old. He was fascinated by why it had been whitewashed. “There were enemies coming from all quarters,” he said. “Siqueiros’ politics were very clear,” he said, admitting he was “amazed” that the mural is getting such love and care now, when the forces of fascism are once again swirling around. The nearly $9-million restoration of the mural and the David Alfaro Siqueiros América Tropical Mural and Interpretive Center, sponsored by Amigos de Siqueiros, the city government of Los Angeles and the Getty Conservation Institute, is expected to be unveiled in October.
 
Luckily, Vallen said, there are “some people who love this mural and understand its historic significance,” adding, “I’m sure there are others who will snipe at him.”
 
Vallen is grateful that the Getty Museum has been a main proponent behind restoring “América Tropical.” It did so despite the fact that the mural depicts revolutionary scenes and speaks up unabashedly about the oppression of Mexican Indians by American imperialism. 
 
Alongside Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco, Siqueiros helped create the Mexican muralist movement, which had its roots in the most classic of traditions begun by the Renaissance muralists of Italy.
 
In preparation for the unveiling of “América Tropical,” the city fathers of Los Angeles declared April 20 “Siqueiros Day.” And although Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa may have lost much of his credibility with folks on his political left, he talked glowingly of the great man. He just didn’t use terms like “American imperialism.” Just as well, said Vallen, who complimented Villaraigosa for managing to avoid being overly political when he endorsed efforts to save the mural for posterity.
 
Anne Stein said a turning point for her father before Siqueiros came when, as a 15-year-old teenager growing up poor in New Jersey, Stein used to catch the tail winds of trucks while riding his bicycle to Newark Airport. He loved experimental airplanes and liked to photograph them with his homemade camera. Like many who grew up during the Depression, he was good with designing and keeping machines working. Anne said her father talked about watching artist Archile Gorky painting a mural on a building at the airport. Gorky was an artist who insisted he was related to famed Russian author Maxim Gorky. He was not. He had been born in Armenia, escaped the nation’s 1915 Genocide and ended up in New York, where he became a significant artist. He was what would now be called a “social realist,” not part of the “modern art” movement. For Stein, encountering Gorky triggered a revelation that art could be a higher calling.
 
Like many others of that age, Stein was a dedicated and talented artist who was also highly political. He had come to the conclusion that he needed Siqueiros, because Siqueiros was not just an artist; he was one the greatest revolutionary artists of the past century. The muralists all owed their inspiration to the Renaissance fresco painters. Think of Italian murals in the 1500s — think of Michelangelo painting the ceilings and walls of the Sistine Chapel.
For Stein, meeting Siqueiros was a turning point. “It solved the problem of the basis of my art,” he said.
 
Plainly, Anne Stein said, Siqueiros had an enormous impact not only on her father, but a lot of other people. “His energy, his world view, the boldness of his painting all became very embedded in people around him.”

The paintings of Philip Stein can be previewed at Take My Picture Gallery, 860 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, Call (213) 622-2256 or visit takemypicture.com.

A version of this story first appeared in the Echo Park Patch. Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” about which a documentary is being made (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Literary-LA/115509071864686?sk=wall). Many of his books, including “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather,” are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindle Store.

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