Mexican muralist Diego Rivera at work on the Rockefeller Center mural. (Diego Rivera-Anahuacalli and Frida Kahlo Museums)

You can’t see the one piece of art that’s at the center of the exhibition “Man at the Crossroads: Diego Rivera’s Mural at Rockefeller Center.” The three-panel fresco that lends its name to the show was unceremoniously destroyed 80 years ago, in February 1934. What you can see at the Mexican Cultural Institute is a fully fleshed-out explanation of why the Mexican muralist’s work was chiseled off the wall in the first place.

“Man at the Crossroads” was commissioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. for the lobby of the RCA Building, the symbolic heart of Midtown Manhattan’s 14-building Rockefeller Center. Just as the mural was being painted, however, it famously ran afoul of the business magnate’s tastes when a portrait of Communist leader Vladi­mir Lenin, which wasn’t in Rivera’s original sketch, materialized. The show documents the controversial painting’s evolution and its ultimate destruction with photographs, documents and, most important, reproductions of Rivera’s original sketches, which recently have been restored.

In addition to offering a history lesson, the show also examines the clash of art, politics and commerce.

It’s pretty clear that this arranged marriage between the left-leaning Mexican artist, a star of the early-20th-century art scene, and the capitalist captain of American industry should never have happened. Had Rockefeller done his homework on Rivera, he would have known he was asking for trouble by inviting the muralist to design a piece for this temple of business. (The exhibition includes a reproduction of “Wall Street Banquet,” an earlier Rivera painting from the late 1920s containing a satiric portrayal of predatory millionaires.)

For his part, Rivera also should have known better than to accept the commission. The show includes a three-page contractual stipulation from Rockefeller, laying out in legalistic terms exactly what themes and subject matter were appropriate for the mural. Rockefeller wanted spiritual uplift, not radical politics. What independent artist would have signed on to such straitjacketing terms?

Maybe it was the $21,000 fee.

What is clear from the show’s sequence of sketches is that the portrait of Lenin crept into the work only gradually. The initial, Rockefeller-approved drawing centers on a trio of generic men: an overalls-clad laborer joining hands with a wounded soldier and a farmer. Yet in a later transitional sketch, this so-called revolutionary triad — an homage to the three pillars of the Russian revolution — has shifted to one side. Still, in this intermediate drawing, which would form the working basis for the installed mural, the central figure can hardly be identified as Lenin. He’s almost a faceless Everyman.

It’s only when Rivera started applying paint to wet plaster that his focus — and his critique — sharpened. According to Lucienne Bloch, one of Rivera’s mural assistants, the painter’s decision to add Lenin to the mix was a response to a headline in the World Telegram newspaper: “Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Foots the Bill.” Apparently, Rivera decided — perhaps playfully, perhaps perversely — to test Rockefeller’s resolve.

The show is about a clash of wills, but its larger theme is integrity. Once Rivera learned of his patron’s displeasure, he offered to counterbalance the Lenin portrait with one of an American historical figure — say, Abraham Lincoln. But the artist also insisted that he would never contemplate removing Lenin, writing to Nelson Rockefeller that physical destruction of the piece would be preferable to what Rivera called the work’s conceptual mutilation.

Who won? In the end, ironically, both men got exactly what they wanted.

The Story Behind the Work

Once things started to go south with the Rockefeller Center mural, they quickly fell apart.

During the initially cordial negotiations, John D. Rockefeller Jr. agreed to accept a fresco — permanently painted in wet plaster — rather than a removable canvas. Diego Rivera and his patron signed a contract in November 1932, stipulating that there could be no changes from the approved sketch. The artist arrived in New York on March 30, 1933, to begin work.

Less than five weeks later, Rivera received a letter from Nelson Rockefeller expressing grave but polite concern about Lenin’s surprise appearance. When Rivera refused to paint over the communist’s face with a generic worker, the artist and his team of assistants were booted out of the lobby May 9. Nine months later, workmen armed with chisels hacked away at the mostly complete painting.

A re-creation of “Man at the Crossroads” exists, in a version Rivera painted later at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. A slightly different take on the New York painting, it contains a portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr. just below a celebration of 20th-century scientific advancements, including a representation of syphilis cells.

— Michael O'Sullivan