In 1931, the two-year-old Museum of Modern Art planned a show that would feature the work of Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Known for his socially critical murals in Mexico City, Rivera hunkered down inside a museum studio and created five new murals for the exhibition.
One of those murals, “Frozen Assets,” caused a stir at the time. It was the depths of the Great Depression, and Rivera had something to say about how the city treats its assets.
“The panel’s upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable skyscrapers, most completed within a few years of Rivera’s arrival in New York,” states this caption on MOMA’s website.
“In the middle section, a steel-and-glass shed serves as a shelter for rows of sleeping men, pointing to the dispossessed labor that made such extraordinary growth possible during a period of economic turmoil. Below, a bank’s waiting room accommodates a guard, a clerk, and a trio of figures eager to inspect their mounting assets in the vault beyond.”
That shelter Rivera depicted was the Municipal Lodging House, built in 1909 on a pier on East 25th Street for indigent men, women, and children.
“Rivera’s jarring vision of the city—in which the masses trudge to work, the homeless are warehoused, and the wealthy squirrel away their money—struck a chord in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression,” states MOMA.
MOMA exhibited Frozen Assets and other works by Rivera in 2011, also a year of rising concern about economic equality.