Artists Come to Detroit to Paint Mural Inspired By Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" Murals But Don't Bother Actually Seeing Rivera's Original Work

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

When I write about cars, my words are inspired by the works of Leonard Setright. While I haven’t actually read a word of what he’s written I know his writing and have educated myself about it and its significance.

Just how silly did that sound? About as silly as an artist saying that he’s inspired by a work that he hasn’t actually seen. What’s this doing on a car site? The work of art is arguably the greatest piece of automotive fine art in the world.

A mixed use building is in the final stages of construction in downtown Detroit near Broadway, Gratiot and Library Street (where the National Automotive History Collection resides nearby at the Skillman branch of the Detroit Public Library). The 10 story building is named “The Z”, from the fact that it zig zags across the property and, I’m guessing, from the fact that a branch of “The Y”, the YMCA, is nearby. It’s mostly going to be a parking structure but there will be retail stores on the ground floor. Bedrock Real Estate Services, which is developing the project, worked with the Library Street Collective art gallery to make it more than just a sterile concrete place to put your car when doing business in downtown Detroit. Matt Eaton, curator of the Library Street Collective, commissioned 27 artists from around the world to visit Detroit and paint murals of what they experienced here on the walls of the parking structure. The building isn’t open to the public yet but they let the Detroit News in for a sneak peek.

Detroit Industry (north wall), Diego Rivera

One reason why they decided to have 27 fine art murals painted in a Detroit parking structure is that Detroit is home to one of the most notable murals in the world, a collection of 27 panels collectively known as Detroit Industry. The murals, depicting Ford’s massive Rouge Complex and the assembly of the Ford V8, were painted on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, commissioned by Edsel Ford, the only son of Henry Ford and a great patron of the arts. Most people don’t know the works’ title, around Detroit they’re simply called the Diego Rivera murals at the DIA, part of the region’s cultural heritage.

Detroit Industry (south wall), Diego Rivera

This is the 80th anniversary of the Rivera murals at the DIA. The DIA has been in the news lately. You might have heard that the art institute’s collection might be sold to pay off creditors because of the city of Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy. It might be hard to sell the murals since they’re actually part of the building, located on Woodward Avenue, across the street from the main library and in the heart of Detroit’s cultural center. I’ve been seeing the murals since I was a child, they’re genuinely part of the region’s cultural heritage, the stuff of school field trips as well as serious scholarly study. My mother says that she remembers visiting the museum as a child and watching Rivera paint them. My mom’s 89 now and since she also ‘remembers’ that Tom Harmon played for *Michigan State when my father was going to veterinary school there, I double checked and it is possible. Rivera worked on the 27 panels, from small to immense, from 1932 to 1933, when Mom was 8 years old.

One of the new murals in The Z is called Unexpected Punchline,a massive work painted by identical twins Raoul and Davide Perre in just four and a half days. The Perres are, according to the Detroit News, international graffiti artists and muralists well known in art circles under the nom d’art of How&Nosm. According to the brothers, they have painted more than 500 murals in 60 countries over the last 25 years. Some were commissioned, others were “unauthorized”. I wonder how Bedrock will feel when some “unauthorized” Detroit “artists” decide to tag add their own works of art to the parking structure.

When asked about their mural’s significance, Davide Perre said, “We felt that it was important to point out that Detroit, now Americas’ first bankrupt major city, and its people seem to be left on their own. And we are talking about the largest racial demographic, the African-American group, making up 83 percent that is mainly affected by our country’s bad economy.”

Unexpected Punchline unabashedly borrows from Rivera’s DIA murals. College of Creative Studies dean of undergraduate studies, Vince Carducci, describes the painting: “The title riffs off the famous Joe Louis fist, which is visible at the right edge of the mural. But the actual hand itself looks like it could have been taken from the upper reaches of Diego Rivera’s famous “Detroit Industry” murals at the DIA. In fact, the entire piece comes off as a cyberpunk remix of Rivera’s masterpiece.”

Regarding Rivera’s DIA murals, Davide Perre said, “We feel somewhat a connection to it. Diego’s themes are very similar to ours, and like him we like to provoke the viewer but not straight in your face, but with some tact… It is the issues of everyday life, our surroundings, politics and other more serious problems that influence our creative decisions.”

“Like Diego, we usually tell a story of struggle for survival in an ethnically and financially divided society in connection with the injustices of the government. We are sure Diego had some restriction when he painted “Detroit’s Industry” or else it would have had a more obvious political approach. But our main goal, and we believe Diego’s too, was to express the extraordinary spirit of Detroit and strength of its people.”

Perre must be very familiar with Rivera’s work, after all, he kept called him “Diego”.

“We have not seen it in person, though we know it and educated ourselves about it,” Davide Perre said. “Unfortunately, we had a very tight schedule, and finishing our mural had priority. We literally walked from the hotel to our mural, back and forth, and that was it. But we have been in Detroit before and have gotten to know most parts of Detroit very well.”

Wait, what? They know it and have educated themselves about Detroit Industry, they feel inspired by it, have a connection to it but their schedule was just so tight when painting their own mural they just didn’t have the time to get over to the DIA and actually, you know, see their supposed inspiration with their own two eyes. It wasn’t their first visit here. They want us to know that they’ve visited our fair region before and that they’ve gotten to know not just some of the city but rather “most parts of Detroit”, and not just in a cursory manner, but “very well”. The Perres are visual artists who have been here more than once but haven’t bothered to see the region’s most famous artwork, one they say inspires them, now that they have a commission to be inspired thereby.

When the Perres were painting the work they were in town for four and a half days. I’m sure that it was hectic but the DIA is just two miles up Woodward from the location of the Perres’ Unexpected Punchline. You can walk the distance, take some time enjoying and studying Rivera’s murals and then walk back downtown in far less than half a day. They could even have stopped in to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit since it would have been right on the way there or back. MOCAD is currently having a show, The Past Is Present, with works commissioned, coincidentally “to begin where Rivera left off”. I suppose, though, that if you are internationally famous vandals graffiti artists and muralists, your time is in great demand. I’m sure they had someplace very important to be for that additional half day.

The Z facility opens up early next year. I was thinking of going down there and checking out the murals, particularly the Perres’ Unexpected Punchline, but now that I’ve seen photos and learned about it, I suppose there’s no need for me to see the real thing.

*Tom Harmon won the 1940 Heisman Trophy playing for the University of Michigan, which my father did actually also attend, earning an associates degree in civil engineering while in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during WWII, but he was in Ann Arbor years after Harmon had graduated.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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6 of 19 comments
  • Dtremit Dtremit on Dec 02, 2013

    Ronnie, I get your ire; I am a huge fan of the Detroit Industry murals -- but I'm not sure directing it at the artists is quite fair. The artists may have been to Detroit before, but they may not have known about Detroit Industry before getting the commission. A mural of the size they're doing would have to have been carefully planned long before they flew to Detroit to execute it, probably with preliminary drawings approved by whomever is commissioning it. And I'm doubtful that they got funding to fly out separately before drawing the work so they could gawk at the mural in person. Even if they'd walked over to see it, it would probably have been too late to change the plan. Can you really fault them for doing the job they were paid for before going sightseeing?

    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Dec 04, 2013

      They claimed to know much of Detroit very well. As self-proclaimed "artists," you'd think they would have visited such a renowned place of artistic value.

  • Ltdanbassett Ltdanbassett on Dec 04, 2013

    Looks like some clarification and encouragement is necessary here. 1. Perre brothers were not directly inspired by nor was their conscious intention to do homage to Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals. They were invited to Detroit to experience the city and paint a mural. The Joe Louis fist sculpture found its way into their production as did social commentary. 2. Life experience makes How&Nosm who they are. The fact that they have painted more than 200 murals in Brazil alone, and more in other South American countries has seemed to have influenced the spirit of their production. Whether they are working in the Mexican muralist tradition is open for debate. The purpose of the story was to explore similarities by making some visual comparisons. 3. There was no detailed comprehensive sketch for "Unexpected Punchline." These guys are pros and have complete mastery of their tools of production as well as large-scale composition and concept. 4. "Hipster stain" label is unkind and probably misguided by stereotyping. I'd encourage everyone to experience the mural in person before passing judgment on its merit as fine art. 5. Thanks to the writer, Ronnie Schreiber, for mostly parroting my story without direct attribution.;) Ray Stanczak aka Lt. Dan Bassett.

    • See 2 previous
    • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Dec 04, 2013

      Ray, First off, thanks for reading TTAC and my post. I apologize for not mentioning your name when linking to your article at the DetNews. I understand how writers want to grow their brands, but if you note, not only did I link to your article at the DetNews I also used the DetNews' video of the Z's murals to illustrate this story. While a link doesn't quite follow Modern Languages Association guidelines for footnoting, it does indicate source material and makes it easy for readers to access you as the primary source. Again, I apologize for not telling TTAC readers your name, though I'm pretty sure that I did alright by the Detroit News. Your bosses there have nothing to complain about. As for "parroting" your story, I pulled quotes of Davide Perre and of the CCS dean from your piece but I'm pretty sure I took it in a different direction than you did. Ronnie Schreiber

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