Edgar J. Kaufmann was, to say the least, a practicing capitalist; the department-store founder's very name meant "merchant." So what was he doing, inviting an unabashed Marxist, the Mexican painter and architect Juan O'Gorman, to paint a mural in Pittsburgh?
That's the question acclaimed writer Hillary Masters seeks to answer in Shadows on A Wall: Juan O'Gorman and the Mural in Patzcuaro. The Carnegie Mellon professor's new book -- "a long essay," he calls it -- stems from an infatuation with O'Gorman's work that began about five years ago in Mexico. Masters and his wife, the writer Kathleen George, were staying in the town of Patzcuaro (in a 16th-century convent serving as an artists' colony, Masters notes wryly) when Masters chanced upon the town's library, housed in a former church. "I was just overwhelmed by this beautiful mural painted on what had been the nave of the church," he says. "It was like a Hollywood film. I heard music when I saw it."
The work, O'Gorman's "The History of Michoacan," told the story of the Mexican state from prehistory through Mexican independence, all in the narrative, surreally mythic style O'Gorman developed under the influence of Diego Rivera. Masters subsequently learned of O'Gorman's hiring by Kaufmann, which brought the artist -- born in 1905 to an Irish father and Mexican mother -- to Pittsburgh for five months in 1940. O'Gorman was to design and paint a mural for the Young Men's and Women's Hebrew Association building, in Oakland. But the project never happened, and its demise seems as mysterious as its conception.
One reason might have been O'Gorman's proposed design, sketches for which still exist, with scenes depicting the clubbing of workers a la the Homestead strike. "He had one section of the mural with Abraham Lincoln on his knees shining a black man's shoe, which upset Kaufmann quite a bit," says Masters.
Masters, 77, is the author of eight novels, two short-story collections and a book of essays. Last Stands: Notes from Memory, the critically acclaimed 1982 history of his family (his father was the poet Edgar Lee Masters), just republished last year, is seen as a precursor to the contemporary wave of memoirs.
Shadows on A Wall, however, isn't a work of memory. Masters did a lot of research, though his sleuthing was limited by a trail gone 60-plus years cold. "I say from the very beginning, 'I have to make some of this up.'"