Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill
Throughout her career, Maxine Albro produced frescos, mosaics, oil paintings, and lithographs. Yet, she is most recognized for her frescos and her characteristic treatment of Mexican and Spanish subject matter in her work. Her style can be characterized as having simplistic and stoutly figures which is clearly an influence of Diego Rivera’s work. In fact, Albro was exposed to Diego Rivera’s work in Mexico and in California as she painted murals with him in San Francisco in the early 1930s. Although she recalls speaking to Diego Rivera for only a short time, she remembers that his assistant, Paul O’Higgins was a great help to her. For instance, he took Albro into his studio where he demonstrated the process of fresco painting. When Albro later returned to the United States, she was well experienced in fresco painting and was offered large commissions.
In 1933, Albro was contacted by the Federal Works of Art Project and was offered her first major commission under a New Deal program at Coit Tower in San Francisco. She was also one of the first people to be hired since her skills in fresco painting proved to be exquisite and suitable for the project. At Coit Tower, she executed a fresco titled, California Agriculture (10ft x 42ft), which depicted farm workers gathering oranges as well as flowers. In addition, the figures in this mural are rendered in a short and thick manner, similarly to Rivera’s style. Furthermore, the subject matter in this mural emphasizes a social realist view by depicting a scene that shows the struggles of farm worker’s during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Albro was different from other social realist artists, as one art historian noted, “Albro’s pastoral handling of subject matter made her stand out from other social realist painting at that time” (Cummings Belle and Loach 104). The strong influence of Mexican art on her ultimately distinguished her from other American painters that worked within the same genre.
In addition to being contracted to paint frescos, Maxine Albro was also contracted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to execute a mosaic for the entrance of the Hall of Natural Science at the San Francisco State College. Because mosaic was a medium that Albro was not familiar with, the WPA contracted an Italian mosaic setter to instruct Albro and other artists working on the project. He taught them how to cut Italian marble into pieces. Although the design for this project was a simple floral design with animals and not related to Mexican motifs, Albro fondly recalls the project, as she stated, “It was really, I think, one of the most fascinating things I ever did. Learning how to do the mosaic and then getting the pattern all made in marble and then later helping to put it up” (“Oral History Interview with Maxine Albro and Parker Hall”). The mosaic project took the whole winter of 1937 to be completed.
However, not all of Albro’s work was accepted and highly respected. For instance, in 1935, Albro executed a private commission for the Ebbell Women’s Club in Los Angeles which was considered controversial. Albro depicted four nude Roman sybils in the mural which the women of the club found offensive. Due to the conservative nature of the Los Angeles art scene at the time, the nudity of the sybils were considered obscene. In fact, the controversy surrounding the Roman sybils, consequently led to the destruction of the mural.
Throughout her career, Albro also produced several lithographs, a technique that she learned while studying in New York. Her lithographs consisted of Indian subject matter, an influence from her many travels to Mexico. Similarly, her oil paintings such as Skipping (1940), which portrays a girl with pigtails playing with her jump rope, is an example of her extensive representation of Mexican subjects in her work.
Maxine Albro lived and worked at the intersection of traditional California culture and the Modernist currents that defined painting in the new world of the 1930's and 1940's. She was born in Iowa (20th January, 1903) but came from a family with Spanish ancestors. As a child, her family moved to Los Angeles. After high school, she moved to San Francisco in 1920, worked as a commercial artist and aspired to more formal artistic training. Between 1923 and 1927, she studied painting in San Francisco, New York and Paris.
She traveled to Mexico, inspired by the burgeoning Muralist movement, studied fresco painting, including instruction from Pablo O'Higgins one of Diego Rivera's assistants. Later, in the 1930's, she worked with Diego Rivera on his mural projects in San Francisco. This led to one of her most important projects, a mural in the Coit Tower in San Francisco, started in 1933 and completed in 1934. She also exhibited at Alma Reed's Delphic Studios gallery in New York in 1931, a huge honor for a young artist. Delphic Studios exhibited the work of the most important Mexican Modernists of this era, including Orozco and Siquiros.
Her work is clean, bright and clear with the strong rounded forms of this era, often depicting the women of Mexico, in particular those of the Tehuantepec region in Oaxaca. Her mural at the Coit Tower, still powerful today, "California Agriculture", is clearly one of the strongest murals produced by an esteemed group of WPA artists. The tower was built of cast concrete in 1933 with a clean Art Deco influenced design. The interior spaces were dedicated to murals, clearly influenced by the Mexican post-revolutionary muralist tradition. WPA (Works Progress Administration) has become a generic term referring to various programs devised between 1933 and 1943 to train and employ workers during the Depression era. Albro joined a group of twenty-six artists, primarily from the California School of Fine Arts who were hired under the Public Works of Art Project, the first of these programs for unemployed artists. Later, during the rest of this decade, she produced murals in public buildings from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to Monterey and San Francisco.
With her incipient fresco training and experience in Mexico, she became a leader in the California muralist movement and one of the first women to achieve such a prominent position. Her work was also highlighted by numerous easel paintings and lithographs. Maxine Albro died 19 July 1966 in Los Angeles but left a vibrant pictorial legacy throughout California..
Coit Tower, a slender white concrete column rising from the top of Telegraph Hill, has been an emblem of San Francisco’s skyline since its completion in 1933, a welcoming beacon to visitors and residents alike. Its observation deck, reached by elevator (tickets can be purchased in the gift shop), provides 360-degree views of the city and bay, including the Golden Gate and Bay bridges.
The simple fluted tower is named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric and patron of the city’s firefighters. Coit died in 1929, leaving a substantial bequest “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.” The funds were used to build both the tower and a monument to Coit’s beloved volunteer firefighters, in nearby Washington Square. The tower was designed by the firm of Arthur Brown, Jr., architect of San Francisco’s City Hall. Contrary to popular belief, Coit Tower was not designed to resemble a firehose nozzle.
The murals inside the tower’s base were painted in 1934 by a group of artists employed by the Public Works of Art Project, a precursor to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and depict life in California during the Depression. When violence broke out during the 1934 longshoremen’s strike, controversy over the radical content in some of the panels became quite heated. Some of the most controversial elements were painted over, and the tower was padlocked for several months before the frescoes were finally opened to the public in the fall of 1934.
Telegraph Hill takes its name from a semaphore telegraph erected on its summit in 1850 to alert residents to the arrival of ships. Pioneer Park, which surrounds Coit Tower, was established in 1876 on the former site of the telegraph station. As you wander the trails that wind around the tower and down the hill, you may hear the raucous chatter of the neighborhood’s most famous (and noisiest) residents, the flock of parrots featured in the 2005 film “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.”