"Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art," at MoMA through May, is impeccably timed to coincide with the Occupy Wall Street movement that originated in New York and had, until recently, swept the nation.
The mural "The Uprising," in which protesting laborers are brutally suppressed while a woman, clinging to her baby, pushes away a uniformed soldier brandishing a sword, is particularly poignant.
Bob Duggan, writing in the Big Think web forum, said the woman fending off the soldier, "stands for every person of every age struggling against powerful forces of oppression. You don't need to know anything about Mexican politics of the early 20th century to read the conflict and to hope for the right resolution.
"Watching the recent crackdowns on Occupy camps across America, I couldn't help but superimpose Rivera's leading lady on those sad scenes of civil unrest turned violent."
Another 1931 piece by Rivera offers a startling cross section of a divided city: the towering skyline, the transit system, sleeping homeless workers and the well-heeled depositing their jewels at a subterranean bank vault.
The exhibition reunites for the first time in 80 years five freestanding frescoes about the Mexican Revolution and Depression-era New York created by Rivera for his 1931-32 MoMA exhibition. The exhibition runs through May 14.
"The story of this extraordinary commission for The Museum of Modern Art brings to life Diego Rivera's pivotal role in shaping debates about the social and political role of public art during a period of economic crisis in the United States," Leah Dickerman, curator of MoMA's department of painting and sculpture, said in a statement.
The exhibition comes at another period of economic crisis in the nation. While Rivera's art celebrated the struggle of a segment of society today considered the 99 percent, his art and popularity enabled him to live the life of the 1 percent.
In fact, cultural critic G. Roger Denson said Rivera shouldn't be "considered a patron saint of the Occupation movements."
"Yes, Diego Rivera would likely have waded into the crowds gathering in Zuccotti Park," Denson wrote. "But he also would have likely denounced the Occupiers' capitulation with the police, the mayor, and the legal restraints backing them, while urging them on to violent conflict, and ultimately to the seizure of private property."
Denson added, "The truly valuable question we should ask as a result of the comparison between our generation of timid dissent and the often violent confrontations between labor and management that marked the dissent from 1900 up until the start of the Second World War is this: Why isn't the Left the fierce crucible of anger and resistance it was in the 1920s, 1930s, even the 1960s?"
In a 1999 biography of Rivera, "Diego Rivera," Pete Hamill noted the enduring relevance of the artist's work.
"The political passions that drove so much of his public art are now dead," Hamill wrote. "But to my eye, the best of his art seems oddly fresher today than when those ideas were still relevant to the way people lived. It's as if the art has been freed from the prison of its context."