Throughout his long life, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera had an uncanny sense of timing.
Consumed - wanderlust as a young art student, he went to Europe and promptly fell in with the likes of Picasso and Rousseau. He returned home just in time to paint the start of the Mexican Revolution. A committed Marxist, he went to Moscow, brushes in hand, to capture the pageantry of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. And in 1930, with the Great Depression unfolding amid intense political ferment, Rivera and his artist-wife, Frida Kahlo, paid their first visit to the United States.
The trip was the beginning of a stormy affair between the irresistibly charming, 300-pound artist and the American public, which is chronicled in ''Rivera in America,'' a documentary to be broadcast on public TV's American Masters series tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 13. The hourlong film, narrated by the playwright-actor-director Luis Valdez (he directed the recent film ''La Bamba'') and written and directed by Rick Tejada-Flores, an independent producer specializing in Hispanic themes, tells the story of the artist's 11-year odyssey through the eyes of the Americans who worked with him, posed for him and, in one case, literally opened doors for him.
It also includes a tantalizing clue to the roots of a major cause celebre in American art history: Rivera's run-in with the Rockefeller family in 1933 over his refusal to remove a likeness of Lenin from a fresco they had commissioned for Rockefeller Center.
Rivera, by then renowned for his monumental frescos depicting the history of Mexico, was eager to work in a major industrial nation where his paintings, displayed on the walls of great public buildings, could celebrate and inspire the struggle of the workers. Between 1930 and 1941 - when he returned to Mexico - he painted large murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York. In 1931, a one-man retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art electrified critics.
''All art is propaganda,'' the artist can be heard declaiming solemnly in Spanish at the beginning of the film. ''The only difference is the kind of propaganda.''
Mr. Tejada-Flores said he decided to make the film in 1986, the centennial of Rivera's birth, in part because he was troubled by what he saw as a ''tendency among critics to try to resurrect him as a classical artist, without any reference to his politics.
' 'It was as though they were saying, 'Well, since he's dead, we don't have to deal with the politics. Now we can just admire his colors, his composition, his draftsmanship.'
''Well,'' the 43-year-old film maker said, ''I didn't like that idea, because I think that Rivera, more than anyone else I can think of, is someone in whom you cannot separate the content from the style. His work is his art, and his art is his message. I wanted to make that point very clearly.''
Mr. Tejada-Flores, whose father is Bolivian and who grew up in southern California, said that he first became aware of Rivera's work while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1960's. His journey of discovery began in Mendocino, Calif., in 1963, during a summer job making prints for a graphic artist named Emmy Lou Packard. Miss Packard, now in her 70's, had been one of the struggling young artists Rivera hired to mix his pigments and prepare the plaster walls for painting.
''After I decided to do the film, Emmy helped me get in touch with a lot of the other people,'' Mr. Tejada-Flores said, including the artists Steve Dimitroff and his wife, Lucienne Bloch (daughter of the Swiss composer Ernst Bloch); the architect Michael Goodman; Ella Wolfe, widow of Bertram D. Wolfe, Rivera's biographer, and the photographer Peter Stackpole - who can be seen in one of Rivera's murals as a boy holding a model airplane. Mr. Stackpole's father, the sculptor Ralph Stackpole, was one of the artist's longtime friends.
Mr. Tejada-Flores had no difficulty convincing his subjects to reminisce on camera.
''They were delighted that someone was going to tell Rivera's story,'' he said. ''Most of the people I interviewed are political people, committed public artists who were inspired by him 50 years ago - and though the art world has changed very much since then, a lot of them still believe in his vision of art and society.''
To start his two-and-a-half years of research, Mr. Tejada-Flores began in San Francisco, where he lives. Rivera's first two American commissions were for frescos in that city, one at the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange Luncheon Club, the other at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Although their themes are nonpolitical, neither fresco is widely known.
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