Courtesy PhotoWorks from the huge collection of late graphic designer Rex May are on view at the Mexican Museum.

Legacy of May lives on at Mexican Museum

The late Rex May was a successful graphic designer, best known for creating San Francisco’s 49-Mile Drive logo. He was also an avid collector of Mexican art, giving his collection to the Mexican Museum in 2001.

“An Inspired Gift: The Rex May Collection of Popular Art” is on display at the museum until next year. It contains some 400 masks, paintings, ceramic figurines and other pieces, arranged to evoke the feeling of how they looked when they occupied May’s Victorian home. It’s a refreshing approach.

“If you think of the Mexican sensitivities to color, line and form, this is a plethora of visual delight,” says David de la Torre, the museum’s director. “This is an opportunity to experience that in all its glory.”

A dozen red and yellow parrots are perched on top of one cabinet, grouped together as May would have done. Two look as if they might be kissing, the others appear to be observing the scene below. The scene is far more interesting than if May had spaced them evenly apart.

Visitors will enjoy looking at shelves filled with colorful figures, from a 19th-century carved figure of baby Jesus to Day of the Dead sculptures. Above the entrance to the gallery are wonderful animal masks made of bamboo and canvas.

“It begs to ask, why do people collect things?” de la Torre says. “When they collect things, how far can they go?”

May grew up in a poor family in Texas and was discouraged from going to the Mexican neighborhoods in town. As an adult he fell in love with vibrant Mexican folk art, making numerous trips to add to his collection. He also ran a popular Christmas store on Sacramento Street, selling treasures he gathered on his world travels.

May died in 1993. His iconic 49-mile Scenic Drive sign, unveiled in 1955, is still in use today.

May donated some 1,400 objects in all to the museum. The entire collection will be displayed when the museum moves to its new home in The City’s Yerba Buena arts district in 2017 or 2018.


An Inspired Gift: The Rex May Collection of Popular Art

Where: Mexican Museum, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; closes March 16, 2014
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 202-9700,

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