Artist Arnold Mesches 1923-2016 Age: 93
Mesches, Artist Who Was Recorded by the F.B.I., Dies at 93
Arnold Mesches, Artist Who Was Recorded by the F.B.I., Dies at 93
By WILLIAM GRIMESNOV. 9, 2016
His death was confirmed by his wife, the novelist Jill Ciment.
Mr. Mesches (pronounced MESH-ees) was a scenic artist in Hollywood when his work for the Communist Party came to the attention of the F.B.I. in 1945. A file the bureau started began filling up quickly the next year, when he dropped his work as a storyboard artist on a Tarzan film and took part in a strike against the studios.
Over the years, agents and informers kept track of Mr. Mesches’s day-to-day activities, reporting to headquarters on matters large and small. If he signed a petition, it went into his file. When he turned in an illustration for Mad magazine, the fact was duly noted. One informant, noting his paint-spattered pants, wrote that Mr. Mesches “dressed like a Communist.”
In 1956 most of his artwork was stolen from his studio, including dozens of paintings and drawings inspired by the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. He strongly suspected that the F.B.I. was behind the break-in.
And so it went until 1972, when the surveillance sputtered to its conclusion.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Mesches obtained his file under the Freedom of Information Act and reaped a bonanza of 760 pages, with classified information ruled over in heavy black lines. They had a certain look, he decided.
“I saw other people’s files and realized they were aesthetically beautiful,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “Kind of like Franz Kline sketches. Those big, black slashes where they block things out.”
Going to work, he cut and pasted 57 of the documents into a series of collaged paintings first exhibited at P.S. 1, the Museum of Modern Art’s satellite museum in Queens, in 2003 and later at several other museums. It was, in a way, a collaborative work — an inspired if unexpected union of opposites.
Arnold Mesches was born on Aug. 11, 1923, in the Bronx. His father, Benjamin, traded gold door to door and later sold cut-rate suits. His mother, the former Anna Grosse, was a homemaker.
When Arnold was 2 years old, his father moved the family to Dunkirk, N.Y., near Buffalo, where he managed his sister’s haberdashery store. When the Depression took hold, he was reduced to working odd jobs in Buffalo, where Arnold, an only child, grew up from the age of 7.
After graduating in 1941 from Technical High School (now Hutchinson Technical Central High School) in Buffalo, where he studied advertising design, Mr. Mesches worked at a munitions factory making machine guns. He tried to enlist in the Army Signal Corps but was rejected because he suffered from migraine headaches.
In 1943, with a scholarship in hand, Mr. Mesches moved to Los Angeles to study commercial art at the Art Center School (now the Art Center College of Design). He soon realized that he wanted to be a fine artist and, dropping out of the Art Center School, studied drawing at the Jepson Art Institute and composition at the Chouinard Art Institute.
While on strike, Mr. Mesches walked the picket line in the morning and painted watercolor landscapes in the afternoon with a group of other scenic artists. “I knew nothing about painting, so I’d look over the other guy’s shoulders — when they made a stroke, I’d make a stroke — that’s how I learned about painting,” he told the arts journal The Brooklyn Rail in 2010.
Influenced by the social realism of Ben Shahn and the crowd scenes of the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Mr. Mesches began painting laborers plying their trades, rendered in a propulsive, gestural style, with broad, heavy brush strokes. At the Graphic Arts Workshop, which he helped found, he turned out political posters and banners.
Mr. Mesches moved from straightforward realism to a more idiosyncratic style, with surrealistic touches that infused his social panoramas with a dreamlike, often nightmarish, quality.
His commentary tended to be indirect. In “Anomie 2006: Dog Eared,” part of a series he said was intended to show “a condition of society marred by the absence of moral standards,” a giant ice cream cone and a childlike robot tower over an auto graveyard at sunset.
“The F.B.I. Files 56,” one of the best-known works in the F.B.I. series, juxtaposes a man’s head, mouth open as though declaiming, next to a ragged page from Mr. Mesches’s file noting his involvement in the Walk for Peace Committee in 1961. Along the borders of the page Mr. Mesches sprinkled cryptic images: a tricycle, a Ferris wheel, a set of keys, a tiny Viking doll with sword and shield.
Ms. Ciment wove the F.B.I. project into her novel “Heroic Measures,” about a painter and his wife living in a Brooklyn brownstone. It was made into the 2015 film “5 Flights Up,” with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton in the lead roles.
When he moved to New York in the mid-1980s, Mr. Mesches found that his work chimed with the vogue for Neo-Expressionism. By then in his 60s, he jumped right into the exploding East Village scene with a solo show at the Civilian Warfare gallery, his first in New York. Grace Glueck of The Times called it “another interesting case of a trend catching up to an artist.”
Mr. Mesches’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Paul and Susan Mesches, and two grandsons. He divided his time between Gainesville and Brooklyn.
In 2013, the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College organized a retrospective covering 60 years of his work, much of it devoted to class conflict and political violence. “It’s a frightening world,” he told The Miami Herald, “and I have to do something about it.