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Arnold Mesches

(1923-2016)
American
Born: Bronx, New York, United States

Arnold Mesches was a painter and political activist who was born in the Bronx (N.Y.) in 1923 to an orthodox Jewish family. They soon moved to Dunkirk, N.Y., where Mesches’s father, a Lithuanian immigrant, managed his sister’s clothing store until the Great Depression hit. After the store closed, Mesches moved with his parents to a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. In an essay accompanying a 2001 exhibition of his work, he recalled this period of his father's life:

“Pop wound up buying and selling old gold on strange streets, in a hostile environment, uncomfortably living with in-laws. Peddling old gold had to be the most humiliating experience imaginable. Certainly, the loneliest. You bang on doors, in the dead of brutal winters, in the heat of breathless summers, begging poor, desperate people to part with their ancient, cherished heirlooms; watches and bracelets from their wrists, necklaces and pendants from their necks, rings from their fingers, bridges from their mouths, paying a few meager dollars so you can resell the goods for a tiny profit to contribute to the rent of a place you don’t want to be in, at an unexplainable time, facing a frightening future.” [1]

Mesches demonstrated an interest in and talent for visual art as a teenager. (The first work for which he achieved recognition was a drawing of Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, created while Mesches was active with a leftist Jewish youth group before abandoning religion altogether.) While attending Buffalo Technical High School he received scholarships and other awards for his artwork. Upon graduating in 1941, he worked as a freelance advertising designer until the U.S. entered World War II, when he took a job in a machine gun factory. He enlisted in a Signal Corps class, but was rejected after failing his physical.

A scholarship brought him to the Art Center School (now Art Center College of Design) in Pasadena, Cal. in 1943, where his primary mentor was Lorser Feitelson. This period marked his only formal art education, although both inside and outside the academy he learned about artists who would become major influences on his work, including Brueghel, Goya, Käthe Kollwitz, Anselm Kiefer, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralists, and especially Ben Shahn.

In 1945 Mesches married Sylvia Snetzky and the newlyweds moved to Los Angeles. It was there that he launched his fine art career while taking a short-lived day job as a set and storyboard illustrator in Hollywood (where he learned watercolor technique from studio professionals) until a studio strike inspired him to join the picket line. In the late 1940s and 1950s he sought work teaching art wherever he could, with little longterm success. (He was fired from one such position in Salt Lake City in 1948 because of his political activities.) Meanwhile he took commissions to paint murals, worked on filmstrips about African-American history and the Progressive Party, and designed the cover of an album by Pete Seeger, among other odd jobs.

The artist’s first solo museum show was mounted in 1953 at what was then called the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). In 1955, he began work on Family Background, a series of paintings examining parallels between his own life and those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed three years earlier after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. In 1956, the entire series and many other paintings were stolen from Mesches’s studio, a theft which the artist and his legal advisers suspected was the work of the FBI.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mesches worked on a series about the Holocaust; as the nation’s attention turned to Vietnam in the mid 1960s, he joined the anti-war movement. In 1966 he traveled to Europe for the first time, where he was able to see artworks he had previously only read about and seen in reproductions. Returning to the States, he worked as a courtroom artist for television news. For several years, beginning in the late 1960s, he shifted from painting to printmaking and creative writing.

Mesches's first marriage ended in the 1970s, and he began a relationship with student, artist, and future novelist Jill Ciment. They married in 1983, and in 1984 they moved to New York City. The couple arrived in the East Village at the height of the Neo-Expressionist movement, and Mesches’s solo exhibition at the gallery Civilian Warfare that year—his first one-man show in New York, at the age of 61—attracted attention in the city’s art world. Critic Kim Levin described the work in the Village Voice:

“Mesches’s long preoccupation with the madness of civilization has recently converged with a younger generation’s angst. … First [he] recreates a familiar Old Master composition, sands it down and stains it until all that’s left is a murky, eroded picture, a receding memory. This becomes the background for a seemingly unrelated overpainted foreground image. … Though the overlay is a relatively simple formal device, the results resonate with issues of survival, madness, victory, and defeat. They speak to the relativity of events, the precariousness of art, life, and history, and the perils of ignoring the past.” [2]

The Civilian Warfare show ran concurrently with another exhibition of recent work at the Karl Bornstein Gallery in Santa Monica and was followed by one at Hallwalls in Buffalo. Over the course of his 18 years in New York, Mesches taught at New York University, Rutgers University, and Parsons School of Design. In 1988, the Buscaglia-Castellani Art Gallery (Niagara University, Niagara Falls, N.Y.; now the Castellani Art Museum) and the Burchfield Art Center (Buffalo, N.Y.; now the Burchfield Penney Art Center) collaborated on a mini-retrospective of his work, Arnold Mesches: Selections from the 80s.

In the late 1990s, Mesches and Ciment, while maintaining a residence in Brooklyn, relocated to Florida, where he taught at Florida State University and the University of Florida at Gainesville. (The latter institution granted him an honorary doctorate in 2010.) In 1999, through the Freedom of Information Act, he gained access to his FBI file, containing 780 pages of material that confirmed the agency had closely followed his actions for 26 years, beginning in 1946. The documents became the basis for a mixed media series called The FBI Files, a collection of collages resembling illuminated manuscript pages. First shown at P.S. 1 in Brooklyn in 2002, the project toured extensively, including a stop at the University at Buffalo Art Gallery in 2004.

Other series Mesches has created over the years include War Images, Anomie, Coming Attractions, It’s a Circus, Weather Patterns, Paint, and Shock and Awe [3]. In 2013, a major retrospective (curated by Levin) spanning more than 60 years, Arnold Mesches: A Life's Work, opened at the Miami Dade College Museum of Art + Design. On the occasion of the retrospective, Shana Mason wrote in Art in America:

"Mesches focuses on marginalized and forgotten characters. Acrobats, waiters and busboys, martyrs and demonic animals are all set against opaque voids and elegant, empty Baroque spaces. Mesches's nightmarish visions of the modern world are articulated with dense fields of vividly colored brushstrokes. They are theaters of the surreal, grotesque and absurd, lamenting and satirizing society's elite and the horrors of human cruelty." [4]

Mesches’s extensive body of work has been featured in over 125 solo exhibitions and can be found in both private collections and the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, among other institutions. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Florida Department of State Division of Cultural Affairs.

For more information on Arnold Mesches, visit http://www.arnoldmesches.com/.
For an in-depth 2010 interview with Mesches and Jill Ciment in Brooklyn Rail, visit http://brooklynrail.org/2010/03/art/in-conversation-arnold-mesches-and-jill-ciment-with-robert-storr-and-phong-bui.

 

Biographical material adapted from Mary Crescenzo, "Artist Arnold Mesches: Nine Decades, A Life in Progress," Huffington Post, 8/9/2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-crescenzo/arnold-mesches_b_3733028.html. [Accessed 5/29/2015]

[1] Arnold Mesches, untitled essay in brochure for Echoes: A Century Surveys [sic] / Arnold Mesches: April 1-May 27, 2001, unidentified exhibition venue (probably the Oregon Jewish Museum and the Pacific Northwest College of Art).

[2] Kim Levin, “Issues and Images,” Village Voice, 12/18/1994.

[3] Of a work in the Shock and Awe series, artist/blogger Eliot Markell wrote:
"Mesches’s art is laden with character metaphor. This cogent ability to infuse compositions with symbolic versions of person and personality lend a kind of veiled intimacy to his representational prowess. But you don’t really get to know the artist, so much as respect him. Cryptic revelations imbued with fire conjure up Charles Burchfield’s burning houses without the spiritual ascendancy. This conflagration consumes an artist consumed by a desire to paint succinctly forceful gestures."
--Eliot Markell, "Arnold Mesches: Eternal Return," White Elephant on Wheels, 6/15/2014, http://whiteelephantonwheels.blogspot.com/2014/06/arnold-mesches-eternal-return.html. [Accessed 6/2/2015]

[4] Shana Mason, "Arnold Mesches in Miami: A 60-Year Retrospective," Art in America, 5/2/2013, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/arnold-mesches-in-miami-a-60-year-retrospective-/. [Accessed 6/2/2015]