Arnold Mesches, Next In Line: The FBI Series
Life on Mars Gallery, Bushwick, Brooklyn
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, OCT. 2014
Next In Line: The FBI Series, the show of art by Arnold Mesches at Life On Mars in Bushwick, is remarkable for several, quite contrary reasons, the most immediate being the work, which is powerful stuff. Another element is that Mesches is a self-taught artist, now 92, who first showed in 1945, and has continued to do so, earning respect, but not klieg-lit artworld attention. As such, this exhibition is a fine example of a fairly fresh art-world phenomenon, one which is Internet-born, and which we might as well call The Shock of the Not-That-New.
The arrival of the Internet, and especially, the goblins of social media which swarmed after, lead many – including this writer – to conclude that we were fated forever to inhabit a Technicolor Present. Wrong! Actually the Internet has made the recent past a readily accessible presence and in the arts this means that submerged reputations are continually being surfaced, held up to the light, re-examined, re-presented. As here and now.
But there’s another aspect to this show, one unconnected with the actual artworks, more with the circumstances that led to its making, which make the event resonate, indeed which fills me with apprehension. I realize I am foreshadowing, a trope which writers are urged to avoid, but I’ll return to this later.
So, to the back story. Arnold Mesches was born in the Bronx to parents who moved to Buffalo. The Depression hit hard when he was leaving infancy. “Let me put it this way, my father had a nickel to buy lunch. And I wanted to buy a Popsicle,” Mesches says. I had to spend three hours getting a nickel from him to buy my Popsicle - which was his lunch the next day. "For a nickel you could buy a bottle of beer and get a free sandwich. My father worked sometimes three days a week for $9 a day. It was rough. We really had trouble.”
By his teens Mesches was aware that he had art skills but the circumstances of his growing up made him prudent. He went into tech school in Buffalo and became a freelance advertising designer. At 21 he got a scholarship to the Art Center in Los Angeles. But he increasingly disliked the notion of a future in advertising. “I wanted to be a painter finally,” he says. “And I thought maybe the closest thing to being a painter was doing the set illustrations for movies. I wound up doing a Tarzan movie. I did the storyboards. The drawings for the sets."
“Then after three months we went on strike. The picket line went on for a year. And I met everybody you can imagine ... directors, producers, actors ... people on the line ... and everyone was a leftwinger. That was my education. My politics came from the Hollywood strike.” The strike, which was was for nothing more militant than higher wages, was broken. “I was in jail for three days with 800 guys,” Mesches says. He believes that the failure of the Hollywood strike lead directly to the black list.
Mesches went on to become a full-time artist, and an extraordinarily fluent and convincing one. He was also politically active. The arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for being part of a ring that passed atom secrets to the USSR, and their subsequent execution, inspired a number of paintings. His studio was burgled in 1956 and over 200 of his paintings were taken, including those of the Rosenbergs.
“We suspected right away that it was the FBI,” Mesches says. “There was an FBI informer. His name was Dave Brown. At that time he was the head of the Civil Rights Congress. And was as an FBI agent, an informer, and he was giving them all the records and everything else, and he used to come to my studio all the time. And he smoked Camel cigarettea. And the only thing we found in my studio after it was broken into was a Camel cigarette. So when we found it he was an FBI informant we put two and two together. He knew where everything was. He showed them where my portfolios were. Everything I lived on, they took.”
Mesches used the Freedom of Information Act to get his FBI files in 1999. He learned that the FBI had opened a file on him when he was 21 and had maintained surveillance on him until 1972. He also discovered that the entire stretch of documentation from May to November on the year of the robbery was missing. He did nonetheless recuperate 780 pages, the fruit of 26 years of surveillance. His first artwork on the subject of the Hollywood strike was a large oil painting. It’s in the show. “I like it,” he says. “The only thing that was missing was that it was not intimate.”
Mesches realized he wanted to make work as intimate as the act of reading. “That is the feeling I want to give,” he said. So he turned to his FBI files, using the pages - along with the sporadic blacked-out words, phrases, sentences, and creating his own visuals, essentially as if he was working on illuminated manuscripts. In 2002 Robert Storr asked to see the work. Storr got him a show at PS1. It was booked in for two months but was extended to four.
Clearly, Edward Snowden comes instantly to mind when we contemplate the issues raised by this body of work, as do such creepilly self-righteous figures as Julian Assange, to say nothing of Anonymous and others even more anonymous than Anonymous. Hence the resonance I write of above, and hence my apprehensions. Stalin’s Communism was a committed enemy. It’s gone, apart from some looney dinosaurs. We have new enemies. Another hard hit and will our taken-for-granted landscape change? “I don’t know where we’re going.” Mesches agreed. “It’s scarier than hell.”
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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