[Marxism] Arnold Mesches, Artist Who Was Recorded by the F.B.I., Dies at 93
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Sun Nov 13 09:55:11 MST 2016
NY Times, Nov. 13 2016
Arnold Mesches, Artist Who Was Recorded by the F.B.I., Dies at 93
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Arnold Mesches, a socially conscious painter whose political activities
were recorded by the F.B.I. for more than 25 years in a thick dossier
that he later used for his series “The F.B.I. Files,” died on Nov. 5 at
his home in Gainesville, Fla. He was 93.
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.”
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