By the Rivers of Babylon
Arnold Mesches is an old hand. You wouldn’t know it from the vigor of his drawing, which is the essence of his art. Nor from the expansive scale he works on, despite the fact that drawing is often thought of as an intimate communication between the artist and the viewer who, metaphorically, hovers over his or her shoulder. At age 89, Mesches has been “at it” a long time, and his beginnings date to the waning days of that period in American art history when many modern artists took it for granted that their medium was a form of public address and a vessel for public passions. Back in the day, such an attitude usually reflected Left-leaning political views, and those who held them frequently used the wall as a visual amplifier to express their convictions and proclaim their causes. Mesches still speaks in the visual equivalent of an oratorical voice—boldness and fervency are the hallmarks of his imagery—although he sometimes modulates to a no less vivid stage whisper. But where he and others once used that voice to articulate unequivocal positions on the issues of the moment, framed by equally direct scenarios and symbols of social good and evil, it currently addresses compound ambiguities and bespeaks a “message” of ominous confusion with regard to looming dangers and popular delusions whose sheer enormity all but overwhelm the viewer.“Apocalypse Then”—that is to say in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s—meant emblems of reaction on the march against the forces of progress. If you look attentively at the paintings still found above the service windows of post offices across this country, or in the lobbies of federal, state, and municipal buildings of every description, from schools to low-income housing you can see them marching or watch the counter-mobilization of a confident citizenry in defense of democracy. “Apocalypse Now”—in the second decade of the second millennium—dissolves that old trade unionist “which side are you on?” dichotomy, resulting in clear statements of a murkier realities, where confidence has been lost and progress has boomeranged on progressives—and everybody else. Meanwhile, reaction fine tunes the daily attrition of civil liberties and shared hopes, so as to produce a “New World Order” that makes the cruel fantasies of Ayn Rand—the L. Ron Hubbard of power elites—into harsh realities for ordinary people, who must fight to keep their bearings and struggle in very bad times to hold on to the little ground they gained in the good times now behind us all. In this context, deliberate anachronism has become the poetic language of both those who celebrate the collapse of Utopian modernism in their quest to enshrine conservative ideals and of those who search the wreckage for signs of life and tools for rebuilding a place where the imagination can be free, despite the heavy menace of a disastrous past and a compromised future. Mesches belongs to the second group. Generally dark, moody, and reminiscent of the shores where you’re as likely to see Charon pull up his boat as you are a Gulf Coast bait fisherman lost in the swamps, or so garish and eventful that looking at them is like playing in traffic on the sulfur-lit main drag of an all-American Hades—Mesches is not among contemporary art’s Dante-quoters but he offers guided tours of an Inferno all his own. The artist’s enigmatic landscapes, cityscapes, and nowhere-on-this-planet-scapes are a snappy hybrid of vintage social realism. They evince “Day of the Locust” burn-the-set backdrop painting and de Chiricoesque metaphysical puzzle-picturing, in which nothing is quite itself, everything stands for something else, and viewers are on notice that after crossing the visual threshold of the uncanny realms Mesches depicts, they won’t be able to count on Rod Serling to rescue them from the Twilight Zone.The fact that Mesches worked in the movie industry during the 1940s and 1950s, soaking up Hollywood magic while learning Hollywood tricks of the trade and studying its backstage tawdriness, in part explains his easy command of highly scenogaphic effects. Up to the point that his own conjuring takes over and we, the viewers, suspend disbelief in the theatres of his mind. Well, to be honest, we can never wholly believe what we see, and are not expected to. In that respect, it is noteworthy that the artist abstains from the sort of trompe l’oeil mannerisms that vulgar American surrealism often favored, and movie directors such as Alfred Hitchcock indulged in to a fault. So, at this point, let’s stop to restate that it is the intentionally self-betraying anomalies of de Chirico, rather than the “Oh My God! Can this be real?” illusionism of Dali, that Mesches’ paintings recall. To which precedent add a dash of Brechtian Fourth Wall-breaking anti-naturalism and well-contrived irresolution, remembering, as we do, that the old Left may be dead, but its formerly dissenting spirit partially survives in current deconstructive practices for which the ever-contrary Brecht—stripped of his abject Stalinism—is, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the unexpected yet profoundly influential model. Not forgetting that Brecht was an avowed point of reference for Andy Warhol, the playfully perverse “deconstructanator” of Image Capitalism in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and the champion of vigorously subversive vulgarity over evasive High Modernist “good taste.”As someone who has been behind the scenes, Mesches does not share Warhol’s infatuation with Hollywood royalty or with celebrity culture generally, but he understands the allure of excess, and isn’t the least shy about deploying it in support of his larger critical aims. A thing of resplendently eclectic atmospheric motion picture palaces, Mesches’ theatre of the absurd thus remains implicitly if not explicitly cinematic throughout. To that extent his paintings are like the storyboards of an independent filmmaker who is too impatient to work with temperamental actors or wait for funding from interfering moneymen, when he can get it all down on his own in quivering contour and vibrant color with only a brush in hand and a suite of canvases awaiting its discursive touch. Or think of them as the handmade film stills from the silent screen era. Except, of course, that many of the happenings portrayed are all too recognizably of our own era, and their depictions are visually clangorous to the point than one can almost hear the painterly explosions as pyrotechnical bursts of high-keyed color and furious mark-making erupt in all directions. Replete as they are with dated decors, costumes, and other details, the fact that Mesches calls some of these canvases “Coming Attractions,” when so many suggest a last night on earth, only serves to underscore that the doomsday vision they all evoke transcends particular cultural references even as it also signals that, as a group, the paintings and drawings owe more to B-movie horrors than to the edifying heroism that was traditionally subject of history painting. The nerve-wracking truth, Mesches seems to be saying, is that we are in a bad way and things are bound to get worse. He is able to say it with the grinning irony of an old man who has come to terms with the knowledge that no matter what comes next for the rest of us, his own fate is soon to be sealed. But the anger of his satire shows that he is no Nirvana-bound Buddha, nor, on the evidence of his recent work, does he display any wish to be one. Bodhisattvas about to let go of their corporeality do not dream up Penthouse-grade orgies to fill Tiepolo-like ceilings as Mesches has done. Instead the presiding bald-headed master is the ancient death-haunted satyr, Picasso. (But for the sympathetic vibrations between the Spaniard’s unrepentantly horny late work with that of Mesches, Leon Golub, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning, how remote that formerly ubiquitous figure has become.) Although still in the making, sooner or later Mesches’ legacy will be to have cranked up every dimension of his art to its maximum capacity to capture the chaos, gaudiness, fears, and frustrations of a world barely shy of the point at which redemption becomes wholly inconceivable—and do so with the saving grace of vulgar energy in extremis. And should anyone balk at my positive use of the term “vulgar,” they must first consider the defense of vital vulgarity mounted in word and deed by de Kooning and David Smith, the latter in particular having been the author of the violently burlesque “Medals for Dishonor” and other works with which Mesches’ furious fantasias compare favorably. “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Dylan Thomas admonished his dying subject and his mortal readers in the soothingly melodious tones of an anti-elegiac poem. With bells, whistles, and crashing waves of sound from a Wurlitzer organ ringing in our ears, as the Baroque chandeliers and sconces dim in his anti-modern monuments to the phantasmagoria of modern civilization on the brink, Mesches reminds us that quiet surrender never really was, nor ever will be, an option for him.Revised from an essay first published in 2007.
Aesthetic and Political Engagement
In 1945, 22-year-old Arnold Mesches painted a clamorous preacher standing in front of a working-class crowd, pointing to a Bible on a garbage can,Jesus Saves printed on the can’s side. This kind of painting had become rare in American art. SocialRealism had just about run its course. Major painters like Philip Evergood andBen Shahn were all but forgotten as abstraction became the norm. AbstractExpressionism achieved hegemony in the early 1950s, and the figure was banished from mainstream American painting. But nothing lasts very long in American culture. After the masterworks by Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Clyfford Still, Abstract Expressionism lost much of its energy.
By the late 1950s, the dominant art trends had moved from “hot” to “cool,” from radical, vigorous confrontation of painter-to-canvas to aloof detachment, be it the formal concerns of the Color Field painters, or the Pop artists’ glorification of soup cans and comic strips. At the same time, however, there were artists, Arnold Mesches among them, who began to reexamine the figurative work ofExpressionists such as Beckmann, Nolde, and Soutine, as well as Giacometti,Dubuffet, and Francis Bacon. As the sculptor Leonard Baskin affirmed, “Ourhuman frame, our gutted mansion, our enveloping sack of beef and ash is yet glorious.”[i] The innovations of theAction painters, of the living surface of pigment, remained essential to the work of the younger painters. Of key importance were the Woman paintings by de Kooning, who, when told by Clement Greenberg that “It is impossible today to paint a face,” replied, “That’s right, but it’s impossible not to.”[ii]
Mesches came to the forealong with a number of fine younger figure painters—artists such as Jan Müllerand Larry Rivers in New York, Leon Golub in Chicago, Nathan Oliveira inCalifornia, Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach in London, Asger Jorn in Denmark,Karel Appel in Holland, and Bernhard Heisig in Leipzig, as well as AnselmKiefer and a number of German and Italian Neo-Expressionists. As Melinda Wortzhas noted, “The receptiveness of the current moment provides a context in which, Mesches’ work can be appreciated in a way that was impossible in the reductive abstract climate of the 1960s.”[iii]
Mesches, born in the Bronx in1923, was raised in Buffalo and moved to Los Angeles in 1943, on a scholarshipto the Art Center School. There he learned about Renaissance composition from Lorser Feitelson, but Mesches is essentially self-taught as an artist. His real teachers were Pieter Brueghel, Goya, Kollwitz, Shahn, and the Mexicanmuralists—artists whose powerful visual statements derived from their engagement with political and social reality.
The convergence of great painting and social responsibility became of prime importance to the young Mesches. In 1946, he was employed as a set illustrator for Sol Lesser studios.While working on a Tarzan movie, he joined the picket lines during the pivotalHollywood studio strike, a major political event that led indirectly to theHouse Un-American Activities Committee blacklist and, eventually, to theMcCarthy committee and all its defilements. Instead of going to Paris as other artists had done, Mesches went to Mexico where his political and artistic commitments were reinforced by the work of the Mexican muralists. He met Pablo O’Higgins and David Siqueiros, and, most important, he got to study Orozco’s murals inGuadalajara and Mexico City. Afterward, in the mid-1950s, Mesches produced morethan 30 strong paintings and drawings dealing with the trial and execution ofJulius and Ethel Rosenberg. Many of those works were stolen when his studio was ransacked, probably by the FBI, which by then had begun to accumulate what would become a huge dossier on the artist.
In 1953, Mesches was given a solo exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, which was, at that time, the most important venue of avant-garde art in the Los Angeles area. Fortuitously, anOrozco exhibition took place in a large gallery next to his. In the late 1950s,Mesches produced a series of family paintings, such as Family Portrait (1958), based on an old photograph of several generations of his Jewish relatives, standing and sitting, all dressed in black—a picture that makes me think of Primo Levi’s description of his Jewish ancestors: “It can hardly be by chance that all deeds attributed to them,though quite various, have in common a touch of the static, an attitude of dignified abstention, of voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of the great river of life.”[iv]
This was also the time when he focused on the horrors of the Holocaust. He made a series of blood-curdling line drawings depicting a malevolent bird examining a corpse, a woman thrown over a desk where three lines—arrows?—penetrate her body. There were drawing sand paintings of human skeletons barely alive, such as we have seen in photographs of the Nazi death camps. In one major work from that devastating series, The Cart (1958), Mesches painted gassed bodies in pallid whites and grays, piled haphazardly on a wooden cart. “By pushing the dense pile of corpses into the immediate foreground Mesches forces us to confront them and all that they imply about the extremes of human depredation.”[v]
In the 1960s, close to home,there was the reality of America’s invasion of Vietnam and the resulting mounting death count. In 1966, Mesches was the fundraiser and one of the organizers of a 60-foot-high Peace Tower in Los Angeles, designed by Mark diSuvero, which was surrounded by an exhibition of works condemning the war by some 400 international artists. There were speeches and demonstrations against the war, as well as attacks on the exhibition by the Hells Angels.
The Peace Tower marked a major moment in the antiwar movement. It also took a toll on Mesches’ own work.He had to reevaluate his painting, and, for a while, he turned to portraiture.Over the next six years, he produced more than 200 paintings and drawings. The earliest portraits are explicitly detailed and lifelike, though formally closer to old Renaissance techniques than photo-realism. In the portrait Dorothy Healey (1977), every aspect of the woman’s face—expressive, alert, perceptive and thoughtful—was depicted with masterful skill. There are discerning portraits of fellow artists Emerson Woelffer and John Baldessari. With each new countenance, Mesches alchemizes theRenaissance glazes and vigorous, wild brushstrokes, until his canvases rivalAction Painting, the human face barely distinguishable in the gestural paint.He painted self-portraits and portraits of his wife, the novelist Jill Ciment,cropping the faces down to only a manifest presence—eyes, nose, and mouth.
In 1995, while immersed in anew major series about childhood memories and diaspora, ECHOES: A CENTURY SURVEY, he returned to Old Master techniques to paint Anna Mesches (1995), an emotionally moving portrait of his mother, sharp-eyed behind her eyeglasses,set against a blue-black background. Two years later, he created a densely packed, crisscrossing charcoal likeness of her seated in an armchair, looking at us with skeptical eyes, a work that could easily find its place in the history of modern drawing.
Before moving to New York in1984, he completed a series he called ARTIN PUBLIC PLACES. Simulating well-known masterworks of 19th-century French painting, he then sanded and glazed the surfaces until the canvases looked dream like and ancient. Atop these paradoxical shadow-images of the past, he juxtaposed plastic-colored contemporary icons or current events. In Marat (1984) he replicated Jacques-LouisDavid’s Death of Marat (1793), a commemorative painting in which the painter of the French Revolution celebrated its martyred leader. Marat, having been knifed to death by Charlotte Corday, is lying in his bathtub, his dead hand holding his weapon, the pen. Mesches reconstructed the painting in mournful dark blues and greens, and, bringing the work into the here and now, placed a row of ghostly white mannequin hands hanging above the painting.
In Picnic in the Park (1984) he suspended realistically rendered dead chickens, instead of white gloves, above an umbrageous version of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. In this interpretation, the Impressionist masterpiece, which art historians have marked as the beginning of modernist painting, ends up as the background for the dead birds. The same year, Mesches painted Artin Public Places 2, in which a jolly sousaphone player dressed in red,rides his unicycle against a veiled version of Géricault’s famous Raft of the Medusa (1819), a painting that reported on a contemporaneous event of great tragedy. In a stratagem of double-edged irony, the contemporary artist juxtaposes this catastrophe of the past with a cheerful figure of the present.
In the most memorable image of this series, Art in Public Places 1(1983), he depicts Il Duce and his mistress Claretta Petacci as they were hanged upside down by Italian partisans. Mesches pictured the dead pair in bright colors and juxtaposed them against Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People (1830), which he rendered in contrasting dark, nebulous blues.
Several years earlier, in 1976, Robert Colescott, also a painter of political engagement, who, like Mesches, enjoyed de- or reconstructing paintings of the European canon, did his homage to the same painting by Delacroix, but, by rendering several of the major players of the agitated revolutionary crowd in black, he claimed liberty for all. Both Colescott and Mesches created allegories in which the earlier image shines through the present, re-examining the “great art” and the hierarchical system of art history and adapting them to their own visions of the present.
Past and present are again essential in the extraordinary series of paintings that occupied the artist from 1989 to 2001. He named them ANOMIE1492–2006, “a condition of society marred by the absence of moral standards.” In Surrealist free association, the artist conflates time by making the date part of the title of each picture. In Anomie 1980: Nancy Reagan’s Dream (1992), we see the First Lady enthroned and crowned, much like the real Queen Elizabeth II in a 1953 photo,surrounded by great dignitaries. In the sky float all manner of Nancy’s astrological signs and symbols, which might have come up in a session with her astrologer: a large fish, the Statue of Liberty, a flying man, twin boys with God Bless Amerika sashes worn across their jackets, etc. Anomie 1858: Steel(1993) depicts mid-19th-century industrialists in top hats on a horse-drawn carriage, who appear to be indifferent to the fire engulfing their factory. Anomie 1994: The Flea Market has kitschy gimcracks in the foreground, miniature statues of Marx and Engels, the large Worker and Kolkhoz Woman sculpture from the Soviet pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, as well as empty picture frames, all surmounted by a blue-collar worker, an intellectual, and a running rooster under a thunderous sky. In Anomie1991: Nostalgia (1995) we see a German World War I veteran playing the tuba and a young World War II soldier playing the accordion and singing—the instruments of war and heroic busts in the background—the artist’s sarcastic comment on the reunification of Germany and its nostalgia for a military past.
Mesches himself may have felt nostalgic about Coney Island, where his parents often took him as a child, when he produced Anomie 2001: Coney(1997). Here, a Cyclops presides over the madness of the crowds with an old biplane in the sky and a Buck Rogers–style rocket ship on its launch pad, while parachutes descend from their tower and riderless carousel horses gallop to nowhere.
In 1999, through the Freedom of Information Act, Mesches gained access to his 780-page FBI file—26 years of federal surveillance starting with his involvement in the 1946 Hollywood strike and continuing through the Vietnam antiwar protest years. With this massive,unsettling Xeroxed tome in hand, he selected 57 documents and transformed them into a contemporary Book of Hours. This ingenious concept again allowed Mesches to juxtapose past and present. The pages from his file were labeled Federal Bureau of Investigation, Confidential, and Secret, as G-men recorded his daily activities, the kind of car he drove,the fact that he was arrested on November 15, 1946—along with 800 others—for disobeying an order against mass picketing. There were also suspicions that he dressed “like a Communist,” with paint-splattered pants, and was actually observed marching for peace.
The heavily censored pages—names, places, whole paragraphs obliterated with black markers—reminded Mesches of Franz Kline’s paintings. Mesches then “illuminated” these pages with iconographic mid-century imagery such as a Hitler with his body painted in blood, his face submerged under white pigment, portraits of Malcolm X, Paul Robeson,Richard Nixon, and Joseph McCarthy, along with girlie pictures in pretty frames. There is an image of hooded KKK men standing under opulent chandeliers.The FBI Files 45 is a painting of a striker being lugged away by police officers with a caption in big letters: Hollywood 1946! America 1947?
THE FBI FILES was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art’s affiliate PS1, where 500 visitors a day came to see it, before it moved on to other venues: the Skirball Cultural Center in LosAngeles, the Weatherspoon Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and theUniversity of Florida’s Art Museum in Gainesville, among others. The exhibit happened to coincide with the passage of President George W. Bush’s odiousPatriot Act, which permits broad surveillance of citizens, and remains largely in force in the Obama administration.
The beginning of the new millennium saw an outburst of energy by an artist reaching his eighties.Between 2005 and 2007, he produced a series of 19 large, penetrating canvas she called COMING ATTRACTIONS. Later he recalled: “By combining unlikely juxtapositions, both in painting techniques and disparate imagery...I have tried to recreate the sense of utter instability and sheer insanity that I feel continues to permeate my years. Instead of, as in my salad days, veering toward the overt, I have, for some years now, found myself depicting our time with a sense of unreality bordering on the more unsettling absurd.”[vi]
This is what he indeed accomplished in this surreal series, which dealt metaphorically with the abominations of the Bush years and the precariousness of life. In one painting,the lone figure of a nude man is standing in an elaborate room, the kind you see in the Vatican, with a ceiling fresco of sybarite couples enjoying their orgies.Another is a picture of a large party in a huge dark hall with, again, opulent chandeliers overhead; on one wall, a lit screen shows the harrowing image of a frightened soldier wearing an elaborate gas mask on a bright red ground. There are perilous dark landscapes with a mysterious white altar or a table set for dinner under dark, decaying trees. A ragged, red-eyed, black cat in another painting has a dead fish in its mouth, trudging through a forsaken landscape with a doleful sunset—all reflected in a multicolored pond. The “unsettling absurd,” indeed.
Mesches’ next series, simply called PAINT (2008–2010), reproduced masterpieces with amazing skill, layering the original works with the tools of his trade—brushes and jars of paint—in their foregrounds. On one canvas,ominously named Portraiture, he painted Van Gogh’s gray skull smoking a cigarette, and thus had “death”presiding over the painter’s lush palette. Selecting Mantegna’s foreshortened body of the dead Christ, he crowned it with small paintbrushes and called it,quite correctly, Isometric Perspective(2010). There is the copy of Goya’s masterpiece, Third of May 1808 (1814), simply called Brushes, and a detail of Rembrandt’s 1660 Self Portrait, focusing only on his eyes, nose, and mouth, as well as the miraculous painting, Old WomanCutting Her Nails, a picture that Mesches (and I) always admired in theMetropolitan Museum, which, upon scrutinizing the work, he entitled Light Source. More than many of his contemporaries, Mesches is acutely aware of the importance of the continuity of art’s history. With his discerning sense of the present, he is able to connect his work to the past, and, perhaps, point to the future.
As we have seen, Surrealism is a movement often reflected in Arnold Mesches’ paintings, especially in the2009–2010 series called WEATHER PATTERNS.André Breton and the Surrealists like to cite the Comte de Lautréamont’s remark of “a chance encounter of a sewing machine with an umbrella on a sewing table.”[vii] Such metaphoric pursuits—relating dissociated objects or phenomena—were essential to the early paintings ofGiorgio de Chirico and Magritte. Similar enigmatic combinations are seen in paintings by Mesches, such as the figure of a tiny woman holding a parasol as she treads precariously on a tightrope in front of the huge Niagara waterfall,or of a waiter serving cocktails under the ominous funnel cloud of a tornado,or of a trapeze artist flying before a wild tsunami trying to catch his trapeze. These images—precisely because their interfaces seem beyond possibility—create a sense of uncomfortable displacement in the viewer.
In 2011, eight years afterPresident George W. Bush announced his unprovoked catastrophic bombing of Iraq cities, announcing his terrorist action as “shock and awe,” Mesches began producing a series of paintings with this appellation. The Pentagon employed all the technology at its disposal, but there was no way for a painter to deal with the wholesale annihilation. Instead, in most of his canvases Mesches highlights the explosive burnings of oil refineries, ships, and automobiles. He used his hands, arms, and his whole body, to smudge the garish colors of fire—red,yellow, and orange—in intense strokes in the Abstract Expressionist mode.Although these paintings belong, to use Harold Rosenberg’s term, to “the tradition of the new,” they are not “paint...just paint...gesture on the canvas,” they are not “discarding Value—political, esthetic, moral.”[viii] Quite the contrary:this artist, working in the 21st century, employing the innovations of theAction painters, has made an art that is engaged, both politically and morally.Arnold Mesches puts his aesthetic means into practice to direct the viewer to see political reality—the incongruous—as it is. As he himself says,“Absurdity...can transcend immediate frustration by asking the viewers to question, not only what they are seeing and feeling, but more importantly, why they are questioning their uneasiness. Hopefully, the dichotomy only increases when one is seduced by the richness of the painting’s surface and the enticing vividness of color; beauty as an art language to complement the darkness and humor.”[ix]
[i] Leonard Baskin in Peter Selz, New Images of Man(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959), 35.
[ii] Willem de Kooning in Thomas B. Hess, Willem deKooning (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968), 74.
[iii] Melinda Wortz, “Arnold Mesches,” in Arnold Mesches: Selected Works / Past and Present (Los Angeles Municipal ArtGallery, 1983), 12.
[iv] Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (New York: Schocken Books, 1984), 4.
[v] Wortz, Arnold Mesches, 23.
[vi] Arnold Mesches, Artist Statement, June 24, 2012.
[vii] Comtede Lautréamont in William S. Rubin, Dada,Surrealism, and Their Heritage (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968),19.
[viii] Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1982), 30.
[ix] Mesches, Artist Statement.