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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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“I have, for some years now, found myself depicting our time with a sense of unreality bordering on the more unsettling absurd.”
– Arnold Mesches
In February 1969 Sirhan Sirhan calmly walked into the courtroom to stand trial for the assassination of Robert Kennedy. America was transfixed in grief and shock. Of note at this moment was Sirhan’s surprisingly small stature. 5’ 5” and 120 pounds, his slight presence made apparent by the much larger guards who escorted him. The only existing image of this moment was captured with pencil on paper by courtroom sketch artist Arnold Mesches.
In July 1970, Charles Manson stood trial for the shocking and bloody murders that propelled the Hollywood film industry into real life crime and horror. The gruesome details of the case gripped the country. Sharon Tate, star of Valley of the Dolls, wife of Roman Polanski, and the most recognizable of the Manson victims, was pregnant when she was murdered. Manson and his disciples had placed the film industry and its stars at the center of his crimes. Film, art, and crime in America all intersected. In the courtroom, Manson was intense and wild-haired. Again, Arnold Mesches was there—offering the public a chance to look into the killer’s eyes.
The artist’s son,, Paul Mesches, recalls the two trials —
“The whole nation was just devastated by this horrible assassination. It was in the 60s so you had a very politically charged environment with demonstrations happening against the Vietnam war. The whole world was going through its changes at that time. [Then with Manson] I was a teenager at that time and everybody was living in fear. We didn’t know what was happening. I was just aware of these murders, that a murderer was amongst us and we should all be aware.”
There were other crossroads moments, too. Mesches served as courtroom sketch artist in 1969 when a United States Navy Court of Inquiry convened to investigate the seizure of the USS Pueblo, a US Spy ship captured along with its crew by North Koreans and held for eleven months. Because it was a military investigation, cameras were allowed in the room to document the proceedings, but the images were dispassionate, removed. The heartbeat and emotion, the details of the proceedings were more accurately depicted with a pencil.
Mesches also sat in and drew when the 1974 case of Paul Skyhorse and Richard Mohawk, two Native American defendants charged with the murder of a cab driver, came before a jury. The defense made the case that the two were framed in retaliation for their political activism and their organizing for the American Indian Movement.
If the USS Pueblo, the Manson Family murders, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the attempted framing of Skyhorse and Mohawk offer a portrait of America’s politics and character, then Arnold Mesches was the artist who drew that portrait for us. American politics remained at the center of his works for many years to come. His body of fine art work (paintings, drawings, and collages) addressed war, crime, politics, and social issues, expanding his American portrait to cover over 50 years.
American imaginations have long been occupied in seemingly equal parts by crime and its representation in the arts. Crime films inscribe onto our brains’ ideas about the nature of transgression and the rule of law, ideas that do not necessarily match reality. While fictionalized accounts of crime occupy our attention, sometimes these thoughts become “true” in our minds. And in turn these depictions influence future real-life criminal acts as the criminals and law enforcement themselves shape their behavior and model their movements based on fictionalized stories they have consumed, a boomerang that blurs and softens the demarcating line between truth and fiction. Arnold Mesches was an artist for whom real life crime and imagined crime intersected, overlapped, and informed each other through out his career.
* * *
Mesches was born August 11, 1923 in the Bronx to Orthodox Jewish parents. His father was a Lithuanian immigrant who bought and sold gold and his mother was a homemaker. He grew up in Buffalo, NY and moved to Los Angeles in 1943 to attend Art Center School, where he studied commercial art and design. In 1945 he met and married Sylvia Snetzky (they would later divorce in 1972). In Los Angeles, he picked up work as a scenic designer and storyboard illustrator on various films. It was also in 1945 that he joined other film industry union workers to strike and picket in protest of Hollywood’s studio system.
In an interview for The Brooklyn Rail with Robert Storr (March 2010), Mesches recalls the strike –
“We were on strike for a year. We would walk the picket line from 6 to 9 in the morning. Then, three or four of us would go off somewhere to paint watercolor landscapes. 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. The defeat of the Hollywood strike paved the way for the eventual HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] blacklist. By breaking the back of the trade unions in Hollywood, they opened up the possibility of full censorship of the whole industry, which eventually spread to become the McCarthy era nationally. At one point, eight hundred of us were put in jail for three days. We were tried and charged 25 dollars each.”
Mesches had lost interest in pursuing a career in commercial art and found work teaching fine art. He continued to contribute as an artist to the film industry and as an activist.
“I worked with a group of writers and artists and we had a workshop based on the Taller De Grafica in Mexico City; we would do different kinds of services such as leaflets, making picket signs and banners for trade unions and the progressive movement, etc, etc.”
His second wife, author Jill Ciment adds: “Actually if you look at the history of left wing politics in Los Angeles, whatever march it is, you can always recognize Arnold’s signs. They’re very sweet and great.”
As a fine artist Mesches began exhibiting his own work. His first exhibited piece was a painting of a plaza preacher addressing workers. It was exhibited in 1945 at the Norton Simon Museum.
In the summer of 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg awaited execution at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining NY, having been convicted under Section 2 of the Espionage Act of 1917 for conspiracy to commit espionage by passing military secrets to the Soviets. With the Korean War in the background and anti-communist sentiments running through America, the Rosenbergs’s trial fed directly into the fears and imaginations of many Americans. Mesches, not yet thirty at the time, protested their execution, because he both believed in their innocence and was strongly against the death penalty. His protest took the form of a series of 30 paintings. He filled his California art studio with images of the Rosenbergs. As he painted them, he thought about the Rosenbergs’s plight, about spying and surveillance, about America and Russia, and about democracy and communism. He believed that they had been singled out and framed by the HUAC, and on August 6, 1956 all thirty of the paintings were stolen from his studio along with approximately 200 other art works. Mesches suspected the FBI.
During the McCarthy era and the years leading up to it, any artist who was politically active, showed “communist sympathizing” tendencies, and participated in public protests was a likely target for surveillance by the FBI. “They robbed me of art supplies, a cheap radio, and over two hundred works. They left my books.” (From Arnold Mesches’ 2003 article for Duke University Press’s Public Culture, “The FBI Files”)
Despite there being no documentation of the stolen paintings, they were, like Mesches’ other works, figurative. His paintings fit within the Social Realism movement, using the quick mark-making style of the gestural Action Painters to depict and comment on socio-political issues and contemporary life through figurative drawings and paintings. Art historian Jill Thayer writes about Mesches’ influences: “Mesches was influenced by Brueghel and Goya; German Expressionists Ernst Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz, and Anselm Kiefer; and Social Realists Ben Shahn, José Clemente Orozco, and the Mexican muralists.[…]Expressionists Reg Butler and Leon Golub; German Dadaist/Expressionist George Grosz; and Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning and David Smith.”
By 1968, when the Walter Cronkite Show for CBS was in need of a courtroom sketch artist who could provide them with drawings to accompany their reports, Mesches was a well-respected artist whose work showed that he could capture people quickly while still effectively communicating their emotions and body language. CBS offered him the job. He accepted and found himself front and center witnessing and depicting case after case of seminal American history.
* * *
The courtroom has remained one place where the utility of drawing plays an important role in civic responsibility and judicial process. With no cameras allowed inside most courtrooms, the drawings illustrate what would otherwise be invisible to the public. Even today when the admission of cameras into the courtroom is often left to the discretion of the presiding judge, frequently cameras remain banned and the courtroom sketch provides the only visual document of court proceedings.
There is no formal training for sketch artists and courtrooms are open to the public. If an artist is able to draw quickly and well and has experience with figure drawing, then armed with standard pencils and paper, they can sit and draw in the courtroom. The artist must be able to capture important, fleeting moments without the aid most artists would otherwise have—determining lighting, assessing composition, directing the subject, even an easel or appropriate drawing table. The stakes are high in a courtroom setting: lives are shattered, the guilty walk free, witnesses freeze in fear, innocent people are convicted, and sometimes justice is served. An artist who has mastered gesture drawing, understands the lines and proportions in the human form and is able to very rapidly commit them to paper. Most gesture drawings are made in a few minutes or less. A courtroom sketch artist may go back and add color or detail to their drawings, but they will always begin with a gesture drawing. He or she must be able to absorb what is happening between multiple people in the room and synthesize the emotional truth of the moment. Renowned courtroom sketch artist and co-author of the book The Art of Justice Marilyn Church speaks to this: “The challenge is to anticipate what is going to happen. You don’t know if someone is going to jump up or collapse in tears. You always have to be ready to make changes. I find courts so exciting and thrilling. I am looking to absorb the energy and get it down, the confrontation and the drama.”
Perhaps aware of the job’s cinematic qualities, Mesches’ friends in the film industry loved that he was working as a courtroom sketch artist. One friend in particular, Don Taylor, an actor-turned-director, wrote a courtroom sketch artist into his 1971 film, Escape From the Planet of the Apes. Mesches would go onto play this role in the film himself. Arnold’s son Paul again remembers: “Don just loved the fact that my dad had done work for the Sirhan Sirhan trial and The Manson trial in particular—obviously that was more of a crazy fascination for everybody and it also hit that community – the upper echelon community of LA.”
In Escape From the Planet of the Apes, the apes Cornelius and Zira travel back to Earth from the future, landing in 1973. There they are asked to testify before a presidential commission, where Mesches plays the part of the courtroom sketch artist, producing drawings of the two characters during their testimony. Paul continues:
“They did the court scene and there’s my dad on screen—bearded and dark haired. Next thing you know my dad had to get a SAG/AFTRA card. What was funny was that once he did that he was in a number of shows over the years, for example—Eischied, a detective show. We had a whole group of people so excited to see him. Everybody’s going, ‘So, where is he? When’s he coming on?’ then at the very end of the show, my father’s famous line was, ‘There he is! Now go get him!’”
Whether through his court sketch art for hire or his deeply personal fine art work, Mesches’ work always maintained a sense of humor and passion for popular culture, even as it veered deep into political rumination and tumult.
* * *
In 2000, at the age of 77, having long wondered about the raid of his studio and the theft of his Rosenberg paintings, Mesches requested his FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act. From the time of his request he waited years for it to arrive. It finally did: 760 pages of redacted information that tracked the minutiae of his life. The FBI had had Mesches under surveillance from 1945–1972, yet missing entirely from the report was anything at all dated three months before his studio was broken into and the three months following. The file told the strange fiction of reality as constructed by the FBI. The agents struck Mesches as recognizable characters: “The special agents (SAs) wore the usual variety of cropped hair and suit and tie like the shadowers seen on TV”
More devastating than the surveillance itself or even the loss of the artworks, was the list of people who had informed on him. They were paid informants, explaining some part of their motivations. They were his “friends” and students and colleagues. One student had even worn a tiny camera hidden in his necktie like something out of Get Smart. Mesches himself wrote about these people:
“Often, they received their reports from paid special informants (Sis) or special employees (SEs): a model or two who posed for you and your class, a student who joined you for a beer and pizza after class…a close neighbor whose children played with yours, a fledgling artist whom you helped to get an exhibition. A comrade in a meeting, an asshole buddy you trusted with your heart and being, a confidant whose life’s torments were deeply intertwined with your own, or a trusted friend who had sat next to you at a funeral. A lover or two.” [The FBI Files, Duke University Press]
Mesches noted that the report accurately documented that he had been the leader of the youth division of American Youth for Democracy, that had been arrested for his political activism, and had applied for membership in the Communist Party.
“Someone reported the cars I drove and where and when my children were born, that I earned a living as a ‘commercial artist’; as an art teacher; as a filmstrip artist; as the art editor for Frontier, a magazine unfavorable to the FBI. That I ‘must be a communist’ because I ‘dressed like a communist’: The subject ‘only wears rolled up blue jeans with paint spatters, a T-shirt, and an old jean jacket.”
Excited by the files and their graphic qualities (the thick dark lines of redactions carried a painterly quality), he began a series of works (painting and collage) titled: The FBI Files. Mecshes merged the FBI’s redacted pages with painted depictions of MAD Magazine covers, Playboy covers, film canisters, Russian statues, Richard Nixon, soldiers, American flags, and a collection of other details deeply personal to him, yet simultaneously pop and universal. In 2003 he says about the files:
“What intrigued me most, aside from the nostalgia they generated, was how the sheer aesthetic beauty of the pages themselves, the bold, black, slashing, eradicating strokes looked like Franz Kline’s color sketches, with the typewriter’s words peeking through. I have integrated some of them, together with recent paintings, drawings, and other images about those times, into contemporary illuminated manuscripts, works on paper and canvas.” [The FBI Files, Duke University Press]
He recognized too, the permeating effects of the spying, on both his life and his paintings:
“Now the spying is all-inclusive. I am spying with line. Hopefully, the lines will add up to an abstract, textural exploration of individuals becoming an inclusive ‘all’. It is my way of updating my personal files with the current situation.”
The FBI Files were shown at MOMA PS1 in a solo exhibition that opened in September of 2002, soon after the PATRIOT Act was signed into law.
Some of Mesches other bodies of work include his Holocaust series, ink drawings and paintings depicting emaciated figures and other horrific realities. His Vietnam war paintings and his Iraq war paintings bring together mixed media collage and oil on canvas paintings. In these later works, we see the same quality of line and expressive details that make his courtroom drawings feel so emotionally faithful. The same energetic collection of marks that come together to form the face of a defendant here come together to create his own face in self-portraiture. His 1958 pen and ink on paper, The Cart, one from his Holocaust series, depicts corpses stacked on said cart, while it also shows small birds on the ground around and under the cart, pecking at food, and ignoring the nearby atrocity.
Arnold Mesches died at home surrounded by loved ones on November 5th, 2016 in Gainesville Florida, at the age of 93. The timing of his death was extraordinary. His widow Jill recalls her grief: “One of the most extraordinary things is that Arnold died two days before the election [in 2016]. It’s very strange to experience this abject horror of losing a husband and then the next day to have that same grief reflected back to you from everyone walking the streets. It’s a strange experience to watch the whole world go into grief simultaneously. It’s been really interesting to see how prophetic his work is.”
The quote that Mesches chose to open the definitive book on his work [Arnold Mesches, A Life’s Work, 2013 Cement House] is from Bertolt Brecht—
“In the dark times
will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”