Arnold Mesches, who had long been known as an activist and artist’s artist, respected among critics and curators as well as fellow artists, died on November 5, at the age of 93. He was a political artist of the highest order, engaged in the major questions and moral dilemmas of his times: from the beginning, his work expressed a preoccupation with the madness of civilization.
Born in the Bronx on August 11, 1923, Mesches was raised in Buffalo, New York. In a career that spanned some 70 years, he grappled with the artistic, cultural, and political movements of the past and present centuries. He survived the McCarthy witch hunt in California, where he worked in the film industry, taught himself to paint, and organized civil rights protests, as all the while the FBI stealthily engaged in amassing files on his everyday activities. After moving to New York in 1984, Mesches—already in his 60s—began showing at the young East Village gallery Civilian Warfare. In 2002, he relocated to Florida to teach painting at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he lived with his novelist wife, Jill Ciment. His work is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, among others.
Mesches’s early Social Realist and existential paintings of skeletal figures steadily mutated. By the 1980s, his paintings had become anarchic visions merging multiple pasts and presents. Intensely autobiographical, expansively historical and theatrical, his pageantry of waiters, aristocrats, revelers, clowns, Cyclops, and political figures—on proscenium stages, in baroque ballrooms, at amusement parks—is wondrous and horrific.
He accessed his extensive FBI Files in 1999 and in 2002 turned them into a series of collages. His ample “Anomie” series (1989–2006)—a grand metaphoric project “drawn, photographed, pasted, projected, borrowed and invented,” as Mesches once told me—traced a timeline between 1492 and 2006. His more personal “Echoes: The Century” (1993–2000), his grotesque “It’s a Circus” (2004–05) and “Coming Attractions” (2005 to 2010) were followed by his pictorial “Paint” series (2008-2010), which brought studio tools and Old Masters into his imagery. The acrobatic “Weather Patterns” (2009–10), and his series of “Shock and Awe” conflagrations (2011–12) followed. In 2012, the Miami-Dade Museum of Art and Design gave him a huge retrospective that I was privileged to curate. He then produced the tanks, bombers, and refugees of “Eternal Return” and the “Double Vision” series. Mesches was at work on his final prophetic “Swampland” series until shortly before he died.
His imagery encompassed the theater of life, the spectacle of politics and class, the history of art and civilization, and the allegorical climate of our precarious times. His carnivalesque oeuvre bridges a gap between the existential and the absurd, and presents a unique postmodern variant of history painting as canvases for social protest. Moreover, Mesches’s oeuvre was a consummate investigation into the society of the spectacle.