Not many artists begin an ambitious new series at 76, but Arnold Mesches did just that after receiving a large box stuffed with FBI documents in 1999. It had taken the Jewish American painter three years and dozens of letters to obtain the 760-page dossier, his FBI file from 1945 to 1972. The papers -- obtained under the Freedom of Information Act -- chronicle his left-wing activities from the Communist red scare of the 1950s to the Vietnam War era.
Bronx-born Mesches, now 80, wasn't surprised to learn that FBI agents had tailed him. "The usual variety of cropped hair, suit and tie shadowers, the clichéd kind seen on TV," he said in a statement. He remembered how "they'd phone, on the pretext of selling car insurance ... or snap your picture at a protest march."
What shocked him were the "special informants" -- friends, colleagues, lovers -- who had apparently been recruited to spy on him. "[There was] a student who joined us for beer and pizza after class, a close neighbor whose children played with ours, a fledgling artist helped get into an exhibition, a comrade in a meeting, an as-- -- buddy you trusted with your heart and being, a confidant whose life's torments were deeply intertwined with your own," he said.
Their reports not only revealed that Mesches had applied for membership in the Communist Party in 1948, but also the kinds of cars he drove and the hospital where his children were born.
"They knew what papers and magazines I subscribed to.... That I earned my living as a commercial artist, an art teacher, a film-strip artist, as the art editor for frontier, a magazine unfavorable to the FBI, as a lunch truck driver, an exhibiting artist, the director of an art school that -- horrors! -- showed a Czech film," Mesches said.
One statement theorized he was a Communist because he "dressed like a Communist" in "rolled up blue jeans with paint spatters, a T-shirt and an old jeans jacket."
Mesches, who said he was wearing a similar outfit during an interview from his Gainesville, Fla., studio, found the documents dismaying and "creepy." Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the blacked-out sections that reminded him of color sketches by the late abstract expressionist Franz Kline.
His response was what one might expect of a contemporary artist known for turning personal history into art. He created 57 collages and paintings combining pages of his file with news clippings, photographs from his personal archives, 1950s-era commercial art, magazine illustrations, elements from his own paintings, drawings and handwritten texts. Files reporting that mesches had picketed during a Hollywood strike or the postcard he wrote to president Dwight D. Eisenhower protesting atomic weapons are juxtaposed with media and pop culture images: Sputnick, Batman, Nikita Kruschev, Marilyn Monroe, motorcycle gangs, the Hollywood sign, moviegoers wearing 3D glasses and an ad for Winston cigarettes.
His composition was inspired by a medieval art form: "Just as monks preserved cultural information through illuminated manuscripts, I was trying to preserve a segment of history, albeit my own," he said.
"Arnold Mesches: FBI Files," which opens today at the Skirball Cultural Center, is part of growing body of work that explores fears about the misuse of surveillance. The trend includes films such as 1998's "Enemy of the State" and exhibits like "CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother," which opened in Germany soon after Sept. 11.
While "Files" resonates after that tragedy, the show's curator, Daniel Marzona, said he was drawn to the series for a different reason.
"I didn't respond to it so much because of its connection to the Patriot Act or what the Bush administration is trying to do," he said. "For me, what was fascinating was how Arnold had aesthetically dealt with his own past and the shocking discoveries in his FBI file. At first glance, his collages are well-composed and visually pleasing, but if you look closer, you see they depict very frightening events."
Many of the pieces mirror the strange, surreal feelings the artist -- whose work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum -- felt upon perusing his dossier. One diptych juxtaposes an image of sculptor George Segal enshrouding a model's head in a cast with a fuzzy 1959 photo of Mesches, taken from a camera that had been hidden in a student's tie.
"I remember that guy," said Mesches, who lived in Los Angeles from 1943 to 1984. "I couldn't stand him coming to my private drawing class in mid-August, when it's hotter than hell in L.A., wearing a white shirt and a tie. I remember saying to him, 'Hey, take that tie off, relax,'" and he said 'no, no, no.'"
Other collages recount the years of the Communist witch hunts, when Mesches marched for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and did a series of paintings inspired by their case. He said the paintings were stolen from his Melrose Avenue studio in Los Angeles on Aug. 6, 1956.
As for "Files," he hopes the exhibit warns against the government's recent call for citizen informants -- lest America become what he considers "a nation of spies." If that happens, "The times I've lived through will seem like a Zen garden," he said.
On Jan. 31, 2 p.m., there will be a discussion at the Skirball with Arnold Mesches and experts on, "Censorship and Civil Liberties." For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.
The Skirball will also be holding a class on "The Art of Social Protest: Mesches and Beyond" on Feb. 7 and Feb. 14, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. $80 (general), $60 (members) $40 (students). For more information, call (310) 440-4651.