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Arnold Mesches (1923–2016)

Arnold Mesches, a painter whose political canvases and alleged ties to the Communist Party drew the attention of the FBI, died on Saturday at the age of ninety-three, William Grimes of the New York Times reports.

Born in the Bronx in 1923, the artist grew up in Buffalo, where he attended a technical high school to study advertising design. He received a scholarship from the Art Center School in Los Angeles but dropped out after two and a half years. “I didn’t want to be a commercial artist,” Mesches told the Brooklyn Rail in 2010. “I really wanted to say something personal with my life. The minute I decided to be a painter, Art Center took away my scholarship.” Mesches learned how to paint at his job producing film sets for a movie studio in 1946. “I knew nothing about painting,” Mesches said, “so I’d look over the other guys’ shoulders—when they made a stroke, I’d make a stroke.”

The FBI first started looking into the artist’s political activities in 1945, after he participated in demonstrations against Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1956, when his studio was broken into and more than two hundred of his works were stolen, Mesches suspected that the burglary was the government’s handiwork. From 1945 to 1972, the federal agency recorded his political and social activities, compiling a nearly eight-hundred-page dossier. After obtaining the documents under the Freedom of Information Act, the artist incorporated the materials in his “The F.B.I. Files,” a series of collaged paintings that was first exhibited by New York MoMA’s PS1 in 2003.

Throughout his career, based in Gainesville, Florida, Mesches held 141 solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art in Florida, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and he participated in numerous group shows. His works are in permanent collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum, among others. Mesches was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a New York State Fellowship, a Florida State Fellowship, and three Pollock-Krasner Foundation grants.