The FBI Files: Paintings/Collages by Arnold Mesches
September 2005

The University Gallery opens its fall 2005 season with the internationally acclaimed exhibition, "The FBI Files," paintings and collages by Arnold Mesches. During the mid 1940's, Mesches discovered that he was being "shadowed" by special informants working for the F.B.I. In 1999, through the Freedom of Information Act, the artist gained access to his 760-page FBI file. The reports contained major areas of blacked out words and sections.

Mesches wrote in 2001 about the exhibit:

"The FBI started shadowing me as early as October 5, 1945. They stopped writing about me, according to the file pages I just received through the Freedom of Information Act, somewhere in early 1972. The usual variety of cropped hair, suit and tie shadowers, the clichÈd kind seen on TV, were called "Special Agents (SA)." They'd phone on the pretext of selling car insurance, or pretending to be the "subject's friend and customer," (6-5-53) would inquire about enrollment in a drawing class ("do you use live models?") They'd tap your phone or snap your picture at a protest march against the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or a demonstration for peace at an art opening, or coming out of your studio. But, more often, their paid "Special Informants (SI)," or their "Special Employees (SE)" were a model or two who posed for me privately or for my class, a student who joined us for beer and pizza after class, a close neighbor whose children played with ours, a fledgling artist who you helped get into 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, the trusted friend who sat next to you at a funeral (whose sketch of me showed up in my files,) or a lover or two.

"The informer's weekly reports said that I was the "leader of the youth division of the American Youth for Democracy," the "chairperson" of its art club while a design student at Art Center School in LA (Oct 44 – Nov 45), that I worked as a set illustrator on a Tarzan movie, was arrested for picketing and jailed, with 800 others, during the Hollywood strike of 1946-47, and that I applied for membership in the Communist Party (2-11-48). They trailed me to Salt Lake City, queried my students about what I lectured on, described the mural I did for the Mine, Mill and Smelters Union in Bingham Canyon, and helped get me fired in the fall of 1949. They knew what papers and magazines I subscribed to, that I was a charter member of former Vice President Henry Wallace's Independent Progress Party in Utah, that I returned to LA in June of 1950 where I taught at the University of Southern California.

"Someone reported that I was a member of the Hollywood Arts, Sciences and Professions (11-29-50), someone reported the cars I drove, when, and at what hospital my children were born, 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." They even tailed me when I juried an art exhibition with Edward G. Robinson. Who knows what they had on him to make him turn informer during the blacklist? One informer said that I "must be a Communist" because I "dressed like a Communist" only wears rolled up blue jeans, with paint splatters, a T-shirt and an old jean jacket."

"My studio was broken into on August 6, 1956. An informer, later exposed, who frequented my studio, guided the FBI to the portfolios and paintings I was doing on the Rosenbergs. They robbed me of art supplies, a cheap radio and over 200 works. They left me my books. Interestingly enough, pages dated three months prior to, and three months after the robbery, were deleted from the over 760 pages sent me.

Not that the remaining pages themselves were so all revealing – they come to you with all the pertinent information – the informer's names, who those close comrades actually were, who you were in bed with, all black marked out. What intrigued me the most, aside from the nostalgia they obviously generated, was how the sheer aesthetic beauty of the pages themselves, the bold, black slashing strokes looked like Franz Kline color sketches, with typewriter 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."

previous article [current issue] next article
Search | Archives | Calendar | Directory | About / Subscriptions |

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional eXTReMe Tracker