The Art of Tristan Meinecke a Chicago Expermentalist

About: Tristan Meinecke

Much has been made of Tristan's mercurial personality, his sometimes violent, seemingly instantaneous, rages, brawls, outbursts, faux pas, etc., both major, minor, and in-between.

While many of these stories are at least partly true, this aspect was a small part of his totality. All things being equal (and they rarely are), he was warm, charming, generous with his time and talent, highly intelligent, creatively courageous, dapper, and debonair. He had a playful side, an intelligent sense of humor, was devoted to his family and enjoyed frequent familial camping and fishing trips. He played just about every sport he'd ever heard of including Cross Country and Downhill Skiing, Skating, Sledding, Hockey, Tennis, Badminton, Football, Baseball and Basketball among others.

His physical strength was freakish. In the 60's he would walk up and down stairs on his hands and climb rope like a kid.  Once while standing in the alley behind the Cleveland property he threw a football and hit the buildings across the street, easily 100 yards.

He loved nature and would take extended camping trips with his family. Also, (surprisingly to many) he was intensely spiritual though he met God / The Universe on his own terms, as he distrusted dogma and organized religion.

Those that came to know him well, realized that underneath all the layers, within the core of his spirit, he was a romantic who married the love of his life and then spent over half a century with her, parting only at death.

Picture of the actress Angel Casey loved by Chicagoland, and the artist Tristan Meinecke loved by the Chicago Surrealists.An important component of his personality was an almost lifelong battle with what today is called bipolar disorder -- in the 50's and 60's, it was called manic-depression.

When in a manic state he would create, build things, play music and/or write it, then create, build, play and write some more, continuing this cycle until he ran out of energy. Then he would sleep for extended periods of time.

It would be decades before there were effective treatments for this disorder. They were just beginning to understand that many psychological conditions had their roots in the physical structures of the brain and it's chemistry. The ramifications were Tristan was sometimes given powerful drugs like Thorazine which no one thoroughly understood and caused him great emotional harm.

He had an affection for Marijuana, which in the 30s was a felony and severely frowned upon by "straight" society. He stopped using it for the most part by 1955 because, according to him, it made him hungry which made him fat which he found intolerable. Now and then he would "blow some pot" with old friends who stopped by.

Then there was alcohol. In those days "Social drinking" was the norm during all types of get-togethers. Both Tris and Angel loved a "good" beer on a hot day. Along with their peers, they enjoyed martinis, and other concoctions while seemingly only rarely getting "drunk". Such was the way then.

Through it all he struggled mentally, as the disease waxed and waned in intensity for decades until finally "burning out" in the 1990's. Many would say in hindsight that he defeated this demon by refusing to let it destroy him or those around him, or allowing it to stop him from creating, building, learning, loving and growing which were the cornerstones of his personality and in fact, of his life. Fidelis ad mortem.Picture of the artist Tristan Meinecke loved by the Chicago Surrealists

If you travel through the works of Tristan Meinecke you'll see the countless destinations his unquenchable need to create and experiment took him. Few artists produced in as many mediums as TM. Fewer still did so successfully -- Repeatedly described as one of the hidden masters of Chicago's artistic community, TM never sold out, never gave in, and never surrendered -- not to his illness, not to society, not to the art world or any world for that matter, not even when staring death in the face.

Agree or disagree, like or dislike, factually, Tristan Meinecke was a modern Renaissance man fluent in fisticuffs, art, literature, both writing and reading, language, design, fashion, architecture, music including avant garde, jazz, and classical, both writing it on paper and playing it live, carpentry and joinery, masonry, and many other disciplines. He married a star who loved him for half a century as he loved her and together they were transcendental, which for some was "a lot" in both a positive and negative sense.

His art, music, and writing remain as testaments to his ferocious compulsion to attain something magnificent; and in so doing, obliterate boundaries which he believed held in or restricted the creative forces that obviously burned within him. To Tristan everything mattered on a personal level -- for better or for worse.

His last public statement was a long Bronx cheer delivered to the universe as he layed splayed on a metal ER exam table surrounded by family, as a Doctor said: "Tristan! Give us a sign your still with us!" His last interview is below.

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The Meinecke Family

Tristan Meinecke's last interview:

Behind the layers of Tristan Meinecke (1916 -2004)
By Isil Egrikavuk -- F Newsmagizine October 2003

“I am an experimentalist,” is how the eighty-seven year old artist Tristan Meinecke described himself. Tristan Meinecke loved by the Chicago Surrealists, based in Chicago from the late 30’s thru 2004 when he passed away.

However, it wouldn't be right to place his work in one school or movement as it is so diverse, consisting of layers within layers of abstract expressionism, surrealism, cubism, and his well-established form called split-level painting. Not only a painter, but also an architect, a professional musician, and a writer, this octogenarian is still dynamic enough to exhibit his work. Tristan Meinecke’s work, from 1935 to 2000, was featured last month at the 1926 exhibition space in a solo show entitled Tristan Meinecke: Heterogeneous Icons.

Despite Meinecke’s extraordinary talent, he is not a huge name in the art world. In the exhibition catalogue, co-curator and SAIC sound professor John Corbett writes, “Almost certainly, Meinecke’s name would mean something different had he left the Midwest.” However, Corbett adds, “Meinecke remains one of the monumental artistic secrets of Chicago, a man whose contribution remains to be adequately understood and evaluated.”

Being eighty-seven, he naturally has some difficulties in remembering dates, but manages to keep his energy through the interview. “I have this carpal tunnel syndrome and I can’t use my hand anymore. I am very shaky; I can’t do painting right now. The last painting I did was in 2000. Now I am a couch potato,” he jokes. Yet, the selections of his paintings, from the ’30s to the present that were featured at 1926 and will be shown in Milwaukee in January, speak to the artist’s strength.

F News: How did you come to curate this exhibition?

Tristan Meinecke loading art into a truck in 1965 after fulfilling a commission.John C.: By being moved by a story that was not told in total. I read [Meinecke’s stories} long before I met him; that’s how I knew him first. And his work is so unique; I have never come across an artist working on split-level form before.

F: And how did you come up with the name Heterogeneous Icons?

J.C: We discussed it with Tristan, although Tristan doesn’t remember this now. We originally [were going to call it} Cantankerous Imagination.

Tristan: Which is because I can be very irritable.

J.C: But with Cantankerous Imagination, the emphasis would be on the person. The idea of the show is the work now. And Heterogeneous Icon is the name of his significant split-level painting, which was exhibited in the American Show at SAIC in 1957. The New Republic, after the show, [described it as] “the only painting in the show that pushes back the frontiers of art.”

F: Could you tell us more about the split-level form?

J.C: One of the innovative aspects of the split-level is it had a solution to a basic problem, which had to do with how you create a sense of depth in a painting without resorting to conventional perspective techniques. How could you have a painting that felt like there was a sense of dimension at least in a cubist way? Split-level introduces literal dimensionality to paintings ... They have a real sense of depth; you can look through it.

T: Split-level started in the ’50s. I threw a hammer at a painting that I didn’t like. Then I put another painting on it, through which I gained a sense of shape and movement. You see the painting, and you see how it moves through space.

F: What would you describe yourself as —a painter, a musician, an architect, or a writer? Tristan Meinecke 52nd Annual American Exhibit at the Art Instutue of Chicago 1957

T: I had so many talents that I had to choose. I didn’t like painting, not that much. Painting is very messy, you know. I liked music and I think music is a better art, too. But [I chose to be] a painter, I guess, because music takes so much time and it needs practice. I didn’t like to practice though; that’s why I never got better, but I made music at the same time. My dad was a great musician but he never taught his kids anything [about it]. He tried to teach us how to play the piano and I remember when I didn’t do it [right]; he got mad and hit me.

F: Did he teach you how to paint?

T: Oh, I remember I drew all the time. I was two and a half and I was lying on the floor, sucking my thumb and drawing.

F: Why did you choose different styles in your paintings?

T: I got bored painting the same painting. I experimented. That is the main thing, because painting exists in space and music exists in time and I got movement by painting. A lot of painters try to get movement in painting and I got movement creating angles. As you move from these angles, you see the painting and it moves.

F: You also work with different materials, such as a tractor cover.

T: Yes, that’s true. One day, in the ’50s, I found a tractor cover along the way and I felt I had to do something with it. I took it home and glued it and colored and gave it a mask shape … it didn’t crack.

F: John, what do you think of curating someone you become close to? I assume that you and Tristan have been really close through this exhibition process.

J.C: There is a prohibition against that as if you should be called an objective person to people you curate. I think you gain something by knowing someone personally and you lose a certain amount of objectivity. That’s why you have other people around you and you use them as an adviser. For me, getting to know the artist is important. I would never review them, on the other hand. … A show in my opinion assumes a certain kind of proximity. If you don’t know the artist well, you miss a certain level of analysis. But some curators I know would prefer to curate at an arm’s length, and not know the artist.


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