Colorado Artist Frank Mechau

by Stan Cuba

The comprehensive “Frank Mechau Legacy Exhibition” at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the publication of an expanded edition of Frank Mechau/Artist of Colorado by Cile Bach (University of Colorado Press, 2016) provide an important opportunity to call attention to Mechau (1904–46) and his work. He is remembered chiefly for his large murals of western historical subjects, painted for American post offices and other public buildings in the 1930s under federal government art programs. A highpoint of his short-lived career—he died at age forty-two—his mural output sometimes has relegated him to the large pool of Depression-era regionalist artists, often categorized by post-World War II art criticism as reactionary and passé. More recently, however, their work has been favorably reassessed in books and exhibitions.1

Although Mechau’s productive career was centered in Colorado, he was a cultivated, cosmopolitan artist. Fully conversant with the modernist movements during the 1920s and early 1930s, he chose to moderate their influences by incorporating strong elements of early Italian Renaissance painting, as well as Chinese and Japanese art.

Born in Kansas, he grew up in the early twentieth century in the small resort town of Glenwood Springs on Colorado’s rural and rather sparsely populated Western Slope. As a young man, he marveled at the shapes of the mountains and the rock formations, as well as the expansive landscape with its abundant wildlife. He also became interested in the history of the Native- and Anglo-American settlement in that part of the state, reflected in a drawing done at age twelve of an Indian brave on horseback with a covered wagon in the background. The pioneer heritage of the Western Slope and the region’s practically limitless physical environment figure prominently in his mature work on paper and canvas.

Pony Express, 1935, Collection of the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Early on, his talent surfaced in his drawings for the Garfield County High School paper. An all-around athlete, his boxing skills won him a scholarship to the University of Denver, where he studied art and literature. He also briefly studied at the Denver Art Academy of Fine and Applied Arts.2

He had limited formal art education, dissuaded by the stilted atmosphere of art departments he encountered in the 1920s in Denver and at the Art Institute of Chicago. In Chicago, he admired the Robie House and Midway Gardens designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he considered “the prophet of the future.”3

Football Abstraction, 1932, Collection of Julie and Rob Lewis

Returning briefly to Colorado, he debuted in his first show at the Denver Art Museum in 1925 and completed Beardsley-inspired illustrations for Richard Aldington’s book of verse published by Covici-Friede Inc.4 Armed with fifty dollars from a local prize fight, he set off on a several-year stay in New York that acquainted him with the work of contemporary European and American artists. While employed at Lord and Taylor’s bookstore he met his Russian-born wife, Paula Ralska, an actress working in the advertising department, with whom he shared an interest in books and literature.

By 1929, they could not resist the lure of the international Parisian art capital, where they lived for the next three years. It proved an important, formative experience for him. Thanks to his wife’s position with the Herald Tribune, he could paint full time, a theretofore unknown luxury. In addition to visiting the city’s museums and commercial galleries, he interacted with American and other artists from around the world. Leo Stein, noted art collector and brother of Gertrude Stein, shared with him his extensive knowledge of the modern art movement and its leaders, including Fernand Léger, André Derain and Giorgio de Chirico, whose influence is reflected in Mechau’s Riders (1930).5 In Paris, he participated in important exhibitions where his work was favorably received, earning him recognition as an up-and-coming American artist. In 1931, he contributed five paintings to Les Superindépendants, a group exhibition sponsored by the Association Artistique. Among the other exhibitors were Alexander Calder, Stanley William Hayter and Amédée Ozenfant. Waldemar George, critic and editor of Formes, wrote: “[Mechau’s] personal vision, his life and his profound artistic culture presage his arrival. Personally, I place great hopes on this painter.…”6 Mechau also participated in the Artistes Américains de Paris exhibition in 1932 with Paul Burlin, Carl Holty, John Graham, Walter Pach, Vaclav Vytlacil and Jean Xceron.

Leo Stein encouraged Mechau to visit Florence and Arezzo, Italy, to view the paintings of Paolo Uccello, whose work attempted to reconcile the decorative late Gothic style with the new heroic style of Piero della Francesca. Piero’s work influenced Mechau’s murals for the WPA-era federal art projects in America, where Piero became an icon of modern taste, appealing to diverse artists such as Marsden Hartley and Tom Lea.7 His “geometricization of form, the emphasis upon the picture plane’s nature as a decorative two-dimensional surface were also crucial to much modernist painting.”8 During his Arezzo visit, Mechau bought monochromatic reproductions of Piero’s work that still hang in the family home in Redstone, Colorado. He also purchased Roberto Longhi’s groundbreaking 1927 study of Piero, later using it as a reference for his mural work and sharing it with his students in the United States.

Although Mechau benefited from his European stay, he felt as Marsden Hartley and Grant Wood did: increasingly alienated by the modern art he encountered in Paris, which was too often given to “…hating life and retreating from it.” Unwilling to totally eliminate the figure from his work, he felt the landscape of the American west offered the best subject matter for his art. “Sports, mountains, canyons and the history of the West, of which Colorado has more than her share, are subjects from which I hope to fashion [my art].”

In late 1932, Mechau and his wife sailed back to the United States with their infant daughter, Vanni. Friends in New York unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade them from relocating to Colorado. In Denver, artist Vance Kirkland hired him to teach for the 1933 summer session at his newly founded Kirkland School of Art. This teaching experience prompted Mechau to open his own school of fine art and design later that year in downtown Denver. Among his students were Ethel and Jenne Magafan, later successful mural painters in the WPA-era art programs and, after World War II, prominent members of the Woodstock, New York art colony. The school quickly succumbed to the economic fallout of the Depression.

His Football Abstraction (1932), shown in the thirty-third Annual Exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (1933), adapts the tubular arrangement of Léger’s Nudes from the 1920s and the floating figures in his Composition 1 (1930). Donald Bear, curator of paintings at the museum, described it as “A semi-abstraction done in clear colors… [it] indicates the artist’s pre-occupation with motion in a restrained manner that places it in the class of the modern and approved architectural painting.”9 Continuing the Native American subject matter he earlier explored in Paris, he produced a cubist canvas, Indian Fight #3 (1934), now in the collections of the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Around this time, Mechau won the first of three Guggenheim Scholarships, allowing him to work in the United States. He wrote to the Foundation’s secretary that he had a “rare opportunity to contact a great, virgin territory…. In this year of study I want to saturate my mind with the rich material of landscape, rodeos, horses with which this territory abounds, and retain in my mind subjects for paintings for years to come.”10

That same year Anne Evans, Denver’s dedicated patroness of the arts, recommended him for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first federally sponsored art project, which served as a model for several others during the decade. For the Denver Public Library he did Horses at Night (1934), a subject he first explored in New York in 1927. Painted in unmodulated colors and with a minimum of detail, the galloping eye-less horses celebrate line and movement in a semi-abstract composition. It was exhibited and critically acclaimed in Washington, D.C. and New York. PWAP Director Edward Bruce said: “Frank Mechau’s paintings alone would justify the entire PWAP program.”11

The mural anticipates Running Horses (1937), a sixty-foot horizontal frieze in true fresco painted on the courtyard wall of the Colorado Spring Fine Arts Center, commissioned by its architect, John Gaw Meem. Horses, a subject Mechau knew firsthand, often appear in his work, symbolizing the freedom of the American west. He recorded their loss in a monumental “propaganda picture,” The Last of the Wild Horses (1937), which was awarded the Altman Prize and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It depicts wild horses rounded up in the Colorado-Utah rangeland and destined for slaughter as dog and cat food.12

The success of Horses at Night led to seven other mural commissions for post offices and federal buildings in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas and Washington, D.C. His presentation of both contemporary and historic subject matter “changed the depiction of western life from a hand-painted photograph rendering to a magnificent exploration of line, space and color.”13 Pony Express (1935), one of his two murals for the Post Office Department Building in Washington, D.C., depicts a station along the Missouri-California route in the mid-nineteenth century.14 The stark image incorporates several disparate influences: Piero della Francesca’s tableau-like arrangement, twentieth-century Art Deco, an Oriental preference for “seizing upon essentials” and the belief that “art should be an enlargement of some profound experience the artist has had either actual or imaginary.”15

Horses at Night, 1934, Denver Public Library, Denver, Colorado

Mechau’s unique contribution to the work produced for the WPA-era federal art programs involved placing a predella with small narrative scenes beneath his murals, supplementing their content. He adapted the practice from the painted panels added as “footnotes” to the altarpieces he saw in museums and churches in Italy. Some of the panels in Pony Express relate to his other paintings such as Horses at Night, Red Mountain and Indian Fight; while others allude to the nineteenth-century Sand Creek Massacre and the stage coach arriving in Denver.

Like a Renaissance master, he produced numerous drawings when developing the initial idea for the completed canvas. Although he disliked the academic system of training artists, he used a master-apprentice approach with his most talented students—Ethel and Jenne Magafan and Eduardo Chavez—all of whom assisted him and also won their own government mural commissions in the 1930s.

The recognition he received from his mural commissions and prestigious prizes for his work resulted in several teaching positions, first at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1937–38) and then as head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at New York’s Columbia University for three years during World War II. Underscoring his connection with the American west in New York, he often wore a beaded Native American vest to class. His distinguished faculty included George Grosz, Oronzio Maldarelli, Peppino Mangravite and Marguerite Zorach. He likewise hosted visiting artist-critics Stuart Davis, Adolph Dehn, John Marin and Boardman Robinson, and organized an exhibition in the East Hall at Columbia for African-American artist Jacob Lawrence.16

In 1943, Mechau took a leave of absence from the university, having been commissioned by the War Department’s Advisory Committee to paint scenes of American army bases and troop activities in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific during World War II. Part of a four-artist unit based in Panama that included Reginald Marsh, Alexander Book and Bernard Perlin, he logged more than 10,000 air miles throughout Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, the Galapagos and San Blas Islands, and several Pacific bases. The twelve paintings completed for this project are in the Army Art Collection of the U.S. Center for Military History.

After the war, he rejoined his family in Redstone, Colorado, free to work without any teaching responsibilities. Revisiting Western subject matter, he painted one of the strongest of his later works: Tom Kenney Comes Home, shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1945. The painting was acquired by the Encyclopedia Britannica collection and later by the Metropolitan Museum. According to Mechau, Tom Kenney “represents the multitude of men who took over the West’s toughest job, the cowboy prospector…a wonderful group of forgotten men of Lincolnesque character.”17

As modernist critics advocating abstraction gained ascendancy in the 1940s, the Regionalism embracing Mechau’s western subject matter quickly lost its status in the art world. However, he wrote one of his students:

I hew to the Chinese line on the principle of motivation or vehicle. I believe the mainspring should be deeply felt, the plastic means to achieve that end subtly in terms of color, line, and other such. This might almost sound like a reversal of opinion and in the face of the tremendous popularity at the moment of Picasso, Matisse. But I rue the fashionable tizzy thereof….18

Eschewing the non-objective, he employed magic realism in paintings of his children, notably The Children’s Hour and Dorik and His Colt (1944). Although the subjects are easily recognizable, the “magic” effect on the viewer derives from the feeling created by the exaggerated, serpentine shapes of the trees dominating the scene and the crisp margins between the forms.

Tom Kenney Comes Home, 1944, Collection of Julie and Rob Lewis

In 1944, the Standard Oil Company commissioned from him four paintings documenting the contribution of oil to the American war effort.19 The works poignantly illustrate the encroachment of modernity and the great change it affected on the western environment. In Oil and the Old West, Otto Karl Bach writes: “Man and his horse are rapidly passing into oblivion as the machine takes over the problems of space and transportation, but the old-timer doggedly pursues his mode of life.”20

Bach, former director of the Denver Art Museum, who organized several exhibitions of Mechau’s work, fixed his place in western American art:

[His] work appears to be too eclectic, too abstract and too personal to conform to the popular conception and convention for [the] representation of western history through photography and quasi-photographic illustration…and it is too graphically representational, too out of style, and too differently oriented to conform to current art conventions of international abstractionism…. [Nevertheless his] paintings are in no way eclipsed by the works of his forerunners, Bierstadt, Remington and Russell, and stand far apart from the latter day followers of these artists. In comparing the works of Mechau with other painters of the West, one is strongly impressed by his personal vision and the appropriate style which he developed in order to express it.21

 

NOTES

1. In 1997–98, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., presented a large, multimedia exhibition, “A New Deal for the Arts.” A decade later, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art organized an exhibition, “1934: A New Deal for the Arts,” accompanied by a publication of the same title, focusing on the Public Works of Art Project in which Mechau participated.

2. While studying at the University of Denver, Mechau may have been introduced to mural painting by his teacher, Marie Woodson, who did a mural in 1910 for the Decker branch of the Denver Public Library. See Stan Cuba, The Denver Artists Guild: Its Founding Members; An Illustrated History (Denver: Colorado Historical Society, 2015), 244.

3. Mechau met Frank Lloyd Wright in April, 1938 at a conference at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the following year visited him with his family at Taliesen West in Arizona. Cile M. Bach, Frank Mechau: Artist of Colorado (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016), 58–59.

4. Thirty-First Annual Exhibition Catalogue (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1925). Mechau’s painting was Bathsheba and the Beggars (unlocated).

5. Mechau’s talent so impressed Leo Stein, Walter Pach and André Derain that they served as references for his Guggenheim Fellowship application.

6. “Some Press Comments,” Mechau Family Scrapbook, courtesy of Michael Mechau.

7. For a discussion of the American artists influenced by Piero della Francesca, see Luciano Cheles, “A Century-Old Passion: Piero Della Francesca in America = Una passione lunga un secolo: Piero della Francesca in America” in Milton Glaser nella città di Piero (Sansepolcro, Italy: Casa di Piero della Francesca, 2007).

8. David Tabbat, “Translator’s Preface: Piero, Longhi and the Fields of Color” in Roberto Longhi, Piero della Francesca (Riverside-on-Hudson, New York: Stanley Moss, Sheep Meadow Book, 2002), xxiv.

9. Rocky Mountain News review, quoted in Frank Mechau: Artist of Colorado, 18. Mechau also painted Basketball in a Paris Court (c. 1930, present location unknown).

10. Otto Karl Bach, Frank Mechau: Artist of Colorado, 25–26.

11. Kay Wisnia, “Frank Mechau Jr. (1900–1946)” in Shooting Star: The Artwork of Frank Mechau (1900–1946) (Denver: Denver Public Library, 2005), 1. Horses at Night proved so popular that Mechau produced a lithograph of it in 1936 for the American Artists Group in New York.

12. Frank Lloyd Wright, who saw The Last of the Wild Horses when he visited Mechau’s Colorado Springs studio in 1938, said: “You should have been an architect, Frank, the way you designed those corrals” (Frank Mechau: Artist of Colorado, 59).

13. Otto Karl Bach, “Frank Mechau in Retrospect,” Frank Mechau Retrospective 1904–46 (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1946), 14.

14. Leon Kroll, a juror at the Treasury Department’s competition awarding Mechau’s commission for Pony Express and Dangers of the Mail, noted: “His work is full of grace. It has dignity, a sense of space and movement, a feeling for design in form and color achieved only by artists of understanding who combine in themselves a love of nature and a veneration for the accomplishments of their artist forefathers.” Leon Kroll, “Foreword” in Frank Mechau. Exhibition: Paintings and Drawings (Colorado Springs: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1948).

15. Frank Mechau, “Japanese Prints,” based on his reading of Arthur Davison Ficke (1883–1945), an expert on Japanese art; typescript courtesy of Michael Mechau.

16. Information on Mechau at Columbia University courtesy of Jocelyn K. Wilk, university archivist.

17. Otto Karl Bach, “Frank Mechau in Retrospect,” 91. Mechau’s article, “The Helliferocious Fight of Tom Kenney,” was published in the December 1946 issue of Esquire with a reproduction of his painting.

18. “Frank Mechau Letter” in Frank Mechau Exhibition: Paintings and Drawings.

19. Mechau’s four paintings were included in an exhibit, “Oil, 1940–45,” at the Associated American Artists Galleries in New York (January 1946).

20. Otto Karl Bach, Frank Mechau Memorial Exhibition (Denver Art Museum, 1946), 5.

21. Otto Karl Bach, “Foreword” in Frank Mechau 1904–46: Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings (Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1967), 1.

 

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2016, Volume 33, Number 3