"Tristan Meinecke remains one of the monumental artistic secrets of Chicago, a man whose contribution remains to be adequately understood and evaluated," wrote John Corbett, co-owner of the gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey and a professor of painting and drawing at the Art Institute, in a 2003 essay accompanying the only retrospective the conspicuously overlooked artist would know.
Early the following year, Meinecke died of heart failure at age 88. His body of unsold work—largely comprising mind-bending abstract paintings—was stashed away in his West Ridge studio. Now, for the second time in as many months, Meinecke's sons Brad and Scott are opening the space to the public for an exhibition, this one titled "Factual Abstractions."
Over the better part of a decade, many of the pieces had been haphazardly piled in the studio's basement, where they gathered cobwebs and soot. The brothers Meinecke began excavating their dad's work last fall with the prompting of local film collective Underground Multiplex. Cofounders Joseph R. Lewis and Lew Ojeda had recently documented the discovery in a Wicker Park building of a trove of marionettes created by master puppeteer Ralph Kipniss and his late partner, Lou Ennis; in Meinecke the filmmakers saw potential for a similarly compelling lost-and-found story.
At the studio one night in February, Underground Multiplex member Tyler Pistorius recalled the first meeting with the elder Meinecke brother, who chain-smoked and told the filmmakers how, if not for a fit of rage, his mercurial father might never have developed his signature "split-level" style of painting: In 1955, Meinecke hurled a hammer at a piece he didn't like; layering another canvas behind the hole added a new sense of sculptural depth. The technique gives the impression, as the younger Meinecke brother, Scott, says, "that you're looking through a window into another world." Brad gushed about how his father and mother, Chicago TV and radio star Lorraine "Angel Casey" Johnson, would entertain the likes of Tony Bennett at the family home in Lincoln Park. He told stories about his dad's move to Chicago to play jazz, how his pugnacious pop would throw down in defense of artistic integrity and racial equality, and of the bipolar artist's prolific manic periods.
"After that," Pistorius says, "we were hooked."
Last month, on the opening night of the first show, "The Resurrection of Tristan Meinecke," $30,000 worth of art was sold, including more than two dozen works that went to Chicago art collector Larry Gerber. His haul contained two of Meinecke's most notable split-level pieces, Heterogenous Icon and Female. "Factual Abstractions" adds work by Meinecke pupil Genevieve Bowen and architect Robert Bruce Tague, who designed buildings with Meinecke.
"I didn't understand the art business at all," Brad says of an ill-fated show he and Scott organized not long after their father's passing. "We made rookie mistakes, like putting price tags on things." One gallerist, according to Brad, remarked then that buyers were "no longer interested in art that comes from angst."
The brothers began to sympathize with their father's long estrangement from the art world, which the elder Meinecke saw as phony and limiting. Though Meinecke showed in the 1976 World Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago, he still stubbornly self-identified as an "experimentalist"; his formal restlessness frustrated gallerists and critics. It was a conscious rebellion.
"I insulted everybody: gallery owners, museum curators, would-be buyers," Meinecke recalled in Chicago Surrealist Group cofounder Franklin Rosemont's book Revolution in the Service of the Marvelous. "The guards at the Art Institute kept a close eye on me whenever I went there—they thought I might 'try something.'"
His sons believe they are now better suited to handle their father's artistic legacy, which they hope won't remain under Chicago's radar for much longer. "I once told him, 'Dad, after you die you're finally going to be famous because no one will have to deal with you,'" Scott recalls. "I just wonder if it will happen before I die."