Tristan Meinecke's sons have his art, will sell

Late artist Tristan Meinecke's sons open up trove of his works in former home

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Take a tour of the home of unsung Chicago artist Tristan Meinecke. The artist died a decade ago, and now his sons are showing off his artwork to the public. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)

Some homes are hard to explain.

Consider the home near the corner of Western and Chase avenues in Rogers Park. The house itself is easy enough to describe, but what's inside is knotty, melancholy and not cleanly understood. The house is a tan brick three-story walk-up, utterly without distinction if not for its whimsical faux-wood facade, painted white and bisected with make-believe brown beams. Moreover, attached at its hip, and sporting a matching quaint aesthetic, is a single-story, peak-roofed chalet of sorts.

For years whenever I drove past these buildings I imagined I was looking at the former world headquarters of Hickory Farms. In fact, the shorter building once served as a dance hall and social club for expatriate Brits. But in the late 1990s, both the three-story building and shorter structure were bought by a relatively unknown Chicago artist named Tristan Meinecke.

You don't know him.

If you're of a certain age and grew up in Chicago, you might remember his wife: Angel Casey, a familiar voice on 1940s radio and later a host of local children's TV in the 1950s. There are still black-and-white photos of her beaming Doris Day-like presence around the house. But, really, the place is a shrine to Meinecke, with seemingly every wall and hallway and corner and alcove and kitchen nook and bathroom graced with his art. He painted and sculpted more than 700 works; indeed, he created so much art, he and Casey moved here from their Lincoln Park home because it had tons of space, and the dance hall could serve as Meinecke's studio.

He painted there every day, but lived less than a decade more: In 2004 he died of heart failure. He was 88. Casey (who died in 2007) survived him; he also left two sons, Brad, who is now 58, and Scott, now 51.

But, remarkably, Meinecke left almost 275 works of art, so many of which were enormous, abstract, wall-size canvases that his sons, who later moved into their parents' Rogers Park home, did not know what to do with that much surrealism. Their father, despite having been the subject of a retrospective at the School of the Art Institute, despite having influential admirers and selling more than 500 works, had not left much of a reputation.

"On his deathbed, my father looked me square in the face and said two things: 'I never cheated on your mother. And please take care of my art,'" said Brad, who runs a small advertising-placement business.

But what do you do with a house full of art that has no clear market or audience? Particularly when it's art from a man who was so perpetually angry he alienated most of the art-world professionals who could have helped him when he was alive? And the art is often ominous, gritty and too unnerving for many living room walls? And the art was never properly appraised? And like your father, you'd prefer to work outside the art world anyway?

Soon after his father's death, Brad told the Chicago Reader that some of his father's pieces would be sold at auction and others would be placed in museums. But that never happened, and the handful of serious art dealers who did stop by the house to check out the gigantic cache never stayed long, the brothers recall.

And so, in the decade since Meinecke's death, this house in Rogers Park remained choked with art.

Then last year, Brad, who says he hates his bank and his bank hates him, learned that the house was in jeopardy: He had not paid the mortgage in a while, and now the bank had initiated foreclosure proceedings. And so, with the looming possibility of having to vacate (the situation is now in the hands of lawyers, with no court date set), he and Scott hatched a new plan: Rather their drag their father's artwork around or leave it to an indeterminate future in a storage unit, why not just open their doors to the public and ask anyone who cares:

What would you pay for a Tristan Meinecke?

For the next two weeks, from Friday until Feb. 21, on weekday nights and all day on weekends — by appointment only (tmeinecke.com) — they'll likely find out. If you're interested, the Meinecke brothers will show you their father's old studio, his basement and plenty of his art.

"What will it take in? Well, price is important," Brad said, "but if someone will take care of the work, if they'll love it, that speaks louder. This is family heritage." And, to be frank, they have no idea what it's all worth. But they have a good story. They know that's worth something.

A couple of weeks ago, Brad and Scott Meinecke greeted me at their front door. In the foyer were stacks of fliers for their two-week "Resurrection of Tristan Meinecke" open house, promising a glimpse of "the xcavated studio of Chicago's forgotten lunatic genius." Scott's face, wide and friendly, was caked in soot from preparing the basement. Brad, who has a considerable potbelly, thinning hair combed straight back and a boisterous, back-slapping, party-time vibe, struck me as the quintessence of the used-car salesman stereotype.

I told him this.

He chuckled and agreed, and asked if the smoke bothered me. Despite walls covered with original paintings that he was preparing to hopefully sell, the living room was thick with a cigarette haze as the Meineckes and members of the Underground Multiplex, a local arts group that specializes in promoting on-the-fringes artists, busily prepared for any prospective buyers. I couldn't hide my green face, so Brad told me to follow him, walked into his smoke-free office, sat behind his desk, then lit the unlit cigarette he had been carrying.

His office was his father's studio.

The floor was littered with Coke bottle caps and stacks of old vinyl records, papers and photo albums. There were Old Milwaukee empties on a ledge, and an old radio softly played classic rock. But also, art was everywhere, propped against the wall, propped against more art. Within several feet of the desk I noted: two walls full of painted nudes, some small, some as tall as a wall; an old tractor hood that Meinecke had cleverly hammered into a 5-foot-tall face resembling Jesus Christ's; tarps that Meinecke found in the trash, fused to a canvas and painted; a chorus line of mannequins, butchered into pieces, the stumps painted in blood reds.

After their father died, the Meinecke brothers found some of this work in the center of his studio and stored it in the basement, which would occasionally flood. And so they built a modest platform for it, an island for art.

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