Tristan Meinecke's sons have his art, will sell

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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)

Cringe if you'd like, but they would be the first to admit: They never claimed to be art preservationists. Behind his desk, Brad sat back the way you might in a movie. Before he showed me around, he wanted to explain a few things, set the stage: His father grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and studied art at the University of Michigan, where his grandfather, Bruno, was a leading scholar of Latin. His father moved to Chicago in the 1940s and met his mother at a restaurant. When he spotted her, he stood up and announced to the restaurant, "This is the only woman I will ever marry!"

He was a very loving, gentle father, Brad said. "But he was also a lunatic and had a bad habit of punching (curators and dealers who were) good for his career. We'd call him 'bipolar' now. My dad would obsess. He would work two or three weeks straight in his studio. He would just stay in his studio the whole time, constantly creating, which is when he was jovial. Then he'd bomb out for five days in a row."

Brad said his father, for a while, made a good living on his art: He sold fairly well, taught art out of their home in Lincoln Park, then, for a decade or so, put aside creating art and began practicing as an unlicensed architect, but eventually returned to art. Scott told me later: "Dad was a very frustrated guy who could not handle criticism too well."

When their father died, the Meinecke brothers said, they did everything wrong with their father's art. "Being a brash person, I thought I could conquer the art world with it," Brad said. "But the art world is crazed, and I made a lot of amateurish mistakes." For instance, they invited several gallery owners to the house and, though they lacked the precedent of significant auction sales or professional appraisal, slapped price tags on everything.

They asked $10,000, $20,000 for pieces.

One local art house the Meineckes hit up was Michigan Avenue's Richard Gray Gallery. Said administrative director Suzy Wegmann (who was not at Gray when the Meineckes started fishing and spoke generally): "We always get calls from people who, out of the blue, had a piece of artwork fall into their lap and have no idea what they have but suspect it's valuable. They think there's a Picasso in their attic. And they don't know where to begin, don't have a price precedent and don't have documentation. It rarely turns out the way they expect."

The Meineckes grew up around the creative side, not the business side. On a wall across from the desk was a long, eerily beautiful sculpture of sorts, one of the works that Tristan Meinecke called "split-levels," meaning: There's a painting on a canvas but also one or two layers of paintings in front of it, punched though to reveal the canvas. Swirls of colors on top of swirls of colors. Jagged, gaping holes throughout.

I asked how much. Brad said to give him a reasonable offer. I pulled a random number from the air: $5,000.

"It's yours."

The photographer beside me said: "How about $1,000?" And Brad said: "You're closer. Let's have coffee."

Walking around the home of Tristan Meinecke, the first thing you realize is that the artist never settled into a groove, never selected a distinct path. Ignore the giant wagon-wheel chandelier hanging in the main living room/gallery space. He didn't make that. Though he might have. Surrounding the room, and leading you down hallways and down stairwells and into back bedrooms, are what look like the works of a man who wanted to try every major 20th-century painting style. Hung on the home's wood-paneled walls are grids that recall the colorful checkerboards of Mondrian (only much cruder); paintings with thick black lines that suggest abstract work as seen from behind broken stained-glass windows. There are Jackson Pollock-ish splashes and dribbles of color. There are more serene light watercolors. There are sweet scenes of lopsided wooden neighborhoods and snowy pastoral fields that recall midcentury magazine illustration. There are Rothko-like geometric swatches (only much, much darker). And there are works that resemble circuit boards, Cubist figures, bits of realism, sketches, a still life or two, even a cute painting of a horse.

What there is not is a clear sense of when he painted what, the shape of a career or even a sense if Meinecke was great, skilled or merely prolific. Said Brad: "I think there are two reasons he never caught on. He fought with everyone. And he worked in so many idioms. I remember dealers at our house who would ask him to paint 'five more like this,' then he would tell them he already did that and moved on. He hated being pigeonholed."

Late in his life, Meinecke was championed by John Corbett, a well-regarded Chicago gallery owner and curator who organized Meinecke's 2003 retrospective at an SAIC gallery.

But even Corbett says now: "Some of the work was powerful and quite nasty. But what was uniquely his were the split-levels, which came about because he smashed a work with a hammer, then wondered what if he layered other paintings in the same space. He was very capable, with a natural facility, the kind of guy you could hate because he could walk in and do anything better than anyone else. But he was not ambitious and was a difficult guy who, I think, wanted acclaim but would not commit to the struggle it took to develop any certain technique."

As Brad and I walked through the home, we stopped again and again before work that suggested a kind of generalized frustration: a colorless split-level of a man carrying a suitcase that hinted at the archetypal desperate "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"; an angry collage of 1940s images of an idealized domestic life; a series of colors, swirling out of control, titled "Windy City"; a painting made using several scoops of fresh tar that Meinecke had gathered into a bucket while Chicago road crews worked on the streets of Lincoln Park.

What does it mean?

We stopped before a split-level: Dark outer layers gradually revealed a clear, sunny sky. "I think dad was thinking about creation when he made this," Brad said. He meant "creation" as in the creation of all things, earth, sky, ocean, etc. But to me it looked like an avant-garde ad for Zoloft. Brad led me into the basement.

The stairwell was lined with rows of paintings of gaunt, haunted faces; at the bottom, a large, pale vampiric man grinned: "Maybe that's the face of my father's insanity," Brad said. He reached for a disc-shaped painting of a moon-faced man and added: "But this one: Curly Howard, I think." Nearby, leaning against a post was an almost 5-foot assemblage of mannequin parts that had the air of a nightmare — or perhaps that was the brutally hot basement, its furnace throwing out waves of stifling heat. Crystal Eidson, Brad's girlfriend, in what almost felt like an act of air-clearing, walked to a far wall and pulled away layers of paintings to reveal a long, horizontal abstraction of a city grid, broken by flashes of Loop-like architecture and cheerful blue sky.

But then, they're a hopeful couple: Eidson, who helped get the ball rolling on the open house, told me that she's already looked into the possibility of Tristan Meinecke postcards, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets.

Upstairs, in the area behind the living room, Scott sat at the kitchen table. He lives back here; Brad lives upstairs. He choked up discussing his father, the future of his art and the house. Like Brad, he's convinced that their father's depression was part of his talent. And like Brad, he says he doesn't have a total sales estimate in mind. He just wants to see their father get his due: "My ideal scenario is some gallery dealer comes into his house, walks through these rooms and says that they'll buy it all. And display it, rotating through the pieces. But that's a perfect scenario. I don't expect that, and I couldn't get rid of everything."

He reaches for a gentle, nostalgic painting of a boy and his father fishing from a small boat, an actual Meinecke family memory. "I'm keeping this," he said. "Besides, what would I ask for it? I have no idea."

Twitter @borrelli

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