Can redacted FBI files, with their various typefaces and thick heavy black lines, be considered works of art?
Artist Arnold Mesches believed so, and when he finally received the files the FBI had collected on him through many years of surveillance, he was struck by their visual qualities.
Documentary writer and producer Alix Lambert writes about Mesches “inspiration” in a recent article in CrimeReads:
Excited by the files and their graphic qualities (the thick dark lines of redactions carried a painterly quality), he began a series of works (painting and collage) titled: The FBI Files. Mesches merged the FBI’s redacted pages with painted depictions of MAD Magazine covers, Playboy covers, film canisters, Russian statues, Richard Nixon, soldiers, American flags, and a collection of other details deeply personal to him, yet simultaneously pop and universal. Source: The Artist Who Captured America’s Most Dramatic Courtroom Moments—And Was Hounded by the FBI | CrimeReads
If you have ever seen the courtroom sketches of the trials of Sirhan Sirhan (who murdered Robert Kennedy in 1968) or Charles Manson in 1970, you have seen the work of Arnold Mesches. He was hired by CBS News to cover those trials and others of the era as a courtroom artist.
But Mesches was far more than a courtroom artist. Born in the Bronx in 1923, Mesches found himself in Los Angeles in the 1940s working as a studio artist and involved in left-wing politics. That’s when he came to the FBI’s attention, and they devoted a great deal of time and effort to watching him — and paying informants to spy on him — during the next 30 years.
When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were awaiting execution for spying in 1951, Mesches produced a series of 30 paintings using their images as a protest to what the government was about to do to them. Five years later, all of those painting plus 200 other works were stolen from his studio. Mesches suspected that the FBI was behind the theft, and when he finally received him redacted files from the bureau, he had even more reason to think this was so.
All of the files for three months before and three months after the theft were missing from the file — which had more than 700 pages in it.
Mesches life in art ranged from studio work to courtroom reporting to teaching to major exhibitions — and even to a role in a major movie. He died at the age of 93 in 2016. Lambert’s article and his New York Times obituary give a fascinating account of this important artist and his work.
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