“Tom Kenney Comes Home”, 1944 | 31”x48” - tempera painting on board
The story of a cowboy prospector, Tom Kenney, coming home to the valley near Mt. Sopris in western Colorado, is painted by Frank Mechau in a simplified graphic manner. The three horses in the foreground are individualized, as is the horse that Tom Kenney rides. The muted colors and the bare tree with twisted limbs evoke an enigmatic sadness in the return of the rider. Small portions of red carry the viewer’s eye up to Kenney’s horse and saddle blanket to emphasize the strong composition of the painting.
Although his productive career was centered in Colorado, Mechau was a cultivated, cosmopolitan artist. Fully conversant with the modernist art 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.
When he was three years old, his family first moved to Palisade, Colorado, before relocating to the resort town of Glenwood Springs where he grew up on the state’s Western Slope. In his largely rural and rather sparsely populated environment, he marveled as a young man at the shapes of the mountains and 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 later figured prominently in his mature work on paper and canvas
His talent first surfaced in his drawings for the Garfield 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. There he may have been introduced to mural painting by his teacher, Marie Woodson, who in 1910 did a mural for the Decker branch of the Denver Public Library. He also studied briefly at the Denver Art Academy of Fine and Applied Arts; but the stilted atmosphere he encountered in art departments in Denver and at the Art Institute of Chicago limited his formal art education. However, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and Midway Gardens, which he saw while in Chicago, made him aware of the relationship between painting and architecture and their mutual functionalism that he later applied to his own art. As a professional artist, Mechau was Wright’s guest at Taliesen West in Arizona in 1939.
In 1925 he participated in his first exhibition at the Denver Art Museum and completed illustrations stylistically inspired by Aubrey Beardsley for Richard Addington’s book of verse published by Covici-Friede. Armed with fifty dollars from a local prize fight, he went to New York, acquainting himself with the work of contemporary European and American artists and showing in a group exhibition at the Architectural League in 1927. The following year he married Russian-born actress, Paula Ralska, whom he met at in the cafeteria at Lord and Taylor’s department store where both of them worked at that time.
A year later they embarked on a three-year trip to Paris and Europe that proved an important formative experience for him. 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 Gertrude Stein’s brother, shared with him his extensive knowledge of the modern art movement and its leaders, Fernand Léger, André Derain and Giorgio de Chirico. In Paris Mechau was included in important exhibitions where his work, shown with that of Alexander Calder, Stanley William Hayter and Amédée Ozenfant among others, was favorably received, earning him recognition as an up-and-coming American artist. Following his participation in Les Superindépendants in 1931 sponsored by Association Artistique, the critic and editor of Formes Waldemar George wrote: “[Mechau’s] personal vision, his life, and his profound artistic culture presage his arrival. Personally, I place great hopes on this painter.” A year later he participated in the Artistes Américains de Paris exhibition with Paul Burlin and Vaclav Vytlacil who later would also teach – as he did -- at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
Leo Stein encouraged Mechau to visit Florence and Arezzo, Italy, to view the paintings of Paolo Ucello and Piero della Francesca. They later influenced Mechau’s murals for the WPA-era federal art projects in America where Piero had become an icon of modern taste. His “geometricization of form, the emphasis upon the picture plane’s nature as a decorative two-dimensional surface were also crucial to much modern painting.” Mechau bought monochromatic reproductions of Piero’s work and Roberto Longhi’s groundbreaking 1927 study of the Italian artist, using them as references for his mural work and sharing them with his students in the United States.
Feeling increasingly alienated by the modern art he encountered in Paris -- like fellow artists Marsden Hartley and Grant Wood – Mechau relocated to Denver in 1932. He said at the time, “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].” Denver artist Vance Kirkland hired him to teach the 1933 summer session at his newly founded Kirkland School of Art, prompting Mechau to open his own short-lived school of fine art and design in downtown Denver that succumbed to the economic fallout of the Great Depression. 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.
His Football Abstraction (1932) exhibited in 1933 at the Denver Art Museum adapts the tubular arrangement of Léger’s Nudes from the 1920s, and the floating figures in his Composition (1930). Continuing the Native American subject matter explored earlier in Paris, he produced a cubist canvas, Indian Fight #3 (1934). That same year he did Horses at Night for the Denver Public Library under the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first federally sponsored art project that served as a model for several others during the decade. PWAP Director Edward Bruce said that Mechau’s painting alone justified the entire project’s program.
The critical success of Horses at Night led to seven other mural commissions for post offices and federal buildings in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas and Washington, DC. His unique contribution to the WPA-era federal art programs involved placing a predella with small narrative scenes beneath his murals, supplementing their content – a practice adapted from the painted panels added as “footnotes” to the altarpieces he saw in museums and churches in Italy. Horses at Night proved so popular that he produced a lithograph of it in 1936 for the American Artists Group in New York.
A subject first explored in New York in 1927, Horses at Night also anticipates Running Horses (1937), a sixty-foot horizontal frieze in true fresco painted for the courtyard wall of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, commissioned by its architect, John Gaw Meem. Horses, symbolizing for Mechau the freedom of the American West, likewise are the subject of The Last of the Wild Horses (1937). Depicting wild horses rounded up in the Colorado-Utah rangeland and destined for slaughter as dog and cat food, the monumental work is now in the Metropolitan Museum.
Like a Renaissance master, he produced numerous drawings when developing the initial idea for a 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.
His murals done under the various government-sponsored art programs in the 1930s are located in the William Jefferson Clinton Building, Washington, DC (Pony Express and Dangers of the Mail, 1935); Denver Federal Center (Indian Fight, c. 1936); Byron Rogers U.S. Courthouse, Denver (Wild Horse Race, c. 1936); Brownsville Police Department, Texas (Fighting a Prairie Fire, 1938); Eldon B. Mahon Courthouse, Fort Worth (Texas Rangers and Flags Over Texas, 1940), and the post office in Ogallala, Nebraska (Longhorns, 1938).
The recognition Mechau received from his mural commissions and prestigious prizes for his work resulted in several teaching positions, first at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1938-38) 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 at the university, 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 artists-critics Stuart Davis, Adolph Dehn, John Marin and Boardman Robinson, and organized an exhibition in Columbia’s East Hall for African-American artist Jacob Lawrence.
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 Brook and Bernard Perlin, he logged more than 10,000 air miles throughout Central America, Columbia, Ecuador, the Galapagos and San Blas Islands, and several Pacific bases. The twelve paintings he completed for this project are in the Army Art Collection of the U.S. Center for Military History in Washington, DC.
After the war he rejoined his family in Redstone, Colorado, free to work without any teaching responsibilities. Revisiting western subject matter, he painted 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, 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.”
As modernist art critics advocating abstraction gained ascendancy in the 1940s, the Regionalism of Mechau’s western subject matter gradually lost its status in the art world. However, as 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…
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.
In 1944 the Standard Oil Company commissioned from him four paintings documenting the contribution of oil to the American war effort. The works poignantly illustrate the encroachment of modernity and the great change it affected on the western environment. Otto Karl 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 visions and the appropriate style which he developed in order to express it.
Solo exhibitions: Junior League of Denver Gallery (1933); East Hall, Columbia University, New York (1939); and Denver Art Museum (1945), as well as several posthumous ones: Denver Art Museum (1946); Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City (1947); Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1948, 2016); Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth,Texas (1967); Aspen Center for the Visual Arts and University of Colorado Art Galleries, Boulder (1981-1982); Grand Junction Fine Arts Center, Colorado (2001); and the Denver Public Library (2005).
Group exhibitions: Les Superindépendants, Paris (1931); Denver Museum Annual Exhibitions (1933, 1936,1949); Selected Works of Public Works of Art Project, Corcoran Gallery, Museum of Modern and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1934); 1st National Exhibition of American Art, Rockefeller Center International Building, New York (1934); Art Institute of Chicago (1935, 1938, 1942, 1945); Artists West of the Mississippi, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1935-38, 1945); Whitney Museum of American Art (1934-37); Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, DC (1937); Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1937-38, 1944-45); Paintings for Paris, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1937); Trois Siécles d’Art aux États-Unis, Le Musée de Jeu de Paume, Paris (1938); Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (1938); De Young Museum, San Francisco (1939); Cranbrook Academy of Art (1940); Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska (1940, 1973); Artists for Victory, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1941); The Encyclopedia Britannica Collection of Contemporary American Paintings, Art Institute of Chicago, Rockefeller Center, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Corcoran Gallery, Dayton Art Institute, Carnegie Institute, Syracuse Museum of Fine Art, Cincinnati Art Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, Milwaukee Art Institute, John Herron Art Institute, St. Louis Art Museum, Denver Art Museum (1945-47); Life Magazine Collection of American Art From World War II, Pentagon, Washington, DC (1960); and American Masters of the West, Boise Gallery of Art, Idaho, and Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City (1974).
Museum Collections: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, New York; Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; Rochester Institute of Technology; Detroit Institute of Arts; Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida at Gainesville; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska; Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; Denver Art Museum; American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection, Denver; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver; Denver Public Library Western Art Collection.