Painted Ponies

The Central Library surveys the brief, brilliant career of Frank Mechau.

Like so many artists before and since, Mechau went to New York, where he met his future wife, Paula Ralska. In 1929 the couple moved to Paris. They remained there until 1932, when their first child, Vanni, was born, at which time they moved to Denver.

Most of the oldest works in the DPL show were done during Mechau's Parisian sojourn and in the first years after his return to Colorado. These pieces reveal the absorption of the early modern art that was developing in Paris, as well as the influence of regionalism, which was all the rage around here. There's a definite surrealistic quality to many of them, as exemplified by the gorgeous "Rodeo Pickup-Man," in which cowboys on horseback were distilled into shallow shapes carried out with piles of thick paint. The wonderful "Football Abstraction," an oil on canvas from 1932, is even more surrealistic. In this horizontal composition, Mechau reduced the figures of the football players into simplified solids done in bright colors. In a lot of ways -- the long narrow shape, the reductionism and the elaborate arrangement of the figures -- this painting anticipates the later "Running Horses" and "Horses at Night."

Even more abstract, and therefore more modern, is "Indian Fight #2," painted in Denver in 1934. Mechau cut up the forms of the equestrian Indians so that they are treated like puzzle pieces. He outlined jagged fragments of his subjects in paint, dividing the picture into areas that are independent of the expected contours of Indians on horseback.

"Dorik and His Colt," by Frank Mechau, oil on canvas.
"Dorik and His Colt," by Frank Mechau, oil on canvas.
"Forest Fire," oil and tempera on panel.
"Forest Fire," oil and tempera on panel.

In Denver, Mechau taught at the Kirkland School of Art, and later established his own Mechau School of Modern Art. In 1934 he received the first of a series of Guggenheim fellowships and was awarded his first federal commission as part of the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project. It was for "Horses at Night." The mural was exhibited in New York and Washington, D.C., before coming back to Denver. It was so well received back East that it led to additional commissions for Mechau in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas and the nation's capital.

The DPL show includes a study for a pair of murals, "Pony Express" and "Dangers of the Mail," that were created for the United States Post Office in Washington. "Dangers of the Mail," which features pioneers being set upon by marauding Indians, has created controversy -- twice. When it was unveiled in 1935, it caused outrage because it features pioneer women stripped naked by the Indians; in the late '90s, the mural again raised the ire of viewers, this time because self-appointed critics felt it defamed Indians. The second controversy was more effective in achieving the protesters' goal of censorship and led to the mural's being permanently draped. (Score one more for art haters.)

In 1937, Mechau's success with federal and private commissions allowed him to move with his family to Redstone, Colorado, where he established a studio. That year and the next, he taught at the CSFAC, spending the term in Colorado Springs and the rest of the year in Redstone. He then took a job as the head of the drawing, sculpture and painting department at Columbia University in New York City, a position he held until 1943, at which time he moved back to Redstone.

In the later '30s and into the '40s, Mechau's style became increasingly less abstract as he turned to the magic-realist wing of the regionalists. This was really swimming upstream for Mechau, because at the time, abstraction was starting to come on strong in American art, quickly replacing regionalism as the national style of choice for artists. There are quite a few examples of this later work, with its stilted perspective and crisp margins between the forms, in Shooting Star; they include "Dorik and His Colt," an oil on canvas, and "Forest Fire," an oil and tempera on panel, both from 1944.

This magic-realist work would be the end of the line for Mechau. In 1946, when he was just 42, he suffered a heart attack and died while visiting his father in Denver.

It's been a generation since there's been a Mechau show in town. That makes it an understatement to say that Shooting Star: The Artwork of Frank Mechau (1904-1946) is one of the top attractions of the year.

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