“CHICAGO’S FORGOTTEN LUNATIC GENIUS”
by Joseph R. Lewis
Last summer I was directing the Youth Media program at Chicago Filmmakers. One of my students had been signed up for my class by his parents and clearly had no direct interest in media production. He liked Judo. He was a champion butt-kicker.
But he held his own amongst a throng of supreme media-geeks and even verbally sparred with his sassiest female classmates to great success. He was strong and eloquent and charming just like his father, as I soon came to discover.
His dad , Brad, would pick him up from camp occasionally. He was a brick building of a man- the kind that could derail a train. Sharp eyes, sand-paper stubble, with an aggressive gift for gab. He told great stories like a great storyteller. He knew when to be loud and when to whisper. As is true of most natives to this Midwest Metropolis, he loved talking about Chicago.
One day near the end of the summer I was sharing with Brad my adventures in urban archaeology. I told him of the discovery of The Lost Marionettes and our impending rescue mission. He leaned back and laid a big hairy eyeball on me.
“Who’s your father?”
“My father came this close-“ Brad raised his hand and shoved it in my face, his thumb and finger pressed together tightly, “to being an internationally famous artist. He’s one of the Chicago Greats…but nobody remembers him anymore…”
“Because he was a genius…and a lunatic.” He stared at me for a moment calmly, knowingly. “His name was Tristan Meinecke.”
I expected a torrent of abusive tales and rueful recollections. Instead, what I’ve been shown in these past few months is an ever-deepening picture of adventure, love, family, and rebellion unlike any that I’ve ever seen. It’s like good jazz thumping across six decades in rhythm with the powerful heartbeat of our native city.
Where to begin? Tristan the infant savant? Tristan the self-taught jazz musician? Tristan the two-fisted? Tristan the architect? The father? The husband? The author? The anti-racist? The surrealist? The manic depressive? The composer? The bulldog?
Only one thing is apparent- He lived the kind of life that can only be lived here, in this crossroads city called Chicago.
Visit the excavated studio of lunatic genius Tristan Meinecke
in it’s final days of existence…
Exclusive Gallery Hours coming this February in Chicago, Illinois.
Stay tuned to follow the adventure at The Underground Multiplex and the official Tristan Meinecke portal.
“HIS WIFE IS FAMOUS AND HE’S CRAZY”
by Joseph R. Lewis
“My father’s last words were, ‘Tell your mom I never cheated on her!’ But before that he looked right at me and said, ‘Take care of my paintings.’”
Brad Meinecke pauses briefly. For a loquacious Midwestern Mid-Lifin’ Lothario like Brad, even brief pauses seem long. His father’s building will be gone soon. He’s worried. You can tell. But he’s Chicago. It ain’t over.
Tristan Meinecke, Brad’s father, passed away in 2004 at 88 gruff years of age widowing his wife of nearly six decades. She had been the darling of Chicago radio and television back in the fifties, back when everything was produced local. Angel Casey was the star of early Chicago children’s show The Playhouse as well as the world’s first wave of soap operas, a marketing gimmick invented right here in the Windy City. Brad once heard a Chicago policeman bark about his father- “That guy’s trouble! His wife is famous and he’s crazy!”
Tristan Meinecke and Lorraine “Angel” Casey had raised their family in a building down on North Cleveland street in present-day posh Lincoln Park. Back then, though, it was less posh and more piss and spit. Oz Park was Little Vietnam and soon the Great Daley would raze the whole damn thing and be done with it. I imagine Tristan didn’t like the idea of urban renewal much. He seems the sort to see the gold in dirt. He saw the thresh swinging, though, and faired quite well.
He wanted to build an X-shaped home for his family so he took a year and taught himself how to be an architect. He partnered up with his friend Robert Bruce Tague and together they were instrumental in the design and construction of the new Lincoln Park. Nobody ever let him build that X-shaped building, though.
City-building…Just the kind of project a manic creative mind would need to stay focused. And this was the sixties, after all. No SIMS yet.
The Meinecke’s left Lincoln Park. They settled in West Rogers Park, in this building Brad inherited from his parents. Tristan’s art studio dominated an adjoining ex-saloon space with accompanying creepy basement.
Tristan toiled and tinkered endlessly. He would be up for weeks at a time before passing out for days of deep mental and emotional hibernation. By the seventies he’d long abandoned active exhibition of his art. His career as a prominent visual artist in 1950s Chicago was defined by the surrounding community’s inability to keep up with him.
By the time the public came around to liking what he was doing, he was doing something else and staunchly refused to do commissioned work. Galleries struggled to put together “coherently-themed” shows. The Surrealists adopted him for a time, but no label stuck for long. He was always changing.
It also didn’t help that curators were afraid of getting punched and thrown down a flight of stairs. These were legitimate concerns. He stopped showing, but he never stopped working.
After Tristan passed away the family moved to the basement all the remnant relics of the patriarch’s massive collection. It is the life’s work of an artist dedicated to the exploration of the deepest depths of this stream called time. Fittingly, he loved to fish. His rods are still in the basement, too. But not for much longer.
The rods, along with the 200-plus paintings, collages, sculptures, the large-scale split-level shadow boxes, the hand-written string quartet arrangement, the 300-page hand-typed autobiography, the tractor bag Tristan fashioned into a huge face, the hand-rendered architectural plans of Meinecke-Tague Architectural studios, the sound recordings of he and his drummer brother Phil playing jazz dives back in the 40s, the pictures of Angel…all of it has to go somewhere else. Brad doesn’t know where. Neither does his brother Scott. They sit together in their father’s old office. They’re worried. You can tell. But this is Chicago. It ain’t over.
“THE JAZZ CASTLE OF TRISTAN MEINECKE”
By Joseph R. Lewis
“Meinecke remains one of the monumental artistic secrets of Chicago, a man whose contribution remains to be adequately understood and evaluated.”
– John Corbett, Professor at the Art Institute of Chicago
“If they played jazz in Chicago, they came to my parents’ pool parties.” – Brad Meinecke, son of Tristan
When Tristan Meinecke arrived in Chicago back in the forties he fell in swiftly with the jazz swingers. Tristan had already taught himself clarinet and alto sax and he worked the jazz dive circuit successfully here in this Windy City for many years. He played in the first integrated jazz trio to hit the Northside clubs. He hailed King Oliver and the entire royal court of jazz pioneers that forever changed the sound of music back in the 1920s from their impoverished neighborhoods on the Southside.
In an age of segregation and McCarthyism, Tristan was an aggressive anti-racist. He threw more than a few literal fists into the figurative face of prejudice.
In the fifties Tristan rose to great prominence as one of the cities most exciting and progressive visual artists. He clashed ideologically and physically with the art world as only a true rebel artist would. His low tolerance for BS was compounded by his disdain for self-inflation and this, as you can imagine, put him at odds with many of his contemporaries and curators. Eventually he eschewed the whole dang scene and established a home for he and his family free from the confines and servitude of any traditional genre or lifestyle.
He built his castle on Cleveland Street.
His wife, Angel, a famous Chicago starlet from the earliest days of television, counted amongst her good friends the likes of Lil Hardin, wife to Louis Armstrong and a legendary piano player in her own right.
Lil played with King Oliver, too. She, along with others from that famous musical round table could often be seen lounging at Tristan and Angel’s 10-year pool party, which they hosted from ’61 to ’70 at their double-lot dual-building property at 2022 N Cleveland.
From that address, this Chicago hipster power couple entertained a celebrity guest roster rivaling that of the Playboy Mansion. He taught art classes and sold his own work directly from his own home, bypassing museums and galleries completely.
Instruments abound, Tristan designed the acoustics of the property himself, to optimize the allure of the music from street, drawing the neighborhood ever-towards him.
“The Gallery of Chicago’s Hysterical Lunatic Genius Opens February 7th”
by Legendary Lew
I was trying to expand the medium of painting. Above all I wanted to do away with “good composition”. I aimed at breaking down form. I changed the shape of the work and quit relying on frames. I aspired to total hysteria.
— Tristan Meinecke
Suppose you were contacted one day by the family of a man they said was very close to international fame in the art world. Once you check out the years of art work in the small building currently housing them, you discover that the hundreds of pieces of art have a resonance, vibrancy and vitality unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. You realize you’re standing in the presence of an artist deserving a stature as great as– or even greater than–many of his contemporaries already deemed masters: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko or Phillip Guston.
This experience happened to me and now, through the help of The Underground Multiplex and the Meinecke family, you have a chance of viewing a master’s works up close and personal in his studio building beginning Friday, February 7th.
The Meinecke Family (sons Brad and Scott) are opening up the Meinecke building to the public and press for a once-in-a-lifetime viewing of the astonishing work of their dad, Tristan Meinecke, an incredibly restless force of nature producing not only hundreds of art pieces during his lifetime, but also performing self-taught jazz and co-founding an architectural firm with Robert Bruce Tague that transformed Lincoln Park.
Among some of the notable traits of Tristan Meinecke’s work was the split-level paintings and shadow boxes displaying a 3D effect that were sometimes only discernible from a distance…
…and also the use of discards. Tents, stray wood pieces and even asphalt freshly poured onto the street in front of his house would be included in some of his masterworks.
As Joe Lewis had written previously, Meinecke and his wife, influential Chicago radio performer and TV host Angel Casey, were a power couple of arts and culture who together were renaissance figures interwoven into the fabric of Chicago. Learn about both of them at the Meinecke Gallery showing on the following dates:
Opening Night Reception:
Friday, February 7
6pm – 10pm
The Underground Multiplex in attendance
Saturday, Feb. 8 at 12Noon – 3pm
Sunday, Feb. 9 at 12Noon – 3pm
Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 5pm – 8pm
Thursday, Feb. 13 at 5pm – 8pm
Friday, Feb. 14 at 5pm – 8pm
Saturday, Feb. 15 at 12Noon – 3pm
Sunday, Feb. 16 at 12Noon – 3pm
Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 5pm – 8pm
Thursday, Feb. 20 at 5pm – 8pm
Closing Night Reception:
Friday, Feb. 21
6pm – 10pm
The Underground Multiplex in attendance
“Eddie Balchowsky and Tristan Meinecke”
by Joseph R. Lewis & Brad Meinecke
Eddie Balchowsky, the Fascist Hunter, was a Spanish Civil War veteran. Pre-War he was a skilled concert pianist and artist. Battle robbed him of his right hand and he returned to his native Chicago a pain-killer junkie. Over the course of many decades he became a local legend, playing deserted pianos all across the Northside with one hand and a stump. He was the janitor at the historic Quiet Knight music club. Jimmy Buffett wasn’t the only person to write a song about him.
One of the most exhilarating aspects of working on The Resurrection of Tristan Meinecke is that Brad will introduce me to Chicago stories such as Eddie’s. Doubly exhilarating is the fact that Tristan’s life was so connected to the rugged ecstatic history of Chicago that his name comes up in connection with so many local legends. The deeper I get into this resurrection, the more clearly I see the Meinecke family emerging as kind of cultural nucleus inspiring the city around them with they’re fiercely determined rebel autonomy…or as Eddie Balchowsky calls them in the colorful story below – “Chicago Royalty”. XOX
“Everywhere my parent’s went they drew a crowd.” – Brad Meinecke
EDDIE & DAD
Eddie and Dad were extremely tight. Dad hated junkies. Eddie was a classic heroin user. If not for that he would’ve been over all the time. As it was he was often at our house playing the piano. Dad loved his one handed playing.
He was homeless but had umpteen homes. He had one hand but played the piano . . . well.
He was junkie but to my knowledge never stole from friends. Dad let him sleep in his office on numerous occasions, never worried about theft. He owned nothing but could eat free at some high end places, and everyone on the late night scene on Clark knew him. He was known as the mayor of Clark street in the 70’s.
Once I was involved in an argument in a late night smorgasbord on Clark Street around 3am. Bunch of folks yelling at me and I’m yelling back. Suddenly this wizened little guy who looks like he hasn’t had a bath in a year sticks his head out of the crowd shouting-
I said, “I don’t see anyone here who can kick my ass and y’all can serve me my dinner or grow some balls and try and kick my ass. Your call.”
He cocks his head at me and asks my name. I say, “Brad Meinecke.” He starts cracking up. Practically rolling on the floor. Everyone is watching him like he’d gone mad.
“I knew you had to be a Meinecke! I felt like I was talking to your Dad a moment ago. Your Dad is a great man with a huge heart. I’m Eddie Balchowsky, unofficial Mayor of Clark St. You can eat here anytime. I’m proud to eat with any Meinecke. Clear a table, boys, the son of Chicago royalty has come to visit…and if he’s anything like his Dad we’d better just leave him alone!” That was the last time I saw him. Eddie, like my Dad, was larger than life. A true Chicago original.
“Underground Gallery Sells 30K in Excavated Art in One Night”
By Joseph R. Lewis
In the late summer of 2013, year of the XTRACT, the sons of Tristan Meinecke partnered with The Underground Multiplex (TUGM) to resurrect the story of their iconic rebel parents. TUGM is one of the Shy City’s most ardent supporters of local underground art, and the art of patriarch Tristan Meinecke was as underground as it gets- literally!
The career of Chicago’s forgotten lunatic genius spanned over five decades and included successful forays into nearly every art medium available. His mastery was well-known by those that knew of him, but mental illness and his commitment to his family led him to eschew the art world entirely. He never stopped working, and after 88 years of pushing every boundary he ever encountered, Tristan passed in 2004. Everything he ever made that wasn’t sold (about 1/3 of his total canon) was found in the basement of the building inherited by his sons, Brad and Scott.
VIDEO – First inspection of the Meinecke basement by TUGM co-founder Joseph R. Lewis
Their mother, Lorraine ‘Angel’ Casey was a television pioneer. She was amongst the first wave of producers and performers to migrate to the nascent medium from radio. At the height of Chicago radio’s popularity in the the forties, she was the Queen- literally! Queen of Chicago Radio 1946! She performed in over a thousand live tapings that year!
She produced and performed in the very successful “Play House” kids show in the mid-fifties and received death threats for demanding that bi-racial promotional material be developed to include the African-American audience in her viewership. Just as Tristan withdrew from the art scene, Angel eventually withdrew from showbiz to focus on family. They were married for more than fifty years. Memorabilia and artifacts from Angel Casey’s reign as a Chicago media pioneer were discovered alongside the art of her husband…down in the basement.
The task of excavating the basement was immense. Hundreds of pieces of art and records outlining the full careers of two iconoclastic Chicago rebels were packed into every crevice of this dark, dirty cave in West Rogers Park. Together TUGM and the Meinecke sons designed a plan to unearth everything and coordinate the excavation with a focused transmedia promotional campaign leading up to an unprecedented DIY gallery opening in the very same basement and adjoining building where the discovery was made. The Meinecke’s would build and manage the gallery, and TUGM would build and manage the media.
On Friday, February 8th, 2014, year of the ELEVATION, the gallery opened. It will stay open for a couple more weeks. You should check it out. XOX
GALLERY OPENING PICTURES BELOW