On a quiet evening of a late November weekend in 2009, the painter Arnold Mesches and his wife, the writer Jill Ciment, dropped by the Rail’s Headquarters to talk with publisher Phong Bui and consulting editor Robert Storr about their lives and works.
Phong Bui: I heard about you through Leon [Golub] quite a while ago, though the first time I became more familiar with your work was The FBI Files at P.S.1 in 2002 curated by Daniel Marzona.
Arnold Mesches: At the suggestion of Rob [Storr].
Bui: Which was a terrific show. In addition to the overt political subject matter, I was taken by how the texts and images combined in such a variety of ways, especially the different treatments of borders that envelope the two divided pages, allowing printed and painted elements that derive from popular culture with all of its social, political, and art historical references existing in relation to your FBI files.
Mesches: In 1956, my studio was broken into and over 200 works were stolen, including all my paintings on the Rosenbergs.
Robert Storr: Could you tell us about the robbery?
Mesches: Well, several of the left wing lawyers at the time said that it was an FBI raid. The robbery took place on August 6, 1956. When I got my files from the Freedom of Information Bureau, six months, pages from May to November of 1956, were completely missing.
Jill Ciment: Were there any other gaps?
Mesches: No, and the files started October 5th of ’45 all the way to the fall of ’72. The only reason they don’t have a file on me now is probably because the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) lost its funding in ’72; Congress no longer wanted to continue to support such a program. Who knows? But for 26 years they kept records on me.
Storr: Were your paintings political from the get-go? And what was your upbringing?
Mesches: Yes. The first painting I ever exhibited was of a Plaza Preacher preaching to workers. I was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised up in Buffalo where I went to high school at Buffalo Technical High School to be trained as an advertising designer. Around 1943 I got a scholarship from the Art Center School in LA and about two and a half years into it, I decided I didn’t want to be a commercial artist; I really wanted to say something personal with my life. The minute I decided to be a painter, Art Center took away my scholarship. Naively, I thought that maybe if I went into painting sets for the movie studios it would be close to painting. I got a job in 1946 working on a Tarzan movie for about three months and Hollywood went on strike.
Bui: The year before the blacklisting began?
Mesches: That’s right. We were on strike for a year. We would walk the picket line from 6 to 9 in the morning. Then, three or four of us would go off somewhere to paint watercolor landscapes. I knew nothing about painting so I’d look over the other guy’s shoulders—when they made a stroke, I’d make a stroke—that’s how I learned about painting. The defeat of the Hollywood strike paved the way for the eventual HUAC blacklist. By breaking the back of the trade unions in Hollywood, they opened up the possibility of full censorship of the whole industry, which eventually spread to become the McCarthy era nationally. At one point, eight hundred of us were put in jail for three days. We were tried and charged 25 dollars each.
Storr: For room and board. [Laughs.]
Ciment: What you’re saying is that once they break the trade unions, they have access to intellectual property that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Mesches: And that was exactly what Hitler did. He broke the trade unions, he broke the Communist party, and that’s how he gained his power.
Storr: And that was when you got on the lists.
Mesches: Evidently, yeah. The first thing I got from the FBI was October 5th of ’45.
Storr: Person of interest, a certain Arnold Mesches was seen today etc., etc.
Mesches: Sneezing. [Laughs.]
Storr: We will catch him sneezing again. [Laughs.]
Mesches: Which was true. Everything I did, however insignificant, like sneezing, the so-called “Special Informants” (SI) would report. They got $75 for every page that they turned in. Imagine, if you wrote reports on ten people, that’s 75 dollars times 10—a lot of money in the 1950s. [Laughs.] And with our taxpayers’ money?
Bui: Did you ever work with a man name, Lester Novros, the painter David Novros’ father?
Mesches: Of course, I did six or seven filmstrips with him on American Negro history and on the Progressive Party. Oh yeah. One thing I will always remember about Les was the time I walked into his office and there were some reproductions of old master paintings that were lying on his table. When I said, “What are you doing with them?” he said, “I’m using the compositions for my films.”
Storr: Does this mean you were drawing images for them?
Mesches: Yes. Drawings and small paintings, frame by frame. I worked with a group of writers and artists and we had a workshop based on the Taller De Grafica in Mexico City; we would do different kinds of services such as leaflets, making picket signs and banners for trade unions and the progressive movement, making filmstrips for the Henry Wallace campaign, etc, etc.
Ciment: Actually if you look at the history of left wing politics in Los Angeles, whatever march it is, you can always recognize Arnold’s signs. They’re very sweet and great.
Mesches: I have a picket sign in the studio that I saved from the big Century City fiasco, when the police attacked us, signed by Mohammad Ali.
Ciment: Also, before G. W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in March 19, 2003, tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators gathered in Central Park. To raise money for the cause, I was selling the Arnold’s on-the-spot hand painted picket signs: any slogan the customer requested. It was amazing because young people had never seen anyone do hand painted signs before.
Mesches: That was what we did. I brought a gallon of black, a gallon of red, my yardstick, and a couple brushes, and I lined up these things like a machine, “Next!” “Five dollars!” Before you know it we made 225 dollars for the peace march.
Ciment: There was this older, very proper and very well-dressed Upper East Side woman who said to Arnold, “Write down: Fuck War.” [Laughter.]
Storr: Yes, ma’am! [Laughter.] Tell us about how you got to New York from Los Angeles. At what point in your lives did you make this break and what did you find when you got here?
Mesches: Well, when we first got together we were always talking about how someday we would get a loft in New York together. But then Jill went to CalArts for undergrad and University of California, Irvine for graduate school, so we didn’t manage to move to New York until 1984, the height of the East Village Neo Expressionist movement. I remember artist friends would say, “Don’t go to 57th street, go to the East Village, that’s where it’s at.” And I thought, East Village, what the hell’s there? We got to the East Village asked, “Where can we see some good art?” “PPOW,” so I brought a catalog from a big show I just had at the Municipal Art Gallery in L.A. to Penny, and she said with her English accent, “These are not exactly for me, but around the corner there’s a good little gallery called Civilian Warfare, they’ll love your work.” So I walked in and showed my catalog to Dean Savard, who looked at it then he called over his partner and he said, “We want to show your paintings.” I looked around the gallery and thought to myself, “Where are they going to hang my big paintings?” And he said, “We’re moving to bigger headquarters very soon,” and I said, “Great.” Anyways, we finally worked it all out. I sent the paintings and they paid for the shipping. Then on December 1st, 1984 I flew in on the red eye from L.A., slept for a while and took a cab to the gallery in time for the opening reception. The new space was about 6 feet larger than the old one. [Laughter.] But they had all my paintings up—floor to ceiling. And Dean says, “This is the East Village style.” That first night in New York was unbelievable. The police closed off the street, because there were so many people milling around in the street. In the gallery, there were at least 500 people crammed in like sardines, and no one could even see the paintings. It was like a riot. Afterwards we went from one party to the other and then we went to dances afterwards, and I figured “boy, I’m home, this is really for me.” Dance away, you know, till four, five in the morning when we finally left the p went to some cockamamie place and had hamburgers. And I’m thinking, “Wow, I should have been here when I was 20 years old.” [Laughter.]
Bui: In any case, don’t you think that it makes great sense that your early career in films fed right into your paintings as if it’s a natural progression?
Mesches: I never thought Hollywood’s dramas would end up in the paintings. Though I’m sure it was unconscious.
Ciment: Well, Jim Rosenquist’s early experience as a billboard painter did the same for his paintings.
Bui: That’s right. Weren’t you also friendly with Edward G. Robinson?
Mesches: Yeah. Even though he was a stool pigeon.
Mesches: Oh, yeah. When I asked him about it later, he said, “If I don’t do this I’m not going to act ever again, and I’m an actor.” I ran across a lot of actors over the years that they all said, “I’ll never forget the conflict I went through but I wanted to remain an actor,” and they all told me “If I don’t, I’m finished.” Of course, there were hundreds who refused to fink who were blacklisted, who never worked again until Kirk Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus and broke the blacklist. Anyway, I used to bring my classes to Robinson’s house and he would show us his marvelous collection.
Bui: Which includes Cézanne’s famous “The Black Clock,” and choice Matisses, Picassos, and many others.
Storr: I just saw Robinson’s last movie Soylent Green for the first time. It was made while he was dying of cancer and he played a retired professor who shared this cramped one-room apartment with Charlton Heston, who had been on the left, but on his way to the right, played a cop. And it was a fantastic film.
Ciment: And Soylent Green is the most prophetic film as far as our problem of overpopulation is concerned, a problem that doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
Mesches: And speaking of actors, there was an exhibit at the World Federalist’s about peace and I won a prize with one of my Concentration camp paintings, and one of the three jurors was a guy named Ronald Reagan.
Storr: You’re kidding.
Mesches: No. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time. He was already a fink, even then. You have to remember, the left wing was very powerful in Hollywood so, in the beginning, he opportunistically became a “leftie” so he could go places. He got to know everybody and then he used it later to turn everyone over to the F.B.I. during the Red Scare in the late 1940s.
Storr: And where did your paintings fit in at that time in the art world in California? Were the Mexicans still an influence?
Mesches: I think most of the artists went two ways, Mexico City or Paris. I went to Mexico. Orozco was a greater influence to my painting than Rivera and Siqueiros. I met Siqueiros and I spent some time with him but I never met Orozco or Rivera, I think Rivera was dying and Orozco had just died. But Mexico was a powerful influence on the American left. The crazy thing was that when I went to school at the Art Center, my first life drawing class was with Ed (Edward) Biberman, who was a left-wing artist at the time. Then at one point Lorser Feitelson came to school as a one-day substitute, and I learned more about art than in the whole goddamn semester. He became a permanent teacher. He would give a lecture and you would know how Renaissance painters used composition, and what drawings and paintings were all about. That was my only formal education.
Storr: He was also a big influence on Guston actually, in the mid to late 30s. But as far as the surrealist scene that was going on in Los Angeles, partly through the Arensberg Collection were you ever involved with that sort of work at all?
Mesches: Not really. I was more involved in the left wing, and the art at that time was social realism. Ben Shahn was an early hero. As a matter of fact, the first time I saw his work it made great sense to me, mostly because it had a graphic quality that reminded me of my past training in graphic arts. The way he set up his space, the hard edge of his shapes and the social message was more interesting than, let’s say Jack Levine’s paintings.
Storr: Although Levine did some good early paintings.
Mesches: I agree. I actually got to know both of them, but Ben Shahn for sure was a greater influence.
Bui: Was the process from being a trained graphic designer to painting difficult?
Mesches: It certainly was. I kept looking at paintings and made drawings after them but I didn’t know how to paint directly. It was so intense that I had to give up my career in graphic arts, and began to take on odd jobs so I could pursue my career as a painter. I drove a truck in L.A. I would get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, order the food and beverages for the day and go on a route until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, sleep for a couple of hours, and I would paint until 8 or 9 at night. Plus I would have Saturdays and Sundays to paint as well, so it wasn’t too bad. And the first thing I did, as I mentioned earlier, was to paint workers. I made hundreds of sketches of the workers eating my lousy food and drinking the terrible coffee during their lunch break. Actually, I did have a show of those paintings at the Pasadena Museum in 1950.
Storr: Pre-Norton Simon Museum.
Mesches: Yeah. Then it was a small little museum. And the crazy thing was I really learned to paint with those paintings. The other crazy thing was that my show was shown at the same time as Orozco’s. He had the big gallery and I had the smaller one. You can imagine the opening night was absolutely mobbed! People overlapped into my space from his. I became famous in L.A. thanks to my friend Orozco.
Ciment: And what was so surprising was that those paintings of the workers were criticized by the Left.
Mesches: Oh yeah! I painted the workers playing craps—My quote-unquote “comrades” were saying, “You can’t belittle the working class!” I said, “I’m looking at these guys every day, I know what they look like. This is what they do. They wear dirty work clothes.”
Bui: Robert Frank was also criticized for his The Americans by the Left so you’re in good company.
Mesches: So was Stuart Davis, especially when his paintings became more abstract. The truth is there were constant discussions about form and content between people like Albert Maltz and Dalton Trumbo; what the Abstract Expressionists did was prove that form could be content. That’s the point of it. They made a historical move. They’re following politics. And I began to realize I’ve got to make art first, even though my subject was political. It took me a while but in the end I realized how poetic Trumbo’s essay “The Time of the Toad” was midst the horror of the 1950s and the Rosenberg’s trial.
Bui: And it’s amazing that Abel Meeropol, who wrote the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” that was made famous by Billie Holiday, was the one who adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Mesches: I know, and one of my drawings of that period that was stolen was of two of the boys standing in front of the casket with their flowers.
Ciment: It must have been such a horrific time to have picked two Americans and just go after them and execute them.
Storr: We were headed in that direction under the last government.
Bui: It’s kind of amazing to think that the Freedom of Information Act was only signed into law in 1966 by LBJ, though a few Republicans, especially Reagan, had managed to close it up until Clinton, then—
Ciment: Bush and Ashcroft took advantage of 9/11 and closed it again.
Storr: Jill, can you talk a little bit about your new book Heroic Measure which was selected by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club for 2009 summer reading? There’s a man of a certain age who made work with his F.B.I. files, but it was also about the struggle to stay in New York.
Ciment: I wanted to write about that generation of New Yorkers embodied by a personality like Grace Paley, a great artist and activist. When Paley came to the University of Florida to give a reading, my job was to find her an alligator. When I finally spotted one and pointed it out to her, she said, “What do I need an alligator for?” She was too busy looking at Arnold’s F.B.I. files because she, too, had just gotten hers, and I realized that this whole group of left-wingers had inadvertently gotten the government to keep these amazing records of their lives. In other words the government literally kept journals for them for free. [Laughter.] Everything they did had been recorded and they could now compare files. “You see mine has a thousand pages, yours only has 700?” [Laughter.] Another aspect of the novel deals with real estate. I had heard that all of those cooperatives on Grand street had been made for the garment workers and now most of the tenants were in their 90s. They all had grandchildren they wanted to leave something to, but part of the deal was that those cooperatives couldn’t be sold for a profit. They voted down their old pasts in order to make their fortunes.
Storr: And you do alternate in writing about your own experience and something else.
Ciment: I write one book about what I know and the next book I write is about what I’d like to know. For example, Teeth of the Dog was about my wanderlust, which basically was about me dragging Arnold to every third world hole in the world and one day I woke up and thought, you know I’m going to kill my old husband and I thought, oh I’ll write about that. Killing my old husband in the third world. [Laughter.]
Storr: Murder by economy class.
Mesches: In one book she had me having an affair with her mother, in another book she kills me off.
Storr: This is a happy marriage right? [Laughter.]
Ciment: It is. [Laughter.] It’s been a really interesting collaboration because we’re really involved with each other’s work. I mean he reads everything I write, I throw away things based on his criticism. We’re so involved that sometimes I don’t know where his work ends and mine begins.
Bui: Weren’t you once aspiring to be a painter?
Ciment: Only until I took John Baldessari’s class at CalArts and you know, encountering the avant-garde was as close as I’ve come to a religious conversion. I came from a poor family, my single mother raised me; I knew nothing about the avant-garde. John’s class inspired me to quit painting, and I find faith as a conceptual artist.
Mesches: And her going to CalArts and coming home was in so many ways my second education because I became more aware of what was going on in contemporary art.
Ciment: And I would drag over the young artists like David Salle and Jim Welling to look at Arnold’s work, and they had never seen such painting. It was a very interesting kind of mish.
Storr: What did painting/conceptual art/the avant-garde and all of its visual forms have to do with how you write?
Ciment: Well, I’ve written six books and I’m in the middle of my seventh—each one is almost as if I’m learning a different art form. My early stories were highly conceptual. In those years, I thought that every challenge was an aesthetic challenge. And I remember at CalArts we were the most snobbish bunch of people imaginable. I remember we used to call actors “art supplies.” At any rate, I think everything you learn as a visual artist is applicable to writing. I think anyone’s best chance of becoming a good writer is to know another art form. I remember thinking when I was writing this new book, how brilliant an art form acting is and how foolish and young I had been to berate it. Writing is very close to acting. It’s so much about character and voice. When you write a scene from a character’s point of view, you have to do exactly what an actor does, make every small detail, like brushing one’s hair or teeth, revealing of an inner soul. Before I sit down to write every morning, I have to become my characters. All the art forms come into play while writing a novel, but for me, the most important will always be the visual arts—they formed me.
Mesches: When you read her writing, it’s like a painting.
Storr: That’s absolutely true.
Ciment: Well, scene writing is exactly like painting. It’s about entering a space and creating that space down to the smallest detail.
Storr: One of the things in the new book is that you juxtapose big social tension drama to everyday ordinary kinds of crisis such as one worries about this or that small thing and each is on a different tier of importance but then gradually you realize that those tiers are not defined, they’re sort of intermingled. You specifically reference Chekhov, for example, “The Lady with the Lapdog,” and it’s striking that you can sort of bring the reader to that reference and by the time they get there, even though you’re offering them a key, it’s just sort of perfectly blended. There’s an intra-literary dialogue going on at the same time as you’re creating all these other things.
Ciment: Well, the book started off just about the dog, and I thought, you can’t just write a book about the dog; then somehow other concerns entered—I was interested in the non-stop fear and paranoia our nation was constantly mired in. And I kept putting layer upon layer. But ultimately, ideas have so much less to do with fiction than emotions. Fiction spies on consciousness. There is no other art form where you can actually enter another human being’s mind and spy on the way in which they see and experience the world. And that’s the most incredible part of writing for me. That’s why I love Chekhov, the ultimate spy.
Storr: What’s it like to be swept up by the kind of attention you’ve had from Oprah and how is it in relation to the kind of writing audiences you’ve had in the past and the kind of worlds in which you think of your works circulating in mostly?
Ciment: Well, the thing that was amazing was she gave away the book free online for 48 hours. Anyone could download it. And so 110,000 people did. The letters by Oprah readers were sent to me and it was a complete surprise how many were moved by the book. I never expected my writing to be read beyond a small circle of friends, colleagues, and maybe a few faithful readers. I’ve always known that there’s a limit to how far a literary novel can move into the mainstream culture. There just is. I mean, people always get upset by ambiguity. Ambiguity in popular culture is not something that is really accepted. I had the feeling that some readers were really disappointed in the novel’s ending, because it was intentionally ambiguous. I remember the debate about the Sopranos ending, which really, truly upset lots of people. People want concrete conclusions and fool-proof answers and art isn’t about answers: it’s about questions. The other interesting aspect, for me, about Oprah’s free download was that many people were perfectly happy to read the novel on their computer. People argue that the reading experience is synonymous with the physical book, the sensuality of paper and ink. There’s no reason why the physical book is more important than the e-book. It’s ecologically unsound: it kills trees, eats up gas for shipments. I mean, personally, I’d like to wear a fur coat in a cold day but I won’t wear it because to do so means an animal must die.
Storr: You’re more progressive than I am [laughs]. I have to have books.
Bui: [Laughs.] The same for me.
Ciment: It’s going to be a really interesting shift and we shouldn’t be so frightened by this change. I always remind my students that up until the 1600s people had “souls,” and suddenly with the advent of modernity, people had “selves”. I’m sure people who had “souls” looked at these new people who had “selves” with disgust. Today, kids watch their own birth on video. Every birthday, graduation, sneeze is recorded. Their sense of self is deeply changed from the sense of self I grew up with, which means that they have to find ways to reinvent the narrative so that it incorporates this change, the change of what it is to be human nowadays, because that’s what narrative is. It’s the definition. For example, it’s interesting to take notice that every book nominated this year for the Booker Prize was a historical novel, which indicates that novelists have no idea how to write about their own time. And so they’re turning back to history.
Storr: I think that the ostensible critique of history and the sort of vassal description of history is being that which is written by the winners has meant that history per se as a discipline is in disrepute. That primary research, that description, that narrative, all of the things that made histories, are in disrepute. And so you can’t do that anymore or if you do do that you’re ipso facto an antiquarian or an ideologist hiding as something else. Recently, I wrote a piece for Frieze about comic books. There’s an enormous amount of the new comic book literature that is essentially a personal narrative of history or sometimes in the case of the history of the SDS or Malcolm X they’re all histories and episodes that are very hard to get at any way.
Mesches: Even Howard Zinn’s People’s History is being done as a comic book.
Storr: Not to mention Art Spielgeman’s epic Maus, which came out in the early 1990s. There’s a huge craving among young people to be told these kinds of stories.
Bui: That’s fascinating for those from the East like me because for the longest time we identified American comic books as being filled with the superheroes of the future, the opposite of the Europeans like Asterix, which is essentially based on the past history—a small village of ancient Gauls resisting the Roman occupation—or Tintin, a modern-day reporter.
Ciment: It’s true. We’re catching up with the Europeans. There’s a really beautiful description by Alain Robbe-Grillet, in which he said there are two ways of writing, one is to record everything that someone does, another is to write about everything that happens in your life. But record everything you don’t do in real time, everything that you don’t say, everything you don’t do in your physical action, everything that is hidden from the world, all your fancies and romanticism, and all of your thoughts—that’s what fiction can do. That’s why I don’t think fiction can ever be lost or disappear. And that’s what graphic novels do: they show what people are doing and thinking simultaneously.
Storr: That’s the difference between the cloud bubble and the text bubble: it’s the zone between the inner monologue, which is the thinking, and the outer dialogue, which is the talking.
Ciment: And that to me is what makes the graphic novel a really interesting art form. Everyone thinks that the narrative is changing because technology’s changing. I think the narrative is changing because technology’s changing what it is to be human. God only know what that new form will evolve into—I was formed in the wrong century. [Laughter.]
Storr: But this is actually where history is helpful, including the kinds of histories that Foucault and others have anticipated, because the changes that make history in one set of narratives, the actual discoveries or whatever it is are one thing but changes of consciousness are very different, and they happen at a very different pace. And there are also the classic cases of no changes in consciousness, things that are actually not fundamentally altered. I’m talking about certain kinds of psychological predispositions, existential questions that reoccur but though the way we phrase them may be somewhat different. Where they stand in the hierarchy of urgencies may often be different a lot but they don’t change utterly and the fact that people do read things that were written hundreds of years before is not sentimentality and it’s not religiosity.
Ciment: Because it’s urgent, and it’s generational. I remember I was a little Maoist in my twenties but then as you go through your entire life, you realize that every single generation has to go through the entire same experience of—whether they believed in Jesus, Mao, it doesn’t really matter—they have to go through this entire process of life and there’s no way to convey that information to the earlier generations to speed things up or to save them the journey. And that part is what’s fascinating. That’s why when you read Oedipus, or Gilgamesh, you realize that, whatever the process, art covers that same journey.
Storr: The other thing is that the younger generation doesn’t know that this country is a place that had a tradition of dissent. And I have no illusions about who won those battles but the thing is it’s an absolutely essential part of our history and it’s recurrent has been dissent—fundamental dissent of many different kinds, often conflicting.
Ciment: But huge.
Storr: But all of them at odds with the status quo.
Ciment: Well it’s very interesting living in the South because it has been an eye-opener. I mean I’ve never seen a funeral procession pass that didn’t have blacks and whites in it. You never see that in L.A.—L.A. feels much, much more segregated. Though the south does have a lot of churches. Once we took a trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains, which were so beautiful, and we counted about 408 churches. I mean every other block there was a church.
Storr: All of that is based on 1) very hard living and 2) the fact that people are sinning like crazy. It’s their way of struggling to find some kind of balance in the world where they’re poor, the family structure’s fragile.
Ciment: And you realize that this country has pockets of intense poverty.
Storr: Which was the subject of Michael Harrington’s The Other America.
Bui: Published in 1962, which was considered the driving force behind the “war on poverty”.
Ciment: That’s right. We tend to think it only exists in third-world countries.
Storr: Arnold, could you talk a little bit about the paintings you’re making now?
Mesches: I’ve just finished two series of paintings. One is called “Coming Attractions” which deals with all kinds of metaphors for the Bush administration years and what’s happening with the world. The other, “Weather Patterns,” which, in some ways is about the precariousness of today. The new paintings are about all the things we’re talking about: the death of publishing, art is dead, painting is dead. I’m referencing great paintings that have influenced me over the years, fronting them with a painting of my own palette table or my brushes. And the fact that all the things we’re talking about: the death of publishing art is dead, painting is dead—I guess I’m saying that art ain’t dead.
Storr: I think it’s terrific that you debuted as a Lower East Side artist and I think you should just carry on that way. [Laughter.]
Ciment: I do too.
Bui: How did you first meet Leon?
Mesches: We met through our mutual left-wing friends in 1984. I remember we had lunch at a restaurant in Soho. And actually Robert Hughes was sitting next to us. At some point Leon says. “Listen. I’m going on sabbatical and you’re the guy I want to take my place.” And I said, “Sure.” So we stayed in New York for another year, and then we stayed in New York for another five years, then another 13 years go by [laughs].
Ciment: Like I said, we never even went back for our furniture. We just never even went back. I mean we only packed for six months.
Mesches: It was a wonderful experience. We met writers and artists that we couldn’t have met in L.A. There’s an intensity about the art world here that we both reconnected with.
Storr: Jill, what’s it like writing about yourself and Arnold without necessarily being so overt in the new book?
Ciment: I can honestly say that the character of Alex is truly based on Arnold.
Storr: [Laughs.] I thought so.
Bui: But Ruth doesn’t seem to have all of your attributes?
Ciment: No. Ruth is not me. Ruth was my chance to understand and talk about old age before it happened to me—my chance to contemplate how to grow old without growing angry or bitter. One of the things that the book talks about is: how does an artist grow old and what the hell do you do with a lifetime of work? Where do you put it? Most people who are making art are not selling all their paintings. I also wanted to write about a happy marriage. I mean we’ve had, however complex and dramatic at times, a really happy marriage.
Mesches: It’s been 38 years.
Ciment: Obviously I’m a feminist, as any woman who’s sane would be even though I’ve always tried not to be polemical or dogmatic about it, it’s hard not to recognize that women’s concerns are very different that men’s concerns. I’m making Arnold read Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means right now, and I said to him “This is this amazing story of World War Two.” Told from the point of view of what happened to the women. Their lives were at stake. In Heroic Measures, I wanted to talk about terrorism and microwaving soup from Fairway with the same intensity, because I feel like that’s a deep truth to life, which doesn’t always exist in men’s fiction, for better or worse.
Mesches: I’m an exception [laughs]. The point of the matter is, I’m producing some of the best work of my life as I get older. I’m an amalgam of all the past history and the contemporary world partly because of living with Jill and I’m proud that I can continue to do it. And, I’m not about to quit.
Ciment: One of the most amazing things about getting older as an artist is that I now have my “chops.” I can write anyway or anything I want, so the test becomes “what the hell do I have to say?” And that becomes the real challenge. And I think the freedom of that is just astonishing.
Mesches: And Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, Orozco, and countless others are still alive, as they always will be.
Ciment: Likewise with all the great writers we have read. My favorites: Chekhov, of course, but also Gogol, Muriel Spark, Greene, Kafka, Paley—it’s a long list.
Heroic Measures, by Jill Ciment, is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize of fiction.
Arnold Mesches is being awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Florida @ Gainesville on April 30, 2010.