One day shortly after Tristan Meinecke moved to Chicago he saw a mother and her son walking along the shore. “The kid kept veering off toward the lake, and his mother kept saying, ‘Sherwood, walk straight,'” Meinecke says. The incident inspired a short story, “Sherwood Walks Straight,” which Meinecke wrote in 1943 and revised in ’46. A modernist work influenced by Gertrude Stein, the story resists easy interpretation, but Meinecke appears to use the mother’s command as a metaphor for social control. “Americans,” he writes, “are the only people who will gather under a no smoking sign to smoke, and swim under a no swimming sign, and dream under a no dreaming sign, and live under a no living sign, and you will understand also, that this might be because they have more ‘no living’ signs than others have.”

The resistance to conformity expressed in the story represents perhaps the only unifying thread running through the long, multifaceted career of an artist who, having narrowly avoided prominence in the 1950s, is now the subject of his first retrospective at the age of 87. The show, up at 1926 Exhibition Space through October 4, spans 81 years of art making, from a sketch of a coal cart he drew in 1919 at the age of three to his most recent painting, Purely Abstract (possibly his final one, as he hasn’t picked up a brush since 2000), a sparse but affecting abstraction in broad brushstrokes. A typewritten manuscript of “Sherman Walks Straight” (shortly to be published in Parakeet, a new literary magazine) is also on display, and in the rear gallery one can hear jazz recordings Meinecke made at home in the early 40s, as well as recordings of Meinecke’s father interpreting his son’s piano compositions.

Meinecke was born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1916, but his family settled in Ann Arbor when he was seven. His mother was a concert singer, his father a classics professor, philologist, and accomplished classical musician–but not, Meinecke says, a good parent. “He never paid attention to his children. My brother, Phil, who was seven years younger, shot himself when he was 13, and my dad was saying, ‘What will my colleagues say, what will my colleagues say?'” Phil survived that suicide attempt only to succeed with another two decades later.

“My dad expected me to be something without any help from him,” Meinecke says. “When I was a kid he’d play a scale and say, ‘You do it.’ I wouldn’t, and he’d slap my hand. I never got along with my dad until later, when he found out I could write music.”

Meinecke remembers his mother as a warmer presence, but says that his parents fought bitterly and frequently. “He berated her a lot. One time my mother was chasing him with a butcher knife. Obviously they didn’t have much of a love life because she named me Tristan–unconsciously I was to be her lover. The name has been good for me in a lot of ways, but when I was young it was terrible; the kids used to tease me about it.”

“I started drawing at two and a half,” Meinecke says. “I used to sit in front of the window and wait for the coal cart that came once a week. I’d draw the horse and get it half done and they’d leave, and I’d have to wait until the next week.”

Meinecke discovered jazz at 12, when he heard Cab Calloway on the radio: “My dad said, ‘Turn that off,’ but I loved it–the beat and the fact that it wasn’t stuffy.” As a teenager he went door-to-door with Phil in the town’s black neighborhood, buying used records by the likes of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong from the residents.

When Meinecke was bed-ridden with the flu at 19, his father gave him a clarinet to pass the time. “I took a few lessons from a bandleader and learned the fingering,” he says. “I hated to practice, but I started playing by ear.” Using an early home-recording device called the Wilcox-Gay Recordio, Meinecke, his brother, and a floating roster of musician friends formed jazz combos and cut their own 78s.

Kept out of the military during World War II by a heart murmur, Meinecke studied fine arts at the University of Michigan, but dropped out just a few credits shy of his degree and moved to Chicago, attracted by its energy and its jazz scene. “If I’d stayed I would have had to get a BA and a master’s and would have ended up like the rest of my classmates, teaching at the art school and never getting anywhere,” he says. Against his parents’ wishes, Meinecke took his 20-year-old brother with him. “They wanted their kids to stay home and be children the rest of their lives,” he says.

In Chicago, Meinecke supported his various artistic en-deavors by decorating department store windows, hustling accounts for an advertising firm, and selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. One day not long after he moved to the city, he walked into a restaurant and saw Angel Casey, a radio actress, sitting with two friends–“the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen,” he says. “I took one look at her and said, ‘I’m going to marry that girl.'”

“Now that your friends have left, I’ll keep you company,” Angel recalls Meinecke saying to her by way of introduction. “I said, ‘No, that’s perfectly all right,’ but he just sat there and said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing; we’re going to be married.’ And I said, ‘Thank you very much, but I’m already married.'”

Lucky for Meinecke, though, Angel had heard rumors that her husband, an army major, was carrying on multiple affairs. Although she didn’t obtain a divorce until after the war, her first marriage was already in trouble.

Angel emphasizes the slow progress of her romance with Meinecke. “Tris and I spent hours just talking,” she says. “I got to know him as an artist and what he was doing, and I was amazed because I expected that like most men he would have been all over me like a hot puppy. I liked the respect he showed me as a performer; I could discuss everything with him. We saw each other every single day; he’d pick me up, we’d walk to his place and go upstairs. Sometimes I’d be tired and I would sit on his bed, fall back, and go to sleep. He’s the only man I knew who wouldn’t have tried to undress me.”

His gentlemanly courtship of Angel notwithstanding, Meinecke talks readily about his premarital sexual experiences, including a sexual encounter with one of his high school teachers years after graduating and the passionate transformation of a normally reserved girlfriend after she’d been shown some contraband pornography by a mutual friend, an assistant state’s attorney.

“Those tales he tells you about women are all true,” vouches Angel.

“I was apparently sexy-looking,” adds Meinecke. “But it didn’t do me any good as an artist. I didn’t like it. There are very few artists who are good-looking.”

Angel and Tristan were married in 1947, around the time she moved from radio to television to host two children’s programs, The Playhouse With Angel Casey and Hail the Champ. The former included a musical appreciation segment, and Meinecke sometimes influenced Angel’s selections, which included some Varese and Schoenberg along with the Bach and Beethoven.

In the 40s Meinecke played jazz professionally in clubs on the north side and jammed with black musicians for fun on the south side. And although he had no training in composition, he wrote several solo piano pieces, one of them “Gershwin-like,” another “more like Chopin in genre.”

“I brought them home and showed them to my dad,” Meinecke says. “He turned to my mother and said, ‘Jesse, he’s a genius.'”

Urged on by friends, in the early 50s Meinecke studied with composer John Becker, eventually writing a string quartet that has yet to be performed. “Music is a more profound art than painting,” says Meinecke. “Anything that moves logically over a period of time I think is more profound. But you need a hundred men or at least four to play your music. In painting you don’t have that problem.”

In the mid-60s Meinecke moved into architecture, a career detour that grew out of the couple’s plan to build a house on a vacant lot next to the coach house they rented on Cleveland Avenue.

“I can do better,” Angel remembers Meinecke saying after looking over the plans submitted by the architect they’d hired. “So I said, ‘Why don’t you?’ And from that point on he was an architect.” Lacking technical credentials, Meinecke needed a licensed partner in order to practice. A contractor he knew suggested that noted architect Robert Bruce Tague would do it “for a bottle.”

“I tried to put limits on Robert’s drinking,” says Meinecke. “I said, ‘You can have three martinis a day and six beers,’ and that probably added ten years to his life. But drunk or sober, he was a brilliant architect.” Meinecke says he and Tague collaborated on hundreds of projects during their 20-year partnership. “We did apartment buildings, town houses, and a lot of rehabs. At first I wasn’t interested in architecture the way Tague was. For me it was just a way to make money. Later I got interested and designed two buildings on my own that I was really proud of.”

Meinecke’s independence found its fullest expression in his painting. As an art student, he says he admired Giotto and Chardin, but also Picasso, Kandinsky, and Ernst. He’s always painted in both abstract and figurative modes, and never settled upon a signature style. “I didn’t like the idea that critics wanted you to paint the same painting over and over again,” he says. “I just wanted to try different things.”

One day in the mid-50s Meinecke lost his temper in the studio and threw a hammer at a painting he was working on, punching a hole in the canvas. “I looked at it and thought, ‘Hey, that’s an idea,'” he says. “So I made the hole bigger.” The accident led Meinecke to create what he calls his “split-level paintings”–layered canvases with cut-away sections revealing designs underneath, several of which are included in the exhibit.

John Corbett, a critic and SAIC faculty member who cocurated the exhibit with artist Hal Rammel, puts the split-level canvases at the core of Meinecke’s legacy. “Meinecke’s early work is clearly related to painters we all recognize,” he says. “But in the 1950s we start to see a kind of work that I can’t compare to anybody. Heterogeneous Icon has two very distinct modes of painting going on: the panel in the back could be roughly compared to a Pollock drip painting, while the front panel is a bit like Rouault, but he cut away parts of the figure to allow you to see through it so that if you stand far enough back it becomes a single image. Tristan was combining figuration and abstraction at a time when those two modes were basically at war, and if you move up close to it the styles become distinct in a way that anticipates postmodernism. But I also find Tristan’s work deeply moving. If I were trying to prove a point with someone whose work didn’t knock me out, I would be merely an academic.

“Tristan was considered one of the up-and-coming painters in the 50s,” continues Corbett. “People who knew him expected him to become a star. He didn’t, because he had to take a job, and because of his own cantankerous personality, and because of his own restlessness, which meant that he didn’t make the same kind of work over and over again–whereas wanted him to keep painting one way.”

Meinecke allows that his prickliness did not help his career, especially where his relationships with commercial galleries were concerned. “I really didn’t care to have a gallery,” he says. “I sloughed a lot of them off. I could be very mean at times, partly for strange personal satisfaction. I felt I was superior to the gallery owners.”

Neither was Meinecke much for networking with other artists. When the robustly political Chicago Surrealist Group discovered him in the 70s, Meinecke accepted their invitation to exhibit and write automatic poetry with them, but he never considered himself a member. “They were anarchists, and I don’t think art should have an ax to grind,” he says.

Rammel, an artist who was a Chicago surrealist, makes the case that Meinecke’s art is political just the same. “The heart of the surrealist act is directed toward freeing yourself, freeing your mind, to open up toward other realities,” he says. “In those other realms there are answers to the problems of our lives and living together. The political conflict is not just against exterior tyranny but also against our interior tyrannies.”

Included in the show is an untitled nude that Meinecke painted in the course of one of the art classes he was teaching in his home in the 50s. As a lesson in spontaneity for his students, he completed the painting in less than two hours. “I did it with a four-inch brush,” says Meinecke. “We had this great model and I just whipped into it while the students watched. I used a cement trowel to smear it and put it all together and get the texture. One of my students said, ‘If I ever did a painting like that I’d throw a party.’ But that’s the only one I did that way. If I’d done 25 of them I’d be famous.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, courtesy Tristan Meinecke.