Friday, March 11, 2016

Richard Haas

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


You may have seen muralist, Richard Haas’s work because it’s right there in Soho, on the corner of Prince and Greene Streets to be exact. That delightful trompe l’oeil extension of the 19th century cast-iron façade, painted in 1974, was his first mural—in the original, a little cat was balanced on one of the window ledges. Sadly, the mural has been defaced over time but there is hope that it can be restored. Richard’s work is in fine fettle elsewhere in the country, in particular, Homewood, Illinois where he has painted several surfaces of the city’s buildings. He is passionate about cities and how to keep them alive; these murals are part of his contribution to that goal. He is at heart, an artist and art historian with a deeply thoughtful approach to how cities can transform themselves. (Richard will be exhibiting at the Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples, Fla. March 20-April 1 and the Miami Design Center from April 21-August 14)

So what you do is absolutely amazing, so my first question is how did you get into it?

Into which?

The murals.

Well, I’ve been an artist … if you look up the stairs, there’s a painting there and I painted that 59 years ago. That was the first painting that ever went into a museum, a show. I was born in Spring Green [a village in Wisconsin near Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin property], so I had that connection.

And what was that connection to Taliesin?

I worked with my Uncle George, who was [Frank Lloyd Wright’s] master stone mason. I worked there in ’55 and ’56 for two summers. Frank was very active still. I wrote a little thing on that that I gave to the University of Wisconsin about my experience over those two summers.
112 Prince Street New York City, NY. (1975)

The cast iron wall of the front of this building is repeated in the mural on its east wall. The mural also incorporates two pre-existing windows and features a cat painted into another window. This was the first outdoor mural completed by Richard and was coordinated by Doris Freedman.
112 Prince, today. To learn more about the movement to "Save 112 Prince St.," click here.
110 Livingston Street Brooklyn, NY. (2007)

This very large project on the former Board of Education building in downtown Brooklyn was completed in the Spring of 2007.
Peck Slip Arcade South Street Seaport, New York, NY. (1978)

Trompe l'oeil facades and a view of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, appropriate to early nineteenth century New York, cover the south wall of this Con-Ed substation.
Glockenspiel Mural for Yorkville New York, NY. (2005) 31 Milk Street Boston, MA. (1986)
Edison Brothers Stores, Inc. St. Louis, MO. (1984)
Fountainebleau Hotel Miami Beach, FL (1985-86 destroyed)
Thunderbird Fire and Safety Equipment Corporation Phoenix, AZ. (1985)
Can you tell us more about it?

Well we had the family connection. Both my great uncle and my father were the town butchers even though the family trade was always stone masonry. Spring Green was half Welsh and half German with a few Norwegians here and there. I started [at Taliesin] with helping my uncle going to the quarry but my uncle told Frank Lloyd Wright that I was interested in architecture and he said, “Well let him wander around.” So I spent more time in the drafting room than I would out working.

Did you have a dialogue with him?

Not really. A few words here and there. I was nineteen and he had a whole pecking order. But I took in the whole ambience of the situation. They had just started work on the Guggenheim, so I have a kind of photo memory of all that. I would also go through all of his drawings, one drawer at a time.
Richard's Park Hill neighborhood was built from the late 1880s to the early 1900s as a planned community. The neighborhood sits on a 300-ft. plateau, half a mile back from the Hudson River.
Peeking through the wrought iron fence towards the front entrance. Richard and his wife Katherine purchased the house in 1980.
The stone and shingle house was built at the turn of the 20th century and is nestled into the hillside with woods on either side.
A brick patio surrounded by stone and natural rock makes for perfect outdoor dining.
Original stonewalls surround the home.
Richard and Katherine Haas greeting us at the front door.
So this must have shaped you significantly.

It was very important but then I went off away from that and I got very involved in painting.

When people responded to your painting and said you had talent, what was it that were responding to?

Well, I wanted to be de Kooning. I was into destroying the figure – that was what I got out of de Kooning. I would have called myself an expressionist at that time; I was getting into German Expressionism and doing prints and a lot of woodcuts.

So how did you make the transition from that kind of work to the kind of work you’re doing now?

You know things go along very strange paths when you are an artist. In those days everyone thought an artist should be channeled in one direction and once you’ve hit that chosen path, you just keep going. But I was always going all over the place. I was interested in history and I did a lot of art history – my minor was in 19th century European history.
One of Richard's designs runs across the main entrance hall cove molding.
Architectural models of Prague synagogues stand atop the family upright piano.
A Tyvek chandelier by Tord Boontje is suspended in the main staircase.
The front entrance hall is flooded with light from the adjoining sun porch. The windows between the entrance hall and the sun room were turned into faux Frank Lloyd Wright windows by Richard using copper foil tape and glass paint.
An Austrian Madonna and child inside a gothic shrine purchased in Canada keep watch over the front entrance hall.
Richard's paintings hang on the walls of the main stairwell. They include a small oil done by the artist in 1955 while an undergraduate student at UWM which won a prize in the Milwaukee Art Museum at the time. It depicts the kitchen in his childhood home.
A sketch of the original clubhouse of the Park Hill Racquet Club that was done as a mural study for a painting which now hangs over the bar at that Club.
Yes, when I was looking at pictures of your murals, it was almost like you are painting the past on to a building.

[Laughs] Well I do have a pretty strong interest in the past. American architectural history is probably the main focus of what I’m into because American architectural history is so European-oriented.

I was thinking about that. Despite the fact that so much American architecture takes its cues from Europe, I felt that there was also a whole aesthetic to some of your murals that was a uniquely American, like the art deco movie theater in Miami and the cast iron work mural in Soho. It seemed like a whole American visual record.

Well it is and it isn’t.

How do you mean?

It has all of its precedence in Europe. But [it’s true] you get the Prairie School and the American land, out on the land and I come from that, the hills of Wisconsin. But cities are my primary excitement. I just love cities! I had been to Europe and I had seen how architectural painting had literally covered every square foot of Rome, Florence, Milan and 50 other places. It was a way of taking the Renaissance ideas to the outside from the inside. These were relatively simple buildings and they were embellished with beauty, the ideas of the Renaissance, which of course related back to ancient Rome and the Greeks. I was seeing cities that way.
Peeking into the main floor dining room from the front entrance hall. Two semi-circular tympana over the two doors in the entrance hall were painted by Richard; one depicts the Hendrik Hudson Hotel that existed next door to the house in 1900 before it was destroyed by fire. The other depicts the Carnegie library that existed nearby and was torn down in 1981, the year after the Haas family moved into the house.
A mirror in the dining room reflects a collection of art pottery from all periods collected over the years.
A silk screen print on metal of the Chrysler building by Richard hangs above model of the Baha'i temple from Chicago, a gift from architect Stanley Tigerman.
Work by friends include a print by Sol Le Witt and a Philip Pearlstein watercolor portrait of Katherine hanging near a Russian samovar that belonged to Katherine's family.
Wine bottles are tucked into a corner of the dining room next to an art deco burl wood bar from England.
Greek, Egyptian, Chinese and medieval vessels and objects are displayed in a Biedermeier corner cabinet. The Meissen porcelain statues on top were a gift to Katherine from a neighbor.
A view across the dining room into the front entrance hall equipped with the family's upright Chickering piano from the 1940s.
So I want to ask you when you see a building and you’re commissioned to do a mural, how do you decide what that building needs from you?

I like to come in with an open book, a clean slate, if I can. Usually [the building] dictates its limits more than its opportunities. It’s really fighting against and with a lot of limitations. That’s what I’ve always said is my modus operandi. I was always trying to link it and tie it in as tightly, meld it, with the environment, especially coming from New York in the 70s, which was nasty place, falling apart on many fronts.

It certainly was.

It was happening in many other cities and I was trying to find some answers to that problem of how we were chopping and channeling our cities, destroying them with what I call a thousand wrecking balls instead of a thousand cuts. They would tear down half the downtown to create parking lots for the people coming from in the burbs. It was escape at five o’clock.
Richard and Katherine's cozy living room is filled with furniture inherited from Katherine's family and objects collected over the years from flea markets and various travels.
In the corner of the living room a lacquer stupa container from Myanmar is surrounded by a collection of Memory Jars. They sit over a 19th century Chinese cabinet which serves to conceal the television.
Architectural models ( a part of Haas's large collection from world travels) are arranged atop a table.
Buddhas and other Asian objects both inherited and from various travels, line the fireplace mantel which was painted by Richard in a faux Charles Rennie Mackintosh manner.
Richard's etching of the Flat Iron Building hangs near an étagère filled with opera figures in ornate costumes from Taiwan.
A reflection of the fireplace mantel from a painted living room mirror.
A charming tower landing is furnished with more art and furniture. The ceramic Cochiti figure is from New Mexico; the fireplace boards are styled in the Renaissance manner, and an American 19th century gaming table is inlaid with marbles.
And then there was no life in the city?

Yes. In New York they were always trying to figure out how to make a car-oriented city in a city that was never meant for cars.

What was it like doing a mural for Donald Trump?

Well … we had a little afternoon with him once on a plane. I think he got word about me through Philip Johnson. He said, “I got a problem in Atlantic City. Things are falling apart and I gotta do something.” He said to meet him at the heliport and to bring along my wife, “or whoever”. He was perfectly pleasant. Katherine sat in the front with Marla [Maples], who was pregnant at the time. Katherine was just observing how she must have had skin treatments every five minutes. Donald was on a diet of walnuts and almonds so he was just feeding me more and more of those. He talked a lot about how he was broke and going under … [does a very good impression of Donald Trump] “You know I’m two billion in debt but the banks love me. They call me every day.” We landed on the rooftop of one his hotels. As soon as the plane landed, out of every bush came a goon and they surrounded him. Then we went down in a private elevator and we had to walk through the casino. There was this parting of the waves, like Moses coming through. And no touch. The Donald doesn’t touch.
An oval sunroom, the centerpiece of Richard and Katherine's main floor has sweeping views of the city and the Hudson River. A small jungle of house plants flourish in the sun-filled room. The room also includes two large ceramic Architectural Follies executed by Richard while teaching grad students in Davis California in 1981.
Apparently he wants the presidency so bad that he’s started to shake hands.

He must be going through ten bottles of sanitizer a day.

What do you find most fulfilling about what you do?

We got a little off track there about Donald, didn’t we? What I find is that what excites me is the beginning, the early stages of a project, the possibilities. As it evolves, then it just becomes like work. How am I going to get to this and how am I going to do that?

Isn’t most creative work basically set of decisions and problems to solve?

Yeah but I think you’ve got to keep that early period as open and as fluid as possible to allow yourself a chance that maybe something will come in that isn’t your first idea. The first idea can be the one that you take off on or it can be the one that you’re stuck with and can’t get rid of, you know?
The walls of the main floor guest bath display mask and folk arts purchased at flea markets and during trips to Mexico, Africa and other locales.

A composition board self portrait of Howard Finster at his birth is the largest work in this room.
So what kinds of projects do you like doing now?

As I move it along, I start to say well this is also an opportunity to stage set, to make something that could never possibly have been there.

A lot of your work is almost theatrical, isn’t it?

There have been periods in history when the idea was that the street was a processional era for theatrical activities. Promenading and displaying yourself and using the streets, really as an extended theater, was a big idea in the 19th century.

And what do you think of the way New York city is going now, the Dubai-ification of the skyline with all these super tall towers?

I don’t know how any of these guys can say beauty has anything to do with these tubes that are sticking up. They’re just tubes in the sky for billionaires.
A print by Tom Wesselman hangs in the stairway leading to the basement.
The basement is filled with a large collection of books.
Katherine's ceramic work is housed on basement shelves and a makeshift table in her studio.
The original stone walls of the sub basement and furnace room with iron coal boiler tools.
Views of Richard and Katherine's Park Hill home looking east. Fieldstone rubble walls compose three lower levels before reaching the upper floor and the attic roof.
And presumably advertising now takes up the surfaces upon which you could once paint murals?

That window has closed. It’s finished. It’s okay in Bushwick but it ain’t no good in Manhattan. That’s over.

What’s your position on graffiti?

I hate graffiti …well that’s a complicated statement. It’s anarchy with a spray gun.
Headshots on Richard's iPhone from "another time."