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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.