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Art from Office Supplies? The Émigré Experience of Peter Meller

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Imagine a European scholar with the immense cultural knowledge of an Erich Auerbach or an Erwin Panofsky; someone also on the run from the twin threats of Nazism and Communism. Now plunk him down in late-1960s flower-power Santa Barbara. How would he react? What would he write? What if he couldn't write? Then take this hypothetical scenario a step further, and grant our mythical émigré knowledge not only of the high art of Europe, but also of the key objects and languages of antiquity. Against his apparent writer's block, pit his extreme facility with drawing, his active, ironic imagination, and an abundance of nervous energy. He may not write his great book, but he will leave behind evidence of his erudition in a more unusual form--a vast archive of brilliant and original graphic art. Cardboard boxes and filing cabinets stuffed with drawings, prints, and even paper airplanes prove conclusively that once upon a time, someone possessed the confident draftsmanship of a William Steig or a Saul Steinberg, the directness of a Mad Men-style advertising genius, and the range of reference and sensibility of an Aby Warburg or a Meyer Shapiro all at once.

The strange truth is that just such a mythical figure once existed: Peter Meller. Although the art of UCSB professor emeritus Peter Meller is only now becoming available to the public, Meller actually does represent just such a fascinating and nearly lost chapter in the epic story of the European intelligentsia who moved to Southern California to escape Nazism and World War II. Through a pair of exhibitions organized by the UCSB Art, Design and Architecture Museum currently on view in Santa Barbara, and a publication, The Zodiac of Wit: Peter Meller and the Graphic Imagination by Robert Williams, Peter Meller's secret career as an artist is finally reaching an audience.

Unlike its elusive creator, who never sought recognition beyond a small circle of intimate friends and family for his prodigious output, Peter Meller's graphic art is extraordinarily accessible. He deemed his charming (and scary) origami "harpy" paper airplanes to be suitable for children's play, (and much to the dismay of their parents) so did the children who received them.

Despite the fact that Meller was a professor of art history who possessed a commanding knowledge of the Renaissance and of classical culture, he chose standard office supplies as his media, in the process elevating such lowly items as rubber erasers and liquid Wite-Out to the ironic status of contemporary stand-ins for the techniques and materials of the Italian Renaissance, and even for the illustrated vases of Greek and Roman antiquity. His favorite method of printmaking was to make multiple exposures of a drawing on a standard office-type photocopier. It is Meller's gift for working with these decidedly "minor" or non-standard emergent technologies that gives his brilliant and learned images their unique place in the history of art. Through this darkly comical and highly self-aware vision, Peter Meller, whose work was virtually unknown until after his death at age 85 in 2008, may still earn his place alongside such of his contemporaries as Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch as one of our region's greatest émigré ironists.

As a professor of art history at UCSB from 1968 to 1994, Meller earned the respect and gratitude of his students and colleagues for his deep knowledge of European culture, particularly of the Renaissance and classical antiquity, and for the dry wit of his extraordinarily well-informed lectures and seminars. Yet, on the level of publication, that great academic standard of productivity, Meller's output remained relatively sparse. Certain manuscripts, including a projected translation of Lucretius' philosophical poem De Rerum Natura, were lost during his years of exile in Italy, and while at UCSB, although he published several well-received articles, the big book that would make his reputation alongside Gombrich and Panofsky never materialized. His son-in-law, John Moore, who has now taken over managing the large archive of Meller's work, remembers him as someone who exemplified his contemporary and fellow-émigré Theodor Adorno's concept of a "damaged life." "No one knew he was an artist on this scale," said Moore, referring to the many thousands of individual works and hand-carved ink stamps in his possession, adding that Meller's "involvement [with creating graphics] was not exactly casual."

The two shows now on view, one at the UCSB Art, Design, & Architecture Museum through September 16, and the other, also organized by the AD&A but located in downtown Santa Barbara at the Jane Deering Gallery on East Canon Perdido (that one will be up through September 29) demonstrate the range and ingenuity of a major artist, albeit one who celebrated the joys of working in supposedly minor genres. Meller's gift manifested in many ways--he made drawings, prints, sculptures, ink stamps, printed silk scarves, and even refrigerator magnets (!), but he never lost sight of his beloved antiquities, which were a common source of imagery and inspiration. For example, in the remarkable photocopy image of Aristotle and Phyllis, Meller recalls a common story about how Aristotle's uxorious nature led his overbearing wife to ride on his back.

Elsewhere Meller brought forth mythological figures and loaded them with ironic sympathy for the limitations imposed by human vulnerabilities. His Mary Magdalene uses a mirror to admire her recently acquired halo, and his numerous cupids, satyrs, and fauns rarely meet with the kind of reception they expect. His wise Minerva, her lips pursed as she learns something from an intelligent pig, is unforgettable, even as the classical reference that served as the inspiration for the image remains obscure. The fate of his reputation as an artist remains to be seen, but for now it is clear that the art of Peter Meller has much to offer audiences today, and the UCSB AD&A Museum is to be congratulated for making his work widely available for the first time.

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