MENDING THE
URBAN ENVIRONMENT:
THE MURALS OF
RICHARD HAAS


Note: This material is background information for lesson three of the unit, For All to See: How Public Art Teaches.


Our cities have not mended and the wounds seem to be growing constantly rather than diminishing.


Richard Haas, May 2000
Architectural Illusions, exhibition catalog


Murals traverse cultural and social boundaries with a rich history derived from long-standing traditions. The purpose of murals has ranged from instructional to decorative and they are created from a variety of media on virtually any surface. In the twentieth century, murals also have been used to address cultural, political, and social issues. This article and interview is about Richard Haas, a contemporary American artist whose murals strive to mend the visual ailments and aesthetic challenges of urban environments.


Drawing upon traditional mural-making methods to create modern urban masterpieces, the artwork of American muralist Richard Haas challenges the viewer on both visual and historic levels. With a nod to art forms of the past and a vision of what our cities aesthetically can be, Haas skillfully combines his interests in history, architecture, and trompe l'oeil painting to transform the bare facades of modern buildings into architectural illusions that change the face of urban architecture.

About the Artist

Richard Haas lives and works in New York City. His murals are painted on exterior and interior walls in public and private spaces and can be seen throughout the United States, and in Germany and Australia. Born in Spring Green, Wisconsin in 1936, Haas became interested in art and architecture at an early age. Contributing to this interest was the fact that American architect Frank Lloyd Wright built his masterwork, Taliesen, in Spring Green and Haas' uncle was a stonemason for the architect.


After completing graduate studies and opening his own studio in New York, Haas visited Europe where he was particularly captivated by the centuries-old tradition of architectural trompe l'oeil known as quadratura that he saw in Italy and Southern Germany. Successful quadratura relies heavily upon the image sharing the same proportions as the actual architectural space while realistically depicting reflected light and cast shadows of objects. First popular in 16th-century Italy, quadratura painting continued throughout Western Europe into the early 1800s. The decline of the painting technique was brought about when steel framing allowed for expanses of windows in buildings, thereby eliminating the need for painted windows and trick-the-eye scenes.

Richard Haas

Returning to the United States with this new appreciation, Haas soon began plans for his own artistic interpretation of illusory facades. Photographing the blank walls of several New York buildings, Haas then painted overlays of his ideas and positioned them on top of the photographs to show how he could change the buildings' unappealing exteriors into works of art. Citywalls, an organization dedicated to placing art in public spaces, soon accepted Haas' proposal for a mural installation in New York City. Within weeks, Haas' scale drawing with a ratio of one half inch to one foot was being transferred to the walls of 112 Prince Street in the SoHo District.
Working in the architectural trompe l'oeil tradition, Haas has since completed murals for a wide variety of clients. As varied as the patrons who request them and the cities where they are located, the murals strive to be site-specific and reflect the heritage of the area.

 

The Chisholm Trail Cattle Drive Mural

A classic example of Haas' work is The Chisholm Trail Cattle Drive, a mural that covers much of a three-story building in downtown Fort Worth. Although casual observers might see the mural as being solely the image of a cattle drive placed on the south side of the Chicago-style building, in actuality much of the surface of the entire building is a part of the mural. Close examination reveals that the artist has painted the illusion of mosaic tile, windows, vertical columns, and other architectural details.


Finished in 1988, the realistic mural depicts a herd of longhorn cattle being driven to market. Similar to the historical research that is undertaken for each of his mural projects, Haas explains that the design [of The Chisholm Trail Cattle Drive] evolved as he "studied the history of Fort Worth and it became clear that the cattle business, cattle drives, and the trail that moved north to Kansas was key to the city history."


To give the mural a sense of place and time, the words "Fort Worth" are ostensibly chiseled into the illusionary stone arch over the cattle. An image of the original Tarrant County Courthouse (c. 1860) is located in the far background. Further giving the mural a sense of time, Haas has included the approximate dates that the Chisholm Trail was in operation through Fort Worth: 1867 - 1878. These dates much like the city's name "carved" in the arch are likewise convincingly chiseled into the illusionary stone facade of the stage on which the cattle stand. Calling upon the characteristics of quadratura, light shines from an unseen source onto the cattle and architectural details to cast believable shadows across the wall.

 

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