You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time, Finds Outdoor Muralist Richard Haas

updated 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

'I see the wall as a frame; that's my canvas'

Problem: how to make a large power substation near the Brooklyn Bridge contribute to the ambience of Manhattan's South Street Seaport, with its historic 18th-and early 19th-century buildings and square-rigged ships.

The answer, decided Con Edison, was to hire Richard Haas, a 43-year-old painter whose murals are, in effect, architectural illusions.

Haas designed a 90-by-45-foot mural for the entire side of the power station. It shows an arcade, through which the bridge can apparently be glimpsed, and several five-story Federal-style brick buildings. At sidewalk level, a real fence has been installed to keep passersby from trying to enter the painted shop doors—and walking smack into the wall.

The artistic technique, known as trompe I'oeil (French for "fool the eye"), is ancient. Back in the fifth century B.C. the Greek artist Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes that were so realistic, legend has it, birds swooped from the skies to try to eat them.

Haas designed his first outdoor mural six years ago for a civic-minded Manhattan group. On the dingy brick side of a downtown building he reproduced in paint the building's antique cast-iron facade. For fun, he had a cat peering from a window. And for further confusion, he incorporated two real windows into his illusion.

The mural was a critical success, and since then Haas has created similar projects in Boston, Galveston and Chicago. Recently he completed work on a 130-foot tower just off Times Square. His mural evokes the Venetian-styled front of the famed old New York Times building, since converted to a slick—and to Haas' eye, characterless—modern office building. Nostalgia is not his objective. "I'm trying to show what might have been or might be—what is plausible," he says. "I'm seldom interested in bringing anything back." Total cost for a mural, which he hires sign painters to execute, ranges from $1,000 to $35,000; Con Edison's wall ran $15,000.

Haas was born in Spring Green, Wis., the son of a German immigrant butcher turned mechanic and a schoolteacher mother. In his teens, he worked as a carpenter at nearby Taliesin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's famed headquarters, where his uncle was a stonemason. In his spare time he browsed through Taliesin's bins of architectural drawings, but he had little contact with the master. "Wright was 89 then," Haas explains. "We didn't have a lotto talk about."

Encouraged in his artistic aspirations by state fair ribbons for prints and oils, Haas went on to earn a master of fine arts at the University of Minnesota in 1964, marry another student and take a teaching job at Michigan State. The academic environment, he soon decided, was artistically barren. "If a real artist came through the building," he recalls with a laugh, "I'd trip him in the hallway and haul him into my studio to look at my work."

When his four-year marriage ended Haas decided he had "OD'd on the Midwest" and moved to Manhattan. He commuted once a week to Bennington College in Vermont to teach print-making. Galleries were willing to show his work, but his sales were minimal. "You get nervous when you don't sell anything for the first 10 years," he admits, now that his prints bring as much as $400, his watercolors $3,000 and his oils $10,000.

A trip to Europe nine years ago, "to become educated in things I pretend to be an expert about," changed his life. In Italy he encountered Renaissance architectural paintings and realized the same illusionist techniques could be applied to American street murals.

"A lot of insensitivity goes into our urban planning and architectural style," says Haas, gesturing to a wall painting of classical doorways leading to a window view that he has painted to brighten his SoHo loft. "My painting is more than a replica of a building," explains Haas, who invariably improves on the architecture. "It's a reinvention of things that didn't deserve to die."

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