A retrospective on artist Horst Leissl

As I child I was fascinated by The Incredible Hulk. Just about every morning from kindergarten through first grade, I looked out the window of the car and saw “The Hulk” bursting through the wall, granite flying, water splashing, the wall full of cracks, rips, and tears. Strange, cryptic looking images could be seen in the largest holes. A hand could be seen reaching through the cracks, like something out of the cover of Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz. To a child who carried around a large Hulk doll with torn purple pants and a ripped white shirt, and watched Lou Ferrigno become the hulk on television in the evening, this was a dream come true. The Hulk was gigantic and in color. The painting was awesome, it was a spectacle.

This is the Riverside Water Treatment Plant on Riverside Boulevard. As we continued to drive by, some graffiti appeared along the bottom edges of the water tower. Then, one day, much to my dismay, the expected happened. The graffiti and the entire water tower was painted over in gray. I never saw The Hulk or anything painted on the water tower again.

It wasn’t until over 30 years later that I learned that the water tower had really been sandblasted, and that some residents had actually complained about the paintings. Obviously, they weren’t the cool people. Some of the cryptic images were surrealist art, and the artist was influenced by the French surrealist painter, Rene Magritte. The lips were that of Man Ray, another surrealist, who had recently died at the time. Also pictured was the 1969 image of the Earth as seen from the historical moon landing, and in another large crack was Riverside Boulevard and the water tower itself. This created the illusion of kind of a perpetual image, repeating itself continually but growing smaller and smaller into infinity. I wondered who could have created such a wonderful scene.

After doing some research, I finally found out who made the painting. A man with a German name. It looks like the mural existed from 1976 till about 1982. According to the Nov. 8, 1976 edition of The Sacramento Bee, city engineer Ron Parker saw Mr. Leissl’s sketch for the then-proposed painting and said, ” You’ve got to see the sketch of the mural to appreciate it. It’s very unusual.” I found out that this Mr. Leissl had actually made many other works of art, and must be an interesting man.

Horst Leissl was a local artist known for public displays of art. It was he who created such works as the very large house fly, seen way up high. The “fly” was near the top of the water tower next to the Safeway, at Alhambra Boulevard. This conspicuous insect could be seen from the highway, while heading north toward H Street on Interstate 80 Business. It was known as “The Sacramento Fly.”

Speaking of water towers and freeways, Horst also created the giant praying hands under the freeway at X Street. He made the much smaller display of “Incredible Inedibles” that could be seen in a gallery at the now-destroyed Downtown Plaza, as featured in the showcase section of the Monday, Oct. 1 edition of The Sacramento Union. Richard Simon writes that the cakes were “decorative and fun.” In fact, Leissl’s works could be seen in several places in Sacramento.

If you ever visit Old Sacramento and are walking around on the docks, you will still see evidence of his works…at least at the time of this writing. Look for the ducks on the concrete walls, near where the boats and restaurants are. You may have to look for a bit to notice the large but faded outlines of waterfowl on the some of the walls.

Tom Raley of Raley’s Supermarkets commissioned Horst Leissl to create the drawings for a large mural on the concrete retaining wall along the river in Old Sacramento. Preston Trevor painted Horst’s sketches onto the wall from a rather dangerous rope scaffolding. In the Sept. 27, 1980 edition of The Sacramento Bee, on page B4, Horst mentions that in the event of a flood, it would be better to have ducks pictured on the wall rather than houses.

One of Horst’s buddies, Darell Forney wrote about the Sacramento artist in the July 1987 edition of the Sacramento Arts Magazine, “On The Wing”. In Volume VII, number 6, page 4, Forney writes about Horst’s murals in Melarkey’s.

Another intriguing planned public display was actually proposed and not built. Capitol Mall in downtown Sacramento was to be renamed “The Richard M. Nixon Memorial Boulevard” for 31 days in 1978. The “proposed, but NOT built” Richard “Nixon Monuments” were actually miniatures superimposed over pictures of Capitol Mall. Pictures of these can be seen on page 41 of of the June 1978 copy of Sacramento Magazine. The photos look realistic.

An artist who expressed himself in various mediums, Horst even used the power of audio and the telephone to create art. Horst, or Hank, as he became known, said “Telephones are media, just like radio, post-cards and television.” In his experimental “Telephone Graffiti”, Horst set up a phone number and let people record whatever they wished on the answering machine. This would be like a Facebook wall today, only in audio. In fact, the Sunday, Aug. 3, 1975 edition of The Sacramento Bee calls it an audio wall. Bee staff writer Charles Johnson says that after radio station KZAP heard about it, Leissl was getting calls from all over the country. One of the callers claimed to be Patty Hearst.

Horst Leissl was an art teacher at Sacramento City College, and created a time capsule to be opened, at least by my assumption, around 2076. This is judging from the November 4, 1976 edition of Sacramento City College’s “Express” newsletter. ( Volume 67 Number 9) Stewart Barnes writes that inside the time capsule are photographs and comments recorded on tape. I wonder if the time capsule still exists, as it was not buried, but given to city officials. However, another article says it was purportedly buried in a cave near Lake Tahoe. (On The Wing, July 1987, page 5)

Horst Leissl was born in Augsburg, Germany in 1933. He escaped from Germany and later came to America in 1952. In January 1987 he had a stroke. He died on October 2nd, 1994. He was 61 years old.

If you would like to learn more about Horst Leissl, there is both a website, and a Facebook devoted to him. Just Google “The Art of Horst Liessl”. His paintings, photographs, documents, and one of his films are available there. The audio reel of his “Telephone Graffitti” is also digitized and downloadable. In doing research about this unusual guy, I learned that he was more than just a painter, more than even just an artist. He was a student of life.

“To become isn’t important, but going through strata and process is” — HORST LEISSL.

Back to the water tower. A sly and intellectual artist, creating pieces most of which could only be understood by adults, Horst still had the heart to make art for children. In the Riverside water tower, he made The Hulk for his son Nikko, a fan of the Marvel Comics’ Incredible Hulk. In The Sacramento Bee on Oct. 16, 1994, Victoria Dalkey mentions that Horst created the Hulk image for kids in general, as they wouldn’t know who Man Ray was. (Horst included an homage to Man Ray on the water tower, the section with the lips.)

But were it not for Nikko, the comics-inspired picture of the angry green giant may have never existed. Nikko is a Hulk fan and even has the 1960s comics that the artist may have used as inspiration to draw the mural. Horst drew the image for his son. After some internet research, Nikko and I concluded that Marvel Treasury Edition No. 5, “The Hulk on the Rampage”, (1975) and The Hulk No. 200, (June 1976) are likely candidates for reference material Horst may have used for sketching the painting.

Although I was never able to meet Horst, I met his family many years after first seeing that huge mural. In fact, had he not taken ill, he most certainly would have been my favorite art teacher at Sac City College.

This concludes my little article. I hope that Horst would give it his “seal” of approval.


2 Responses to A retrospective on artist Horst Leissl

  1. James P says:

    Casey, glad to hear that! You dont have pictures of it from back then, do you? I totally think they should put it back on, too. Kickstarter?

  2. Casey Barton says:

    Thank you! Every time I drive by the water tower I think of the Hulk painting. Very happy to come across all this information on it. I think all this art should be recreated and put back where it belongs. Like you, seeing this art on that tower was a high point for me whenever my parents drove by it.

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