Sunday, 24 January 2016

Robert Zakanitch at the Nerman Museum, Overland Park, Kansas

When the Pattern and Decoration movement came into being in the late 1970s I was an enthusiastic follower of Robert Zakanitch, whose overall paintings of patterned flowers were simply beautiful. I lusted after his Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart poster but could never afford it (It appears to be available on Ebay for $32 now; I was just out of graduate school.) Pattern and Decoration lasted a very short time as a movement and I stopped seeing or hearing much of Zakanitch's work.Sometime in the early 2000s I was on an NEA panel and could not figure out why a young curator on the panel was so entranced with a new artist who was painting flowers all over the walls and floor of a room. At lunch I mentioned that I thought it looked like "Neo P&D" and she said "What's that?" so us geezers on the panel explained it. But that's how lost the movement had become.

So it was a surprise, in a way, to discover that the Nerman Museum at Johnson County Community College was announcing an exhibition of Zakanitch's work. The Nerman shows a lot of colorful, cheerful contemporary painting, and what I remembered of Zakanitch would fit well into that context. I wanted to see what has become of his work. Now I discover that of course he has been working and exhibiting all along, and much of the Nerman show was had been displayed recently at Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York and Samuel Freeman Gallery in Los Angeles. The Nerman show included work from three series by Zakanitch. Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed but most if not all the images, and more, can be seen on the internet, if not to the full advantage of seeing them at scale. They do not have the same impact on the screen or the page, where both scale and texture are diminished.

The opening room had three of the five enormous paintings on unstretched canvas from his "Big Bungalow Suite." All five paintings are reproduced on his website, often with him standing next to them to indicate scale, since they are huge, 11 by 30 feet! They're quite a stretch from that Mostly Mozart poster, but very consistent with the architectural commissions he has done for curtains, wall decorations and flooring, specifically for the Miami Cultural Center's Ziff Opera House. The huge canvases are covered with repetitive flowers or ornamental objects, with other objects or images interjected. According to the label, they are recollections from his childhood in Rahway, New Jersey (where, by the way, my aunt and uncle and cousins lived), and objects from his grandmother's house. For me the most striking composition was a black and white pattern with flecks and splashes of orange, yellow, green and gold. On the left side is a huge staffordshire spaniel.

The second group is from a series called "A Garden of Ordinary Miracles," exhibited at Samuel Freeman Gallery in 2010 and joyously reviewed in the LA Times. These very large gouaches (opaque watercolor, for short) on double sheets of paper combine large bold imagined flower arrangements with small drawings of animals, birds and insects as sort of marginalia, sometimes with humorous inscriptions, like "I'm not late" above a white rabbit, or "madame bug" over a ladybug. The combination of fanciful flowers and quite accurate animals with fanciful inscriptions suggested to me that the works might have been meant to inspire children, or inspire childlike responses in adults.

The third group was five images from a series called Hanging Gardens, shown at Nancy Hoffman Gallery in 2013. I spent the most time with these works, especially the two paintings of wisteria. These are overall images of hanging lavender wisteria flowers below a cartouche drawn in graphite. At first the flowers look to be all the same, but the colors range from blue to pink through lavender , with bright green vertical stems and above a dark green background. The paint texture and colors are mesmerizing and one senses the artist's pleasure in creating this actually fairly complex floral image. The other three paintings are Blue Bottles, Snow White, and Fireglow all with similar variegations of color.

Writers about Zakanitch talk a lot about joy and beauty, of course. I also notice, though, that his paint texture is rich, his handling controlled but loose and free, and his floral and patterned images abstracted. I enjoy the idea of nature in his work and take pleasure in his process of transforming it into painting. What a delight to rediscover him. And I see online that he has a new show at Nancy Hoffman opening January 28!