"Each of the five unstretched canvases — 11 feet high by 30 feet wide — in Robert Rahway Zakanitch's "Big Bungalow Suite" is a colossal, intimist painting. Their extreme size causes in one a giddiness that touches on the sublime." -Brooks Adams, 1994
The following is an essay by Brooks Adams published in conjunction with the exhibition "Big Bungalow Suite", February 5 to March 31 1994 at Jason McCoy Gallery, 129-31 Greene Street, New York, NY (all rights reserved):
Each of the five unstretched canvases – 11 feet high by 20 feet wide – in Robert Rahway Zakanitch’s “Big Bungalow Suite” is a colossal, Intimist painting. Their extreme size causes in one a giddiness that touches on the sublime. These are surely not paintings of flowers yet they are full of floral motifs. Here are ferocious hibiscuses which are themselves more than four feet tall; repeating patterns of pomegranates and hot red peppers that stretch beyond one’s peripheral vision when one is standing up close to the painting; images of a Staffordshire dog and a folksy owl that tower over the now-lilliputian viewer. These huge canvases have an astonishing internal scale as well. Many of their single repeats are wider than arms’ stretch, and their sweeps are broken only by the rhythm of vertical, totemic forms that, on close examination, turn out to be full of figurative allusions, but are hard to decipher at first.
Zakanitch’s paint surfaces are decidedly malerisch. With their luscious drips, flourishes, thrusting attacks and counter-attacks, they seem to tackle the whole tradition of post-World War II abstraction, making merry with Abstract Expressionism in particular.
Yet each work contains a subtle complexity of internal imagery. The totemic forms, for instance, may suggest vases, but they also often contain landscape vistas. Gradually one realizes that these corny sunset scenes are actually decoration-on-decoration – depictions of the vases’ ornamental surfaces. The shapes of objects – clay pots, glass vessels, ceramic figurines – that seem to stand in front of a patterned ground can also be read as images of portals leading through a wall or even as representations of posters lying beneath a wallpapered surface. If, for a moment, the vases and figurines make literal sense as objects on a table or mantelpiece set against a papered wall, then the cozy, cluttered room implied becomes a child’s-eye view of a bungalow parlor – blown up to billboard scale.
These works furthermore are a unique synthesis of French and American vocabularies. Zakanitch, who in the 1980s designed a tapestry rug at Aubusson as well as porcelain vases and plates at Sèvres, brings together in this vision an extreme refinement – the fruit of a sustained passion for French decorative arts – with a boisterous and brash Americanism, entailing a love for suburban tag sales and tacky seaside resorts. In the “Big Bungalow Suite” we sense an Intimism derived from Bonnard and Vuillard, in whose paintings a vase is never only a vase but an entire allegorical vessel, and a dress is a veritable Salome’s veil of erotic possibilities. But we also sense at all times Zakanitch’s affection – far more experimental in its effect than nostalgic – for Rookwood pottery, Armstrong linoleum flooring samples, and corny plaster cherubs – in short, for the whole ephemeral universe of postwar American suburbia.
Zakanitch has recently taken “Rahway”, the name of the New Jersey town where he grew up, as his middle name, having once before changed the spelling of his last name from “ych” to “itch” in 1977, because it was easier to spell. He added “Rahway” as a statement of reality about his working-class, New Jersey roots. Born in 1935, he grew up during the 1940s and ‘50s in a combined Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox family – his first communion rosary still hangs on the studio wall. The maternal branch of the family was Slovakian, and his father came from the Ukraine. His aunt and grandmother embroidered every available surface in the house and sponge-painted the walls of the interior every other year, while his father worked in various factories. All of these considerations come together in the “Big Bungalow Suite”. The horror vacui of the ornament, particularly in paintings III and IV with their dense, allover patterns, echoes a Middle European clutter he grew up with. By embracing the decorative, with its feminist implications of women’s work (his grandmother taught him how to sew at age six), Zakanitch brings male and female essences together in the “Big Bungalow Suite”.
Art-making was frowned on in his father’s house for being too girlish, and the origins of Zakanitch’s artistic activity date from his cartoons in his grandmother’s basement. He was educated at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art where he had three years of scientific color study with the painter Ben Cunningham. As a youngster, he figured out how to make his “feminine” abilities work to his advantage in a man’s world. Zakanitch’s postermaking skills even earned him a reassignment to Special Services while in the Army. His training as a commercial artist led to an early career as a design consultant in an ad agency on Park Avenue. In 1962 at the age of 27, he gave up advertising to become a fulltime painter. Zakanitch served a long apprentice-ship at the altar of American painting. At first he worked in an Abstract Expressionist style reminiscent of de Kooning and Kline. By the mid-‘60s, under the influence of psychoanalysis, he was experimenting with a surrealistic manner based on dream imagery. In 1967 he had his first success with hard-edge Color Field paintings, and by 1971 was making carefully gradated, reductive color abstractions.
Increasingly dissatisfied with the formalist approach, as well as with representational art, Zakanitch sought a third path and found it in the history of design and ornament. Along with the artists Miriam Shapiro, Joyce Kozloff, Brad Davis, Tony Robbin, Robert Kushner and the critic Amy Goldin, he founded the Pattern and Decoration movement in 1974. This group was interested in synthesizing male and female codes, as well as formalist and folkloric vocabularies, and non-Western, especially Islamic and Oriental motifs, in a deliberately non-hierarchical art which often included performance, installations, ceramic and fabric works. Zakanitch remained exceptional in this group for his stalwart adherence to the tradition of mainstream painting. The Pattern and Decoration movement emerged as the Zeitgeist of the late ‘70s, and from this point on, already in his early forties, Zakanitch began to produce his mature work.
In the mid-80’s, when political art with a distinctly literary-critical edge became the fashion, Zakanitch dug in his heels and continued with sophisticated production inspired by ornament, fairy tales, roadside souvenirs and couture. Now, roughly 15 years after he hit his stride, there has been a return of interest in a syncretic abstraction and, indeed, often patterned work derived from decorative sources by artists as diverse as Philip Taaffe and Christopher Wool. Inspired in part by the great Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992, the moment may once again be auspicious for a master like Zakanitch. He has been making titanic abstractions for the last four years in his Williamsburg studio in Brooklyn. These are larger than anything he has done in the past – on the scale of Delacroix and Courbet’s Salon machines – and far surpass in size his 18-foot long paintings of the late ‘70s.
Throughout the evolution of the “Big Bungalow Suite”, a trial-and-error process was necessary to achieve the correct internal scale within such enormous constructs. At first, for instance, the canvases were to be 10 by 30 feet, but having tried that ratio in a scale model, Zakanitch decided that the proportions too closely resembled a strip of film and added the extra foot to the top of the compositions to make them breathe. He them proceeded with his standard procedure of gridding the canvas and applying the imagery by means of stencils – as many as four for a single image – then blending the acrylic passages with a brush and often building up certain details into low relief with acrylic gel.
The inspiration for the floral motifs of the first painting was a piece of American-made cotton fabric the artist had bought because he liked its off-register color printing. To this motif he added a waterfall image based on his memory of a basement mural in his childhood home in Rahway. (The mural, as it happens, had been painted by the previous owner.) The waterfall image in turn was combined with the attenuated central vase shape in Big Bungalow Suite I that the artist worked on between 1990 and 1993. This vase is the middle of three vessels – a basic flower pot at right and an ambiguous, figurative object at left. With its cinched waist and clasped hands, this hourglass form suggests a truncated figure in historical garb, perhaps an Arts and Crafts “friendship” vase.
Having worked on the first bright-on-black painting for a year, the artist felt that the vase forms did not quite pop enough. In earlier states, the floral motifs did not touch the three vessels, but hung back to give the objects their own orbs of space. In the second year Zakanitch brought the lilies of the valley right up to the edge of each vase. The result is a dynamic floral pattern that charges, dips and arches but never exactly repeats itself. In its total scale and complexity of discordant illusionism, the painting suggests an unlikely connection to, of all things, James Rosenquist’s billboard-sized paintings, such as Star Thief (1980). The chiaroscuro of ground and format, as well as the interpenetration of figure and ground in Rosenquist’s mural-sized works, finds an unexpected affinity in Zakanitch’s big, lateral paintings.
Changes in mid-process were also necessary with other paintings in the suite in order to obtain a feeling of overwhelming scale and overarching sweetness. In Big Bungalow Suite II (1991-1992), the regular repeat of red and white pinwheel shapes – loosely based on hibiscuses glimpsed at the Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota, Florida – was at some point roughly doubled in size, while the two jugs with bucolic scenes on them remained relatively stable. The smaller blossoms depicted in profile represent the original internal scale of the painting; the flowers all used to be that size. Again, because of the internal scale and blatant, quasi-commercial chromatics, at times reminiscent of print mediums, and an unlikely Pop Art connection occurs: one thinks of Warhol’s “Flower” paintings and “Cow” wallpaper. (Especially in his ‘50s commercial work Warhol, too, was influenced by the handicrafts of his Czech mother. Later he virtually made a career out of exploiting the possible effects of off-register color printing.)
In Big Bungalow Suite III (1992-93), the allover aspect starts getting more and more distilled, and the Franco-American synthesis becomes ever clearer. The work was inspired by both French 18th-century Savonnerie rugs and American ‘50s linoleum flooring patterns, not to mention Colonial-style decals of fruits and vegetables. In the left part of the painting, the cornucopia harvest pattern is unbroken but for a milky, albuminous zone and a floating landscape inset. This passage turns out, on longer inspection, to be a tall glass vase surmounted by an ornamental lip depicting, in lush strokes, a Romantic sunset.
A tour-de-force in black and white is achieved in Big Bungalow Suite IV (1992-93) which is dedicated to Franz Kline. This work is tighter, neater and more linear than the previous paintings and reveals an absolute fusing of modernist and folkloric découpage idioms. Matisse’s late paper cutouts are evoked, as is his signal work The Painter’s Family (1911), with its own early synthesis of pointillist and handicraft patterns, as well as the French master’s enthusiasm for ethnic embroideries that carries over into his “Hungarian Blouse” series (1936-1940).
The hieratic Busyness of Zakanitch’s composition suggests an analogy to Grandma Moses’s winter landscapes. That feeling of a New England Brueghel is also characteristic of Zakanitch’s work. His image of a huge Staffordshire dog immediately recalls one of the standard decorative items (and Anglophile pretensions) of the upwardly mobile, postwar American home. Furthermore, he confounds our expectations of symmetry (Staffordshire dogs are almost always displayed in pairs). The ambiguous, seemingly unfinished zone at right, which should contain a matching figure image, is marked instead by a bald patch of barely sketched-in forms – part bird, part branch. This area, in fact, depicts a kitschy ceramic vase, yet the very whiteness of the vista also reinforces our hunch that, among countless other possibilities, this painting might be taken as an allegory of winter, and the ”Big Bungalow Suite” as a cycle of the four seasons. Zakanitch, however, is not one to leave things so neat. The fifth painting in the series opens up the field of associations still further with an oneiric blue tonality and a presiding owl figurine. Altogether, the extreme bounty, abstract rigor and metamorphic possibilities of the “Big Bungalow Suite” give us cause to be excited about the state of painting in 1994.
© Brooks Adams