Review: Ornamentation Everywhere

 Robert Zakanitch "Big Bungalow Suite IV," 1992-93, Acrylic on canvas, 11 x 30 ft, Collection of the Artist. Photo: E. G. Schempf for The Nerman Museum

Robert Zakanitch "Big Bungalow Suite IV," 1992-93, Acrylic on canvas, 11 x 30 ft, Collection of the Artist. Photo: E. G. Schempf for The Nerman Museum

Painter Robert Zakanitch, master of the pattern and decoration movement, presents a bower of beauty at the Nerman Museum.

by: Alice Throson

Still lifes and flower paintings don’t usually summon adjectives like “rebellious,” “subversive” and “transgressive.” But spend a little time in “Ephemeral Beauty: Robert Zakanitch” at the Nerman Museum, and you may see the connection.

It’s a bower of a show, filled with mural-scaled evocations of lush organic growth, riotous color, exuberant brushwork and flowers, flowers, flowers. Yet there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.

For almost half a century, joy and beauty have been Zakanitch’s gift to the art world.

“Everyone is looking for the extraordinary, for the exceptional, for something beyond themselves,” Zakanitch has said. ”But everything around us— flowers, animals, the air, rain—everything, including ourselves, is a miracle. Especially color. It is all glorious.”

The exhibit, which ranges from the gigantic unstretched canvases of Zakanitch’s “Big Bungalow” paintings from the early 1990s, to the critically acclaimed “Hanging Gardens” series from 2010-12, marks a curatorial culmination for the museum’s executive director, Bruce Hartman, who first encountered Zakanitch’s work at the Greenberg Gallery in St. Louis, while a grad student at Wash U.

“I fell in love, Hartman said. “It was antithetical to everything I’d been studying—minimalism, conceptual art.”

Looking at these explosive patterned expanses of blossoms and bouquets, it’s hard to believe that Zakanitch’s aesthetic was once considered subversive.

But it was.

 The exhibit includes "Wisteria I" and "Wisteria II" from the "Hanging Garden Series." Zakanitch's knowledge of flowers comes from extensive research. Photo: E. G. Schempf for The Nerman Museum

The exhibit includes "Wisteria I" and "Wisteria II" from the "Hanging Garden Series." Zakanitch's knowledge of flowers comes from extensive research. Photo: E. G. Schempf for The Nerman Museum

In the 1970s, Zakanitch, along with other artists who were part of what came to be known as the Pattern and Decoration movement—Miriam Schapiro, Kim McConnell, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner— introduced an unapologetic beauty to an art world accustomed to the austerities of minimalism and  the ironies of  Pop.

The group’s wide-ranging sources and inspirations were just as radical for that time as their focus on pattern and ornament. As New York Times critic Holland Cotter enumerated in a review, “They looked at Roman and Byzantine mosaics in Italy, Islamic tiles in Spain and North Africa. They went to Turkey for flower-covered embroideries, to Iran and India for carpets and miniatures, and to Manhattan’s Lower East Side for knockoffs of these.”

High or low, it made no difference.  Allusions to folk art and the domestic realm—Oriental carpets, wallpaper books, chintz and linoleum, china dogs and other tchotchkes—all made their way into the P&D aesthetic, opening the door to a new valuing of the work of women and non-western artists, craft traditions and the decorative arts.

The critic John Perreault was one of the first to spot the deeper cultural implications of this shift in vocabulary, championing the work of Zakanitch and his fellow pattern painters as “non-minimalist, non-sexist, historically conscious, sensuous, romantic, irrational, and decorative.”

The Nerman exhibit coincides with a release of a new monograph on the artist, which delves into his experiments with Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting before taking the P&D plunge.

Although he rejected Abstract Expressionism’s macho ethos, Zakanitch maintained his commitment to a robust gestural vocabulary and grand, enveloping scale. Making for a knockout array in the exhibit’s first gallery, three 11-by-30-foot paintings from the “Big Bungalow Suite,” with their energetic, impastoed brushwork and pulsing rhythms, showcase the artist’s Ab Ex roots. Drips, splatters and exposed areas of raw canvas reflect Zakanitch’s interest in revealing process, a key part of his aesthetic, also inherited from Ab Ex.

But the motifs and patterns of the “Bungalow” paintings speak to much earlier experiences—memories of childhood visits to his grandmother’s home, filled with Czechoslovakian embroidery and floral-patterned linoleum.

Childhood memories also play a role in Zakanitch’s “Garden of Ordinary Miracles” series from 2008, gathered in the second gallery. The exhibit features six of these reinvented still lifes, executed in gouache and graphite on double panels of thick paper. Name your flower— iris, daisies, roses, zinnias, lilies, anemones — and you’ll find it here, gathered in exuberant bouquets in elaborately patterned vases.

Along the margins, Zakanitch includes charming drawings of two and four-legged critters, who express their delight in their garden surroundings with cheeps, croaks, and tweets, written beside them in penciled letters.  Recalling childhood summers in his grandmother’s vegetable garden, the artist treats them as friends, adding a fond label, “madam bug,” to his depiction of a lady bug.

Variants of all of these images can be found in a “Garden of Ordinary Miracles” alphabet book put out by Universe/Rizzoli in 2012. Zakanitch doesn’t need to cite climate change, habitat destruction or colony collapse for people to grasp the implications of his reader’s note:  “I believe the universe is one magnificent and ever-changing garden. … We have the privilege and vital responsibility to tend it and to tend it well.”

In 2010, Zakanitch returned to the use of all-over patterns in his “Hanging Gardens” series. Curtains of pendulous blue and lavender wisteria blossoms descend from ornamental trellis structures in Wisteria I and Wisteria II; in Blue Bottles, a lattice of delicate green stems holds hundreds of bell-shaped blue flowers inhabited by flickering fireflies.

“I love the life of flora. I love that energy,” Zakanitch said. “Flowers are always meaning well.”

Looking at these explosive patterned expanses of blossoms and bouquets, it’s hard to believe that Zakanitch’s aesthetic was once considered subversive.

Critics went wild for these works, employing adjectives including “beautiful,” “ravishing” and “glorious.” The tenor of the “Hanging Gardens” canvases is elegiac; their spirit, communal, compared to the specimen-like individuality of the flowers in the “Ordinary Miracles” series.

Despite his command of the shapes, colors and details of different floral species, for Zakanitch, the floral imagery of both series is secondary to his overall concern with the subject of ornamentation.

“I never think I’m painting flowers, even from the beginning,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It was all about making patterns and images and moving color around.”

Zakanitch has lived and worked in New York for his entire career, and except for the three Big Bungalow paintings, all of the works in this show were made after 9/11. The event caused him to hone in on the healing capacity of art, long a latent part of his aesthetic.

“After 9/11 it was time to really start mending this firmament,” he said. “Everyone is interconnected. And every one of us is beautiful and valuable.” He embarked on a series of “lace paintings” (reproduced in the catalogue),” inspired by the visible interconnectedness of lace, and its creation by women of all different ethnic backgrounds. He wanted to honor them, he said.

His choices going forward, in the “Ordinary Miracles” and “Hanging Gardens” paintings, similarly reflect a life philosophy that looks to the positive side of humanity: “Yes, we live on a war-planet. Yes, anger, rage and hostility are in all of us. But I am not interested in painting the baseness in us,” Zakanitch has said.

Against the backdrop of today’s international upheavals, Zakanitch’s global borrowings take on new relevance. Mixing the glories of Islamic tiles and carpets with European lace and embroideries, folk traditions and American crafts, his paintings offer a vast lexicon of what is good in every culture through their creation of beauty, twined together in a model of harmony.  o

 Installation view | The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

Installation view | The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

“Ephemeral Beauty: Robert Zakanitch” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through Feb. 14. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. For more information, 913-469-3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.    Admission is free; check the museum’s website for holiday hours.

The museum will hold a closing reception for the exhibit from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 4. It will include a lecture by Zakanitch at 7 p.m. and a book signing of his new monograph, with essays by David Pagel and John DeFazio, which will be for sale at the event. Admission is free.