Review: Hanging Gardens at Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Installation shot of Robert Zakanitch: Hanging Gardens at Nancy Hoffman Gallery showing  Wisteria II  and (distance)  Fireglow  from the series. Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Installation shot of Robert Zakanitch: Hanging Gardens at Nancy Hoffman Gallery showing Wisteria II and (distance) Fireglow from the series. Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Daring to be Beautiful: Robert Zakanitch at Nancy Hoffman

by Aimée Brown Price


Robert Zakanitch: Hanging Gardens at Nancy Hoffman Gallery

May 9 to June 15, 2013
520 West 27th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-966-6676

“Glorious” was a word heard frequently at Robert Zakanitch’s opening in response to his unexpectedly large (eight by five feet) gouaches on paper hangings that suit his imagery so magnificently: great expanses of often small budding blossoms, curtains of pale wisterias in full bloom, bittersweet, and glowing dandelion puffs–or maybe fireflies, willfully indeterminate in bursts of light.  If Beauty (with an upper case `B’) has gone out of style, no one told this artist, a longtime proponent of such traditionally and immediately appealing subjects — lace, jewels, cherubs, sunset landscapes, and now gardens — bypassed, if not scoffed at, in recent decades. But John DeFazio, in a fine catalogue essay, actually thanks Zakanitch for “daring” to be gentle, sweet, and pretty.   Perhaps we’ve come around to understanding that beauty is no longer déclassé.

The series, named after the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, wonder of the Ancient World, exudes a mythic quality in the evocative and irreal proliferation of plants removed from materiality by his blanched colors, flattening of form, and wonderfully rhythmic and decorative flowery festoons.  The delicacy of his petalled plants answer to the matte, chalky colors that serve them.  Their fragility is enhanced by the painting technique and the medium itself, with luminosity glanced in the interstices among the abundant blooms.  While entirely authentic and superbly observed, not for a moment are these florid items realistic.


Robert Zakanitch, Hanging Gardens Series (Wisteria II), 2011-12. Gouache and colored pencil on paper, 96 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery

These exhilarating compositions are often topped by decorative grids or by ornamental arabesques of bordering trellises, with the lower portions left contrastingly unfinished.  Drips of paint accentuate the lusciousness of these images.  Though the artist is in absolute command of his medium, there is an insistent lack of pretentiousness, most obvious, perhaps, in the almost offhand, contour-lined lattices or the occasional bit of writing, as in his simple, slanting signature.  That the viewer is allowed to see the transformation as strokes and dribbles of paint metamorphose into ravishing flora imagery seems like one more gift from this generous artist.

The overall rhythmic patterns of the lush carpets of flowers give way to enormous variety when further examined.  Buds are at different stages of opening, their sizes and tonalities varying.  Some petals are flush with pale pinks or lilacs while others are awash with transparency.  One flower droops or is somewhat turned, clusters are more or less tight. Zakanitch was one of the founders of Pattern and Decoration in the 1970s which accounts perhaps  for the importance of repeated flat design to his work.  But P&D is a reductive and therefore not very astute term in relation to Zakanitch, failing to take into account just how painterly his surfaces are, and never simply homogenized.  The tender, sometimes impish wit presented in his variations recall Dutch seventeenth-century still life painting: careful looking is rewarded by the discovery that the cascades of flowers are very much alive, abuzz with small insects, tiny lady bugs among them.  Meanwhile there may be a silhouetted misty bird hovering nearby. The work holds attention and is sumptuously satisfying at differing viewing distances.  This is true, as well, of the small gouaches also included in the show that yield their own extravagant pleasure.   Happily, the commendable exhibition catalogue acknowledges the importance of seeing works both as a whole and in detail by reproducing close-ups at several different degrees.

Robert Zakanitch, without pretentiousness or folderol, truly goes to bat for beauty.