Rediscovering Zola Marcus
Rediscovering Zola Marcus
at The Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center
January to May 2017
by Ken Fitch
Once again, the estimable Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina, continuing its series of rediscoveries of the remarkable individuals who were participants in the Black Mountain College experience that included Dan Rice, Pat Passlof and Ray Spillenger, among others, has brought its focus now to the work of another distinctive artist, Zola Marcus.
With this exhibition of discovery of yet another individual whose work reflects the remarkable experience of those working in a range of disciplines who came to this enclave in the mid-20th Century, the work of Zola Marcus takes its place among that of the artists who threaded out into the art world of the late 20th Century.
In this small, vivid exhibition of the work of Zola Marcus, we find masterworks worthy to hang alongside those of his contemporaries in the museums of the world.
Untitled 1984-95 oil on linen 60x42 inches Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Zola Marcus’ work is an ultra personal statement that both corresponds and responds to the intensive art world in which continuum his work potently resides.
Untitled 1974 oil on canvas 14x20 inches Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center Collection
Gift of Julie Feinsilver
His work is individually bold and confident, with an emotional implosion that generates a subsequent explosion across the canvas that is compelling.
His work presents a panoramic arc of the late 20th century as he assuredly moves through the continuum, layering his artistic presentation with stylistic accretion and overlay that seems almost autobiographical, emerging through journeys in color and form that display an almost organic progression that renders the later works as living and continuing, as these works were subject to reworking and reactivation.
Thus, we see bold, deliberate slashes and strokes of color across the landscape of the canvas, but then also, the gestural application that reflects the action of creation at a hot point, all generated by emotion, but assuredly controlled and vividly and totally calculated.
Untitled, 1985 oil on linen, 14 x 32 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Even the thin lines that appear in some of the smaller canvases, that may seem to verge on structural, have an emotional wiring in their existence that is felt rather than engineered, embedding in clusters of patched colors in and over merging color fields.
Untitled n.d., oil on linen 36 x 48 inches. Collection of Alan Feinsilver
Detail from Untitled, oil on linen, 24x14 inches. Collection of Alan Feinsilver
The strong lines that deliberately breakup and geometrize the canvas (as seen in the early works from Paris), in the later work are then funneled through a powerful prism of extensions that threaten to stretch beyond the canvas, but also with the exuberance of glorious basking in color as bold and rich as that of any of his contemporaries.
Quatre Personages sur Seine, ca. 1950, oil on canvas, 21.5 x 25.5 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Detail from Untitled, 1984-95, oil on linen, 60 x 42 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
One can sense an autobiographical journey here as the styles of his early explorations remain embedded in the canvas, traversed by overlays that are equally controlled and studied, but let loose in medium and gesture with an awesome range of intensity in the flow that rigorously takes over the canvas.
Clearly, his experience with the paint and canvas becomes intensely personal, unraveling and trammeling his psyche in the flow and intensity of the paint. The rendering lines and applications possess an energy that is almost palpable that confronts us spatially and emotionally with an amazing duality when encountering the work:
First, there is the special power of the larger canvases that signal their presence to us from afar, from the distance across the gallery:
Untitled, n.d., oil on linen, 44 x 34 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Up close, when one enters the aura field of the canvas, we are compelled to confront an additional immediate vibrancy that, although safely confined to the realm of paint on the plane of canvas, is both unsettling and totally deliberative, as we too experience and relive each emotional assignation with the canvas.
Detail from Chasm, n.d., oil on linen 62 x 41 inches.. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Detail from Moonswept, n.d., oil on linen, 36 x 48 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Some of the individual gestures, in their direct engagement, equal in power the impact of the total canvas seen from afar, so that a microcosmic/macrocosmic duality is also present as one interacts with these works.
Detail from Untitled, n.d., oil on linen, 44 x 34 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Whenever one zooms in on any detail, the energy is palpable in the gestural flow, nodes and affixation, an energy that emerges from a place deeply within, whether in the amazing gestural intrusions, or the longer banding strokes.
Detail from Chasm, n.d., oil on linen, 62 x 41inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Detail from Moonswept, n.d., oil on linen, 36 x 48 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Detail from Interaction, n.d., oil on linen, 22 x 22 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Detail from Moonswept, n.d., oil on linen, 36 x 48 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Detail from Untitled, 1985-95, oil on linen, 60 x 42 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
One senses that all he took in would eventually flow out onto the canvases following lines of embedded personal experiences that energize the strokes and gestures that create these emotionally insistent and vibrant canvascapes.
This exhibition offers the opportunity to step back to fully observe the panorama of his work that flows from the arc of his journey as an artist and also recognize his place in the wider, denser visual continuum of the late 20th century in which his work resides.
Although Zola Marcus came to Black Mountain College as a “student,” he had previously studied with Hans Hofmann in New York and then with Léger in Paris, and his masterful works from that Parisian period, shown here to stunning effect, reveal a high level of accomplishment in style, execution and presentation.
Installation of Zola Marcus’ Cubist works at Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center 2017
His application to the College reveals a purpose that finds echoing resonance in the annals of the Black Mountain College experience, as he states in his 1953 letters to the Registrar of Black Mountain College:
“I shall find the need to get some intensive painting done. Thus I am interested in attending your college for that period [July 1953], so that I may work in a stimulating atmosphere and at the same time enjoy the environment that Black Mountain may offer.”
“It was my hope to be able to go someplace where I shall be able to paint in an atmosphere conducive to creative work.”
The choice of a journey to Black Mountain College was probably not at all arbitrary, on a rebounding path from Paris where Léger’s students included some of the artists soon to emerge and take their place on the contemporary NY Art Scene, including Black Mountain College alumnus Kenneth Noland, among others. Léger’s connection and affinity with Black Mountain College were well known, as Léger had visited the campus, his works hung there, one of his chief patrons, Katherine Dreier, was also a major benefactor for the College, and Léger’s lifetime collegial interactions included Willem de Kooning and Buckminster Fuller. After Marcus’ residencies in Rome and Florence, Black Mountain College would be THE place to go to explore, expand, and extend his artistic exploration in a compatible and vibrant environment.
Zola Marcus’ artistic journey certainly mirrors and reflects the visioning dynamics of his mentors: Following Hofmann, he merged Cubist structure with Fauvist and Expressionist colors, in a clustering of expression that would take him on the route to Paris to the studio of Léger, another artist whose work shared the primacy of paint.
Leger’s emphasis on the three components of lines, forms and colors would also be realized dramatically in the works that Zola Marcus would bring forth there, and later, throughout his life.
Detail from La Mére, ca 1950, oil on canvas, 32 by 25.5 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Just as Hofmann and Léger were spurred by their early experiences with Cubism, Fauvism and the stunning works being created, Zola Marcus would move forward on this continuum, and thus, in his work, reflect, with great depth and textural implant, the implementation and realization of so many intrinsic principles that drew power from the medium in which paint was primacy, and in which he and his predecessors had worked and explored.
Zola Marcus’s progression is entirely logical and personal, considering his mentors (and their associations). Indeed, he may have achieved Hofmann’s oft-stated purpose in achieving a synthesis of Cubist architecture and Fauvist color. The Cubist organization that was one of the hallmarks of Hofmann’s teaching would serve Marcus well in the amazing interacting organization of elements that characterized the Abstract Expressionist works that would be dominant for the remainder of his life. Hofmann’s theory of “Push and Pull” can be discerned also on many levels in Marcus’ later work.
Detail from Untitled, n.d., oil on linen, 18 x 36 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
At Black Mountain College in 1953, studying painting with Esteban Vicente, exploring ceramics with Warren MacKenzie, Daniel Rhodes and Peter Voulkos, and working in community in the presence of Merce Cunningham, Stefan Wolpe and a host of other teachers and students in other disciplines, would be an inevitably profound experience and contribute to the vivid expansion of his art in transformational forms of exploration that would characterize the art that flowed for the rest of his life, and now is suspended before us to engage us with its multi-leveled panoramic experience.
That this artist and his work, last exhibited in 1966, remain largely unknown, might be attributed to the fact that, as posited by his friend, Bard College’s James H. Ottaway Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics, Garry L. Hagberg, and others, he did not produce a signature style-bending explosive work of the kind that penetrated the postwar NY Art Scene.
Also, his early career-defining accomplishments with their grounding in the traditional continuum may have been an obstacle to his inclusion among the emergent breakout Abstract Expressionist artists of the NY School.
He had emerged as a distinguished accomplished artist in the tradition of the School of Paris at the very time that its accomplishments, importance and relevance were met with rejection and dismissal by his contemporary American artists, many of whom would emerge in the subsequent categories of Color-Field and Post-Painterly Abstraction.
The success of his accomplishments in Paris may have been distinctive, but not necessarily compatible with the rapidly shifting, rigorous artistic categorization that was projected on the NY Art Scene with the fierce dueling criteria of action and formalism, whereas his work combined and multilayered such considerations, presenting a duality that Professor Hagberg has insightfully observed in Zola’s work that operates on many levels.
The awareness that his distinctive Abstract Expressionist work combined the styles of painting that polarized other artists and critics (into camps of action and formalism) might have further encouraged him to avoid the contentious fray of competing pronouncements, rivalries, jealousies and conflicts that raged through the critical realm of the art scene within the culture, with its often polemical categorizations and the shifting vagaries of commercial selection that was inevitably arbitrary in dispersal of economic viability, a situation for which he often expressed disdain.
Unlike the many loquacious artists who felt a constant imperative to boldly affirm and proclaim their presence and the significance of their art, personally, or collectively as members of informal coalitions and spirited gatherings, there is little indication that Zola Marcus stepped beyond the powerful realm of his personal art and the weapons of paint and canvas. Indeed, despite prompts and entreaties, he would always defer explanation or explication, and divert attention from his art that seemed to reside in a distinctively strong private nexus.
Further, while many of the Abstract Expressionist artists were self-proclaimed and self-evident outsiders, determinedly avant-garde in direction, often allied with strong political engagement, and counter-cultural in relations to established and changing forms of artistic expression, Zola Marcus inhabited a place within an extended cultural continuum in which creative expression flowed from, around, and beyond established pillars of cultural exploration.
His decidedly individual path would follow a differently routed journey that would be a realization of his individual personality and personal world experience.
The early arc of his artistic journey was certainly, in its beginnings, American traditional: Cornell University, The National Academy of Design, The Art Students League, The Cummington School, then transitioning to The New School, and most significantly, the critical jumpstart of the Hans Hofmann School and the Atelier Fernand Léger in Paris.
Eventually, fresh from his European exploration that also included residencies in Rome and Florence, and penultimately, his summer at Black Mountain College, he returned to New York, where he settled in Greenwich Village, the haven for artists at the time, although as yet, accounts of his interactions with the intense cluster of artists who were situated there are still unknown. He would eventually move north to Kips Bay and then to the small aerie of a rent-controlled apartment on Park Avenue with a vital sun-basked alcove from which his painting blossomed, ensconced in a haven, a place of refuge that might have been a blessing, not far from the modernist architectural playground just South, and avoiding the real estate explosion downtown that dislocated artists in the later decades of the 20th century.
In his life’s journeys, he always seemed to find a place from which to work in which his personal vision and expression could thrive, informed directly and indirectly by a cultural grounding that also clearly contributes to his artistic work and serves to also give it such power, range and authority.
Ultimately, it was there in the small sunlit alcove of his apartment that he brought forth a continuing series of works that are only now making a public appearance.
Like many of the other innovative artists who might not have experienced the burst of fame in the increasingly competitive and cutthroat NY Art Scene, Zola Marcus spent years as a teacher at various levels from High School to College, and one wonders what some of those students may eventually tell us of his teaching and his presence among them, as this artist and his work now enter the spotlight of retrospective that is actually, in many ways, a discovery. A particularly intriguing consideration is his role as a “volunteer” at the Guggenheim Museum in his later years, a place where the works of his mentor, Léger, prominently hang, but one wonders if the Museum had any awareness of this artist and the continuum he brought to that spiraled wonder.
Although he was far from withdrawn from awareness of the work of his contemporaries in the art world, including Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as well as the works of theoretical philosophers and critics from John Dewey to Clement Greenberg, as a teacher, and possibly even a working colleague with others, he was well aware of their work and their place in the world, and his work also solidly continues on its own pathway through those years in fascinating complement with intensely personal expressional realizations of his own. His work does reflect an attuned response, both in exploration of the prompts and principles of his mentor/teachers, with whom he interacted, but also the cultural landscape and populace in which he lived.
Indeed, he was thoroughly engaged with the diversity and richness of the New York Cultural Scene, attending opera, ballet, concerts and exhibitions in an era now considered a golden age of accomplished performances, and one can easily see and even hear that world resonating in these works by an artist whose own radar was so attuned to the density of the cultural world in which he found himself with sounding transferred into powerful canvases of uncompromising engagement.
The touchstone comments reported by his friends and family of the art events he experienced, become inescapably informative of a person as wide ranging in the experience of the intensity of the landscape of artistic activity in NYC during these years, and when prompted by this reality, one begins to hear the music he so often cited, from the many performances of the era which generated a truly visceral experience. It seems clear that conversation about music and culture is a mode through which he shared his world. When he talked about those flashpoints of cultural events and engagements of that era, it is important to note that they were engagements with powerful human experiences, densely and intensely rendered within formal vehicles that seemed to loosen expression all the more unrestrained.
Just as Hoffmann often cited Beethoven in his visionary expositions, for the explorations of Zola Marcus, perhaps the relevant counterpoint is the verismo/dramatic impulse that one might see and hear in the operatic music that was the soundscape for much of his life. One can readily hear Carmen, Trovatore and Cavalleria, et. al. in some of the visually intense renderings here.
Chasm, n.d., oil on linen, 62 x 41 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
However, in another aspect of his range, when one looks to one of the extraordinary masterworks here, the relevant music would almost certainly shift to the transcendent romanticism of the music of a Wagnerian cosmos where we see and experience an amazing work that verges on the transcendent, with a swirl of veiled strokes ranging over and around vivid small clusters of jewel-like intensity. With its swirling veils pulling us in, it elicits a dominant engagement that takes us in to an inevitability, and perhaps the realm of the spiritual (that Hofmann often posited).
Untitled, n.d., oil on linen, 44 x 34 inches, Collection of Julie Feinsilver
Installation at Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center
His emotional engagement as an artist is in Abstract Expressionist action mode, but, significantly, also at play, is the role of a teacher, theoretician and observer that contributes to a high degree of sophistication in the disposition and organization of the elements in his canvases, a unique progression from the vibrant Cubist works of his early years, contributing to the modal duality noted by Professor Hagberg that also generates a tension and an intensity.
Although we are for the most part drawn up in to the world of Abstract Expressionism, one senses that the human connection has major immediate connection here, in its environmental resonance (as works would hang in his apartment for periods of time, and subject to interactive reworking and accretions), but one becomes aware also of a real possibility of figurative elements very much alive within the swirl of paint on the canvas, both in application and depiction.
When one looks at the range of works on exhibit here, one is aware of the initial early figurative works in standard portrait realizations, but the figurative would inevitably find its iteration in the styles in which he was immersed.
Indeed, the self portrait seen here seems precipitantly determined to verge into the abstract at earliest opportunity.
Self-Portrait, n.d., oil on canvas, 20 x 18 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
The figurative was amazingly rendered in the Cubist Paris works, as in this classic Mother and Child depiction.
His niece has pointed out that there are some later works that seem most abstract, but in a lapse of disclosure, were revealed to be portraits of self and friend, although with only lines and arabesques rendering the human presence.
Thus, when mention of figurative elements is suggested in some of the work, a particular human connection is ignited in depiction and reflection, although it is also present on an emotional level throughout the prism of his art. It is also important to note his engagement with other art forms that have a predominant human expression (theater, dance, opera, etc.).
Indeed, as a counter to any accusation of figurative abandonment or representational disability (often projected on artists of this category), he periodically painted fully representational works, often noting the life-sized Venus de Milo he had painted in a faux fresco on the wall of the dining room in his apartment.
When the potential of figurative presence enters consideration of the paintings, this energizes our exploration, but again the creative nexus here is inevitable in the undeniable emotional connection with the paint, the line and the physical existence of the paint itself with a physical tangibility that has emotional inherence that merges subject, act and medium.
In one of his major works in this exhibition, that at first seems to lack the cohesion and total organization seen in his other works, one’s perception quickly changes with the intimation of the figurative, when confronted with the startling possibility of the presence of a nude figuration in all of its reverberating intensity galvanized in the central force field in front of us.
Untitled, 1986, oil on linen, 42 x 60 inches. Collection of Alan Feinsilver
At first it may seem a stretch, perhaps, although with awareness of colors familiar from one of his representational figurative views, association begins to lock in.
Nude, n.d., oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Collection of Alan Feinsilve
The tripartite organization of the painting with this figurative dimension generates a correspondence from the realm of art history (which Marcus explored as a teacher and theoretician), presenting an inescapable possibility that this work may be a Cubist/Abstractionist variant of an iconic classical representation with tripartite organization, a correspondence that would render this work especially provocative and enigmatic.
“The Birth of Venus,” by Sandro Botticelli, 1485, 67.9 x 109.6 inches. Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Untitled, 1986, oil on linen, 42 x 60 inches. Collection of Alan Feinsilve
The presence of figurative, portrait and personal reference elements that are suggested in his work also appear in the works of a range of contemporary artists from de Kooning to Passlof to Rauschenberg.
This intense personal engagement with the work, of course, was not alien to his contemporaries, for in their personal engagements with the execution of their work, an emotional expression was communicated that also reflected the world and times in which they lived. In the works of some of the most intuitive artists of the period one feels what was in the atmosphere at the time, and this energy was then transferred and conferred on the canvas through the richness and diversity of the palette and the power and intensity of the application.
Marcus is exceptional here as the multi-leveled aspects of his work do reflect and connect in an awesome way, especially if one steps back to consider that this life in art tells us in a most personal way what he, his contemporaries and we who shared the same times and places have experienced.
Although very controlled, there is also a private emotional intensity embedded in some of the rigorous lines and gestures that crossed and layered the canvas. Certainly, the vivid eruption of the personal and the private, as well as reconnections with the world and others, would all be present in the work, and here we see it most powerfully, perhaps because it is so private and not encumbered by any constraints of public confrontation, but a dedicated journey in the personal and public worlds in which he lived, and now those times and that life live forever in these works.
No wonder that during his lifetime, the process of art and its embedded interactions were so personal that verbalization would be an intrusion into the complex world of dense emotional nodes and arabesques, and sweeping bent arcs of force.
When one sees these paintings in collection, as here, and in lines of walled installation, the panorama of his achievement appears, for we see the entire continuum of this artist’s life and work.
The continuum here is deeply personal, with explorations, associations, pentimenti and memories poured onto the playing field of the canvas, perhaps unintended for further direct revelation, a record of a life in engagement with the paint and the forces that generated the canvascape that would be a mirror and a window into the realm where creation resides and from which it bursts forth.
It is also, in its informed renderings of pathways of expression, a document of time resident, densely and fully crowded with the sounds and sights of an era, which challenges our range of confrontation with forces revealed through the medium that is paint.
Personal references and multilayered vestiges of experiences also appear in the collages (as they do in works by Rauschenberg and other contemporaries), where the ephemeral materials from his travels are embedded in multilayered accumulation in collagial organization.
Untitled, n.d., mixed media collage, 9.5 x 11.5 inches Collection of Alan Feinsilver
In Zola Marcus’ work (as in that of many Black Mountain College figures) we see the larger connectives in the realm of art that some historians seem to latch too narrowly in dismissing the density of human experience, the presence of larger communities of artists and the confluence of human exploration that was particularly innovative at Black Mountain College during the time of its existence and in its reverberating models and acculturations that have continued on in expanding references and revelations.
The rediscovery here is most fortunate in the active participation of his niece, Julie Feinsilver, his nephew, Alan Feinsilver, and his friend, the distinguished James H. Ottaway Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics, Garry L. Hagberg, who have contributed to the creation of the catalog for the exhibition, with its essential, critical insights, and, at the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center, the intuitive and illuminating curation of Alice Sebrell and Connie Bostic.
Interaction, n.d., oil on linen, 22 x 22 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver
In the end, this exhibition achieves what any major exhibition does: urges us to explore and discover more of the artist and his work.
All Artwork Copyright Estate of Zola Marcus
All Artwork Copyright Estate of Zola Marcus