After 40-year absence, a showcase for her art
Her first exhibition in decades, shining as brightly as ever.
The abstract expressionist painter Anthe Zacharias hasn't shown her work in 40 years. But she's never stopped creating it.
"I even paint here," she says from her wheelchair outside Riverview Estates, an assisted-living facility in Riverton, Burlington County.
At 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25 - Zacharias' 80th birthday - a limited but eclectic selection of her paintings, watercolors, and sketches will be exhibited at YogaTree in downtown Riverton. The public is welcome.
The artist's last gallery show was mounted in 1974 in Manhattan, where she was a rising talent in the 1950s and '60s.
"When I was 23, I had my own studio on the third floor of a building on Ninth Avenue, on the Lower East Side," she recalls. "The atmosphere in the art scene was terrific. . . . It was exhilarating."
Zacharias produced "a beautiful and inspiring body of work," says her friend Jesse Molina, a teacher and artist in Burlington County who is curating the exhibit. "It breaks my heart that she's sitting in a nursing home, and nobody knows who she is."
That may change. Steven Cohen, a research scientist and photographer in Wayne, Delaware County, is helping put together a 62-painting retrospective catalog of Zacharias' career.
The manuscript features dazzling photographs of her work taken over the last two decades. Among them are images of canvases in a North Jersey storage facility that have been largely unseen for decades.
These vivid paintings, made during one of the artist's most prolific periods, "left me speechless," says Cohen, who calls Zacharias underappreciated and well worthy of rediscovery.
"She never touts herself, like some artists do," he adds.
While reluctant to talk about herself, Zacharias is eager to talk about her work.
"I have a female sense of color," she declares in a pungent New York accent. "I'm a warm person, and I like nice, warm colors and interesting abstract formations, interplaying with one another."
Zacharias, who emigrated from Albania when she was 4, started painting and drawing in elementary school in Manhattan. She went on to earn a fine-arts degree from Queens College and a master's in fine arts from the University of California at Berkeley.
Back home in New York, she participated in a group show at the March Gallery in 1959 and got favorable nods in the New York Times and the Village Voice. A solo show at the Great Jones Gallery in 1966 put her on the map.
In the October 1966 issue of Art News, Cindy Nemser's review of the Great Jones show praised the "graceful amorphous shapes" in Zacharias' latest paintings, adding that "abstract organic surface patterns link these works with the creations of [Jackson] Pollock and [Arshile] Gorky."
The blue-chip gallery's abrupt closure "pulled the rug out from under" Zacharias, just when her career was taking off, Cohen says. And being a woman in a male-dominated field also may have slowed her progress.
But as Zacharias sits in the wheelchair, her back to boisterous gusts coming off the Delaware, she emphasizes the continuous evolution of her work.
"I sold a few paintings," she says. "I didn't have too much fame. It would have been helpful. But I was more concerned with whether the work was good.
"If my paintings were new, and different - they were good. Otherwise, why bother?"
She made paintings that were 10 feet high and 6 and 7 feet across. The process "was very physical . . . almost like sculpture. Like painting on sculpture," she says.
As she discusses the sort of strenuous, enveloping art-making she can no longer do, she's back in the moment of creation.
"I used acrylics for my downpours," she says, describing how she released the liquid onto hammocks of canvas, lifting and manipulating each 10-by-20-foot sheet to tease and release shimmery streams of moving color.
She admits to being a bit nervous about the Oct. 25 show. "I hope they like the work," the artist says gently. "I hope they have some feeling for it. I hope it makes them happy."