New York

Robert Zakanitch, Hanging Gardens Series (Fireglow), 2011–12, gouache and colored pencil on paper, 96 x 60".

Robert Zakanitch, Hanging Gardens Series (Fireglow), 2011–12, gouache and colored pencil on paper, 96 x 60".

Robert Zakanitch

Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Robert Zakanitch, Hanging Gardens Series (Fireglow), 2011–12, gouache and colored pencil on paper, 96 x 60".

A founding member of the P&D (Pattern and Decoration) movement of the 1970s, Robert Zakanitch made a series called “Hanging Gardens,” 2011–, for this exhibition, producing ten paintings in gouache on paper in the same large size, eight by five feet, as well as a handful of smaller pieces. In each work, a curtain of flowers—wisteria, honeysuckle, apricot—runs from top to bottom of the paper. At the top there is always some kind of architectural structure—a frieze, a scroll, an ironwork grid—that hides the flowers a little, sometimes blotting them out, sometimes just making them fainter; and usually but not always the curtain ends just before the bottom edge, leaving a gap that creates visual depth, a hint of distance. The flowers are closely spaced in uneven rows and columns, a grid ordered according to some kind of organic rule. Their color is both delicate and rich—in fact, in works such as the orangey Hanging Gardens Series (Fireglow), 2011–12, rich to an almost comical degree unusual in gouache—yet the paper ground, and the indexing not of oil on canvas but of the watercolor tradition, prevent overload. Like (Fireglow), pictures such as Hanging Gardens Series (Snow White), 2012, and Hanging Garden Series (Blush), 2011–12, use blossoms roughly circular in shape, their regularity subtly accenting the undertone of the grid. Elsewhere the flowers are more intricate, and the intertwining petals and stamens of the small Hanging Gardens Series (Honeysuckle), 2013, are almost baroque in their tapestried harmony of thick and thin shape and line. In a few of the works, small birds or butterflies flit among the blossoms.

All of which makes me want to say, “How beautiful”—and actually, I do say that, without reservation—but the evolution of P&D since its mid-to-late-’70s prime needs to be taken into account. Even at its most critically and commercially successful, the movement was somewhat besieged, for the ’70s were the period not only of P&D but of various offshoots of Minimalism and Conceptualism, all bowing to the puritan side of modernist art history. By the end of the decade, puritan convention was being muscled aside by Pictures-type work and various neo-expressionisms, but P&D got pushed out along with it, and the movement’s reputation only continued to sink: As Holland Cotter explained in the New York Times a few years back, “Art associated with feminism has always had a hostile press. And there was the beauty thing. In the neo-Expressionist, neo-Conceptualist late 1980s, no one knew what to make of hearts, Turkish flowers, wallpaper and arabesques.” The “beauty thing,” of course, would have a later moment in the hands of such writers as Dave Hickey and Peter Schjeldahl, which could have led to a revival of P&D. But the “beauty boys,” as a friend of mine calls them, might not have had much time for the politics, feminist and otherwise, that Cotter saw in the work, and Schjeldahl once wrote of P&D that it “proved less successful in seriously elevating decoration than in insouciantly debasing art.” Even so, John DeFazio, the author of Zakanitch’s rather good catalogue essay, has titled his text “Why Beauty” and begins it with a quote from the artist: “Beauty is. It is as natural as breathing. . . . I don’t think art is about anything else.”

What the reception history of P&D shows, though, is that beauty is not as natural as breathing. No art is beautiful per se; it can only be part of an argument over what’s beautiful. In fact, an easy riposte to Zakanitch might be that painting flowers is too easy and trite a way to win that argument. (I mean, flowers—how could you lose?) The reply, I think, would be that today it’s as nervy for Zakanitch to paint flowers as it is for Jeff Koons to make floral puppy dogs—arguably a similar play on sentiment, though I doubt Zakanitch would agree. I would add that the underdog media and range of cultural references in P&D (DeFazio finds sources ranging from Art Deco to Chinese landscapes to hard-edge abstraction in the “Hanging Gardens”) are its real aesthetic and intellectual content, and the substance of its claim on the beautiful—which, not incidentally, it is.

David Frankel