The Zelanskis welcomed me as if I were a young relation whose carelessness of familial duty was forgiven in the pleasure of her simply turning up at all. Where had I been all this time? For my part I felt the same: Where had I been? How could I have missed out on such warmth and power all these years?
Now in his 80's (he was born in 1931), Zelanski's body has taken the battering of years. His movement suggests to the observer the limitations of a well-used frame. But the body is controlled by a will that long ago dealt with and surpassed the vagaries of flesh. His face is still decorated—a little stubbornly? a little ironically?—by the sort of beard in which Edward Lear would find nesting "Two Owls and Hen, four Larks and a Wren." Photos on his website picture a man who over the long years has had more "artistic" physical personae. Now he looks like a man beyond style, whose commitment to art has turned him inside out and burnt away any need for persona. What I encountered was the quintessential Artist underneath a thin disguise of Old Cuss.
A master of collage, Zelanski has been making art since he was a seven-year-old, sitting on
|Paul Zelanski, collage, 7 x 5"|
Zelanski studied at Cooper Union during the heyday of the New York School. He tells of a professor's frustration with his students, who were working with the female figure. He walked them over to a nearby artist's studio for inspiration, and they met Willem deKooning at work.
|Paul Zelanski's studio wall, with the tip of the iceberg of collage storage|
The Korean War and a tour in the Army diverted Zelanski from Cooper Union, but he returned after the War to complete his certificate and went thence to Yale for his bachelor's in art, and finally to Bowling Green State University in Ohio for a master's in painting. At Yale, Joseph Albers had a great influence on the interest in color that has always dominated Zelanski's work.
During my visit, Zelanski gave me a tour of this vast body of work that is scattered about the property. Hundred and hundreds of framed collages are neatly lined up in plastic tubs on the floor of his studio on the second floor of the big garage. But wait: There's more! The walls of the studio, literally covered with these collages, fold out to reveal behind them, under the eaves, even more stacked boxes of framed collages—an astonishingly large body of work.
|Paul Zelanski in his barn|
|In Paul Zelanski's storage|
The visit to Zelanski's barn was the prism that focused my observations about the artist. On another visit, I would ask him more about those works we casually visited, even questions as simple as their dates. The two pictured about have clear similarities of design (the relationships between parallels lines and concentric circles; circles and squares, etc.) despite their differences of palettes and media; these elements can still be found in his work today. But in the barn, the past seems undated, and, dusted over, to be spared the impediment of conspicuous valuation. These works appear important and beloved—certainly not to be discarded; certainly retrievable if needed—but they are also distant literally from his current work (i.e., off in another building). Their lessons have been sufficiently absorbed by the artist that the artifacts can be thus set aside.
There is nothing precious about Zelanski's attachment to his work. His dedication is to art making itself, in contrast to pieces of art, to the art profession, or to fame and career.
I have never been formally an art student myself, but I think that many trained studio artists are likely to know Zelanski as the author of four widely used texts on color, three-dimensional and two-dimensional design, and artists' media. His books—Color (6 editions), The Art of Seeing (eight editions), Shaping Space, and Design Principles and Problems—are classics not only in American courses, but they have been translated into English, Dutch, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
|Paul Zelanski's work table with works in process|
Zelanski still works in his studio every day, poring over his collages because it's what he is supposed to do and what he cannot but do. He is not obsessed; he is not driven. He is patient and ruminative. Making art is both his job and his spiritual reason for inhabiting the planet. Like a man with a lunch pail and work boots, he ascends to the space above the garage every day, sits at his table amid the finished collages, and he works on several more.
|Paul Zelanski, collage, 5 x 7"|
Their smallness, of course, forces the viewer to focus, which, in turn, expands them as mental and imaginative spaces. The image to the left, for instance, might be the stage set for a Greek tragedy, with its elements of strong foreground, background, spaces from which to enter and exit, and covered space at the top for curtain or a descending god. Zelanski always incorporates a natural element—usually a leaf—which being split here at the end of the "road," assumes the stature of a tall tree. This is my story, of course, but I find that the balance and the colors of the piece stimulate me beyond its superficial satisfaction. "My artwork is self-contained. It refers to nothing outside of itself," is the maker's statement, non-binding on the viewer, and so a gift to her or him.
|Paul Zelanski, 5 x 7." Note the textures of each|
paper, watermark, discoloration...
|Paul Zelanski, 2014|
|Paul Zelanski, collage, 5 x 7"|