Miriam Seidel

Miriam Seidel


(A profile of Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, this appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly, Jan. 21, 1998)

Isaiah Zagar executed his first mural at the age of three, in Brooklyn, New York. Ecstatically absorbed in the effects of his crayons on different kitchen surfaces, he had worked his way to the top of the refrigerator and begun on the ceiling, when his new artwork was discovered by his mother, Gertie. Her screams and subsequent tearful embrace gave the young artist his first critical reaction.

We know this thanks to an explanatory note in Zagar's new show at the Snyderman Gallery (up through January 30). It goes with "Gertie," one of about a dozen mosaic sculptures: smaller-scale, hangable, but equally bumptious versions of the monumental mosaic murals he's become known for in Philadelphia, many of them clustered around Zagar's South Street community. Like the bigger work, they bristle with large bits of Mexican crockery, mirror, and Zagar's own drawings on ceramic tile, set in tropical-toned cement.

Rick Snyderman is happy to be able to show this part of Zagar's long, profuse output in a gallery setting. "It gives a feeling of how much work he's actually done. Hopefully it will lead people by the smaller objects into the much more monumental projects that he's doing for the city." Snyderman and Zagar have been friends since 1968, when both were young shop-owners on opposite sides of South Street. (Zagar's Eyes Gallery, run by his wife Julia, is still there, as is Rick and Ruth Snyderman's Works Gallery.) Snyderman has included photographs of a number of Zagar's mural projects in the show, and offers maps identifying all his outdoor murals [see box?]--over 27 at last count, I was astonished to learn.

What the show can't include is Isaiah himself, who, as anyone who has followed his career knows, is somehow inextricable from his artwork. I learned this again in conversation with him over breakfast at Philadeli, his longtime hangout. Talking with Isaiah is something like looking at his murals: his thoughts are densely packed, colorful, and they extend in improbably long, coherent, sometimes multiply converging lines that emerge over time.

To talk to him is to enter a world crowded with the ghosts of art history, come vividly to life: ab-ex great Barnett Newman (his informal teacher after he graduated from the Pratt Institute of Art in 1960), El Greco and Piero della Francesca, two artists who made top-quality art while living in "little Podunk towns" (Toledo, Spain and Aretto, Italy) far from the art capitals of their time; and above all, Marcel Duchamp, with whom he feels a near-mystical connection.

Isaiah, speaking figuratively of the Renaissance-period Piero della Francesca: "He slept with me! I would wake up in his fight scenes and be scared to death. That's been my take on the history of art, my whole life. I'm in it, baby... I'm sitting there in somebody's studio, I mean who lived 150, 200, 500 years ago. You know, I'm there with them. Absolutely." The titles he's given to some of the works in the Snyderman show underscore this art-historical you-are-there feeling: "Giotto's Smile," "Did Leger Have a Son?", "She Watched Jan Van Eyck in the Arnolfini Bedroom."

Talking with him, you will also encounter strong opinions that he's clearly arrived at on his own steam, such as: "The Renaissance was a devastation in the art world. Art was a much richer time before the Renaissance." Why? Artists, having to maintain lifestyles similar to their patrons, had to charge more for, and produce less artwork. "So more and more, that became pocket art. And that's what the museums are about, pocket art," his term for portable, living-room sized paintings and such. "And the whole idea of the [artistic] battlefield being this little rectangle, is an awful, awful idea... I mean, it gave me a nervous breakdown."

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to how Zagar began doing mosaics. In 1968, having moved to Philadelphia after several years in Peru (where he and Julia had worked as Peace Corps Craft Developers), he went through a personal crisis. "I attempted to commit suicide. ...I had a nervous breakdown, and it changed my eyesight radically. I could no longer solve anything about the problem of judgment, of terminating an object. I could no longer sense right and wrong [aesthetically].

"That's when I started to take up mosaics." Picking up discarded stuff, some of it from the Zagars' growing Latin-American import business, he began putting things together at random and sealing them to the walls with cement, as a way of radically accepting his new, all-inclusive eye. Over time, his signature long, curving lines entered as a new organizing principle. If you look long enough at some of his recent murals, you'll see huge, undulating lines of mirror or tile pieces, often describing the giant bodies emanating from painted-tile heads.

After transforming his own home and storefront, Zagar progressed to other locations. By now he's done numerous rowhouse sides and fronts, the side of a church, several community gardens, the Painted Bride Arts Center, Maria Goretti High School, and most completely, his own Kater Street studio building, from its basement "grotto" all the way up to a rooftop garden.[where picture was taken?] In most cases he's been invited to create the work, though sometimes, as with the church, he came to them with the idea. Often, Zagar has ended up covering the cost of materials, scaffolding and extra labor himself. Though he's made and exhibited prints, paintings and sculpture in the meantime (some of them going into the collections of the Hirshhorn and the Philadelphia Museum), until now his growing body of mosaic work has not been part of a gallery show. The current show was meant to coincide with the publication of a book on contemporary mosaic art, in which Zagar is prominently featured. The book, Mosaic Style, by Joann Locktov, is now slated to appear in June.

On a mini-tour of South Street neighborhood murals after our Philadeli breakfast, Zagar took care to point out how each wall had been buffed--mirror bits, crockery, tiles and cement--so passersby would not cut themselves on protruding edges. One of my favorites was "Homage to Mike Mattio, Master Plumber," a touching portrait of the late Mr. Mattio, commissioned by his son for the side of his rowhouse. Another seemingly straightforward memorial wall on Alder Street is riddled, it turns out, with references, quotes from and jokes for/about Marcel Duchamp. The benign, elderly couple pictured on it is Zagar's answer to Duchamp's great work, "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even," housed across town at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "It's the Bride and her Bachelor!" he reveals. "They got married, they had kids..." In fact, he tells me that he sees his entire network of murals, with their profuse allusions to other art and cultures, as a kind of one-man counterweight to the Museum and its contents.

This may, in the end, be the most outrageous thing about Zagar: he's not afraid to say how good he thinks he is. He breaks the modesty taboo again and again. (Remember how mad people got when Cassius Clay did that?) On Barnett Newman: "I know more about the history of art than Barnett Newman did." On Frank Stella: "I'm a more important artist than Frank Stella. Absolutely. He's prosaic... I want to move the Stellas into the basement [of the museum], and the Isaiahs onto the first, second and third floor."

Yet, he has a fairly accurate sense of how he's perceived by others. "First... was that I was a South Street hippie. ...The second part was that he was an egocentric maniac who just did his own self-portrait. The third thing was, that he doesn't like clothing. He runs around naked." Zagar has done a number of performances unclothed, as well as depicting his naked self in his art. "Everybody in the city knows what I look like naked." Yet, to Zagar, this public perception is one part of an evolving piece of "amazing conceptual art" involving himself, his art and the city.

At the center of this open-ended conceptual-art "piece" is Zagar's ongoing revelation-cum-rallying cry: "Philadelphia is the Center of the Art World/ Art is the Center of the Real World." Almost twenty years ago he plastered this statement across ads in the Gallery Guide (then the New York Gallery Guide). It's popped up in his prints and drawings since, and in acronym form (P.I.T.C.O.T.A.W./ A.I.T.C.O.T.R.W., like some secret society's password), on the announcement for his current show. Pressed for specifics on how Philadelphia is the center of the art world (I'd really like to know), he declines to mention names. "I see an overview of it all, as an amazing wiring you could say." Okay, so maybe Isaiah sees himself at the center of Philadelphia's art world. Still, it's a grand vision, and wild as it is, somehow inarguable: make your stand wherever you are; art, or creativity, is central to the world. Yes, I've decided, Isaiah Zagar is his own amazing conceptual-art piece. Absolutely.