Untitled, 1986, oil on linen, 42 x 60 inches. Collection of Alan Feinsilver

“It is not sufficient in an art of pure composition to appeal to sensation: the work of art must evoke a response at a deeper level, the level we now call unconscious; and ‘the vibrations of the spirit’ that then take place are either personal, in that they effect some kind of mental integration, or perhaps supra-personal in that they assume the archetypal patterns into which mankind projects an explanation of its destiny.” Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Painting (p. 249)

by Dr. Eva Bares, UNC Asheville Art History Lecturer

My favorite old-school art historian Herbert Read could have written this about any one of the canvases on display in the exhibition Zola Marcus – Kinetic Origins, however, this passage is from his discussion of the German Expressionist movement and the writings of Vasily Kandinsky. It is one of many indicators of the connections that can be made between the works of Zola Marcus and a vast number of 20th century art theories and movements. It hints at how beautiful, stunning, and rich the material is that we get to explore when we delve into Marcus’s oeuvre. And it alludes to the quest on which we all embark – artists and viewers alike – about finding our destiny in our experience of the world.

Untitled, 1984-95, oil on linen, 60 x 42 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver.

Though with this introduction, I’m getting ahead of myself. To begin this journey, we have to take two steps back. The first step back is the one that establishes a connection between the artist and myself. When I originally received the invitation to moderate a panel on Zola Marcus, I was sure there had been a mix-up and they had contacted the wrong person.  I had never heard of the artist (and only later found out that I’m not alone in this) and although my art historic training had been rooted in an environment strongly impacted by all things Abstract Expressionism, the movement itself had not become the focus of my scholarship.

After a few frantic minutes of research, I realized that very few people in the art world today know of or knew Zola Marcus, the painter, and while Abstract Expressionism is very much the category that fits best to describe his oeuvre, I learned that Marcus himself did not push to become included in this group (which is probably one of the reasons so few in the art world know him – for example, a search of artfacts.net with its database of 500,000 artists yields no results for “Zola Marcus”). The next several hours I spent examining his art, and what I found was rather curious: the lenses that proved most helpful in understanding the paintings were those that at first glance seemed the least important, namely my own experiences as a European expat, my history as a lover of all thing classical music, and my scholarly expertise in a number of nonwestern art traditions. To my surprise, my knowledge of the art and artists of Abstract Expressionism and my skills as an expert in visual analysis came in a distant second. Still, to contextualize and understand Marcus properly, it is useful to take another step back, and consider the movement of Abstract Expressionism—in the broadest, general sense of the art associated with it.

Abstract Expressionism came out of the post-war experience of alienation (not just in a social sense, but one that was political and cultural as well). In some ways, this was the result of a process that had been building up for decades: The modern art movements of the early 20th century can be defined by their struggle with the legacy of Western Art; artists were clamoring to break out of these boundaries either by leaving and working elsewhere (for example German expressionists August Macke and Emil Nolde followed in the footsteps of French post-impressionist Paul Gauguin) or by seeking inspiration and incorporating what they could from the “exotic” art of other cultures – from African sculpture to Japanese prints. These actions resulted in new and exciting works of much promise. However, with the events of WWII, the initial questioning of visual art was extended to consider the whole of humanity, its cultures and ideals—or, as Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman famously put it, “After the monstrosity of the war, what do we do? What is there to paint? We have to start all over again.”

Interaction, n.d., oil on linen, 22 x 22 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver. Art Photography: Gregory R. Staley.

Artists were aided in the birthing of a new kind of art by art-world midwives—critics and theorists like Clement Greenberg—who “urged artists to consider their paintings autonomous and completely self-referential objects.” One goal was to create works that were both moral and universal. The group of artists that became known as the New York School or Abstract Expressionists further aimed to create works that were both sublime and inhabited by universal symbolic forms. These two goals, the universal appeal of the work, and the use of universal symbolic forms, clearly connect the paintings of Zola Marcus to this art movement.
Abstraction allows the viewer to project and interpret, to tease out and recontextualize a work in his or her own frame of reference. While Abstract Expressionist art can be understood as a visual response to the experience of a post-war New York/World, the autonomy of the work immediately questions such a limiting of possible interpretations. Choosing to create abstract work decades after the movement’s heyday, Marcus clearly intended for his work to be experienced from different angles and viewpoints – those based on color and form, as well as movement and texture, which are part of the artist’s vocabulary, but also notions of rhythm and shape, which are reflections of the artist’s experience in the world.

The first symbolic forms I noticed when examining Marcus’s works were the angular features which have been part of our art world universals since the Cubists became interested in the angular shapes of African masks and applied them to their art. Considering the more “Western” obsession with linear perspective, we can add to these angular features the geometric planes every drawing student has learned to recreate on paper.  However, there are other important aspects beyond the “planes” in Zola Marcus’s paintings, which my own studies of different masquerade traditions in West Africa allow me to identify: the use of rhythm and movement. These features can be seen both as musical and performed as well as a processing of color and texture. Thus, in African Art, the mask is naked or incomplete without the costume, the music, and the performance, which is a correlation we can establish with abstract expressionist painting in which all parts must come together (medium, movement, color, etc.) for the whole visual and metaphysical experience to emerge. Marcus’s angular planes morph into the outlines of faces—oval, rectangular, round—and then dissolve into lines extending beyond the painting. They provide order and depth, similar to a polyphonic composition or the study of all the individuals in a crowd.

In Marcus’s paintings there is significant movement, too, though it does not appear to exist for itself—as movement for the sake of movement—but rather it represents the experience of the movement of the artist through the world (both being out and about in New York and traveling to Europe), the movement of the eye over the canvas, and the connection of one’s experience of the external to the internal world in an interweaving that conveys the interrelatedness of the what the artist perceives and what he creates, and his experiences within these worlds.

Moonswept, n.d., oil on linen, 36 x 48 inches. Collection of Julie Feinsilver.

A second symbolic form emerges through the use of line in the tradition of formlines.  Like the way lead functions in the creation of a stained glass object, formlines can be used to delineate a shape, though they are not limited to the role of “outline.” While different iterations of them can be found across the globe, the term formlines was created for and is now most closely associated with Northwest Native American Art, such as the art of the Haida, whose images focus on the depiction of their natural and mythical environment (featuring ravens, grizzly bears, killerwhales, etc). The use of thick lines as well as those of varying thickness, seems to have come to Marcus by way of his teacher Fernand Leger (who coincidentally also created several stained glass works – thus giving his lines both a structural and an aesthetic function). And even though they are not connected directly, it is still helpful to consider how Haida artists use line to exercise control over the subject (which is abstracted through this painting technique) and to be in control of their painting process (carefully drawn lines leave no doubt as to who is in charge). At the same time, the artists are also beholden to the flow of lines required by their subject and the cultural agreements on representation. This push and pull between contrasting needs relates to the Abstract Expressionist aim of simultaneously retaining and relinquishing control over the process of painting: from painstakingly setting up the canvas, working and re-working the composition while also allowing drips, using grand gestures, to the decision of letting “the painting decide” when it is finished.

Placing Zola Marcus into the larger context of the history of art and extending the connections beyond the confines of a single “movement,” shows us that he has much to offer the viewer who is willing to engage with his legacy. In the global village of the 20th and 21st centuries, we cannot ignore our past or pretend we exist in a vacuum; we are where we are because we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and because we engage with one another across time and space. Marcus makes this visible for us on canvas and paper. He allows us to enter into and continue a conversation he started more than two decades ago. And we are invited to make connections that can link this past to the future.

Since 2011 Dr. Eva Hericks-Bares has been teaching in the Department of Art & Art History and in the Arts & Ideas Program at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Her courses focus on the intersections of art, geography, and philosophy, with diverse offerings such as “Art & Place,” “Global Contemporary Art,” “Gendered Place in the Arts,” and “Women in Contemporary Art.” These are continuations of research interests first expressed in her dissertation “Finding Place: The art of Wangechi Mutu, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter” (Stony Brook University, 2014), and in collaborative projects such as “Understanding Place in Socio-visual Geographies” (University of North Carolina Asheville, 2013).