Frederick Zimmerman and the "Zodiac of Artistic Wit"

     IF VISUAL ARTISTS really are divisible into those who see and those who imagine, then Frederick Zimmerman would more readily fit into the second category. For Zimmerman, as for the eminent Elizabethan poet Sir Phillip Sidney, art is to be produced from the "zodiac of one's own wit." Nor is it unrelated that Zimmerman the artist is also a scholar of Elizabethan aesthetics, with its rarefied late Mannerist sensibility. From a fairly early point in his career, Zimmerman looked within to a greater extent than he looked outward. Yet this act of gazing pensively within has been made all the more compelling because Zimmerman has often been a wide-eyed and ironic observer of perceptual details and psychological dynamics in the world immediately around him. The undeniable fertility of his artistic imagination has thus been fueled by a steady diet of scholarly knowledge and empirical observations.

      One of the few, indeed very few, members of academe and the artworld to have both a Ph.D. in Art History and an M.F.A. in Studio Art, Zimmerman is that odd person who is more scholarly than most other artists and more artistic than most other scholars. Consequently, the merits of his most successful pieces generally result from two sets of related tensions that operate within his mastery of several media: 1) the tension between actual knowledge and its imaginative aesthetic reconstitution and 2) the tension between a pleasurable engagement with life and the ironic detachment that he sometimes assumes when analyzing it. As such, there is a psychological introversion, and at times even manifest angst, in many of his works, even when some effort at humanist affirmation is also an attribute of these sober but never humorless images.

      It would help here to think of the broken and ambivalent allusiveness in T.S. Eliot's early poetry, which simultaneously embraces high culture and subjects it to modernist irony so as to establish its proper measure. A telling work in this regard is Zimmerman's 1980 Linocut Fugitives from a Grecian Urn (12 x 12"), which evinces something of Eliot's tactic for taking a conventional classical motif and then recharging it with modern doubt, so as to elicit a sense of elegant grimness owing to the new conflicted association evoked by it.

      In his ambivalent "ode" to a Grecian urn, Zimmerman has used a deftly meandering line to refer to the motif of the three graces (which signified youthful beauty) and then to undermine this reference by means of an ironic twist that reminds us more deeply of aging and loss. And yet the nimbleness of the line along with the precision of the configuration and the virtuoso manipulation of positive versus negative space all preclude morbid thoughts as a result of viewing the print. A suitably self-effacing irony here counteracts the ponderousness of weighty despair at the decline of physical beauty. What does result in this fanciful reworking of the antique is a worldwide salute to what Rodin called "character," instead of the expected homage to the Greek cult of physical beauty. Deceptively complex along psychological lines, this linocut features an appropriate concision in formal terms.

      To survey Zimmerman's career of over three decades as a professional artist is to be faced with what Janet Steck, the curator of this exhibition has rightly called a "prolific output of visual expression in a variety of mediums." One is also confronted with certain recurrent artistic maneuvers that endow this broadranging oeuvre with some signal threads of continuity. Among the distinctive formal attributes that periodically recur in his work are the following three: a recourse to densely interrelated compositional relations, a use of organic lines that both define contours and provide mass, and an attention to the medium that in non-Greenbergian terms ends up reinforcing the psychological impact of the work.

      To go back to Zimmerman's oil paintings, while he was teaching studio art from 1958 to 1969 at Berea College (which is a remarkably progressive and forward-looking experimental college for students in the Appalachian area) is to see works that show an enviable command of post-war pictorial culture (from the percussive painting of Jacques Villon to the masterful works of Nicolas de Stael). Notable among these artworks are two oil paintings: Sailboats (60 x 28") and Landscape (48 x 28"). Unlike his later use of color in a bolder and more assertive vein, these paintings depend on high value hues that, in conjunction with the semi-Cubist break up of the space, move the eye about a quick pace. In Sailboats, for example, a genuine lyricism results from the apt partialing out of figuration, the prismatic play of color and the dispersive flow of circulating shapes that lack any clear anchor to halt these fluent forms.

     Over the next decade, the urbane understatement of these oils from the 1960s would give way to a more concentrated focus in the 1970s that now seems linked up to turn-of-the-century Northern Expressionism and in

advance of the 1980's Neo-Expressionism. Executed after he had been a graduate student in the acclaimed multi-disciplinary program of Art and Ideas under William Fleming at Syracuse University and when he had joined the faculty at SUNY Cortland, these watercolors and woodcuts took on a new emotional directness, a heightened psychological edge. An example of using color in a more audacious way can be found easily enough in four landscapes in watercolors from 1974 that nonetheless feature a type of line that curiously echoes that of the grain in woodcuts.

      One of these landscapes depicts a brilliant yellow sun ringed by strata of orange and normal value reds. This centering circular form in turn evolves into an ovoid, eye-like shape, as the striations of color go from red to deeply luminous blues at lower than normal value, which then alternate with high value blue lines that generate a series of waves that reverberate throughout the rest of the work in a manner that makes the sky look crowded with emotion. Especially effective for consolidating this sense of energetic disquiet afflicting nature are the highlighted striations in the cliffs on the beach and , above all, in the water. The consequent animation of the relentlessly orchestrated piece produces a work of singular intensity through controlled means.

      Another work from a year earlier and in a different medium, Zimmerman's woodcut Homage to D.H. Lawrence (12 x 17") nonetheless possesses a connection -- whether intentional or not -- with a crucial innovation introduced by Polluck, namely, the use of line less to delineate contour thus implying mass, than the use of line to function as mass, to constitute volume. This is the case in Pollock's corpus from the classic drip paintings to Portrait and a Dream of 1953. In addition, Zimmerman's work more clearly links up with the feverish graphic work of Edvard Munch.

      If these technical elements concerning the use of the medium command attention, the febrile quality of his line in the tribute to D.H. Lawrence helps the artist to plumb psychological depths in a moving manner. There is a compositional division of this print into a man and a woman who are nonetheless inextricably joined by a means of this nervous, if not agitated line that intimates both difference and similarity, distance and proximity. The excellent figure-ground reversal through the use of a line that alternately sits on the surface and then becomes surface, that implies mass then composes mass, further reinforces the psychological give-and-take of the woodcut. Yet another equivocal psychological consequence of this figure-ground reversal is a lingering sense that we are also looking at a dreamer and a dream, a dream that invokes a dreamer. These formal traits with an extra-formal charge stimulate us to reconsider, to delve further, to look longer.

      A work that not only rewards looking but also demands that we do so in a protracted way is Zimmerman's large Woodland Phantasy of 1988-1990. A multi-paneled complex consisting of four 32 1/4 x 19 1/2" woodcuts, this polytych is among the most densely jammed as well as challenging artworks that he has so far produced. The extraordinary profusion of organic details that issue forth in every direction as part of a nature in which we are immersed recalls to a certain extent the nature of Sung Dynasty paintings, which one has to negotiate little by little as part of a long visual hike.

      At the same time, this work with its frequent intertwinement of the sprawling plants with emergent human shapes recalls a contrary tradition in Europe, namely, that of the fantastic as represented by Mannerists like Guisepppe Archimbolo for whom natural forms and human figures constantly refer back to each other as part of some odd and unlikely identification of otherwise disparate natural phenomena. Nature here is at once something to view in itself and a sign for something else, all of which involves a ceaseless play back-and-forth between the known and the not yet known, the image that simply is and the image that refers us beyond itself.

      At its most provocative, "fantastic art" has generally been about this profoundly indecisive interplay of what we know and what we imagine. In Zimmerman's work this visual tradition has found an accomplished practitioner. In closing, it would be worth recalling a brief essay that Zimmerman once wrote about the printing process for woodcuts in relation to the outstanding prints of Antonio Frasconi. In an aphoristic end to his essay, Zimmerman wrote that "The possibilities of experimental surfaces in relief printing are limited only by the artist's imaginations and for Antonio Frasconi this means no limitations at all." Something of the same can be claimed of Frederick Zimmerman's artworks, which are about the imaginative overcoming of limitations inherent to a medium, all in the name of something more "fantastic."

     Among the reasons that I was happy to write this tribute to Zimmerman, who of course is a legendary professor at Cortland, was because it gave me the opportunity to work again with Janet Steck, the accomplished gallery director of the Dowd Fine Arts Gallery. Some of the shows that she has curated at Cortland (such as the 1988 show of Rudolf Baranik's paintings) have rightly taken their place in the recent history of U.S. art as significant exhibitions of contemporary artwork. At a time when art and education are under attack from the ultra-right, we must single out from appreciation and acknowledgement the names of those who have long fought the good fight for both. Frederick Zimmerman and Janet Steck, along with other faculty members of the Department of Art and Art History, deserve our admiration and our support in the face of Governor Pataki's harsh budgetary cuts.

     Dr. David Craven has degrees in Art History from Vanderbilt University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Now a Professor of Art History and Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico, he has also been on the faculty at Duke University and the State University of New York College at Cortland. He has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Bremen (Germany), the University of Leeds (England), and the Institute of Aesthetic Investigation at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, as well as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University. In addition, He has been given guest lectures in over thirty different universities and museums both here and abroad, from the University of Hamburg and Cambridge University to the University of Central America (Nicaragua) and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. He is the author of almost a hundred articles and review essays that have appeared in leading journals of over ten different countries throughout Europe and Latin America, as well as the U.S.A. and Canada. He has guest edited a special issue of the Oxford Art Journal (1994), written a catalogue essay for the Tate Gallery, Liverpool (1992), and authored books on Diego Rivera (1996), Rudolf Baranik (1996), Abstract Expressionism (1997), and art in Nicaragua during the 1980's (1989). He has also co-translated several articles and two books, one from Spanish and one from German.