Artists Space

Dream Lines:
Marian Zazeela

March 1 – May 11

Artists Space is pleased to present Dream Lines, an exhibition of the visionary drawings of Marian Zazeela. Beginning with her abstract calligraphy of 1962, this exhibition traces the radical processes and evolution of Zazeela's graphic work, presenting seminal and formative drawings that became foundational in the development of her light works, many of which are being publicly displayed for the first time.

Black-and-white drawing of a cluster of black curled lines organized into a square shape in the middle of a white page. Handwritten text in faint pencil along the bottom of the page reads "© Marian Zazeela 1988."
Marian Zazeela, 19 XI 66/2, 1966, India ink on card. Courtesy of the artist. [Black-and-white drawing of a cluster of black curled lines organized into a square shape in the middle of a white page. Handwritten text in faint pencil along the bottom of the page reads "© Marian Zazeela 1988."]

“The writhing rising out of the word is a dragon devouring itself. Like a cat cleaning her fur the tongue of the word licks its scales with flame and the body of the word ignites and takes the shape of its destruction. . . .The second dream is the story of its past life, but it does not recognize itself in its previous form. Several lives later the dream recurs. Several dreams later the life recurs.”

– Marian Zazeela, The Soul of the Word, 1963

Over the past six decades, Zazeela was a central figure of the New York avant-garde. Her expansive practice encompassing painting, calligraphic drawing, film, light projection, stage design, sculpture, and light environments applied rigorous formal procedures to enact states of transcendence. After studying with Paul Feeley, Eugene C. Goossen, and Tony Smith at Bennington College, Zazeela first exhibited her paintings in New York—works comprising calligraphic strokes suspended in expansive color fields—at the 92nd Street Y in 1960. Immersing herself in a Downtown literary and art scene that included LeRoi Jones, A. B. Spellman, Angus MacLise, George Maciunas, and many others, she soon became the muse of legendary filmmaker Jack Smith, collaborating on his seminal photography project The Beautiful Book (1962) and his infamous debut film, Flaming Creatures (1963).

In 1962, Zazeela produced a series of highly singular drawings that charted the course of her subsequent work: “Through my interest in abstract calligraphy I conceived the idea of borrowing from the forms of letters by taking elemental shapes already existing in cursive writing and manipulating them to create interlocking patterns.” Employing both improvisation and an increasing array of rigorous compositional techniques, Zazeela’s ornamental shapes render the page a concentrated visual field of startlingly complex design. She soon began to obliterate words, repeat and mirror letter forms (often the initials MZ and LY, those of her partner, La Monte Young), and enact complex modular permutations as some of the means to achieve her exquisite, precise abstractions.

Zazeela began her partnership with composer La Monte Young in mid-1962 and since then her work has most often been experienced within their collaboration. Her light installations, projections, album art, graphics, and poster designs defined the visual and environmental aspects of their output—first within the early New York Downtown avant-garde underground, The Theatre of Eternal Music (alongside John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, and others), and continuing with Young. Zazeela defined one strain of her output as “borderline art,” a concept with a double meaning: “With this approach I sought to create an art form that ‘borders’ and challenges the conventional distinction between decorative and fine art by using decorative elements in the fine art tradition. Concurrently, I also created drawings in which borders become the actual content of the works themselves.” Zazeela and Young lived since 1963 at 275 Church Street in New York, two blocks from Artists Space, and since 1993 their collaborative Dream House has been on continuous view at this address.

Dream Lines offers an unprecedented opportunity to see an extensive gathering of Zazeela’s drawing innovations—from her earliest calligraphic experiments and language deconstructions to glyph-based modular permutations, to later name portraits employing symmetrical, retrograde and mirror-inverted images that detach the written word from its meaning, to still-later fields of dense collinear dots evoking electromagnetic forces and other natural phenomena.

Dream Lines: Marian Zazeela is organized by Artists Space in collaboration with Jung Hee Choi and MELA Foundation.

Marian Zazeela (New York City, 1940-2024) studied painting at Bennington College, Vermont, and was one of the first artists to use light as a medium of expression and perhaps the first to compose recurring motivic and thematic statements with light over time as in music. Over more than six decades, Zazeela displayed a unique iconographic vision in mediums encompassing painting, calligraphic drawing, graphics, film, light performance, sculpture, and environment. Expanding the traditional concepts of painting and sculpture while incorporating elements of both disciplines, she created an original visual language in the medium of light by combining colored light mixtures with sculptural forms to generate seemingly three-dimensional colored shadows in radiant vibrational fields, enveloping the viewer in a continual interplay of reality and illusion.

In 1962, Zazeela began collaborating with composer La Monte Young to create a total art, resulting in a plethora of pioneering and visionary works over the past 60 years. As artistic director of the legendary intermedia group, The Theatre of Eternal Music, Zazeela created works that form innovative visual components that were integral elements of the group's performances. Zazeela also performed as a vocalist in almost every concert of the ensemble to date. Zazeela and Young were among the first Dia artists who commissioned numerous large-scale, long-term projects, such as Dream House sound and light environments and live performances.

In 1970, she became one of the first Western disciples of renowned master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath and performed and taught the Kirana style of Indian classical music. She accompanied Pandit Pran Nath in hundreds of concerts throughout the world and continued to perform in The Just Alap Raga Ensemble, which she founded with Young and Jung Hee Choi in 2002.

Zazeela presented Dream Houses, light installations, performances, and calligraphic drawing exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe including the 2019-2022 Drawings at Dia Beacon; 2009 Guggenheim Museum; the 2005 Lyon Biennale; Tate Liverpool; Pompidou Center, Paris; 44th Venice Biennale; MELA Foundation's La Monte Young 30-Year Retrospective. The first retrospective of Zazeela's drawings was presented in 2000 at the Kunst im Regenbogenstadl Dream House in Polling, Germany.

Zazeela's work has been significantly influential. Her abstract calligraphy was the primary influence on the calligraphy of the great poet and founding drummer of The Theatre of Eternal Music and the Velvet Underground, Angus MacLise. The visionary tradition of her curvilinear graphite on black and dot-style calligraphic drawings has been carried on in the pencil and Light Point Drawings of her disciple, Jung Hee Choi. Zazeela's Ornamental Lightyears Tracery has been credited to have been the direct influence on Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Major support for Dream Lines: Marian Zazeela is provided by an anonymous donor; Exhibition support is provided by Stephen Cheng and an anonymous donor.

Support for Artists Space’s exhibitions and programs is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, I.A. O'Shaughnessy Foundation, The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in Partnership with the City Council, The New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature, May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, and the Herman Goldman Foundation.