Wear Your Art on Your Sleeve: Isaiah Zagar’s Intimate Mosaics

MGEarlier in the year, I fancied the idea of reviewing the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s (PMA) latest exhibition, “Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.” Outsider art is the label given to artwork made by artists who aren’t formally trained and whose work isn’t shown in museums or galleries. But the moment that I stepped into its gallery space, my interest in it immediately disappeared, and the art I saw looked so horrid that it wasn’t even worth writing about. Everything looked not only amateur, but also devoid of expression or anything meaningful or important to tell. The art in my Foundation Drawing class would make for a much more interesting exhibition than this garbage. It was so unpleasant to view that I couldn’t bring myself to walk through the entire exhibition. As quickly as I had entered the show I exited it, dashing through the gift shop filled with trinkets that somehow managed to appear even more trite than the outsider art that inspired them. At that moment I felt convinced that there’s a reason museums don’t show outsider art: it’s an eyesore and a complete waste of time.

And thus I was shocked to discover that Isaiah Zagar, the man responsible for over 120 mosaic murals on the walls of Philadelphia, is “typically dismissed by critics as an outsider artist,” according to a 2009 New York Times article. Although I’d walked past his work before in my numerous trips to the city, this past Sunday was the first day I thoroughly examined it at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG), the nonprofit 3,000 square-foot museum that is one monolithic artwork in itself.

The space is a verdant Eden of mosaic, a project that Zagar astoundingly completed by himself. The only part of the fourteen-year endeavor in which the artist received assistance was in the pouring of the wet plaster into which he would place the pieces of broken mirror, tile, crockery, and an assortment of random objects. All of these components come together to chronicle the life of the 74 year-old artist, creating a labyrinthine installation that dazzles the viewer in both its beauty and personal quality; it feels as if we strangers are sharing an intimate glimpse into the most private moments of Zagar’s story. But while this story is not incredibly atypical or special in its own right, it is compelling by virtue of Zagar’s unique expression of it. What is so unique about his work is that he intersperses small phrases that record passages in his life or artists that influenced him with his mosaic pieces, and these phrases catch you off-guard with their poignancy. Your eyes dance over the varying textures and colors of the bits of stone and glass and suddenly alight upon a simple sentence: “Isaiah and Julia come back together.” Zagar has struggled with severe depression and was thrown out of his house by his wife, Julia, several times. And he distills all of the fathomless complexity and emotion that he must have wrestled with in his marriage with Julia into one concise phrase. Even though this sentence might appear prosaic, in the context of the whole mosaic it actually pierces you with an intensity of emotion that catches you off-guard.

This truthfulness and intimacy that the PMG exudes causes me to appreciate it infinitely more than the art created in “factories” by much more famous contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Both artists employ a legion of assistants who actually make the sculptures and paintings for which these individuals get sole credit. Although each man is, of course, responsible for the idea of each artwork and closely involved in its creation, they themselves do not actually make it. This makes them no more than designers, since to be an artist one would actually have to build it. All they do is craft the idea. And as a result, their consequential estrangement from the art they claim to author prevents viewers from connecting with the artists. Instead “their” art feels coldly intellectual since its only attachment to the credited artist is in the design stages, when they came up with the idea. The intangible nature of ideas, which only exist once shared (we don’t know that someone else’s idea exists until they share it, therefore until they do, it doesn’t exist outside of that person’s mind), causes them to feel truly unbounded by anyone. Thus art that manifests ideas also feels frigid and nonhuman, so we tend to view it with detachment.

I think this effect occurs even when viewers aren’t aware that the “artist” actually made the art. I’ve experienced it myself in the presence of Koons’ sculptures. Whenever a person works with a medium that will eventually become art, the hand that manipulates that medium will have some one-of-a-kind effect that is different, however minutely so, from the effect that another hand would have caused. The sculptures that Koons claims to have made would have ultimately been different if Koons had literally made them himself. Since we never learn the names of the people who actually did make them, we are forever barred from connecting to the art on a human level. While you can still have a worthwhile experience without this type of connection, that experience will be fundamentally different from the sort that you will have in PMG.

The fact that Zagar placed each and every fragment of the mosaic himself grants even more integrity to the artwork; that the artist who gets credit is the one who actually made the artwork makes the artwork more honest as a consequence. This also makes it feel as if we are really connected to the artist, for we are stepping over, admiring, and touching all these slices of a whole with which Zagar himself had a similar relationship. As we walk past the arrangements of mirror bits, their crookedness causes our reflected form to shift and change in its composition, like a cubist painting in motion. Thus we become a part of the artwork, which, since it took fourteen years of Zagar’s life, serves not only as his autobiography but lives on as a part of his personal narrative. By going to PMG and experiencing Zagar’s artwork, we play roles in this story as well. Indeed, Zagar commented in the aforementioned New York Times article that “I use art as a spider web, to trap people and change how they look, feel, dream.”

Zagar is technically no longer an outsider artist, since a miniscule but still real percentage of his work belongs to the PMA and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, among other museums. But the raw, unrefined nature of his work and the lack of commerciality still breathe through it. This museum/artwork is a unique experience, for there is nothing exactly like it anywhere else in the world. A painted phrase on one wall of the PMG explains everything you need to know regarding what I can say about Zagar’s art: “The complex task of describing an artist’s work.”

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