Don ZanFagna in the 1970s: The Manhattan Project, The Cyborg Series, and The Pulse Domes
Studio Vendome, 330 Spring Street, New York, NY 10013, is presenting the discovery of Don ZanFagna [1929 – 2013] — who may be the most famous visionary artist you never heard of. During his lifetime he enjoyed more than 215 solo and group exhibitions across the United States and internationally. Buckminster Fuller admired him as a great visionary artist and architect. The exhibition will open April 23 and run until May 31, 2014,
ZanFagna’s Utopian spirit and environmental consciousness were the driving forces of the collages that comprise this unique exhibition. Most of the works were on exhibit from 2010 through 2012, traveling to the Aspen Art Museum, the Tampa Museum of Art, and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. This is the first time ZanFagna’s work will have been exhibited at a gallery in New York.
The collection is presented in three highly-developed series: The Manhattan Project (1969 – 1973); The Cyborg Series (1968 – 1974); and, The Pulse Domes (1970 – 1979). Together, these related series are not only eerily prescient of current environmental realities but they prefigure a number of artistic practices. They reflect ZanFagna’s savvy of the rapid technological changes taking place in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, their compelling imagery portrays an idiosyncratic genius who defied being pigeonholed in any established category. Rather, these works present a dynamic amalgam of surrealism, futurism, constructivism, graphic design, and psychedelic Pop.
When ZanFagna was creating The Manhattan Project (1969 – 1973), he also founded the Center for Ecological Action to Save the Environment (CEASE). In 1970 he joined Ralph Nader and Margaret Mead as a speaker at New York’s first Earth Day Teach-In at Union Square. He was inspired to write his own mock press release for The Manhattan Project and dated it April 19, 2084:
At 2:28 PM, Eastern USA time and after 28 years of frantic efforts by Globenterprise, the island of Manhattan, New York, disappeared into the sea. With hardly a sound emerging from the Grand Old Lady and with millions of local residents and tourists lining the shores of the Hudson River, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, and the New Jersey coast, the once proud symbol of American freedom and culture crumbled slowly to its watery grave.
The Pulse Domes (1975 – 1979) reveal ZanFagna’s obsession with the futuristic concept of “growing your own house.” Voluminous sketchbooks spanning decades of research on world indigenous architectures, insect architecture, wombs, caves, tunnels, and volcanoes were aimed at uncovering a form of sustainable human architecture that would be in harmony with natural processes. These vividly imaginative collages (with drawing and painting) show homes created, constructed, and maintained entirely by all organic processes. It is remarkable to note that this series was created nearly twenty years before the first self-sustaining research environment, Arizona’s Biosphere 2, and nearly forty years before our current “Go Green” revolution.
The Cyborg Series (1968 – 1974) integrates creativity with futuristic warnings. Here ZanFagna’s collages serve as “cybernetic metaphors” that focus on the future problems that DNA mixing might cause. They are signals or warnings of things about to go wrong. The artist wrote, “These works incorporate humans and machines, cloning, eco-architecture and landscape, biology and technology and make use of dark humor, skepticism, irony, and futuristic symbolism.” The resulting Cyborg environment that ZanFagna constructs shows entities that have lost their humanity and sexuality, but mechanically still reproduce new “humans” replete with nuts, bolts, and robotic controls.
A Rhode Island native, ZanFagna held advanced degrees from the University of Michigan and the University Southern California in painting, art, and architecture. In 1956 – 57 he earned a Fulbright to study in Italy. He later chaired the art department at Rutgers University and was visiting eco-architecture professor at Pratt Institute. In 1967 – 68 he founded his architectural practice, Infra/Ultra, which was based on a “very specific understanding of selected aspects of science, art, and nature; that invisible patterns are rapidly presenting us with a range and depth of information that makes it essential for our future and which is leading us to deeper and newer understanding of NATURE and ourselves. Indeed, yesterday’s ‘magic’ is today’s science.”
Upon moving to Charleston South Carolina in 2010, his family and a local curator discover a vast archive of notebooks, journals, drawings, photographs, artworks, collages, models, and ephemera amassed by this restless provocateur and inventor. His writings overflow with remarkably prescient descriptions of such things as the development of the personal computer. And in 1976, more than thirty years before the Kindle was released, ZanFagna exhibited an ersatz gizmo containing “all the world’s books in the palm of your hand” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He also predicted the wide-spread use of solar panel technologies and the use of biological processes such as algae and ethanol to generate energy. To be sure, every plan, model, and prototype was derived from a rigorous, disciplined scholarship. He traveled the world researching standing stones, Mayan ziggurats, and various ecological systems in search of underlying structures that might be adapted by humans to create habitats informed by these “invisible” or unknown processes. He scrutinized books, manuscripts, proceedings of conferences, and the popular press as he sought to uncover anything that might illuminate some aspect of his quarry on the art-human-ecology-technology continuum.