His work defies classification. He brilliantly combines Abstract Expressionism, Postmodernism, and Conceptual Art and Architecture into pieces that physically propel the viewer through figurative, biological, and atmospheric organic forms. Throughout his life he has thoroughly explored his concept of “Infra” and “Ultra” – the seen and unseen – while working with oceanic themes drawn from a childhood along the shores of Rhode Island.
He has shown his work in over 215 solo and group exhibitions, displaying his creations in painting, graphics, sculpture, architecture, installations, and performance. He has shown across the U.S. and internationally, in venues including galleries, universities, and museums.
In 1950, a University of Michigan star quarterback and ace third baseman was offered contracts by four major league teams. He turned his back on all that to pursue a degree in Art and Architecture.
And Don ZanFagna hasn’t looked back.
ZanFagna went on to serve as an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, during which time he painted, made woodcuts, and exhibited his works. He then successfully applied for a Fulbright Grant to study painting in Italy, where he headed upon his release from service in 1956.
In the following year, he studied at the Academia di Belle Arte, with artists Afro and Mirko Basaldella, and exhibited at Rome’s renowned Galleria Schneider along with other Fulbright artists including Lee Bontecou, Louis Finklestein, Wolf Kahn, Emily Mason, Irma Cavat, Tom Boutis, George Beatty, and Tom Kavanaugh. The Uffizi Museum in Florence awarded him a summer research grant to study the originals of old masters. He continued his studies and traveled to museums in Siena, Perugia, Pisa, Venice, Assisi, and Padua. One could characterize his work from this period as figurative impressionism.
Upon returning to the United States in the early 1960’s, ZanFagna began pursuing his master’s degree in painting first at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, and finishing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There, the Rex Evans Gallery and the Comara Gallery represented him, presenting several of his one-man shows. His lyrical, organic paintings interested many Hollywood notables, and one of his ardent supporters was producer George Stevens, Jr., whom he had met during his service.
During his sojourn in California, in addition to his several abstract expressionistic paintings, he produced marvelous graphics from his own press and an unusual ink and watercolor series he called “Rust Root.” His work was collected by museums in Los Angeles, Pasadena, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and Long Beach, by various Rodeo Drive interior designers and Los Angeles corporations, as well as by the famous jazz club, “The Lighthouse” in Hermosa Beach. West Coast Jazz drummer Shelly Manne contracted with Don to do the backdrop for his LA club the Manne Hole. Don planned to incorporate designs from his Immersion in Light series but the club burned before the backdrop was begun.
In the mid-60’s ZanFagna returned to the East Coast, but this time in the Big Apple. He lived among abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, and Joan Mitchell, and designer-turned-Pop-artist Andy Warhol. A jazz lover, he befriended jazz musicians including bassist Charlie Mingus, who always saw that he got a front row seat and a free drink. Meanwhile, in his studio on Long Island, he continued to create many individual works, including expressions of protest and concern on canvas paintings. He also created a noteworthy series of drawings called “Energy Dreams.” In the late 60’s ZanFagna’s son was born. Soon after, he began a teaching job at Rutgers University.
During the 1970’s he moved up the ranks at Rutgers, from Instructor to Tenured Professor to Chairman of the Art Department at the Newark campus. There, he designed a new art complex that housed visual arts, music, and drama. He also exhibited his famous “Last Grass” at the New Jersey State Museum’s Invitational Art from NJ
Soon after, he delved into a new passion – ecology. He was the principal speaker at the first Earth Day in New York City, alongside Margaret Mead and Ralph Nader. His concern for the environment spawned a series of sculptures called “MicroMax”. One of these sculptures, called “Micro-Max Pocket Systems I and II,” was exhibited at the Whitney Museum’s Art World 1976 in New York City. Included within this Plexiglas sculpture was the prophetic concept “All the Books of the World in the Palm of Your Hand.”
Later in the 70’s, ZanFagna pondered the effects of Existentialism in the academic and theoretical world, which he represented with a series of drawings called “The Seated Man.” He also continued his involvement in activism, this time traveling to Sweden to help ferry supplies to Biafra during the Nigerian civil war.
In the early 1980’s, as a visiting professor of architecture at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture in Brooklyn, his emphasis was on ecologically sound architectural designs. He created a series of environmentally themed conceptual art and sculpture, which became a part of his one-man show at Pratt. He also continued to plan for the creation of the Infra Ultra Architecture and Design Foundation, a place where students could learn about and develop environmental designs in art and architecture. His concepts meshed well with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. During the later 80’s, he returned to his own studio to work on biological art called “the Cyborg series.”
The 1990’s began with the inception of ZanFagna’s sculptural/architectural series called “Waiting for Memory,” that continues to this day. The series is based on an early practice of using the architecture of the theater to construct an outline for memory. He also turned once again to figurative painting, drawing, and graphics in a series called “Dreamers on the Balcony,” for which he produced over 100 drawings, a dozen woodcuts, and several paintings.
In the new millennium, he began some serious investigations into the tensegrity of the triangle – the basic unit in geodesic forms – . His experimentation with complex tetrahedrons produced a unique stellation, heretofore unknown. In contrast, he also exhibited his whimsical mindset through his work with sculpture, craft and collage from local nature. The samara from the tulip tree became perching birds and the turkey oak became angels. White oak leaves produced over one hundred portraits, and pieces of polished wood became animals, snakes and various birds. This was not the first time ZanFagna allowed his whimsy to dominate a series of his works. Earlier, he had created 100 or more whales from wood, and painted their images on stone. Next, he fashioned elaborately designed enameled copper circles, as well as Kwakiutl totems that rival the originals.