Zachary Zaitzeff has been many things — financier, mountaineer, burger-flipper — but now he spends most days in his barn, painting.
He was very busy in 2018. Since closing Zaitzeff Burgers, his long-running lower Manhattan restaurant, in June, he spent all of his time at his Verbank home with his wife, Catherine, and their two daughters. After many stressful years of working on Wall Street, summiting peaks from Denali to Everest, and commuting to New York City, he’s been focusing on his family and his art.
That art, by the way? Some of it is currently part of the collection at a little place called the Whitney Museum of American Art. No big deal or anything.
Zaitzeff is self-trained, painting in the vein of 20th-century abstractionists like Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning, but with subjects drawn from his life. Hanging in the barn are paintings inspired by yardwork, his summiting of Mount Everest, and landscapes from the Hudson River School.
His most recent show, which is on display at Kent, CT’s RT Facts through January 31, was inspired by another familiar sight: the American flags many locals hang just outside their front doors. “The stairs leading to the door with a flag,” he says. “I love the image and don’t think it’s been done enough.”
For the majority of the series he did a series of “loose, gestural” works, oblongs of canvas typically no larger than 12”x12.” A fan of mixed media, Zaitzeff used multiple kinds of canvas, mixing his oils with enamel paint, pastel, dirt, and ash to give the work a gritty, natural feel; he even shot several up with a shotgun. He then sealed the 50 flags between panes of glass, soldering the edges with copper wire in a technique reminiscent of stained glass. The result leaves the paintings floating on the wall, resembling a great mosaic.
In the same series, Zaitzeff painted four works so large they couldn’t be transported fully stretched. His canvases are at once more concrete and more expressionistic, their vanishing lines and disintegrating colors resembling one of Francis Bacon’s screaming popes.
Now, one of these works sits in his barn while another hangs at RT Facts. As for the remaining two, Zaitzeff hand-delivered them for consideration in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial Exhibition. In what he calls “the best rejection letter I’ve ever received,” the Whitney took the works into its permanent collection instead.
On the day he summited Mount Everest, Zaitzeff faced a hard choice: return to camp or risk great danger and stand on the tallest point on Earth. He compares this decision to the one made on the steps of the Whitney, where the correct path was unclear and the potential pitfalls gigantic.
But, just as he unclipped from the line and summited the tallest mountain in the world, Zaitzeff walked into the Whitney and secured a home in his first museum. “Sometimes,” he says, “you just have to put yourself out there.”