An art lover proves that Los Angeles is capable of saving a masterpiece from 'disappearing.'
'Elysium" glows. This two-wall mural has that timeless quality of a masterwork, the sort that gently asserts its eternal and permanent presence in the greater scheme of things.
But for something so classic, this painting that only exists when black light excites the molecules of its special paint, came perilously close to extinction. In this case, being painted over. The story of how it was saved is a snapshot of Los Angeles at the turn of the century, complete with celebrity, real estate, and an emerging appreciation of both high culture and civic duty. As for the finale, Hollywood itself couldn't dream up a more satisfying last act.
But first, Acts 1 and II.
Part native American, the Canadian-born Zammitt emerged as a top artist in southern California during the 1960s, alongside some of the top names of the late 20th century - Ed Ruscha, June Wayne, and Robert Irwin.
He became known for pushing the boundaries of abstract color-field painting. "Zammitt has taken the idea of mixing color and light beyond the zones of opticality and abstraction and has pushed it into a realm of the spirit," says a 1978 review of a show at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.
In the early '80s, he conceived of the "Elysium" project, a large-scale mural using ultraviolet light-sensitive pigments. The mural is only visible when subjected to black light.
He intended to paint all four walls of his studio in a downtown artist's loft, but a medical crisis wiped out his savings. He lost the lease on his property, but not before he had completed two walls - and produced his masterpiece.
"This is the experience most paintings refer to," says fellow artist Ms. Wayne, standing in the low glimmer cast off by the modulated strips of color, glowing under the black lights. "This is the actual experience of color itself."
In 1998, on the verge of losing his loft, Zammitt threw a party. "We had no idea it was a goodbye party," says Wayne, who came along with others from the L.A. art community. Not only was Zammitt losing the loft, but the mural was going to be painted over and a sweatshop operation was to move in.
"We were horrified," Wayne says. "First, we were enchanted by the work, and then we couldn't believe the barbarians were going to be allowed to do this."