Mega mural sees light of day

An art lover proves that Los Angeles is capable of saving a masterpiece from 'disappearing.'

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'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.

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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."

A group formed to save the art. But after nearly two years of pleas to private and public sources of funds, not to mention schemes to relocate or redo the mural elsewhere, the group hit the cold reality of real estate in L.A. The building was to be sold and the wall painted over. In dramatic parlance, this was a moment in dire need of a deus ex machina. What came was an angel, in the unlikely form of a developer.

"We needed another property to buy," says Esther Korman, who, along with her son, bought the building without knowing what was inside. Not until the group contacted her in a final effort to save the mural, did Ms. Korman know anything about the Zammitt artwork. "I was thrilled," says the lifelong art lover and patron. "I'm from the East," says the New Yorker with a laugh. "Now, L.A. finally has some history worth preserving." To let the painting go, she says, "would be like putting out a light."

Korman moved quickly. Currently, she says, the space will be preserved intact, with strict conditions put into any new lease.

"Whoever moves in will have to live with what it takes to save the artwork," she says.

Wayne says she believes this shows that Los Angeles has grown up since the decision some 50 years ago to paint over the famous Mexican muralists' work by Siqueiros and Orozco in downtown Los Angeles.

"This is the year 2000," she says. "I wanted to prove L.A. was bigger than allowing a work of art to go down the drain with no notice."

The mayor and City Council will proclaim tomorrow, Sept. 16, as Norman Zammitt Day, and a special plaque will be erected on the site. "We desperately need, here in Los Angeles, but also everywhere, to preserve, protect, and promote art that is capable of inviting wonder, serenity, and joy," says Councilman Joel Wachs.

Zammitt is relieved.

"The painting only exists when the light activates the molecules," he says. It's really about the environment itself, it's the experience and not the paint, he says, his face softly lit with a rainbow of color. And now the environment has been left intact. "I really am pleased."

In fact, Zammitt glows.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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