Last Man Standing
One of the pleasures of residing on the South Fork is discovering your neighbors — especially when they’re living, breathing monuments to a distinguished bygone era. The artist Athanasios (Athos) Zacharias, a longtime resident of Springs who goes by Zack, fits solidly into this category. By most accounts, he is our last link to the Abstract Expressionists; by his own, he’s a bridge between them and the next-generation Pop artists.
Zacharias lives in the white elephant of a house he built largely himself, summers and weekends, over a 25-year period. At 92, sharp as a tack, he exercises six mornings a week, paints assiduously, and surfs the web cheerfully on his Mac.
By 1955, after graduating from art school on the G.I. Bill, he had made his way to New York City and landed smack dab in the middle of the art scene — small, intense, and a cauldron of abstraction.
Growing up in the Great Depression, Zacharias had built his own toys, eventually developing carpentry skills that would serve him well as a struggling young artist. Among the modern masters he assisted were Mary Abbott, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Costantino Nivola, Alfonso Ossorio, Jack Tworkov, and Larry Rivers. “I miss them because they were all older than me and now they’re gone,” he said wistfully, during a recent studio visit.
It all started one night at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. As he sipped his 35-cent beer, a charming, somewhat older gentleman with piercing blue eyes began to chat with him. Before leaving to join an insistent group of friends, the man stuck out his hand and said, “By the way, my name is Bill de Kooning.”
As Zach would recall years later, “I went home, a few blocks away on Broadway and told my wife, ‘Mary, I just met one of the greatest painters in the world and he’s a regular guy.’ ”
De Kooning was 23 years Zacharias’s senior but his wife, Elaine, was just nine years older. Zacharias was invited by de Kooning to join “the Artists Club,” a regular discussion group that met in secret. “We’d spend all night trying to understand a word like intuition in painting,” Zacharias recalls. “Sometimes it would almost end in fistfights. There were only about 400 people in the whole art world, and pretty soon I knew them all.”
In the mid-1950s, Zacharias bought a small plot on Copeces Lane in Springs — then a dirt road — and built a summer cottage, later acquiring the adjoining acre (for $5,000) and erecting a larger house for his family. Back in the city, he stretched extra-large canvases for Hartigan and others. Out east, he installed mosquito netting in the critic Harold Rosenberg’s writing shed, rebuilt the skylight in Rivers’s Southampton shed, and scoured various beaches, collecting sands of different colors for Nivola’s installations. He became Elaine de Kooning’s perpetual sidekick and chief assistant. “Everything seemed to happen around her and because of her,” he recalls.
Cage and his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, lived in the ground-floor apartment of a townhouse on Bank Street owned by Rose Slivka — another East Ender, an art critic and friend of Elaine de Kooning’s — and Zacharias was dispatched to build them a studio. When Cage wanted a glass composing table lit from beneath, Zack took on the project: “I went down to the sub-basement and found four chunky wooden legs. About 10 years later, Rose screamed at me in the middle of Three Mile Harbor Road that I had no business using her legs for John’s table.”
At Ossorio’s 58-acre Georgica Pond estate, the Creeks, Zacharias converted an attic servants’ quarters into a gallery. An heir to his father’s Domino Sugar fortune and a renowned artist in his own right, Ossorio collected Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, and others. (The Creeks is now owned by Ron Perelman, a billionaire businessman, and was the scene of a devastating fire last September, during which priceless treasures of American art were imperiled.) After Pollock died in a car crash on Springs-Fireplace Road in August of 1956, Zack met his widow, Lee Krasner, at a dinner party hosted by Ossorio and began assisting her.
“She was very demanding, a perfectionist,” Zacharias recalls. Exhibiting no fear of the edge, she often left Zack a scant inch for stretching the canvases: “When she finished a painting, we would take it down to the floor. That was when the problems would begin.”
There were memorable evenings at de Kooning’s house on Accabonac Road and elsewhere. For one occasion, Zacharias hung a World War II parachute in the backyard and set up his hi-fi for dancing in the barn: “Bill gave me $5 and said, ‘Go buy some Frank Sinatra records.’ ” The architect Frederick Kiesler, who designed the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, declared it the best party ever: “He raved for years about ‘that erotic parachute.’ ”
When Barney Rosset, the once-notorious Grove Press publisher, threw a launch party for his housing development, Hampton Waters, Zack recalls, “There was a plywood bridge that led to a small island where Larry Rivers and his band were playing. The bridge broke and I pulled Eleanor Ward [a gallerist] out of the water. Mike Goldberg, Frank O’Hara, and Grace Hartigan went skinny-dipping. I certainly thought Grace was the most beautiful of that trio.”
If Zacharias’s own painting career has been an endless tug of war between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, he’s come to a relatively recent — and inspiring — reconciliation: “What a dilemma. For years, I was trying to find a solution. It wasn’t until I accidentally saw The Simpsons on TV and noticed all their outrageous colors. I thought if I could put these strange color relationships together and paint an abstraction, then maybe I had it. It happened about a year ago. I think I’m doing some of my best work now.”
Clown (20” x 16”, 2019) by Athos Zacharias, known in Springs as just Zack. He was in tight with the Abstract Expressionists of midcentury and, in his 90s, is still very active in his studio.