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Norman Zammitt, 76; Southland artist known for mural-size paintings

November 24, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Norman Zammitt, an artist whose mural-size paintings in rich colors blend a straight-edged precision with a meditative mood, has died. He was 76.

He died Nov. 15 at his home in Pasadena after suffering a heart attack and stroke, said his son, Eric.

Zammitt crafted meticulous bands of color in subtle gradations and shades in his paintings. Many of them evoke sunsets, deserts and other scenes in nature.

"Norman Zammitt translated the light and landscape of California to paint," Carol Eliel, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said in an interview.

Two of Zammitt's paintings from the museum's permanent collection are included in the current exhibit "SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and '70s."

His straight-edge style suggested mathematics and engineering, reviewers observed. The ethereal element in his art seemed to rise up out of the geometry by intention. "Zammitt wanted to include the more spiritual aspects of the California landscape in his work," Eliel said.

His art did not fit neatly into a single school or movement but overlapped several. His interest in capturing light and space related his work to that of such artists as Larry Bell and Robert Irwin, Eliel said. At the same time, his precision and a preference for sleek surfaces related his creations to the art of Billy Al Bengston, among other California artists who rose to prominence in the 1970s, Eliel said.

Although Zammitt is not as well known as some of his contemporaries, his art is included in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Hirschhorn Collection in Washington, D.C.

He had solo exhibits at several leading museums, including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1978.

"The sense of landscape is enhanced by the way Zammitt uses color," said a review of the Corcoran show in the Washington Post. In one such work, landscape is suggested by dark violet bands of color at the bottom of the canvas that turn "pale as they rise, through complex gradations, to the light sky-tones above," the review said.

Early in his career, Zammitt made sculptures, including "Opal" (1966), an acrylic cube with tinted geometric shapes inside it. The work was included in a 2006 group show, "Translucence," at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

From the early 1970s, he concentrated on painting.

"Norman blended his own colors like a chemist," artist and longtime friend Tony Longson said in an interview. "He was a meticulous craftsman."

For precision's sake, Zammitt built a machine to help him regulate his near-perfect bands of color, Longson said.

Zammitt's 1996 mural "Elysium" extends about 30 feet and moves from shades of red to orange, yellow and blue. He shined ultraviolet light on it, making the colors seem to radiate.

Some viewers told him that "Elysium" made them feel as if they were in heaven. Others said they felt as if they were in hell, depending on how close they stood to the red colors.

"I like the ambiguity," Zammitt said in a 1996 interview with The Times about the mural.

Born in Toronto on Feb. 3, 1931, Zammitt immigrated to the U.S. and became a citizen. He was raised on the Caughnawaga Indian Reservation in Canada and later in western New York.

He served in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Korea during the Korean War.

Zammitt graduated from Pasadena City College in 1957 and earned a master of fine arts degree from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in 1961.

He taught art at several colleges and universities during his long career, including USC in the late 1960s and UCLA in the early '70s.

In addition to his son, Zammitt is survived by his wife of 52 years, Marilyn; a daughter, Dawn Crandall; a brother, Kenneth; several nieces; and a nephew.


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