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Remembering 'Zorbacchus' 

The naked girl leaned back in her chair and scoped out the crowd. Some of the people surrounding her returned her look and then turned away, others stopped to chat, but it was obvious that she wasn’t the main attraction: We were all looking at paintings of naked women — wild paintings leaning against any stationary object on the patio, some of the images abstracted into bizarre zaftig contortions, others beautifully rendered and enticing with their lusty femininity. These were some of the works of Jirayr Zorthian, a man who loved the female form, both in the flesh and on the canvas.

The occasion was the “Celebration of Life” thrown by Zorthian’s family a week after his passing at the age of 92. The place was Zorthian’s Altadena ranch, a mix of art junkyard, early-California Spanish architecture and collapsing hippie monuments. On the fringes of the property sit dead vehicles from all decades surrounded by active beehives; at the center is a large corral holding several horses, and next to that, the main house and art studio. Some of the buildings are constructed of telephone poles, and the beams inside sport glass insulators hanging upside down.

On the winding road up to the ranch, a finely dressed group on horseback passed a shuttle van delivering a number of men wearing red shirts emblazoned with E Clampus Vitis, members of a vaguely secret society dedicated to cards, liquor and occasional philanthropy. They blended into the eclectic mix of artists, fans and relatives heading to the patio for a presentation of personal tributes, music and loose performance art. Nearby, musicians played Armenian folk tunes in honor of the man born in Turkey in 1911.

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The first person to speak was a distinguished gentleman who told a story about how a disgruntled artist once dissed Zorthian by pointing out that he could hardly be called a “contemporary artist.” Zorthian had replied, “I don’t want to be contemporary, I want to be timeless.” The crowd cheered; a caged goose honked.

“My husband had many admirers,” Dabney Zorthian told me later. “But there were a lot of people that resented him.” It’s easy to understand why, since Zorthian threw more than one Bacchanalian binge where he was fed grapes by naked girls. But such moments of licentiousness were earned: His artistic output was tremendous. In one of his studios, I came across a panel that had been removed from one of his WPA murals from the ’30s; hanging next to it was an energetic nude from the ’90s. The difference in years and style just amplified his considerable artistic gift, and that may be what those lesser talents resented most of all.

—Anthony Ausgang, artist

I never fucked anyone at the Zorthian Ranch. That seems wrong somehow. I met plenty of amazing women, but I never got to run off into the surrounding oaks for the “only emotion.” (For “Sex is the only emotion,” Zorthian announced to Kyle, my wife, as he lay on his deathbed.) Not even when “Zorbacchus” was presiding at the annual Primavera celebration did I get lucky.

Zorthian created “Zorbacchus” for the Primavera when he was 80, and added a nymph each year to dance/float around him, tempting him with grapes and mounds of Venus. He was the quintessential boho bon vivant. He performed for the elite, yet welcomed all.

“What is your field of endeavor?” he asked male visitors. (He avoided the word work, but did work prodigiously.) “You are such an exciting woman,” he told females. Thousands knew him.

His art was rigorous. At Yale he mastered the historic techniques of painting. His murals during the WPA period earned him an honorary rank of colonel. But his real mastered art was life itself. His life was a performance. He was on fire. You couldn’t be in a room with him without feeling the intense heat he generated. Like moths, we fluttered around this light. At a safe distance it was always a pleasure, a glass of wine, a vigorous dance. The closer you got to the flame, the faster you danced — or else. He wrestled life into submission, like the champion he was.

He was a sculptor whose enduring passion became the construction of a vast complex of Simon Rodia–like walls, incorporating dwellings among the piles of rubble used to construct them. This biblical backdrop. The Zorthian Ranch. It was here I met my wife.

—Brett Goldstone, artist

To some, Jirayr Zorthian was an old character who lived on a ranch in the foothills of Altadena. He was a bohemian in the true sense of the word. In the old days he threw wild parties with the likes of Charlie Parker. He was a good friend of Richard Feynman — he taught the physicist how to paint. Even at 90, Jirayr and his wife, Dabney, would dance it up at musical happenings many times a year (always in their colorful attire). But as an artist he never seemed to get the respect he deserved. His early WPA murals were incredible and ahead of their time. His drawings are some of the best I have seen. He was fixated on women, as was his spiritual mentor, Picasso. The last big party Jirayr threw, he was reclining on a sofa, a wreath on his head with six young maidens dancing around him feeding him grapes. He lived the life of the artist, but beyond the boundaries of the art scene, beyond the special-interest groups that were and are writing their own art
history.

—Lynn Foulkes, artist

Zorthian was a sensualist. He really painted the pink. He was what an artist should be, someone who takes people out of their mendacity and raises their consciousness and spirit. And he did it in his life as well as in his work.

He and Dabney ran a kids’ camp at the ranch in the summers, and he would instill in these people a love of life. He covered every stratum — you’d see him at the Valley Hunt Club, and you’d see him slaughtering pigs up on the hill. He was a fabulous raconteur and a free spirit; friends I introduced to him felt like they’d had a brush with immortality.

—Molly Barnes, gallerist

The first time I met Zorthian was about 20 years ago at Caltech, where I had a show up called “Cloud Chambers,” an artistic vision of physics. This little guy who looked like Puck’s father walked up to me and said, “You don’t know fuck about physics. You should get your stuff together before you pass yourself off as an artist or physics enthusiast.” Wondering who the fuck this guy was, I immediately attached myself to his side like an abalone.

Another time, years later, I was performing at Cabaret X, where the real freaks were. It wasn’t a place anyone would hang out at who wasn’t truly mad, crazy — in fact, there had just been a shooting at the front door. And in the midst of this bizarre scene, I noticed someone holding court in a corner of the club. It was Zorthian, and he was lecturing, telling these freaks that they shouldn’t be so focused, they should be more worldly. Learn to draw! He had everybody captivated, spellbound. He was the freak of freaks, and a great leader — simultaneously.

—Norton Wisdom, artist

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