I first met Jirayr Zorthian and his famously patient wife, Dabney, at their San Gabriel Mountain ranch about nine or 10 years ago. At that point I knew nothing about him and the extraordinary environment he and his imagination had created. I vaguely remember having heard about an eccentric and colorful little man somewhere up above Altadena, and perhaps also something about the “pagan” celebrations — latter-day hippie gatherings, I supposed — that were held there. Legend, as I was to learn, had it that the likes of Charlie Parker and other jazz luminaries would jam at the ranch well into the morning. Socialites attended these soirees along with JPL and Caltech scientists and, as the story is told, rode around the property on horseback, naked. Little did I know that I, too, would be quickly and helplessly drawn into the loose circle in which Zorthian and his ranch formed the vital center. So, when early last week I received the news of his departure, I took it personally.
I had been encouraged to pay him a visit in my professional capacity as West Coast director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. It was pointed out that he was over 80 years old at the time and had been active as a muralist in the government arts programs of the 1930s. Yes, a visit seemed appropriate, even required.
The truth is that I was totally unprepared for the extraordinary world that welcomed me at the top of the winding private dirt road. As I recall, the view over Pasadena and the L.A. basin toward downtown was spectacular that day, as it was on the day of his burial and the memorial gathering at the ranch attended by more than 300 friends. I showed up in a blue blazer and tie, standard D.C. Beltway/Smithsonian sartorial fare. Jirayr was unimpressed but didn’t show his disapproval. He was entirely charming and gracious. (Zorba the Greek himself, I thought, as I tried to adjust to this unfamiliar — and seductive — professional situation. How do I behave?) At any rate, it soon became clear that my attire was not only stuffy but inappropriate for the dusty setting and rough terrain we were to explore during our guided tour of his property. I removed my tie and never again made the same fashion error. Far more significant for my personal growth, however, was a subtle change in the way I thought about other accepted conventions and alternative ways to conduct one’s life.
My host’s enthusiasm for his ongoing project was infectious. Quickly I understood that his conception was to create at his ranch nothing less than an art utopia. Wow! Is this ever cool, I thought. So that is how I have described his extraordinary environment ever since. And my descriptions inevitably are met with an urgent request to visit. Over the years I have escorted a number of people, mostly from the art world, to the bohemia of Altadena. Among them were two models who posed during the mid-1960s, both for Jirayr and his great friend — and, Jirayr would no doubt add, student — Richard Feynman. The models recalled how years ago one of them had agreed to be a surprise — or perhaps a gift — for another of Zorthian’s friends, with whom she ended up living. Zorthian as Cupid, as well as Pan.
As time went by and my forays up the mountain became more frequent, and under the influence of atmosphere and setting, I began to think of Zorthian as the genuine article: an authentic bohemian. I came to recognize that he was one of the few among us who was truly interesting. And slowly I began to understand that his entire life was being conducted as an ongoing work of performance art. It seemed that Zorth was showing us that the process of change — and the enjoyment of all that that involves — is what matters in life.
On that first visit I was made to stay for lunch, a typical example of the Zorthian hospitality with which I was to become so familiar. Having removed coat and tie, I settled down at the rustic wooden table in the incredibly cluttered living/dining room of the small house in which the Zorthians had lived for years while the various structures slowly rose around them. Even more cluttered is the bedroom, which they seldom used due to their habit of sleeping outdoors. One or the other assured me that the practice is excellent not only for general health and well-being but also for the amorous life. Love-making at least once a day alfresco all but guarantees sexual health and vitality.
As we ate our lunch, prepared by Dabney, Zorthian kept calling for more wine. “Dabney, more wine for Paul! His glass is empty.” That day I got my first taste of the energy Jirayr brought to his social interactions, and the ability he had — when he decided to use it — to make his guests feel as if they were each someone very special. It seemed to me, however, that he reserved his main attention and charm for the most attractive women among his visitors. And he was outspokenly proud of what he imagined to be his special power over them. He would say to me and other hapless males, those he viewed as his competition, “So, you think you know about women, huh? Well, you don’t know a thing.”
No amount of deferential reassurance of his primacy in that arena seemed to satisfy him. And it is the case that he was surrounded by an impressive and most comely collection of adoring young models and nymphs who, dressed only in garlands of flowers, would dance for Zorbacchus at the annual Primavera celebration of his and Dabney’s birthdays. What was in it for Dabney, we wondered, other than the single concession of a cavorting Pan with pipes whose furry goat leggings left visible his satyr masculinity? It always was Jirayr’s show, with others playing supportive roles. Three nymphs, summoned by Dabney, appeared at the Huntington Memorial Hospital to try to get a response from their departing Zorbacchus.
That first day at the ranch, my introduction to what I came to think of as Zorth Land, I spent the entire afternoon, returning the next day with my wife and friends. “Do I ever have a treat for you!” I enthused. Another guest was a young woman artist of striking beauty and sensual appeal who eventually agreed to pose for him and even joined the covey of nude nymphs at one of the spring Primavera bacchanals. For each of his years after 80, another nymph was added. And almost every year, Jirayr urged me to convince my wife to agree to join his younger models (she was 50 when we first met the Zorthians, and in fact had been an artist’s model herself some years earlier). She seemed amused by the offer but, with a smile, gracefully declined. Still, Dabney and other older female friends continued to lobby for a more mature nymph at the bacchanal. Their lack of success was a revealing sign of Zorthian’s unyielding and tenacious attachment to youth. That, no doubt, was a factor in his longevity.
As it turned out, I did collect the Zorthian papers for the national research collection. And I also conducted a series of taped interviews — spirited and frequently combative, it will come as no surprise to those who knew my subject — that are available online (www.archivesofamericanart.si.edu) for those who might want to pay Jirayr a final visit. On more than one of these occasions, the basic rule of avoiding alcohol during such important professional activity was relaxed (against my better judgment, of course). “More wine, Dabney!” When in bohemia, I reasoned, do as the bohemians do.
As we drank wine and recorded for posterity, the famously competitive Jirayr Zorthian emerged, testing my ability to remain neutral as he questioned my intellectual credentials and, or so it seemed, my manhood as well. Among the many subjects we discussed and even debated was the role of nudity (especially female) in large-scale works that he asserts carry important social messages. For Zorthian, it seems, the beautiful human body was indeed, appearances notwithstanding, not merely an object but a potent means of communication for any and all ideas, as well as a source of inspiration and aesthetic delight. In a very real sense, his nudes are autobiographical, telling more about him than his subjects. But he is not alone in that regard.
First, visitors to his crowded studio, cluttered with large canvases and framed drawings, were often nonplussed if not actually offended by his ubiquitous and clinical depictions of the female body. His focus on female genitalia seemed obsessive, and, unfortunately for many viewers, that tended to undercut any loftier aesthetic or intellectual goals. Jirayr dismissed such critics as puritans, comparing American prudery to liberated European views on the subject. He gleefully offered to share his Zorthian erotica with those who were interested, and some of the more surreal examples are quite successful as works of art. The recent nudes (from the ’90s) are more problematic, characterized by a crisp, controlled linear style that bespeaks illustration. The many narrative works for which Jirayr’s final muse, model Jennifer Fabos, posed tend to be obsessively focused. Each painting tells a story expressing issues of concern to the artist or illustrating events from his childhood. One noteworthy example, Memory of Youth: French Teacher, depicts a young red-haired boy outside a room looking longingly through a window at two remarkably sexy nude female figures. According to the artist, the women — both drawn from Jennifer — are intended to represent his teacher viewed from front and rear simultaneously. The boy is, of course, Jirayr. And the teacher, about whom he apparently had sexual fantasies, is the symbol of his awakening. For many viewers, however, the autobiographical content of the scene is really lost in the fetishistic focus on the lovingly observed details of female anatomy. Whatever their other qualities, these paintings constitute an aspect of Zorthian’s oeuvre that provides a textbook example of the male gaze at work.
I came to believe that Zorthian and his world are all but unique in this day and age. Certainly I’ve never seen anyone, or anything, else quite compare. (And it has been my good fortune to be paid to get to know artists and investigate the art life.) The exception, I suppose, might have been Jean Varda — another pagan endowed with the life force — who held court in a houseboat moored at Sausalito. Both artists, and especially Zorthian, extended the tradition of Norman Lindsay, the “heretical” Australian artist who celebrated pagan sensuality and the liberating power of sex in his controversial paintings.
That energy — the sensuality and passionate enthusiasm that informs the life force — is, above all, what kept the diminutive but powerful artist (he was famously proud of his strength, inviting everyone to feel his hard calves or — in the case of female admirers — his thighs) uncannily youthful almost to the end. I hope the rest of us do nearly as well and learn to live life as fully. Zorthian was, as I have often referred to him, the “last bohemian” (whether or not he liked the term; and he claimed not to). Living the Art Life served Dabney and Jirayr very well, indeed. The rest of us, far more timid types, would do well to pay attention and make the appropriate adjustments accordingly. Whatever place history and the art world finally assign to Jirayr Zorthian, and that judgment will take a while, the man and his zest for life will not soon be forgotten.
Read more recollections of Zorthian
by Anthony Ausgang, Lynn Foulkes, Brett Goldstone, Molly Barnes and