Profile of Roger Kizik

Roger Kizik imbues 'open-ended' abstracts with playful artistry

Originally published in the New Bedford Standard-Times on June 1, 2007

Children are often big fans of Roger Kizik’s colorful abstract paintings, and the Dartmouth artist says that’s fine with him. His larger-than-life canvases, sometimes 8 feet high, are filled with dancing, swirling, zigzagging bursts of color that are poured, squirted or dripped onto the surface. Mr. Kizik uses the word “whimsical” to describe his work, and it is this sense of playfulness with color and shape that appeals to the childlike imagination of his viewers of all ages.

Mr. Kizik, 61, grew up in Medford, where his father ran a sausage factory and played saxophone in a successful dance band. Mr. Kizik was introduced to art as a child during visits to his aunt, who lived on Fifth Avenue and took him to see New York City museums. He also accompanied his mother on Saturday afternoon trips to the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, where he was most impressed with the abstract works. The teenage Roger drew and painted with dedication while in high school, then decided to join the Navy when he graduated in 1964. He spent his leave time visiting galleries and museums in Boston, Philadelphia and New York City. The abstract masters — Picasso, Matisse, Pollock and Rothko — inspired him with their power and audacity.

Mr. Kizik had a chance to see the great art of Europe while he was stationed overseas. He also painted as much as possible on his own — casual portraits of fellow sailors during breaks while on duty, or watercolor studies of the New Jersey shore or the Vermont countryside during trips while on leave. After four years of military service, Mr. Kizik enrolled at the Massachusetts College of Art. At first, his studies were grounded in realism — quiet still lifes inspired by Giorgio Morandi and scenes of Boston neighborhoods inspired by Edward Hopper — but he was aware that these subjects were a “way station” to prepare him for a bolder approach. At last he began to enlarge the architectural details in the Hopper-inspired landscapes, viewing them from oblique angles, and these studies eventually led him to purely abstract imagery.

After earning his degree from Mass. Art, Mr. Kizik worked nights as a janitor at Logan Airport and painted whenever he wasn’t at his job. Working first from a barn in Medford, then an attic in Winthrop, his giant canvases often scraped the ceiling of his studio rooms, but he was intent on painting on a grand scale. Mr. Kizik was inspired by the elaborate designs of kimono fabrics and the intricate shapes in the Japanese woodblock prints he saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He also studied the fabrics pictured in high-fashion magazines like French and Italian Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. As these dramatic colors and patterns flooded his canvases, they provided a “bridge” between the intellectual, sometimes inaccessible visions of the Abstract Expressionists, to a more down-to-earth, “fun way of abstracting the world.”

Mr. Kizik’s paintings caught the eye of Carl Belz, curator of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, who invited him to participate in a show of works by emerging artists. Mr. Kizik was also included in exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Danforth Museum of Art and even his childhood haunt, the DeCordova Museum. Gallery shows at this time included the Helen Shlein, Stavaridis and Stux galleries in Boston, as well as the Bess Cutler Gallery in New York City. During one of his visits to Mr. Kizik’s studio, by then located at Fort Point Channel in Boston, Mr. Belz offered him a position as exhibition preparator at the Rose. Mr. Kizik accepted the job, which he held for the next 25 years. This role put him in direct contact with works by many modern masters and, in some cases, with the artists themselves — Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler and Alex Katz, among others.

In the mid-’80s, Mr. Kizik left his Boston studio. He had regularly visited friends in SouthCoast while still a college student, appreciating the area’s natural beauty and the opportunities for sailing and fishing. He was convinced to move to the area in 1985 during a visit to New Bedford painter John Thornton, his mentor and former professor from Mass. Art. Mr. Thornton helped him locate a studio on the top floor of a Fairhaven shipyard building, and later a large space in New Bedford’s South End, where he worked for the next seven years.

Then an inheritance enabled Mr. Kizik to buy property in South Dartmouth and build his own home on the land. He designed it with the help of an architect in exchange for one of his paintings, then worked with a crew to build a weather-tight shell. Over the next several years, the house slowly but surely came together, mostly by Mr. Kizik’s solo efforts. Overwhelmed with home building, Mr. Kizik realized that painting giant canvases was out of the question for the time being. So he decided to create a series of works on paper at a pace of one per week. After a year, he showed the results to Nina Nielsen, who offered him a solo exhibit at her gallery in Boston. The show was well-received and marked the beginning of an ongoing relationship with the Newbury Street gallery.

In 2001, happily ensconced in his new home that was one-third cozy living space and two-thirds spacious studio, Mr. Kizik began his “book portrait” series. He had always been an avid reader and collector of books on art and artists, initially inspired by the literature and art history courses that were part of the curriculum at Mass. Art. He had recently been painting interior scenes that included a book placed on a couch or coffee table, as if the reader had set it aside for a moment. So he decided to focus on the book itself in homage to the artist or writer, as a way of “portraying without doing an actual portrait.” Each book portrait depicts a book with its spine at an angled perspective and its cover slightly open, as if inviting the viewer to read and enjoy. Painted on 4-by-8-foot wood panels, then cut along the edges following the shapes of the spreading pages and tilted covers, the series has pictured Mr. Kizik’s favorite texts on Miro, Cezanne, Matisse and Monet, among many others.

Today Mr. Kizik’s two-storied studio offers all the space he needs to work as large as he pleases. His working process is open-ended; he is never sure what will emerge on the surface of the canvas. Surrounded by the sounds of Schubert or Charlie Parker, the artist applies acrylic gel medium mixed with latex paint to a length of canvas unfurled on the studio floor, then reaches for a range of tools with which to move the paint around — a squeegee to drag it, a stick to drip it, a squeeze-bottle to dot it, a wet brush to soften it, a thin brush to define it. Thick paint, thin paint, solid tone, complex pattern — all of these clash and collide in a dizzying array. The influence of Japanese kimono and couture fabrics is still discernible, but Mr. Kizik’s way of working now is to “wing it, more intuitively.”

As a counterbalance to this free-wheeling paint application, Mr. Kizik also produces realistic works from direct observation. He paints small watercolor studies of scenes that intrigue him, often nautical references such as boats or beaches, or close-ups of found objects such as fishing lures or hand tools. The watery applications are embellished with intricate pen-and-ink details. This ongoing series of realistic imagery provides additional reference for the abstract works, as well as giving the artist a chance to record views that turn up unexpectedly, when there isn’t time or opportunity for a lengthy session in the studio.

Mr. Kizik considers abstract painting to be an “open-ended endeavor, not constrained by the world in front of you.” But reaching his audience, even those who aren’t familiar with the sometimes elusive language of abstraction, is important to him. So he is pleased when viewers bring their own interpretations to his strong colors and explosive compositions. “The last thing I want to do is say, ‘This is the way it’s supposed to be.’"