Remembering Michael Zakian – A Personal Tribute
Our good friend and art history colleague Michael Zakian passed away on January 14, 2020 after his struggle with pancreatic cancer. Born on April 7, 1957 in New York City, he was a brilliant science student and graduated from Stuyvesant High School. He entered Columbia University as a pre-med biology major, but was lured to art history through his lifelong love of art. He received a prestigious Garden State Fellowship to attend the graduate program in Art History at Rutgers University. Michael and I met as part of the same MA degree cohort in the Fall of 1981. We became close friends and roommates and supported each other through the academic and financial challenges of graduate school. I remember one winter we were too poor to turn on the heat in our apartment and we sat madly typing seminar papers in the kitchen, using the oven to warm the room. Raised as a New York kid, he helped me navigate the city’s art scene and we spent numerous Saturdays visiting art galleries in SoHo. He had a unique ability to immediately assess the quality of art and would often exit a gallery before I could enter and view an exhibit. As a doctoral student, Michael was already publishing influential articles on Abstract Expressionism in Arts magazine and completed his dissertation on Willem de Kooning in 1994. He had a fierce, irreverent and offbeat sense of humor that enlivened seminar discussions and lunchtime gatherings in Voorhees Hall. He went on to produce pioneering scholarship on such artists as Mercedes Matter and Agnes Pelton and enjoyed a distinguished career as a curator at the Palms Springs Desert Museum and served as director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University. Michael had a keen, probing intelligence and his curating, scholarship and teaching reflected his highly creative, philosophical insights about art. Although he demanded critical rigor from himself and others, he increasingly believed that the aesthetic and theoretical complexity of art should be made accessible to a broader public. Michael is survived by his wife, Lia Skidmore, who was his dedicated partner in studying art and traveling the world. Reuniting with Michael and Lia at the College Art Association conference every year was the highpoint of those meetings for me. He will be greatly missed by his many alumni friends and former faculty members in the Rutgers Art History family.
Gregory Gilbert, Professor of Art History, Knox College (Rutgers, PhD, 1998)
Donna Gustafson and Michael Zakian, from Rutgers Art History CAA reunion
Michael and Lia with Aliza Edelman
Ellen Landau, Joan Marter, Michael and Lia