Zoe Zenghelis, co-founder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), is notably not an architect, but a painter. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Zenghelis visualized the now-famous studio’s radical concepts in striking, colorful detail. Despite this key role, historical records have left her overshadowed by her male counterparts. Zoe Zenghelis: Fields, Fragments, Fictionsa new retrospective at the Carnegie Museum of Art, offers a corrective to this story by reframing the scope of the artist’s work, from the early days of OMA to his more recent abstract paintings.
Zenghelis, 84, of Athens origin, lives in London, where she immigrated in 1958 to study interior design and set design before concentrating on painting. Her marriage to architect Elia Zenghelis brought her into contact with Rem Koolhaas, a student of Elia at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA), and artist Madelon Vriesendorp, who was married to Koolhaas. The interdisciplinary quartet launched what became OMA by competing in architectural competitions, and it was the sale of those early paintings from the project, produced by Zenghelis and Vriesendorp, that kept the fledgling, clientless studio afloat. Zenghelis’ precise yet playful color choices, as seen in 1975’s Hotel Sphinx, brought a dreamlike thrill to OMA’s hyper-logical schemes – an effect cultural theorist Charles Jencks called “surrational”. .
In the 1980s, Zenghelis and Vriesendorp taught the popular Color Workshop at AA, where Zenghelis encouraged students to find creative freedom in the process of designing through painting. While she moved away from architectural collaborations towards an independent artistic practice in the mid-1980s, her abstract compositions of planes and geometric shapes continue to convey a keen awareness of spatial parameters and relationships, as if the built environment was still in a neighboring dimension. The current exhibition, developed by in-house curator Theodossis Issaias with architect and educator Hamed Khosravi, brings Zenghelis’ work into dialogue with other artists in the collection while tracing the prolific 60-year career of a painter who , along the way, brought to life designs that blaze a new trail in architecture.