Interview conducted by Emily Tallo
A mathematician is the last person one would expect to follow the art career of a foreign painter. Yet Jim Rolf, a Yale professor in the mathematics department, discovered Anastas and became a collector of his works long before the inception of the US Project. His appreciation for the Anastas’ mystic expressionism and the painted canvas defies the logic typically associated with the cold, calculated ways of higher-level mathematics. Mr. Rolf is among a select group of American collectors who found Anastas before he had made an active effort to engage the North American art market.
Tell me about yourself and what you do.
I’m part of the Yale mathematics department. I’ve been here almost two years with my wife and my two kids—eight and six and a half.
What is your history with Anastas? How did you become a collector?
My wife and I were backpacking through Bulgaria summer of 2006. We started in Plovdiv and I saw one of his paintings in one of the galleries there. It was so interesting, so I asked the curator there what she knew about the piece and the artist. She didn’t know anything, but she said his personal gallery was right around the corner there. So we went and knocked on the door a couple of times. The second time we went there a car pulled up and this big guy came out with curly hair—we later figured out this was Anastas—and he was really grumpy. He said this was a private gallery shown by invitation only. We just said we love this work we saw and would love to meet the artist. We found out that we were talking to the artist and he invited us in. We just loved some of his pieces and thought the color, the dimensionality of it all was really enjoyable. He invited us back to his place for dinner and drinks later that evening. We came back, spent a few more hours with him, and had a great time. We bought a few pieces from him then but when we came back in 2011 we bought some more of his paintings at that point. We spent time with him then as well—I found out he likes Jack Daniels so I bought him a nice bottle of that.
Do you own any of his works, and if so why did you acquire them?
We have six, including “In the Shadow of Creation,” “Easter Sunrise,” and “Radioactive Resurrection.” They all have Christian themes, so that’s how we picked out the particular pieces that we have.
What was your impression of his work? How does it affect you?
When we first went into his gallery, I sort of had an unsettled feeling. I realized later it’s because a lot of the stuff he does is evocative. Of course, that’s what good art does—it elicits thoughts and emotions. I was really disconcerted because he has a very modern perspective, which I really like. You know, the eyes are offset in paintings and there are other jarring images. When we started talking to him and asking him about his time during the communist regime. Anastas said to me that he had a decision to make: “I could paint what they want me to paint, I could not paint at all, or I could give them the middle finger and paint exactly what I want to paint.” I have a lot of respect for that, because he made that decision at a time when he could have been put in jail for it. Instead he said this is worth it to me, the themes I want to speak to in society are important, and I’m going to be true to myself and the people around me despite what the communists say. I think that’s reflected in the different things he does. For example, he paints very religious themes. He told me that in Europe that’s not really a popular thing, but in Bulgaria the Orthodox Church is part of society and it sort of creeps into his consciousness and his paintings.
Are there any techniques that you particularly admire in some of his works?[The painting] “Easter Sunrise” has all these colors of yellow. He layers on the oils and builds them up so that it’s 3D. It literally comes off the canvas in an interesting way. The colors he puts on top of [the yellows] are very vivid and bright. When we were going around Bulgaria in the summertime, there were these huge sunflowers everywhere. In this particular little painting, he had these sunflowers coming up out of the ground. It looks like you’re looking through a window of yellow into something more. It’s abstract but also a metaphor for Christ’s resurrection.
“The Teacher” was also very distinctive. It’s an icon with two big eyes that are off-center. Anastas told me that there are certain rules for when you paint an icon. When you do a modern version of the icon, you break all the rules. But he claimed that this was a modern icon that followed all the traditional rules, which I thought was pretty cool. He’s always putting a modern twist on the ancient or mythical.
What are your thoughts on the development of the US Project? Have you been involved in any way?
When Anastas and Michelangelo were in New York City in May my wife and I went down and had dinner with them. We talked about the project with Michelangelo. I think it’s exciting and great.
What status do you think Anastas deserves to have in the North American art market?
I think he deserves to have a huge reputation. I feel that he’s so distinctive and so unique, but I’m aware that I come from a point of ignorance. [laughs]
Thank you, Jim, for sharing your anecdotes!