Mysterious Croatian Artist Ana Tzarev Bankrolls Her Own Gallery on W. 57th St.; Why Didn’t She Show Up to Her Own Opening?

Ana Tzarev, a 72-year-old Croatian-born artist and former New Zealand department-store mogul, had never sold a painting or held a public viewing of her work until last Thursday, when she opened a gallery on West 57th Street near Fifth Avenue. The self-funded Ana Tzarev Gallery, featuring only work by Ana Tzarev, is a 14,000-square-feet, two-story affair designed by James Harb Architects. Thursday night’s event was the "soft opening," featuring an exhibition of her works titled "Voyage of Discovery." The grand—hard?–opening will be sometime in March.

Ms. Tzarev is a somewhat mysterious figure–she was not in attendance at the opening, as she was traveling the world, as she is, apparently, wont to do. Thailand, we heard, although some guests were certain that the artist was in attendance (she was not), making pointing gestures to that effect.

The rent on the gallery space: $2 million a year for the next 10 years. Tzarev’s billionaire-investor son Richard gave a $4 million "loan" to help open it. Some people—snobby people, and art-world insiders looking to protect their brand—call it a vanity gallery, the self-publishing of the art world. After all, Tzarev has already done just that with a coffee-table book of her paintings.

Acting as one’s own patron isn’t without precedent: "Certainly there are other family-funded galleries in New York," said Reed McMillan, executive business director of the gallery, although he declined to name them. A space in Soho was vaguely alluded to, although he said that family- or self-funded art galleries are not usually "publicly acknowledged."

Ms. Tzarev took up painting 15 years ago, and "always envisioned debuting her work to the public," said Mr. McMillan. "But she was always afraid to, because she thought she wasn’t ready. So really it’s a labor of love, and we felt that to go alone and just do it was the best way to present her work."

Ms. Tzarev started out as a dressmaker, but made her money with husband Robert Chandler by founding a successful New Zealand luxury department-store chain called Chandler House, where she designed the store’s apparel. Eventually, they got out of the business, gave the money to their sons, and moved to Monaco and Thailand. Ms. Tzarev has been traveling, painting, and traveling ever since.

The run-up to the opening began this fall in the form of gigantic billboards instructing the viewer to SEE THE WORLD THROUGH ANA’S EYES; no further explanation. Later, the billboards’ text messages were replaced with images of her brightly-splashed paintings. (Tattered remains of one still flutter on a wall next to the Spring Street subway stop on the 6 line.)

So what does the world through Ms. Tzarev’s eyes look like? Her large-scale oil-on-linen paintings are from her travels to Africa and Asia. Most are of women, engaged in either tribal celebration, ritual, or as witnesses to devastation. In the darker paintings, the women are grouped in threes, hinting at a tragedy as large-scale and systemic as it is personal. Flowers, landscapes, or birds are also recurring motifs. Everything is brightly colored; some figures are outlined cloisonné-style in black, a technique Gauguin also preferred.

The color can almost undermine the intent of the works at times. In Faces of Sorrow, which depicts the ravages of AIDS in Africa, the shock of fuschia and orange robes distracts from the faces of the women staring listlessly off into the distance.

Ms. Tzarev, who has never had any formal art schooling, sometimes applies the paint straight from the tube. A video showed her, with childlike enthusiasm, finger-painting directly onto the canvas with her pinkie. Mysterious Croatian Artist Ana Tzarev Bankrolls Her Own Gallery on W. 57th St.; Why Didn’t She Show Up to Her Own Opening?