The paintings on paper by Robert Zakanitch at the McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, are beautiful, but they are not entirely easy on the eyes. Zakanitch, having passed through the relentless discipline of minimalism, has turned in recent years to everyday decorative patterns for subject matter. This gives his work an automatic, ordinary sort of prettiness, but the secret of the paintings lies elsewhere.

Perhaps the most interesting fact in Zakanitch's artistic biography is that as a neophyte painter during the early 1960s he was an Abstract Expressionist, blown away by de Kooning's brushy fire and Kline's structural muscle. (The oddest fact, from a local point of view, is that this New York painter had his first one-man show in 1965 at the Henri Gallery in Alexandria.) The fleshy intensity of Abstract Expressionist brushwork has returned nearly full force in the outlandishly decorative paintings he has been making since about 1975.

The difference is in the control. Zakanitch gives us paintings that are clearly defined and easily read, and yet they change from inch to inch. Neat and messy, hot and cool, abstract and representational, they are at once predictable and surprising.

Among the modern masters, Matisse was the exemplar for the group of pattern painters and decorative imagists that emerged during the 1970s. Zakanitch is a charter member of this group and perhaps its most productive pure painter. You can see respect for Matisse in Zakanitch's work, in its sensuousness and love of color and pattern, but the Matissean calm is gone. In its place there is an edgy, almost perverse, undercurrent. Zakanitch's paintings come close to being overripe, and his trick has been to maintain a curious sort of balance between beauty and the beast. Open through Dec. 2.

Kramer's Photo Portraits

Arnold Kramer's recent photographic portraits in color, presented as "Eleven Pictures of This Time" at the Sander Gallery, 2600 Connecticut Ave. NW, are impressive in some ways but they fail to hold together as a series or, for that matter, to live up to the vaguely portentous title. The problems are both esthetic and conceptual.

In the first place, despite the fact that each image is the same size and each is a studio portrait of one person, Kramer treats his subjects differently. He has them standing or sitting, half-bodied or full-faced, raked by harsh side light or bathed in an all-over glow, relatively distant from the camera or close enough to cause noticeable lens distortion. The effect is disjunctive. A more serious miscalculation is psychological. There is some range to the sitters, from the expectant innocence of youth to the hard-won wisdom of experience, but there also is the intrusive presence of play-acting, especially cloying in two theatrical images of the photographer's wife.

The net result is confusion. Kramer misleads by giving us different cues and in the end it is impossible to say why we are expected to think of these 11 portraits as more significant than any others in the world. The choice of color backdrops seems arbitrary, too. Be that as it may, there are touches of esthetic brilliance here in the full-blooded rendering of volumes and textures, and there are three or four excellent character studies. Through Nov. 24.

Fantasy at Zenith

More than a decade ago Jonathan Meader introduced an art of gentle fantasy to the Washington art world. Thanks in large part to his example and encouragement, this territory of paradisiacal visions has continued as a slightly underground, commercially viable, borderline corny province of the local art scene.

Witness the current exhibition that Meader himself selected at the Zenith Gallery, 1441 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Besides his own recent serigraphs, drawings and paintings, the show contains dreamy encounters envisioned by Kristen Moeller, apocalyptic paintings of the cosmos (real and imagined) by New Yorker Ingo Jones, jewel-like cast figures by Star Northam and peaceful star-struck images in pencil or watercolor by Jay Burch.

Burch's work is a nice surprise to me. Her magical visions of forests, where unicorns are as likely as squirrels, have a childlike grace, and the technique of soft luminous washes perfectly suits the vision. Northam's tiny unicorns, minotaurs, devils and other denizens of myth and magic owe their stylistic existence to romantic sci-fi illustration, but they are lively little creatures, neatly modeled. Through Dec. 1.