Joe Zucker’s Mosaics Show the Classical Still Ain’t Dead

Joe Zucker's “A Unified Theory” exhibition at Mary Boone gallery (all photos by author)

Joe Zucker’s solo exhibition A Unified Theory at not one, but two Mary Boone gallery outposts, is an affair that stretches from day-glo exuberance to quiet, eloquent historicism. In the gallery’s 24th street space, an exhibition of mosaic works on gypsum sees Zucker breaking down the representational plane into its basic elements. The grids of tinted squares, scratched into stone, come together to form figurative depictions of sailboats and architectural atria. Equally at home in the context of 8-bit pixel culture or Chuck Close’s gridded painting constructions, Zucker’s mosaics engage abstraction without losing an interest in transcendent beauty and joy in artistic materials.

The mosaics on view at Boone’s Chelsea space are carefully spaced apart in the huge gallery, each given its own breathing space. While spare, this clean, quiet hanging serves to re-focus attention on the individuality of the mosaics without separating them from the similar context of their fellow works. Each set in a strangely flesh-toned steel frame (the strangest part of the show to me), Zucker’s mosaics turn a basic artistic vocabulary of washed out colors into an infinity of interchangeable gradients and patterns. Checkerboards of red and gray suggest marble, through the magic of our eye mixing colors for us. Thick vertical lines coalesce into a mountain, a glowing pyramid of subtly shifting geometric shapes.

“Atrium” mosaics by Joe Zucker at Mary Boone gallery

Behind the mosaics’ delicacy is the process that goes into their creating. A square slab of gypsum is cut and its surface scratched into the grids the Zucker fills. The topmost layer of stone is then removed from each of the small squares, leaving a rough texture that soaks up watercolor paint and gives the mosaics their soft, shimmering appearances. Zucker dabs each grid square with watercolor, sometimes splitting squares diagonally into two different colors to create angled lines. Like a Sol Lewitt wall mural or the current Jennifer Bartlett Pace gallery exhibition, simple structures give rise to complex beauty.

Joe Zucker, “The Atrium at Neutrino” (2010) (image from

On the left side of the Mary Boone gallery are Zucker’s sailboat mosaics, compositions that are largely dominated by the triangular sails that tower over the hulls of the boats statically adrift in blue and white-checkered water. In the “Atrium” series, unfolding architectural spaces open up onto vistas of mountains and volcanoes while disheveled sets of perfectly geometric chairs and tables lay unoccupied at their centers. Implicit in Zucker’s depictions is the melding of two-dimensional and three-dimensional space: vertical sails stretch onto an ocean seen from above; architectural spaces depicted as flat feature upright furniture, but flatten out onto horizontal landscapes. There is a beautiful poetry in the navigation of the limits of a two-dimensional support in Zucker’s work that has to be seen and negotiated one-on-one in the gallery.

The mosaics in A Unified Theory are a must-see not just for their tenacious engagement with the modern deconstruction of space but for their embrace of ancient solutions to the problem. Zucker takes the lessons of the non-objectivists to heart but also looks to Greco-Roman bas-reliefs and mosaics, Etruscan murals and manuscript illuminations for possibilities. The sense of history that this careful looking and thinking imbues gives Zucker’s mosaics a feeling of timelessness and the classical stronger than any other contemporary artist I’ve seen, without lacking a vital link to the present day.

Joe Zucker’s A Unified Theory is on view at Mary Boone gallery (541 West 24th Street) through February 5

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