Joe Zucker,  “Mughal Empire” (2012), 48” by 48” watercolor/gypsum, plywood (All images courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

Joe Zucker, “Mughal Empire” (2012), 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood (All images courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

Joe Zucker is the most inventive artist of his generation, which includes Elizabeth Murray, Mel Bochner, Joan Snyder and his longtime friend, Chuck Close, and perhaps the most misunderstood. One reason for the confusion is that reviewers have often focused on Zucker’s inventiveness with materials and processes without recognizing that they are inseparable from the work’s content. He is far more than an idiosyncratic formalist.

This is what Zucker, talking about the grid paintings that he made between 1963 and 1968, said in an interview (The Grid Paintings, Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2011):

As an undergraduate I was paralyzed by having to paint a shape. Having been confronted by a blank canvas I had the epiphany that how a canvas was woven was really a solution to my problems, because it was referring to the canvas as an object, not as an illustration or illusion, but merely repeating its corporeal existence.

Zucker is interested in the susceptible body (or structure) rather than the supposedly impermeable skin of paint. Later on in the interview, talking about the paintings he made on gridded gypsum board, which preceded the ones in his most recent exhibition, Empire Descending A Staircase, at Mary Boone (March 1, 2013 to April 27, 2013), Zucker stated:

From 1964 to the present the grid serves to unify my extensive body of work. Of different styles, processes, and materials, sewing together a horizontal and vertical quilt of patches of content. In this way my body of work mirrors [J. G.] Ballard’s New York City of the future, where a sci-fi Don Quixote searches for the end of the horizontal and vertical maze he lives in. He winds up back where he began and his quest is printed on the endless bolt of existence.


“Medo-Persian Empire” (2012)
96” by 24,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood

Starting around 1970, and for more than a decade, Zucker made paintings by dipping cotton balls in paint and affixing them to a surface, stopping when he felt that he gotten too good at it. It was as if George Seurat’s pointillist dots became physical things. During this period, his subjects included Eli Whitney and the invention of the Cotton Gin, which shaped the economy of the Southern states, and views of plantation life and slavery. At a time when the death of painting and craft were widely accepted, Zucker insisted on making works that required meticulous attention and non-art materials (cotton balls, mittens, socks and gloves)

In his cotton ball paintings, Zucker made a connection between painting and the piecemeal craft of mosaic tiling. His paintings of pirate ships and Chinese junks collapse together the physical components of a painting as an object (canvas and wooden stretcher) with those of a ship (wooden vessel and canvas sails), suggesting that both are storage containers capable of moving from one place to another. At the same time, by depicting the ships at sea, Zucker suggests that their destination lies beyond our grasp, that we will never see where these containers arrive. In the face of this knowledge, the only thing he can do is shape time (make art) and reveal how it shapes his perceptions.

In the paintings about the ante-bellum South, the cotton balls underscored the deep economic roots of racism. At the same time they reminded the viewer that there could be no such thing as a ‘pure’ painting given the history of cotton. In the scenes that Zucker chose to depict, segregation was obvious and violence often felt imminent.

Zucker also used aluminum foil to evoke the armor of Spanish conquistadors; he has forced paint through pegboard, and he has divided a shallow box complete with cover (a paint box) into sections, pouring paint into each part. Process, materials and content were inseparable. The collector who obtains a paint box painting essentially agrees to buy a portable storage unit, which can either be displayed or stored. In either case, it suggests that temporariness is a condition we all share.

In his current exhibition, Empire Descending A Staircase, at Mary Boone (March 1 – April 27, 2013), Zucker scored a piece of sheetrock measuring either 8 x 2 feet or 4 x 4 feet into a grid of ¼ inch squares. He then flaked off the protective paper, leaving the scored gypsum exposed – a grid consisting of literally thousands of small but distinct sections separated by vertical and horizontal grooves. Upon this gridded surface, the artist methodically applied one monochromatic dot of watercolor at a time, ranging from black to light gray.

Aside from its commemoration of the centenary of the 1913 Armory Show, which shocked the American public with Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912), I think one reason the exhibition’s title alludes to Duchamp’s infamous painting is because, at the time, Julian Street characterized it in the New York Times as resembling “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Zucker’s scored gypsum board, a construction material, is marked with the first seams of its own unavoidable destruction. Moreover, the patterns in the grid echo Classical columns, some intact and some broken into zigzagging sections.

Joe Zucker, “Qing Dynasty” (2012), 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood

Compositionally, the works shift between symmetry and asymmetry, order and disorder. Each Classical column is made up of alternating or shifting dark and light vertical rows of dotted squares, with horizontally aligned rows as its base and capital. In both groups of paintings there are stable columns with at least one that is coming undone, its sections shifting out toward the work’s physical edge.

The works are straightforward and absurd, completely serious and totally hilarious, which many viewers probably find somewhat distressing. The artist has spent days applying one drop of black or gray watercolor to a small raised square of gypsum. It is both a serious act that cannot be faked and an absurd, machine-like repetition. Craft, it suggests, is a process of repetition, choice and refinement. (Perhaps the reason theorists trumpet the death of craft is because they want everything but thinking to be done by a machine.)


Joe Zucker, “Achaemenid Empire” (2012), 96” by 24,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood

There is an optical buzz to the works that made me restless in front of them. I kept moving closer to them and then further back. Up close, the viewer sees the scored surface, the uneven edges of the grooves. It’s as if the gypsum has started to turn to dust. Standing back, all these tonally close dots coalesce into a geometric pattern of horizontal and vertical bars shifting between legibility and illegibility, figure and ground.

As in Zucker’s best works, these sheetrock paintings open up a space in which the viewer reflects upon the relationship between foundation and surface, permanence and impermanence, construction and destruction, the “empire descending the stairs” into chaos. We typically use sheetrock to construct walls within a building – it is the “canvas” beneath the latex house paint, the painted surface on which we display art. The tall, narrow rectangular support echoes the columns (the subject matter) as well as reminds the viewer that the walls of a structure are temporary and vulnerable.

The gypsum board is a prefabricated modern industrial material, the substrate of many buildings in America, while the Classical column is a symbol of empire, both the Roman and the American. Time can sweep away not only structures of cheap gypsum, as we saw graphically with Hurricane Sandy, but also the marble columns of the Roman Empire, as evidenced by the ruins left after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

This recognition suggests that Zucker is fully conscious of the absurdity of his desire to control and shape time, but, like Samuel Beckett, continues to go on, determinedly finding new ways to be inventive, even as he acknowledges that the “ship” or vessel that he is patiently constructing is likely is to be doomed to destruction. Instead of making a perfectly ordered world, which he could easily do, the artist bows to entropy and attentively and meticulously depicts a column coming apart. But it’s entropy with grace and humor.

Joe Zucker: Empire Descending A Staircase is on view at Mary Boone Gallery (745 Fifth Ave, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 27.

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One reply on “Tilting at Windmills: Joe Zucker as Don Quixote”

  1. Wonderful to read this. I’m slowly coming around to Zucker’s work after years of seeing a show here, a show there. The more I see, the more I see. It occurs to me that the diversity of his practice encourages a slow read. It also seems that this is a further tie-in with Duchamp. A practice like Zucker’s evades easy classification and commodification. This is a kind of trickster evasiveness perfected by Duchamp. I’ve always thought Duchamp’s oeuvre is very fertile ground for painting.

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