Critics’ Picks

Joe Zucker, British Empire, 2012, watercolor, gypsum, plywood, 48 x 48”.

New York

Joe Zucker

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown
745 Fifth Avenue
March 1 - April 27

Joe Zucker has an interesting way of melding subject matter and the objective qualities of materials in his paintings. After all, from 1975 to 1976, Zucker executed an intensive series about the ignominious history of US cotton production using his signature “painting” material—the cotton ball. His latest works on display, together titled “Empire Descending a Staircase” (all works 2012), offer connections between their physical attributes and their historical references, which are intertwined as tightly as ever.

Zucker’s work has always bred a unique affinity with textile-based art, a product of his sustained interest in painting’s inherent grid. The “Empire” paintings continue in this thread, though without the fibrous material. Instead, they are made of gypsum board, our empire’s signifying material par excellence (above all, the relative “health” of our economy can be measured directly by our demand for the stuff). In his process, Zucker scores the drywall sheets with a network of lines and then removes the paper from the scored side of the board, uncovering the plaster beneath that bares a pocked, irregular relief of quarter-inch squares. These squares are later painted over with bluish-grey or black watercolor.

Then there is Zucker’s represented material of pixelated classical columns and colonnades. The pillars, even at a distance, appear broken—some mimetically and many literally so. Here, the broken column becomes a borrowed-metaphor-cum-memento meant to evoke both faded empires and the enduring loss of the illusionistic picture plane. Do we dare suppose that Zucker’s take on the latter is celebratory? It certainly seems so. And what of the American empire at present? Based on these new works, we can assume Zucker’s perspective rings true with Edward Gibbon on Theodosius’s Rome: “The mad prodigality which prevails in the confusion of a shipwreck . . . may serve to explain the progress of luxury amidst the misfortunes and terrors of a sinking nation.”