PRINT Summer 1987


JOE ZUCKER'S NEW PAINTINGS are probably the best he has done. They’re surprises. They make you want to look again at his last ten years of work; perhaps, after these new pictures, his work of the past seven or eight years will seem less larky, less self-consciously ugly and vaguely commercial. Most of the new pictures refer to the sea: pirates; Moby Dick and Captain Ahab; Captain Kidd; an old sailing boat anchored; an ancient boat in a squall; an octopus; a modem boat floating quietly; a seaside sunset. There are also some still lifes. Some of the pictures are in black and white, but the better ones have many colors. There are yellows, oranges, greens, a brilliant reddish orange. The chief thing about the pictures, though, is how they’re made; they’re amazing objects. Zucker is, among other things, an American carpenter-artist, a superb but not fussy craftsman on the order of the late H. C. Westermann.

Zucker’s pictures have always been largely about how they were made. He has generally worked in series, with each series made in a different way. His most vivid paintings up until now were done with wads of cotton. In those paintings—they’re his best-known work, and the finest are from the mid ’70s—Zucker dipped the cotton into different colors and then glued the soaked wads onto canvas. You’d see a Mississippi paddleboat or windmills or old-time airplanes, but you’d be aware primarily of this dry yet gloppy surface. These pictures look better with time. They have interesting subdued colors; there are dirty whites, pale greens, sepia tans, bluish grays. The pictures recall Seurat. Like his, their subject is public, outdoor, fairground life, and with their manufactured, objectlike appearance they have the true spirit of that life.

The new works are more complicatedly made than those mid-’70s pictures (but they may be no more complicated in spirit or achievement). Zucker uses massive wood frames. He strings sash cord in a grid pattern through each frame—some of the units arc squarish, some narrow and skinny. Then, with a thick, plastic-looking acrylic, he paints between the lines of the grids made by the sash cords. That is, there’s no canvas. He “paints in” his scenes as if he were making a quilt or a hooked rug. He makes a kind of spider’s web between each grid. His performance is a sort of tightrope act. You think you’re looking at one big complex weaving. Instead of being fuzzy and textilelike, though, the surface is like frosting on a kid’s cake; there is a faintly repellent yet also likable laminated, waxy, ropy, living-and-dead quality. There’s a note of ghastly artificiality to the surface. The pictures are to oil paintings (and hooked rugs and quilts) as artificial limbs or hands are to the real items.

Zucker’s earlier cotton-ball paintings are fakes, too—that is, they can look like flimsy approximations of oil paintings. Their surface mimics and mocks “a rich surface.” The paintings are, to a degree, parodies of the paintings that you win at a booth at a carnival if you hit the duck. The new sash-cord paintings are also parodies in part; at least, they recall some sort of limited-edition wall relief—lobby art for a posh seaside hotel. Zucker’s images themselves have a nice degraded quality; his sunsets seen through trees and his old-time sailing vessels feel borrowed but not stale. The images take us into the world of subpopular art—not of sophisticatedly drawn cartoons but of images on place mats in family seafood restaurants. Zucker’s entire body of work, I have a hunch, is about kinds of fakeness, of simulation, and yet, at least with the cotton-ball pictures and the new sash-cord works, his irony is not heavy-handed. His art isn’t merely shrewd or wry.

Zucker’s sash-cord pictures at first seem silly, amusing, mechanical. Later, a viewer is stumped by imagining the process of their creation and then exhausted by imagining the sheer amount of labor that goes into each one. We admire Zucker for his patience and care, and we’re made restless by thinking of the hours of painstaking labor that go into each work. Mostly, though, we are impressed by how he brings together so many unlikely elements to arrive at his finished work. And the experience of a picture is of something layered and see-through, and constantly changing. Zucker’s finest paintings remind us of many things at once: cartoons; hooked rugs that have been assembled as if they were stained-glass windows; the elegant silhouette art of the early 19th century; computer graphics. Computer graphics are felt in the stepped, ridged appearance of the outlines. Looking at Zucker’s pictures, we fall into a reverie about artistic process. How does he decide which part will resemble a hooked rug made in monochrome, or which part will resemble a hooked rug pure and simple? The best paintings seem to present many separate layers vibrating gently in a shallow space.

Joe Zucker has been showing for years. He has been in countless theme shows, and he has had a number of museum exhibitions. He is a hardworking member of that generation of American artists—it includes Joel Shapiro, Scott Burton, Chuck Close, Nancy Mitchnick, and Susan Rothenberg—who came up under the reign of Minimalism and process art. They have always seemed to be an interim generation. They wanted to bring recognizable imagery back into art, and they wanted us to feel that the images they used were arbitrarily chosen—the image could be anything. The art of these painters and sculptors—their work was labeled “New Image”—is tense, cerebral; it is sometimes more amusing and charming in effect than it perhaps wants to be.

Zucker’s new pictures make him seem a more significant artist than one had thought. The pictures share qualities with some of the better work of the splashier and more reckless artists who followed the New Image people. I am sure that the best sash-cord paintings would stand up with first-rate David Salles and Julian Schnabels, and with first-rate work by older artists: Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz, Jasper Johns. Putting a Zucker alongside work by artists who are younger and older than he is, one sees American art of the past twenty-five years as an ongoing tale about irony and fakery, about feeding off popular art, about the worship of formalism and craft. Put a top Zucker alongside a good early-’60s Lichtenstein and a good Salle (and so forth) and one is right back in the world of Ernest Hemingway versus F. Scott Fitzgerald, of American art as an arena of flabless and well-trained pros whose art objects, whether novels or paintings, have surfaces as tight as a drum skin. Looked at in one way, American painting from the late ’50s and early ’60s on is at its best a series of ingenious and marvelous recreations of already-existing images.

The special flavor of Zucker’s pictures—the cotton balls and the sash cords—has to do with their fuzziness, color, and light. They’re images that, as you look, come into focus. Some of the strongest recent pictures have a flushed, overvivid colorfulness that reminds me of Josef Albers and TV commercials. It is a kind of orange upon orange. The Ahab picture has a somewhat bilious and ashen colorlessness which is actually quite attractive; it is like the pearly tone of old Dutch seascapes. It is appealingly tart. Zucker’s technique recreates the filtered, ever-changing light that you see near the ocean.

Sanford Schwartz is a writer who lives in New York. He is the author of The Art Presence, New York: Horizon Press, 1982.