New York

Joe Zucker

Bykert Gallery uptown

Joe Zucker’s new work places an increased emphasis on the relationship between surface and image. He works with cotton dipped in paint, pulled and squashed onto the canvas. The six paintings in this exhibition depict machines which in one way or another agitate air and therefore, by implication, the surface of the painting. The movement of air, elusive in real space, becomes the most visible activity in these paintings. Things are stirred up by airplanes, helicopters, windmills, tornadoes and ferris. wheels. Zucker’s “strokes” of paint vary more than before and describe more precisely. Thus the surfaces, though more sculptural, create a clearer image and become more subservient to it, particularly in a series of three large rectangular works in which various confrontations, “air battles,” take place across the canvas.

In Helicropter, a helicopter faces a farm windmill; in War of Whorls, a farm windmill faces a tornado; both confrontations take place across groups of farm buildings. In Proprotation, two Dutch windmills battle it out. In each case the protagonists stir up their own areas of air and surface, sending strokes vibrating out across the “sky” between them. The “empty” center in each of these three paintings is quite different; the configurations imply movement, not only of air but of the machines themselves, both otherwise impossible to depict. These personified dueling machines are absurd, just as the surfaces themselves are absurd. Two other paintings are tondos, the appropriate shape for the machine depicted: a single ferris wheel in each case. A network of thin crisscrossing strokes is concentric with the wheel; it seems at first to be part of it, but is soon understood as the flurry of air caused by the rotation of the wheel. The wheel itself is elliptical and in perspective; its exterior circular band and interior structure of circles and spokes are all foreshortened. This surrounding halo of air, on the other hand, is not in perspective; its consistent width aligns it completely with the physical plane of the painting. Most of the wheel rises above the skyline of a dark, indistinct city, dividing the tondo into a dark and light portion. The tension between the spaces and surfaces of the two circles, their different alignment with the support, a third circle, and the single horizontal division give the tondos a singleness which the air battles lack. The tondos are more unitary and abstract. In them, Zucker, attempting less, achieves more. In Zucker’s work from last year, images of battling galleons were not quite clear through the surface. The air battles this year seem a bit too organized and representational for me. Their clarity, like their absurdity, becomes mostly narrative; the pieces don’t operate on as many pictorial levels. In the tondos, the clarity of the surface accommodates an ambiguous duality of a different kind: the shapes are all quite clear, but they function abstractly as much as they do representationally.

I object also to this year’s pale color, mostly greens and grays. It lacks an emotional opulence and decreases the vibrancy of his surfaces. Zucker is developing the possibilities of his work and a clearer image is one of them. The exhibition points up two purposes which that clearer image can serve. The air battles may be among the most ambitious work Zucker has undertaken, but the tondos are among the best he has done.

Roberta Smith