New York

Joe Zucker

Paul Kasmin Gallery and Nolan/Eckman Gallery

At first glance, the “Open Storage” series from 2005, that Joe Zucker exhibited recently at Paul Kasmin Gallery and the “Container Ships” series from 2004–2005 shown concurrently at Nolan/Eckman Gallery both seem to display the verve that has marked the course of a lengthy career, but one show bears the impression out more satisfactorily than the other.

The works in both groups are geometrically structured, though the pictorial scales on which they depend are macro and micro, respectively. In the former series, Zucker “stores” everyday objects by rendering them as life-size illustrational outlines contained by square or rectangular, lidded, framelike boxes. Each depiction (apart from one incongruous representation of a volcano) is pseudopersonalized by the titular qualifier “my,” in acknowledgement of its origin in the artist’s studio, but remains fundamentally generic, banal. The images are made from thin strips of wood affixed to canvases to create shallow reliefs and might be characterized as quasi-found objects in that they thus employ the same material from which their subjects—chairs, stools, and tables—are made. Most of the canvases are painted entirely in brown tones, although in Volcano in Crate, 2005, the browns are accompanied by planes of blue and gray, suggesting a simple stylized landscape. There are traces of Zucker’s hand in all the works, but none are exactly painterly—they’re more like faint gestures toward expressivity that the artist deploys to underscore the essentially mechanical nature of his constructions.

All the works in the “Open Storage” series are diptychs: Each panel that depicts an object is paired with a slightly larger monochrome (the box’s lid), an ironically “purist” foil. The strategy reminded me of Thomas Mann’s description of the sanatorium hall in The Magic Mountain (1924): It “was done in that modern style which knows how to give just the right touch of individuality to something in reality very simple.” Zucker’s juxtaposition may initially appear to be just such a touch, but it ultimately fails to generate sufficient dialectical tension to make the project any more than merely “interesting” (Hegel’s withering characterization of modern art). Everything is nicely balanced, but the balance is boring.

“Container Ships” is a more convincing series, not only because of Zucker’s often suggestive, witty titles, but as a consequence of its greater level of detail. These relatively small paintings’ subtle use of graphite, ink, and watercolor makes them feel more expressively alive and less pretentiously “Minimalist” than those in “Open Storage.” Each depicts a field of tight little forms that curl like ocean waves, miniaturized by being viewed from the sky—Storegasso Sea (1960–65), 2004, and Confused Sea (1970–75), 2005, are typical titles—while weaving together into a whole that also seems peculiarly architectural. They also show Zucker’s mastery of color and make more sophisticated compositional use of the frame-within-a-frame device.

In a final analysis, Zucker seems to suffer from something of a split personality—he’s a virtuoso of discrepant if related manners. “Container Ships” succeeds thanks to its appealing mix of the whimsical and the systematic, and because it seems to be a labor of love; the “Open Storage” diptychs, by contrast, seem merely a labor of indifference.

Donald Kuspit