Joe Zucker: ‘Contractor of the Absurd’

From the beginning, Mr. Zucker’s work existed outside conventional modernist thinking
In Joe Zucker’s paintings, the materials, processes, and content are interdependent. Britta Le Va

Sitting in his Springs studio last week, Joe Zucker recalled an art history class in which the professor showed a slide of a certain artist’s late work, a painting of stylized horses. “It was truly awful, and the professor stressed how awful it was. And I thought, how the heck am I ever going to avoid having late work, short of early termination.”

A room at the Art Institute of Chicago is currently devoted to five of Mr. Zucker’s paintings, part of its permanent collection. They range in date from 1965 to 2010 and utilize different materials and styles. “They’re all very physical,” he said. “My paintings are objects, they’re not easel paintings, and I think the thing I was struck by is that even though the works in that gallery cover a period of more than 40 years, there’s an organization to them, so that every section is dependent on the next section. They’re devoid of arbitrary decisions.”

Joe Zucker was well established in the art world when he and his wife, Britta Le Va, moved from New York to East Hampton in 1982. “I was showing with Holly Solomon, doing a lot of work, a lot of shows, but it became too much,” he said. “Many artists, if they can, leave New York after a time, especially if they aren’t originally from there.” The move was precipitated in part by the need for a larger workspace. “I realized I would have to pay handsomely for a bigger loft that would have the same water bugs, the same roaches, and the same rodents.”

The artist was confident his decision would make sense in the long run, but the move wasn’t only about workspace. “I have avocations that I’m deeply involved in that are available out here. I am a hard-core fisherman, and I fish every spring in the Midwest.” A former high school basketball star, he has been an assistant coach of the Bridgehampton Killer Bees for many years. “It’s about watching the kids play and having fun with them.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Mr. Zucker attended Miami University of Ohio for two years before transferring to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. After graduation, he taught for two years at the Minneapolis School of Art. “It was a comfortable place to live, and one could easily fall into staying there for the rest of your life. Fortunately somebody came from New York and offered me a job at the School of Visual Arts. There wasn’t one second of hesitation.”

He arrived in the city in 1968 and within a year was exhibiting at the Bykert Gallery, a cutting-edge space helmed by Klaus Kertess. Among those showing there were such rising artists as Chuck Close, Brice Marden, David Novros, and Dorothea Rockburne. “The gallery produced many important artists, so I transitioned right into a situation that was very much a dialogue about work, and if you had a show, there was a lot of feedback. Whether the feedback was good or bad, it felt like it meant something in the art community.”

From the beginning, Mr. Zucker’s work existed outside conventional modernist thinking. “I had ideas about the importance of craft, that craftsmen passed their knowledge from generation to generation. It wasn’t based on mainstream art language. I didn’t work toward a style. By that time I was a heretic. I no longer believed that feelings could be transferred from your soul to a canvas. I believed my paintings were free from ‘divine intervention’ influencing my stylistic development.”

Soon after moving to New York, Mr. Zucker began his “100-Foot-Long Piece.” Exhibited in the city in 1972 and at the Parrish Art Museum in 1992, more than 20 years after its creation, it encapsulates much of what his work is about. Indeed, it can be seen as metaphor for more than four decades of artistic production. It consists of some 30 vertical panels of slightly varying dimensions, each one using different materials, techniques, and stylistic strategies from those preceding and following it.

The first section consists of a piece of wire mesh from which four rods topped with paper cones protrude. Other segments include images of Billy the Kid and the Charioteer of Delphi, photographic enlargements of fabrics, a charcoal drawing of the tombstone of the owner of a bar the artist frequented in Chicago, cotton balls soaked in red paint, lawn-chair webbing, and shelf paper. The cotton balls would reappear often in Mr. Zucker’s work, perhaps most famously in a series that took as its subject the history of cotton production, including slavery, plantation life, and the invention of the cotton gin.

“My work is proletarian,” he said. “I use a lot of construction materials. For a recent series of fresco works I used Sheetrock, sanding off the paper to reveal the gypsum core and incising a grid pattern into the material. I used watercolor to create the images, since that medium and gypsum bond well, resulting in a surface similar to the wet plaster murals of the Mexican muralists. The way the individual squares suck up a dot of watercolor paint is a thing of beauty.”

Another series was a riff on the paintbox, which ordinarily holds art materials. He fashioned shallow boxes divided into sections, into which the paint was poured, rather than applied with a brush. Each box had a cover that was exhibited with the open box. “As you open one, you see it as a painting, a compartmentalized object such as a red house, but when you close it up and put it away it’s a crate going into storage. It changes in meaning, and rarely do paintings have two meanings.” The interior of the box was itself painted, while the tools of the trade — brushes, rags, palette knives — were discarded.

Mr. Zucker’s grandfather was a train engineer. “Half of my family were railroad people. The other half railroaded people. I remember sitting at a crossing gate somewhere in Wisconsin waiting for 20 minutes for a freight train to go by. Within each car there’s a different content, and at any time you can insert another car into the train.” He explained that while each of his series of works differs from every other in materials and style, his underlying approach is based on the same principles, so that each section or series “is built from a kind of constructed logic. It’s like being a contractor of the absurd.”

“My goal is for each piece or series to be singular. I don’t have favorites. All I care about is if a body of work is strong and resonates with its materials, and the style that’s produced by the selection of materials. My lack of quintessential style allows my work to be open-ended. The choice of materials enables me to paint about current issues.”

Joe Zucker’s “The First Roll of 96” Wide No. 12” uses a roll of canvas as subject matter and material. Parrish Art Museum
"Aquarium," a 1970 painting by Joe Zucker.Parrish Art Museum