The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 10-JAN 11

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DEC 10-JAN 11 Issue
Art In Conversation

JOE ZUCKER with Phong Bui

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

While preparing for his two one-person exhibits at the Mary Boone Gallery (A Unified Theory at 541 West 24th Street and Box Paintings at 745 Fifth Avenue, January 8 – February 5, 2011), the artist Joe Zucker welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to his home and studio in East Hampton to talk about his life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): Let’s begin with your love of basketball: you were a good enough player in high school to be offered a four-year scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Technology, but instead you went and played for the RedHawks at Miami University, Ohio.

Joe Zucker: When I was a senior in high school I was the seventh leading scorer in the city of Chicago, with a point average of 21.7 a game. In fact in my sophomore year we played Crane Technical Prep High School for the city freshman-sophomore championship, even though we ended up losing the championship game. I played a lot of ball, but by the time I came to Miami the game was somehow no longer the same for me, at least from that competitive level. So ever since I decided to be an artist I never really played the game seriously anymore, except a pick-up game here and there when I came to New York later.

Rail: Was Wayne Embry (who took the team to the school’s first ever Sweet Sixteen in 1958) on your team?

Zucker: Embry was before me, but Dave Zeller and the current coach, Charlie Coles, were both my teammates.

Rail: Were you a small forward or a guard?

Zucker: I played either forward spot, but basically I was too small to play up front in Division 1 and not quick enough to play in the backcourt. In those days there was no Amateur Athletic Union, no coach telling my parents what’s in it for their son’s future, so they really didn’t see a life for me as a basketball player. Besides, basketball was not as big a deal then as it is now, where most kids have to go get in shape and play AAU ball before getting qualified to go to college.

Rail: Did you grow up as a fan of the pre-Chicago Bulls in the days when they were called the Stags?

Zucker: No. I wasn’t a pro-basketball fan; I was a Big Ten and Northwestern University fan. We used to go to Big Ten games, and every Northwestern game every New Years. I remember Joseph “Joe” Ruklick who played later with the Philadelphia Warriors. Frank Ehmann, who was a guy about my size, was a pretty good player who made all-American. I still follow Northwestern, and this year they look pretty good.

Rail: So did basketball come before art?

Zucker: The thing was, if you were going to get a Registered Nurse degree you had to take college level classes, so, when she was training for her nursing degree, my mother took an art history class at the Art Institute with a woman named Katherine Blackshear. Katherine impressed her so much that she wanted her little Joey to go to art classes at the Art Institute every Saturday when he was just 5 years old. So I went there almost every year, I think. I’d miss a year, but I’d go back. I won a gold key award, which was some kind of massive civic Chicago contest where you got a little prize for being a good art student. So I continued with art through high school while playing basketball and baseball.

Rail: So what happened in those two years? How did you make the decision to be an artist?

Zucker: First of all, I became friendly with an English major named Jerry Bovin, who was an intelligent kid and a good poet. And he was connected to all of the outcasts—the bohemians, the Russian majors, English majors, artists, poets, musicians—so I kind of made this transition from the jock world to the eccentric anti-establishment bad-behaving trouble-making students. There was another kid from the Dayton area, Karl Van Arsdale, who was an extremely gifted cello player, and he couldn’t function in school that well either. Anyway, I stopped playing basketball and got involved with this group, and then took painting class with a phenomenal art teacher, Philip Morsberger, who still remains an influence on me. In fact because of him I even had a show of my grid paintings at Miami in ’64. And the faculty totally hated it. Some of them didn’t even bother to come and they told the students to stay away from the show. My show was up around the same time as Ivan Karp’s show of Pop Art, which he was spreading all over the U.S. at the time, and of course everyone there hated that show as well.

Rail: You said that you studied at the Art Institute with Paul Weigart, who had been Kandinsky’s student at the Bauhaus, but you never really described what sort of paintings you were making then.

Joe Zucker,  “Feynman’s Rainbow,” (2010). 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Joe Zucker, “Feynman’s Rainbow,” (2010). 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Zucker: In those days you learned how to paint apples in the first year, then the second year you learned to put a line around them. In the third year you painted a lot of green faces, and so on. There was a kind of international style or method of teaching Modernism that Weingart represented. There was nothing wrong with him, he was a good teacher, a gentle man, but it just didn’t seem to work for me, partly because I could never put different pieces together as a composition. When I tried to paint something I never could seem to find how my hands matched with what I was painting correctly, so I had tried a lot of things including some ugly automobile paintings, which he was appalled by. “Oh, so ugly. Why did you use such ugly color?” I can still hear it, in his thick German accent [laughs]. Luckily, there was a Francis Bacon show at the Art Institute, which included many of his grayish, all scraped, nasty faces. They’re amazing actually, he’s a beast of that period, so I tried to make some paintings with a similar process of erasing figures, a composite of Bacon and  Nathan Oliveira, whose work I liked a lot. Then I had a professor by the name of Harry Mintz, who was my advisor, and he didn’t care what you did; he was interested in your survival. He was a Polish Jew who left Poland before the Holocaust. And his goal in life was to marry a rich American, which he did. He actually looked like Donald Pleasence and was about 5-foot-3 and he kept telling me survival is the key. “Zucker, Zucker,” he said. “Let me tell you.” One day I was standing in my studio and I couldn’t figure out what to put on the canvas, so I decided I would paint a picture of the canvas. I would reduce it to the subject of how canvas is made, and it was going to be reductive in a way that had to do with the material construction, not reductive in the way of what Mondrian did with Cubism. I also was a big fan of Ad Reinhardt, whom I later invited to come out to our school, as part of the graduate program I jump started with a friend. Things were starting to come together for me. Also, I spent a lot of time looking at all the great paintings at the museum collection. There was this amazing black and orange Clyfford Still, Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles”, Seurat’s “Le Grande Jatte”, and of course de Kooning’s masterpiece, “Excavation.”

Rail: Of course.

Zucker: There was a gigantic Kline painted on beaverboard. I really was more interested in the New York School paintings than I was with the Hairy Who (Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Art Green, among others) group.

Rail: Not even the Monster Roster Group (June Leaf, H.C. Westerman, Leon Golub) or the Chicago Imagists (Ed Paschke, Philip Hanson)?

Zucker: No. Not even with Ray Yoshida and that whole school of surrealism. I felt that I had failed with figurative painting to some extent so I got involved with Ad Reinhardt, especially with his interesting phrases or ideas. For example, someone asks him, “What do you do, Mr. Reinhardt, while you’re repainting the damaged surfaces that come back to you?” And he said, “I stand there and think of all the paintings that haven’t been painted and never will be.” It had a real impact on me: this kind of world where you would never escape from ideas, no matter what style you were dealing with. That was when I began to write about art for the Chicago-Tribune while I was a graduate student. I wrote on Charles Beiderman and I also wrote a review on the collection of a woman named Lillian Florsheim, who collected European Modernist as well as Minimal art.

Rail: Who made beautiful relief paintings.

Zucker: And wrote an amazing book, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge, among other things. Actually, just a year before I had shown a painting at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Then I was making pattern paintings, with oil and wax. And one of them was in the Chicago Art Institute juried show in ’64, and James Rosenquist gave it a prize, which helped to launch my professional career. Essentially, at the time, I was making two types of grid paintings: the painted illusion of grids and the actual fabric-woven structure. And then, in ’66, I was just about to graduate when Jan Van Der Mark, who was then the curator of 20th century art at the Walker Art Center, put me in a show called Twelve Chicago Artists. Meanwhile the war in Vietnam was raging.

Rail: What happened next? Did you get drafted?

Zucker: Well, Jan went to talk to some people at the Minnesota Institute of Art. And based on my paintings, they hired me. That was how I was able to escape the trip to the Mekong Delta.

Rail: You were at the Minnesota Institute for two years?

Zucker: Yes, from ’66 to ’68. I even helped with the first great Christo project at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which was a failed success. Soon after, Don Nice came to the school. He was a Yalie who had been invited by Arnold Herstand, the director at the time and another Yalie, who later opened a gallery in New York in the early ’80s. Anyway, Don came in and saw the work and said, “How would you like a job at the School of the Visual Arts in New York?” I said, “Fantastic. When do I have to be there?” You know, Minneapolis is a great place to throw a football around and burn endless piles of leaves, but there’s something unbelievably comfortable about it. It’s too nice; you could wind up there forever. So I said yes, I’ll take the job.

Rail: That was how you came to New York in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War.

Zucker: Yes. I came in the fall and started teaching right away at SVA with all that bullshit going on. Meanwhile, I found a loft through Richard Serra’s suggestion, and soon I met Chuck Close through Bob Israel.

Rail: Whom you had a two-person show with in Minneapolis in 1967?

Zucker: Exactly, at Dayton Gallery 12, it was called.

Rail: What sort of thing was Bob Israel doing then?

Joe Zucker, “The Villa at Fermion, ” (2010). 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Joe Zucker, “The Villa at Fermion, ” (2010). 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Zucker: Bob was making these amazing stuffed knots, similar to Lynda Benglis’s, but made of beautiful velvet. They had zippered plastic cases, and were quite elegant, very organic, and suggestive, and very minimal. And of course he was making a lot of drawings. Anyway, we all became connected. Chuck painted Bob, me, and a few others. And soon I met Klaus Kertess, and eventually had a show at Bykert Gallery in 1969.

Rail: You know when I saw your “100-Foot-Long-Piece” (1969) at the Parrish Art Museum it somehow reminded me of Serra’s “Verb List,” (1967-68), only as the opposite of Serra’s more restrained framework. In other words, unlike Serra, who never had to fulfill all of his 108 verbs and he only did no more than a couple of them, you seem to exceed your 33 panels compendium of different materials, different styles, whatever the compiled vocabulary that you were to re-enact as a painter?

Zucker: Well, what happened was I went to see an Brice Marden show, and I felt that if you don’t get to a square first, you’re eventually going to wind up lopping off a corner. Somewhere along the way, all the good shapes were already used up; you may end up with the next-to-nothing shapes. But where would I be today if I kept making grid paintings? It’s a question I ask myself. Ultimately, my comment on that is, it certainly is iconoclastic, which was probably a result of my restless attitude at the time.

Also, it had to do with my reading—I was always reading a lot—which can be very literal. But I think you’re right; it’s like walking by these masterpieces, made from different historical periods, whether from Byzantine mosaics, Roman frescoes to Italian Renaissance or from modern to contemporary art, and not being able to choose any one of them. [Laughter.] It’s like when you’re seeing a Kline and a Clyfford Still within one minute as a kid. You see, all the tactile things, like how the oil paint surface looks different than an egg tempera surface, or how beaverboard looks different than wood or canvas, and so on. Regardless of what they meant they will become a festering, psychological situation, a kind of obstinance of repeating. There’s stubbornness about myself. I remember, when I was in Minneapolis, and the Walker Art Center had bought a very subdued dark grid painting that had been in Jan’s show, Gordon Locksley asked me to paint a show like that. And, as a young man, I refused to repeat, except for when I need to go back and revisit what I had done and then try to redo it in a different way. That does not necessarily mean repeating.

Rail: The use of various materials in “100-Foot-Long-Piece” is wild.

Zucker: Yeah, I used fabric, silk screening, raffia, and all kinds of stuff from fabric stores. I believe New York is a giant collage, a thesaurus of styles, from which you can extract part of your art from. That’s what makes it unique. I remember Jan came one day, knocked on my door, and said, “Come with me.” So we go down to Spring Street, and there was Gerhard Richter’s first show in the United States, at Reinhard Onnasch Gallery (1973). It was Jan who immediately saw the similarity between Richter and my non-style. And of course when Brenda Richardson was writing the book on Jennifer Bartlett’s plate pieces she brought up the similarities in our non-styles as well. Later, when I was showing with Holly Solomon, people told her that my work reminded them of Richter. Actually, Richard Artschwager said it best to me once in the Spring Street Bar. He said, “Don’t listen to those people. They don’t know what you’re doing. They don’t understand that you’re making the surface and the image simultaneously. They don’t see that.”

And, the thing is, I can only say this: In the cotton ball painting shown at Mary Boone there’s a guy walking in a field with a gun who’s going to murder two people who are fucking, the overseer is going to kill them, and, all people ever wrote about was my surfaces, as if this content didn’t exist [laughs]. Some people still look at my paintings and talk about how they were made and how beautiful the surfaces are, regardless of what horrendous event is happening in them. Now, when everybody is talking about content, it’s ironic that when I was making things that dealt with slavery or piracy, people only talked about describing material “presence.” What I was and still am doing has always been about trying to take a specific image and put it together with how I made it or what it was made of. For example, if I were dealing with slavery, making a painting out of cotton would suggest the historical connection or the hateful logic. Sometimes the connection of the imagery and the process is like an adjective that describes when two things became one. And sometimes the imagery is farther away than what the thing looks like. The images more often than not call out for the right process of style in order to fully say something. Other times, I’m trying to deal with imagery that can be dealt with on a literal level, and still have a really tight style.

Rail: What about your attraction to mosaic?

Joe Zucker, “The Boson Volcano,” (2010). 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Joe Zucker, “The Boson Volcano,” (2010). 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Zucker: Mosaic is a craft. And when you deal with craft, you deal with generations. You deal with a language of aesthetics that’s passed through reproduction of the soul, in a sense, of people. The father teaches his son, and his son teaches his son, etc. We’re not talking about a relationship of teaching in the same way that Joseph Beuys taught Anselm Kiefer. This universal lineage of craft appealed to me, and my attachment to craft-like objects has to do with the tactile reality that does not need a language to explain its purpose. The cotton ball paintings started out really dumb, possibly a therapeutic situation. But what happened was, I got better at it. I basically went from archaic to Rococo. And this is one of the reasons I stopped it. Once I went to two hands from one hand, it was like monkeys discovering the thighbone and using it as a tool. Once I went to two hands, I made feathers; I made brush strokes. I then could start to mimic, or make ersatz paintings, in a way. Once I asked Alexander van Grebenstein, the director of Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, the Netherlands, who was standing in front of one of those pirate paintings, “Do you see this as an ersatz painting? Do you realize that I conceived of this as a fake painting?” He said, “I don’t see it that way. I see it for what it is, as a painting.” He said, “I think it transcends the notion of ersatz; that these are phony brushstrokes; that they’re fake, in other words.”

Rail: It’s your way of restating the depersonalization of making things. You mentioned craft; there are many similar traditions of folklore and poetry that have been passed down orally. Don’t you think that it’s generous that you allow people, especially young artists, to take different things from your work?

Zucker: I believe that if people understand matching process, how they can operate with things that are out there, they can replicate my work. You can ask, “What’s a good way to make an oil painting? How can I make a relevant painting in this age using oil?” You can if you see paintings, not as a question of subject matter being either/or, abstraction or imagery, but as a puzzle of how to make the two resonate. Not an antithesis, but a solution to talking about something else. This is what I’m trying to get at. Somebody asked me at the lecture I gave recently, “How would you paint a still life today?” I said, “I would paint the first painting of myself looking at some property. The second painting would be me sitting in a real estate office signing the papers. The third one I’d be looking for the right kind of organic vegetables to plant. Painting number four would be me digging, planting the seeds. Number five, watering. Six, I’m harvesting the zucchini. Number seven, I’m sitting with my family eating the zucchini; good healthy meal. Number eight, I’m now painting a Morandi-like still life of zucchini. And then nine, ten, et cetera. There’s a context now that you can kind of find a way to match what you’re going to paint with the process of how to do it.” I think a lot of these things could be made by anyone as long as they want to make them. And that’s the sort of work I’ve always been interested in.

Rail: In the context of the ’80s, in Carroll Dunham’s long and insightful meditation on your work, based on your last three shows in 2004, he brought up Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings as a similar intermingling of materiality and imagery. I am also thinking of artists from the younger generation like Chris Martin, who is making paintings with all kinds of materials such as used carpets, records, pillows, even food, and so on. Many young artists I know are working in the same vein, with or without the grid, so your work is seen in a different light now than in previous decades. In any case, just to shift to another question: I wonder, due to his interest in math—which brought you both to the use of the grid, which is far beyond what Minimalism could offer—do you share an affinity with Alfred Jensen’s work?

Zucker: I looked at a lot of Jensen when I was in New York. Jensen and I have an affinity in that there’s a populist aspect to our work. Jensen was kind of a bricklayer who was closer to Mexican muralists in some ways than he was to Modernist painting. Not unlike Diego Rivera who figured out how to use Duco, which could minimize his skill, and yet add to it as a new look, Jensen’s idea of fresco painting is his own ziggurat. As we know much of grid painting is about high Western formalist language, and I guess you have to decide whether you’re using that kind of universal structure to create propaganda for a wider political view than a narrowed one. It’s interesting that Rivera, the Cubist, left Modernism and went back to his home country in Mexico and became a political entity. This, to me, was a significant art historical moment because Rivera was a very good painter in 1912.  Otherwise, I can say that Jensen’s doesn’t have much of a stylistic influence on my work, but he has a certain theological and conceptual influence on my thinking.

Rail: Do you think there’s a political aspect to that kind of thinking?

Zucker: You see, I grew up going to Bughouse Square on Clark Street, which was the mainstay of old lefties like Louis “Studs” Terkel and others, who stood on milk crates and spoke in public. I suppose that when I made my cotton ball paintings about the South I knew they wouldn’t have any kind of overt political effect. But in the similar context of those people who spoke up their opinions of the issues of the day at Bughouse Square, and now from our discussion, I feel that it is possible with an accumulative body of work that deals with a kind of content, we can make small changes.

Rail: Do you think it may be a matter of your temperament, that your boundless energy and anxiety won’t allow you to stay still with one style?

Zucker: I find a lot of historical painting interesting because of its physicality. Morandi, to me, for example, is like clay. I made some cotton paintings early on that mimicked Morandi’s clay-like objectness. Medardo Rosso, on the other hand, because of his unbelievable control of wax in his portraits, is another case of phenomenal surfaces. So I jump party lines in terms of what things interest me. There’s no commitment in terms of value judgments whatsoever. What I really am interested in is how I can use different means to continue on.

Rail: Can you talk about the genesis of your two new bodies of work?

Zucker: Like many pictures of mine in the last 20 years, they have to do with using water’s relationship to paint, how to make use of its viscosity; they’re what I call the lake paintings. They also arouse out of an association I had with rowboats, which would fill with water, when my family would take summer vacations to Wisconsin in my childhood. There were always these rowboats pulled up on the shore, and they would be tilted in a way in which the back end had a varying degree of water. The original lake paintings served as the container for the paint; they served as the tools. Some of my paintings make themselves in that they are the image, they’re the process, they’re the tools; it’s all together. In other words, the lake paintings were receptacles filled with paint, tilted in such a way that a horizon was created by how the paint dried, not by some aesthetic decision where I should draw a line and separate them. I thought that my paintings would dry and they would create their own horizon organically, much like the water comes in and recedes on the beach. So, after that group, there came the box paintings, which is my way of reconstructing the paint box itself, since it’s becoming obsolete, nearly extinct. The paint box is almost like a drawing of a house, a bedroom, but also of a volcano, as well as a sailing ship, while the bottom part has all the compartments for the brushes, the stand oil, and so on. Then the top half of the box, the lid, is the sky or the ceiling. I assume that when people look at it they can intuit the top as being either or both. Otherwise in each individual compartment I pour different types of enamel based on how they would dry.

Joe Zucker, “The Atrium at Baryon,” (2010). 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood.  Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Joe Zucker, “The Atrium at Baryon,” (2010). 48” by 48,” watercolor/gypsum, plywood. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Rail: And that’s determined by how they’re made, whether flat, semi-gloss, gloss, matte, or super glossy.

Zucker: Yes. And also by the weather, which determines its drying time. In the case of the volcano paintings, I tried to keep a correlation between lava and the surface of the painting; I wanted to have a kind of code in the painting to account for the kind of viscosity and the fluidity of the painting. There’s a political notion that if you are going to make a painting that eventually will be consigned to the depths of some storage facility, you might as well have control over your own crate; why have a crate inside a crate when you can create your own crate? These box paintings are not just about the composition or the aesthetic; they’re also about functionality. And they are made to the size, which I can reach only with my hands. They’re about four, five, or six feet, like a lot of my work; there’s an organic relationship to what I can do myself.

Rail: The way you describe water coming in and out on the beach. I’m convinced that all of de Kooning’s paintings after moving to East Hampton in 1963 gradually became about water’s surface.

Zucker: First of all, de Kooning has had remote influence on these paintings because he clearly knew how to make a friend out of paint. Secondly, in the east end of Long Island, we’re surrounded by water. If there’s a relationship, in that respect, to de Kooning, it is that both de Kooning and I are interested in the physicality of painting and that we’re not interested in the same kind of light that the Impressionists were.

Rail: It’s clear in de Kooning’s case, particularly with the group of mid-’70s paintings such as “Screams of Children Come from Seagulls” (1975) and “Whose Name Was Writ in Water” (1975).

Zucker: I agree. I also think Turner has the same physical relationship with paint.

Rail: In some strange way, so does Albert Pinkham Ryder, with his silhouetted sail boats in the sea, painted with wax and animal fat as medium, which creates this incredible topography of surfaces that crack and move around over time.

Zucker: Ryder is a painter Klaus Kertess often thought of in reference to my early dark cotton ball ships. But it’s true that I’m interested in Ryder, because of not only the way his sail boats are painted but in terms of their conservation problems, their cracks, their fissures; it all contributes to the romance of the physicality. Ryder and Pollock go hand in hand.

Rail: Definitely. Do you think that it’s inherently American to make paintings that have a certain disregard for permanence or other issues relating to archival purposes?

Zucker: That’s something that Chuck Close and I have talked about quite often. We both feel that the need for constructing things is more important than anything else. And that’s the American part of it. If you want to see a symbol of Americans dealing with their past, and this putting things together and venting, you see it in the work of Richard Artschwager and Robert Rauschenberg. Britta and I saw this amazing outsider artist years ago in Barataria, Louisiana, who built these remarkable paddle wheelers, and out of the stuff that washed up on the levee, he constructed these strange and beautiful ships. I think that’s precisely where that all starts.

Rail: Absolutely! Rauschenberg grew up in the South; he was born in Port Arthur, Texas, and later went to school at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. I’m sure he picked up a lot of vernacular art made by self-taught artists like Thornton Dial, and many others.

Zucker: Jürgen Becker, a dealer from Hamburg, once told me something interesting about vernacular art. Ten years or so ago, when his wife was doing an internship in the Medical School of Rice University in Houston, he went to visit her and then went around through different areas in New Orleans and east Texas for sightseeing. And when he went to see the works in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and at the Dallas Museum of Art, he made a connection between why American art is the way it is—especially in Rauschenberg’s work—once he saw American folk art. He saw how color is not used in an optical sense, but it’s used in a matter of constructing. The Rauschenberg show at Gagosian has restated that connection for us again.

Rail: It’s so true. And would you regard your “100-Foot-Long-Piece” in the same tradition?

Zucker: When it was shown at the Parrish Art Museum in 1992 it had been 20 years since it had last been shown in New York, so I added two new sections, one 4-by-8 piece of sheetrock it is a portrait, painted in the gypsum, of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the two anarchists. I even had their eyes etched on the walls during the duration of the show; the other section is an 8-by-12 foot painting made with pegboard. In any case, like most of what I’ve made there’s always continuity in terms of their use of materials. This whole group of nine new paintings came right out of the use of the sheetrock in the added first section of the “100-Foot-Long-Piece.” And at the same time, they relate to my early interest in mosaics. You can say that they’re my own synthesis of mosaic and fresco paintings combined.

What I did was draw a grid on the surface of the sheetrock with ¼ inch modules on a 4-by-4 foot picture. Then one by one I flake off the paper on top carefully with an exacto knife, leaving an irregular surface, and when the paint is added there’s this incredible marriage of watercolor and gypsum. It’s strangely similar to the “Box” and the “Lake” paintings in that there’s this copasetic absorption between the containers and how the gypsum sucks up the paint and each little module becomes a total container of watercolor paint. It’s very much involved with math. Every shape is determined by the use of one-inch masking tape, partly because you can’t draw on the gypsum. In total they’re five paintings of Roman villas that have been decimated or absorbed by inert volcanoes, and the other four are of sailing ships, which are not unlike those in the box paintings in terms of their simplicity, but they’re fantastical in the way that they recall J. G. Ballard’s science-fiction short stories  about the bizarre and ruined world of the future. They’re involved with the search for completeness where every module is structurally finite in some ways, and they can be embedded in the wall. Though I’m not choosing to do that in this exhibition because it would involve too much labor and other technical issues.

Rail: And it took about a good two weeks just to prepare the surface.

Zucker: Yes, and it depends on how the paper comes off of the surface in each square module so that every painting is formatted differently.

Rail: And that some have a different degree of absorption of the pigment than others.

Zucker: Exactly, and the whole painting is the edges. As with painting in general, they’re about edges. If you look at any Renaissance painting you see how the edges of the figures are painted in relationship to the color of the ground. How the edges were all copasetic to the ways the surfaces were sized. In that sense, it’s about whether you can control the visibility and the clarity of your imagery in your paintings, how you want people to see them, as best you can. All of these issues made me rethink Cézanne’s paintings, in that there’s something about his paintings that doesn’t have to do with his style, but it has to do with math. There’s no such thing as an empty space in Cézanne’s painting.

Rail: Every square inch of the painting is painted with a certain equal physical distribution of paint and space. Which leads us to your interest in Unified Theory. All of the titles of the works, from “The Atrium at Baryon” to “The Villa at Fermion,” for example, are all related to particle physics while others, “Conway’s Game of Life,” “Feynman’s Rainbow,” and “Grand Design,” were named after famous books by John Horton Conway, Leonard Mlodinow, and Stephen Hawking and Mlodirow, respectively.

Zucker: As string theorists have pointed out to us, there is no empty space. I’m interested in science as a different way of looking at aesthetics, one that deals with the materiality. I think the more painting is related to objects, the more it’s in touch with the universe. This is something that Alfred Jensen would probably approve of. There is a strange correlation between certain people who believe in the philosophies of mother earth, of how the Native Americans understood physics, what is called, “new world philosophy,” and the mechanics of physics. What I’m saying is that there’s a broader notion to this correlation than making something flat and precious, which has its own validity, and I am equally interested in that kind of touch as well. At any rate, the last chapter in the Hawking and Mlodinow book Grand Design deals with this premise. It’s called “Conway’s Game of Life,” which is an unbelievable way of depicting in grids the construction of the universe. There is a generated image of how they make these theorems become visible.

Rail: And the book is controversial, especially to those who believe in God.

Zucker: Well, Hawking and Mlodinow say there’s no room for God, that once you discover how everything is made, there’s no need for God. They believe essentially we’re dealing with determinism and chaos theory.

Rail: Hawking said, which I read and memorized from MTA’s “Train of Thought” in the subway, “The whole history of science has been a gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.”

Zucker: When I met Mlodinow at Mary Boone’s we went out and had coffee. He said that whether his book gets published or not is all based on chaos. He also said the only thing our society is based on is societal chaos, that the rest of it is all predetermined. He said that he knows people who have written phenomenal books that can’t get published, and that Hawking himself is a circumstance of chaos because of his disease, that there’s many other thinkers in creative physics that are equally as competent or more important than him, but it’s chaos that led to him becoming the star of theoretic physics.

Rail: How do you see the different in this new body of work as different from those of the recent past?

Zucker: Well, my absolutely tyrannical control over materials has always coincided with my own understanding of my own skills. I’m not going to try to make something that excuses incompetence. I’m going to try to match what my talents can do to what my ambitions are, of course with wit if I can help it. I think the nine new paintings reach a level for me that I don’t often obtain. Most of the time I look at my work and say, “It worked. It’s done. It connects.” Sometimes I don’t like the paintings very much, but that’s not the issue. These paintings are about paintings and they really work well together, and sort of raise the bar for the next group.

Rail: One last question: how often do you coach your basketball team?

Zucker: I go generally five days a week from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sometimes we practice early on Saturday. Our last regular season game is in February, but we have an excellent chance of making it to the state regionals.

Rail: What do the players think of you?

Zucker: A lot of my kids come to my shows, and they like it. It’s great because they can see there’s a way where sometimes you can do what you want.

I guess I like coaching basketball because there’s something about basketball that’s very systematic, which relates to how I think as a painter.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 10-JAN 11

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