On the occasion of Joe Zucker’s exhibition, New New Neoclassicism, at The Drawing Room, Jane Goleas sat down with the artist to discuss the trajectory of his painting practice, his literary painting style, and how acts of faith pertain to the painting.
Janet Goleas (Rail): We’re here with Joe Zucker in his East Hampton studio to discuss his exhibition at The Drawing Room. It’s a show you’ve titled Neo Neo Neoclassicism, and the works on exhibit will be the gridded, gypsum panels, a concept you’ve been engaged in for many years, that are embedded into the gallery walls. One of the fascinating things to me is how early you came to associate material and process in your work. Tell us about your working with gypsum and the grid and how it began.
Joe Zucker: Well, the reason I wound up with the grid starts a long time ago when I was in graduate school— undergraduate school, actually—and I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to paint. I didn’t like anything I did. I was dominated by painting professors who basically pushed all the notions of the European Modernists, but I was much more interested in art that was produced in New York, even though at that time I was in Chicago at the Art Institute. One day, standing before a white canvas with nothing on it, I had an epiphany. The thing that would work logically as a painting would be a painting about how the canvas itself is constructed. I could paint a portrait of the warp and weave of cotton duck canvas, and not only did that make sense, it sort of obliterated the issue of whether or not the painting was representational—it would put the focus on being an object. That kind of logic—matching up materials with how things are made and how that becomes the content of that piece—has continued all those years, starting from 1963 to the present.
For instance, in the mid-70s I did a series of paintings that are pretty well known. They were about the South and the gathering of cotton—plantations, violence, and racism—and the price that one pays for the ability to buy cotton canvas. There was a logic attached to these works in that if you were going do some paintings about race and about the South and the Civil War, the logical material to use would be cotton. I did a group of paintings where individual cotton balls were turned into brush strokes.
Rail: And that was groundbreaking for you.
Zucker: Well, it was interesting because there was a political value to the work that let people off the hook—a lot of political art had to do with lecturing to people, and you can’t do that with painting. What I had was a kind of dark humor—no pun intended—and there was a way through this body of work without lecturing. In fact, when Roberta Smith reviewed the show in the New York Times, she didn’t even mention the content. In the 70s, literal content or work with meaning was pretty much verboten.
Rail: Yes, exactly.
Zucker: In much of my work I’ve used the same type of idea—pick a subject matter, find the material which reinforces what you want to say with the subject matter, and try to unify the basics—the subject, the process, the material, etc. The gypsum paintings began in the late 1970s. I use a type of fresco—painting on the wall—that I’ve been interested in for many years. I’m very interested in Pre-Enlightenment painting—the work from Duccio all the way back to the Romanesque—because some of the material, particularly Russian icons—although they’re clumsy, figurative, and primitive—they contain every aspect of the contemporary modernist sentiment.
The gypsum pieces became a sort of fresco—a dry fresco—once you remove the paper from a sheet of wallboard you can work directly with the surface of the plaster. The next step was to grid out the surface and determine the subject, most of which was classic. That’s my interest in Neoclassicism. The paintings that were shown at Mary Boone’s were specifically columns, atriums, etc., so we had a marriage of a certain kind of subject matter and a classical gridded format. The final piece in that puzzle was the fact that I used watercolor to paint the paintings. The watercolor just sucked into the plaster grid.
Rail: You’ve talked about the way the plaster absorbs the watercolor, and Roberta Smith referred to your Rococo palette.
Zucker: Well, I did two shows of those paintings. In the first one there were ships, the kind of vessels that plied up the coast of Italy in the 9th century; very fundamental sailing vessels—colorful—of course a lot of imagery in classical times was very colorful, though it’s now faded to white. The second series at Mary’s were all grisailles—they were all grays—they were all more specific to the insides of residential buildings from the classical periods.
Rail: Is this imagery from your imagination, or are you referencing a specific place or time?
Zucker: The imagery is created by the size of the modules I use to make it legible. And this goes back to the early work that we were talking about. You find that the process itself has a way of giving the work a place of its own that doesn’t rely on a particular language that explains whether it’s abstract or representational. The basic arithmetic in all of my paintings has to do with the degree of legibility.
Rail: It’s fascinating—you’re sort of your own Rosetta Stone—these grids expand exponentially and offer such structure and such an effective visual strategy.
Zucker: Well, I do that intentionally because I have no one specific style. It’s often where I’m showing them that helps me decide what work goes in that space. To give you an example, I just had a show at Michele Maccarone in Los Angeles. I exhibited a painting constructed from a thousand mops that I had turned into big brushstrokes. They fit there because that gallery is 50,000 square feet—it worked well in that physical space.
Now I have the show at The Drawing Room, which is a small space. So instead of nine paintings hanging on the wall, I turned the gallery into big frames—the gallery itself frames the work. Because they’re installed in the wall, it gives the impression that I made them there—that I drew a grid on the wall and then went in with watercolor and an Xacto knife.
Rail: It feels a little bit like Pompeii in the gallery—that the paintings have always been there.
Zucker: Yes, sometimes when you go to a museum—the Metropolitan—you see relics from the past that have been extracted from classical sources and then reinstalled in a particular format. It gives them a certain kind of life of their own in a new context. With these works, I’ve completely removed the notion of easel painting.
Rail: I’d like to talk about subverting the status quo back then by looking at your paintings as objects and getting away from the aesthetics of Modernism. You went straight into process—a brave thing to do in your 20s.
Zucker: When I showed the paintings I made from 1964 to 1966, I was 25. I had just started teaching in Minneapolis. Part of the process that’s really important to me involves craft—a craft process rather than a completed stylistic resolution. Barry Le Va worked with a process that was not permanent and it also evolved into a way of dealing with craft. I was also interested in work that was produced by outsider artists and in humor, which was the biggest taboo in the 1960s.
Rail: And that’s such a big part—humor, or irony—of your work.
Zucker: One set of paintings of mine were of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria—and if a person wasn’t thinking of irony and the fact that logic and painting are tied, I don’t know what they would be thinking about. Painting has its own logic. It not necessarily has to do with Heidegger—painting utilizes philosophy for its own purposes. But when I did the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria—they were all tondos—I was dealing with the fact that the earth was believed to be flat, and there were fears of sailing off the edge. A lot of the aesthetic in painting back then had to do with Clement Greenberg and being very aware of the canvas edge. So there was humor in a way that was involved with language.
There’s a difference between humor and fun. You know the old cliché that making people laugh—being a comedian—is harder than doing Shakespeare. And there’s a truth to that. The interesting thing to me about craft was the reproduction that occurred within a family unit—a defined population that led to another generation of artists. They weren’t involved in a didactic language; they were involved with a language that was passed on from generation to generation.
Rail: Aspects of craft are still a bit taboo.
Zucker: One of the reasons they’ve lightened up on it is so many women have used it as a political statement. When I was doing those early paintings, the only person that I knew in the world that treated that kind of irony seriously was Rosy Trockel, a wonderful artist.
Rail: Well, you’re not a humorist. But there’s a lot of the literary in your work. The philosophy embedded in that structure is one of the subjects within your painting. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s dark.
Zucker: That enables you to deal with the broader issue of not having the development of a quintessential style or devoting yourself to a pre-existing language. I can reduce it to a very simple equation. It’s a war between words and brushstrokes.
Rail: That’s a perfect description.
Zucker: I mean, if there are more words than brushstrokes then you’ll be judged as an academic. If you have more action—more brushstrokes—and that’s a metaphor of course—you are in a process of inventing because there is no language that exists for it. In most cases the language already exists. Young people today are free to go back and appropriate a lot of things because so many years have passed. It almost doesn’t make any sense to discuss art history of the last 30 years because it’s not the moment we’re living in. All it does is add to an already massive didactic that exists in the world we’re in. It’s better to be more concise.
Rail: It’s interesting you say that, because when I think of artists that have had long work lives—from Titian to Picasso—the thing that seems to come as you develop is economy. Tony Bennett said that age had allowed him to drop the flourishes, and his singing became more pure—less encumbered by style. Do you find there’s a greater sense of economy in your work after 50 some years in your studio?
Zucker: I’m really more of a person that attacks their work more like a novelist. My work really has a literary background in that I can’t paint what I like—I only can paint for what I have a logical system. With that, you win some you lose some, because some of the systems just don’t produce as strong a painting. But I don’t fix that, and I don’t look for a new system. I accept the fact that this painting didn’t work as well as I’d planned.
Mary Boone asked me about the gray paintings. She asked, which one do you like the best? This is so archaic! I said, “All I care about when I do a body of work is, do they compete with the best two or three groups of paintings I’ve ever made.” I’m not going to say which ones I like the best—that’s for the person who wants it to decide. You’re empowering people to make a decision that is supposedly about art. It makes me sound dated, but art is supposed to have some meaning in and of itself. I try to switch from hot to cold. A lot of times when I teach, I deal with the students in terms of helping them to decide if what they’re looking at has high temperature or cool temperature. As the years go on, I try to make sure that one set of paintings allows the next set to exist. If one set is beautiful, then you can bet that there would be one that’s off-putting, so that there’s a dialogue. Trying to develop a style is a very linear thing. The problem with working that way is that it involves faith—it tells you that as a painter you can do crafty paintings for five years, and then one morning you wake up and have a breakthrough. I just don’t believe in that.
Rail: (laughter) Well, painting is sort of an act of faith.
Zucker: Well, overall, but I’m not even so sure. As I look at the origins of how painters supported themselves, so much of it had to do with being subservient craftsmen. I think that’s where we start to look at the development of Modernism. I had a hard time explaining this to a student at Stonybrook—I did the graduate seminars there one year—and there was a woman that did a lot of self-portraits. They were big pencil drawings—pretty well done. So I asked her what they were about—what is the content. She said, “These are about being a bad girl.” She said there’s an unfortunate assumption that all women are nice, but these works were about a woman being bad. I said, “You’re dealing with a kind of content in which you’re proselytizing, you’re teaching people, lecturing to them.” I asked if she ever thought of her audience. Once you start preaching you’ve got to have an audience, and that requires your audience to have faith. Just think of comparing your audience to the people in the Giotto chapel in Padua, where thousands of people make the pilgrimage to that unbelievable church.
Rail: But once you engage your audience you’re in a shared act of faith. And with the Giottos, there is a sort of chicanery in realism that leads people to believe they understand what they’re looking at. But if they’re not aware of biblical interpretation and the climate in which the paintings were created, they know only a fraction of their meaning.
Zucker: Well, for instance, the paintings for The Drawing Room are perfect for that space. But there are people that will come in and look at these things and not at all understand the totality of the exhibit. These paintings are a part of the wall, the building. And if a person acquires a work, the owner participates in the process—they can install it with the sheetrock leaning, they can make the sheetrock larger. It’s proactive. And that is part of the work itself. And all of that—all those negotiations between the dealer, the collector, the artist—become a part of its totality.
Rail: It’s a marriage of sorts—between the dealer and the artist.
Zucker: That’s why it was good to work with Michelle with the mops, because she had input—how many to show—it wasn’t like this painting is stronger than that painting. You were dealing with a painting that took a year and half to make. It’s unique in its monumentality—it’s a thousand modules, each one representing a brushstroke. But it’s not really like a big painting. It’s more like an extension of the act of painting, where you’re performing. The residue of that performance became the painting.
Rail: You also have a hundred foot painting. Is that work like an epic novel to you?
Zucker: It represents, according to Brenda Richardson, a great art historian and curator, the most serious attempt to deal with the problems of the development of essential style. Jennifer Bartlett and I work in a similar approach, and no two artists in the history of art have spent as much time and energy dealing with the same set of issues—how to get rid of repetition. A friend of mine, Jan van der Marck, was a curator at the Walker. He was a cutting edge curator in his day—very supportive of process art and performance. In 1969 he took me to the first show of (Gerhard) Richter in the United States. Jan wanted me to see it because there was a similarity—Richter also painted in various ways, and his painting styles, while academic, were all quite different. There was a connection, as there was with two other German artists, (Sigmar) Polke and (Martin) Kippenberger. But America deals in singularity. In my life, I’ve really made one big painting.
Rail: I often think of some of my favorite artists, especially those that have had long careers, as warriors that have plowed through the art world on their own terms. You’re not vanquishing an enemy, but you are using all that psychological power to stake a claim on your art.
Zucker: The traditional thing you’re talking about is Impressionism giving birth to Expressionism. There are maybe eight artists in each group that become historically relevant. But if there is no “ism,” then every artist has a certain amount of credibility. I think where my work is really different is that the days of individualism are over.
Rail: But it’s almost de rigueur now to have different styles—Mark Bradford, Kiki Smith, Joe Bradley—these artists are definitely of warrior status and work in so many ways. Do you think the art community has changed to embrace this idea.
Zucker: People think the 60s were great, but they were just the same. However, the artists got more back. The people that were making art, a lot of them were very well-educated, very serious people. Oberlin, Yale. I mean, Carl Andre didn’t just appear from nowhere. When you got feedback from these people—that was part of being an artist. It had to do with faith, that we were talking about earlier. Sales then weren’t what they’re like now. So, when you got feedback from other artists about your show, about your work—that was the art world.
Rail: The community—the art community—is so different now.
Zucker: In my age group, if they thought your work was bad, it was bad because you were violating the mantra of the day. It was, “You can’t do this.”
Rail: But you did do that. In the Bomb interview, you referred to the requisite “tonnage”—that if you didn’t have a bulldozer or 10,000 acres in the desert to make art you couldn’t be taken seriously. So, to reconstitute imagery in your own system of beliefs was a radical thing to do.
Zucker: Well, people don’t understand how important Heiner Friedrich was. All his artists received tremendous support. Those artists—I don’t even know how much they sold—they didn’t have to because Heiner was so committed to that aesthetic. If you were a minimalist and you were outside that group, it wasn’t possible to do as well. Like Barry Le Va, whose work was often very temporal. He made things out of felt. He made paintings out of flour on the floor. His work was so transitory that the market for it was complex. In the 60s and in the early 70s, people don’t realize, but if you weren’t showing with Leo, you weren’t showing. So, every other artist worked doubly hard to compensate for not being part of the Castelli network. And that figures in—what people do in their studio, what their ambitions are, how tough you have to be—it all figures in.
Rail: That’s the warrior.
Zucker: Well, really, the art world was made up of very tough artists who were highly competitive. Richard Serra, who I knew pretty well—he helped me find a loft—Richard was a Yaley. We all knew one another. A lot of them were involved with Bykert Gallery. But one time Richard wanted to come by and see my work, and I was doing these parrot paintings—they were outrageous! It was like Rivington Street art. It was tasteless. I called him up, and I cancelled. It’s the only time I’ve done that. I just couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t possibly draw a correlation about certain issues that I felt I was dealing with. I didn’t do these paintings because I wanted to. They were a necessary step toward the next paintings.
Rail: It’s hard to find out what you do.
Zucker: An interesting artist to me, whose work I’ve thought about for years, was Henri Rousseau, who I think is a sort of mathematics person. All those leaves and all that pixilation that was in his work—I don’t think he understood any of that. I think he was into the leaves.
Rail: You’ve mentioned Cézanne, and there is a connection between you and Cézanne.
Zucker: Cézanne’s problem was that he couldn’t control the shapes. He would have loved Agnes Martin because of her style of painting and the fact that everything is accounted for. I think that he and Van Gogh both were victims of Asperger’s syndrome. They were both anti-social, both struggled to get parts to fit in their paintings.
Rail: Well, there is an element of exquisite torture in Cézanne.
Zucker: Two or three people have written dissertations on the possibility of them having Asperger’s. I intuited it. There’s probably someone out there now painting like Cézanne.
Rail: I hope so.
Zucker: Somebody will find them.
Rail: Well, to me there is anguish in his work, but always a sense of pure discovery. I’m not so partial to the figures, but his landscapes and still lifes—oh my God—the active sense of discovery is so gratifying.
Zucker: He couldn’t draw that well, and as a draftsman the figure was harder for him to deal with than mountains. He has so much to do with the modernist notion that drawing and painting are the same. So that covers up his weakness as a draftsman. I mean, he’s okay, but he’s not Watteau or Diego Rivera or Chuck Close.
Rail: Well, even Titian’s draftsmanship betrayed him.
Zucker: And it showed. I went to see the Matisse Picasso show out in Queens—Rob Storr did it, if I’m not mistaken. The Matisses were magnificent. The Picasso paintings were okay, but the incredible thing was Picasso’s pencil drawings. His portrait of Nancy Cunard—I mean—he could give to people something that was off the charts—they exist in another world, beyond criticism.
Rail: We talked earlier about overcoming your own talent, but Picasso lived in his talent and used it all. I think a lot of contemporary artists have let go of whole areas of talent—drawing and other skills—because we can’t find a relevant way to deploy them.
Zucker: I always encourage people who can draw not to underestimate or undermine their skills.
Rail: This has been a wonderful talk, Joe. Thank you so much for sharing so many thoughts with me.
Zucker: I think it’s sort of an obligation. I asked Klaus (Kertess) a few years ago, “Where has all this gone? Who’s writing about the 60s?” He felt the time period had been sorely neglected. So, I think it’s important to share these stories. Thank you. I had a good time.