press release

Nyehaus is pleased to present works by New York artist Joe Zucker from 1977 to 2008, on view at the gallery from Thursday, September 4th to Saturday, October 4th, 2008. Joe Zucker's cotton ball paintings, drawings and scrolls visit themes on pirate history, adventure stories, and films—and ask us to step back and look again, at "Slaver Trinidads," skulls and cross bones, a "Confused Sea" and raft-bound Rogers who aren't always Jolly. Joe Zucker’s breaking up of pictorial information into modular units by using cotton balls and trimmings in bulk lent his enterprise a kind of perverse grid and process art dimension even as its Pop aspects violated those aesthetics on every other level. By the way, “information” was another favorite word of the 1970s and should echo in the ears of veterans and students of the period with a Spike Jones clangor, since it was usually applied to “dematerialized” Idea Art, whereas in the context of Zucker’s work the idea was deliberately, knowingly, “dumb” and its presentation deliberately, vulgarly material. As to the holy grid, like many of his Soho generation Zucker had been a true believer, so to the extent that his mature but rambunctious 1970s work talked back to it, he was talking back to himself. And what of the subjects of the cotton works? Well, cotton, for one. Or rather emblems of the Old South like riverboats churning the Mississippi, emblems so corny by the late 1970s – not to say so suspect in their Gone with the Windism and, if one adds the comic depiction of a slave ship, so close in their double-edged irreverence to Kara Walker’s antic send up of Antebellum lore - that they presented themselves as impossible to take seriously, thus placing serious art lovers in a bind. For how, on the one hand, could good painting happen to a bad theme, and then again how could good painting be made of medicine cabinet puffs and sweat shop left-overs. On the other hand, if it was just bad painting about a bad idea how could the result seem so fresh, be so arresting have such graphic authority, hold the wall with such physical presence, appear so snappy and so clunky at the same time? Those were the dilemmas Zucker embedded in his pictures to upend High Formalism, offering them to his audience as though he was a virtuoso comic telling a crude joke that turns out not too crude nor entirely a joke but sticks in the mind . And he told it while juggling, since his performance also included dexterous juxtapositions of clownish drawing, elegant abstract arabesques and a palette of subtle blues, greens and earth tones, that would turn a Rococo muralist jade with envy - Zucker’s humor may be slapstick, however his work is anything but slapdash – even as he boldly rifled the bag of tricks then in use by Pattern and Decoration painters with ornate borders composed of shark fins, cannon balls and skulls and crossed bones. In the latter connection, Zucker pushed the iconographic envelope, further opting for ever more outlandish subjects of which his swashbuckling galleon and junks are the most extravagant and absurd. All of this was in a period before Johnny Depp camped his way through Pirates of the Caribbean and Paul McCarthy smeared his way through his scatological recreation of Errol Flynn movies. All at a time in the 1970s when nothing was as uncool as the Jolly Roger. Which made it perfect for Zucker. The relish with which he plundered and then embellished these creaky motifs is evident every step of the way from deft black on white Magic Marker sketches and color studies in the same medium – some of these studies are left half blank and titled accordingly in what appears to be a capricious riff on formalist manipulations of the picture plane - on up through the roughly five by eight foot canvases dense with imagery and nested cotton.

That said, Zucker’s work of the 1970s looked ahead stylistically not just around its immediate vicinity. One can imagine Carroll Dunham having made his Styrofoam ball studded stain paintings without being aware of Zucker’s cotton ball work given that Dunham’s satires of abstraction fit naturally in the progression of his output overall, but the truth is that an artist as sophisticated and alert as Dunham must have seen what Zucker was doing and must have experienced it as both a permission and a challenge. Whether whiz-kid Barnaby Furness is a closet Zucker fan is impossible to say, but the pyrotechnics of his watercolors strongly suggest than he is – or should be. But from whatever angle one chooses to look at them now, Zucker’s patched together pieces of the 1970s seem less and less anomalous with respect to what painting became than they seemed anomalous to what painting was when the members of the “New Image Painting” movement made their bid for fame before going their own ways, less like a puzzle piece that does not fit the big picture than one – made of colored cotton – that has taken the shape of gaps in that big picture, a missing element whose recurrence consolidates the pattern of the whole or at least accents odd ball patterns within it. Excerpts from Robert Storr’s “When Cotton Was King” - 2008 A publication including essays by Glenn C. Altschuler, Robert Storr and Adina Popescu accompanies the exhibition and is available for purchase through Nyehaus. Nyehaus is an exhibition space founded by devoted contemporary art collector and curator Tim Nye. In addition, Nyehaus commissions new works in order to expand and enliven the dialogue within an artist's oeuvre. Located in the National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South, 8D, Nyehaus is open by appointment from Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, please visit

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Joe Zucker
Plunder from 1977 to 2208