Joe Zucker: 100-Foot-Long Piece, 1968-1969
On ViewMarlborough Contemporary
September 5 – October 5, 2019
Let's get into Joe Zucker's time machine. 100-Foot-Long Piece (1968-1969) is our point of departure, but Zucker brings us up to date with nine acrylic-cotton pieces from 2019. The show is not exactly a retrospective, but enough of one: nine gestural drawings in India ink from 1964 and two vitrines stuffed with miscellanea, including Zucker's high school diploma, a photo of him playing varsity basketball, and a host of gallery announcements and posters capture his chameleon nature. The man is an artistic shape shifter, a myriad-armed Shiva working in multiple directions simultaneously.
100-Foot-Long Piece, which he showed at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton in 1992, is a demanding exercise in the phenomenology of artistic perception. We cannot experience it in its entirety because if we back away from it far enough to do so, we cannot see the details. And in Zucker’s work, details are everything. So, we wonder whether this is a story-telling mural, an art form intended to transcend the static nature of visual arts and become narrative, or if it is simply a huge work of art we can only comprehend by viewing its component parts and then reconstructing the totality in visual memory.
It is possible to break 100-Foot-Long Piece down into 11 or so constituent segments. After all, it took Zucker a year to complete the work, so the idea of evolution is built into its very production. Read left to right, the first two segments deal with education and mortality. In the first segment, there are cones reminiscent of the geometry textbook diagrams for conic sections, evincing the artist's fascination with geometry. Death appears in the second panel in the form of a tombstone—not Zucker's, but the death of another. It becomes a memento mori and turns the artist's attention toward building a career that will bring a provisional immortality.
Beginning in the third section, we see Zucker's lifelong fascination with ropes, arranged in patterns like the rigging of a sailing ship. We also see knots, which we may take not only as alluring shapes but as stopping points in time, reminders or markers. This weaving, which in Zucker's development will become more intimately linked to fabric, is painted illusion here, reflecting the idea that even abstraction is concerned with artifice and that fabric and fabrication are related ideas. At the same time, figural art, harking back to those India ink cartoonish drawings of 1964, is not absent. In the fourth panel a full-length male figure in Expressionist style appears, looking rather like Jack the Ripper.
But the drift of the remaining panels is toward abstraction in the form of weaving and fabric, this despite what seems to be a rocket ship in the ninth panel accompanied by red coat hangers bent into heart shapes. But in the final, black and white panel, there is something different. Zucker resorts to a graffiti style that mixes pixel-like shapes with everyday elements: G.E. light bulbs, restaurant signs that say “CLOSED” or “NO PUBLIC TOILET.” As if to say, my artistic world is bound to abstraction and a constant rearrangement of colors and woven patterns, but I still live in the real world and take full cognizance of it.
Both a mural whose story is fragmented, and a disjointed disconnected narrative, the 100-Foot-Long Piece is an artistic and personal autobiography transformed into a gigantic, magnificent icon.
Zucker's 2019 acrylic and cotton pieces are on a more domestic scale. All untitled (or to be titled as the checklist optimistically puts it), these are works of considerable gravitas despite their materials. Walls or bulwarks, these meticulously structured pieces resemble fortress parapets made of rough-cut stone. In that sense, but in that sense alone, they recall Peter Halley's prison paintings, especially the monochrome versions. Somber and powerful, they are Zucker's defense line: time cannot penetrate them.