Joe Zucker Bought Into $100,000 Building in 1960s NYC

U.S. artist Joe Zucker has a new series titled “Empire Descending a Staircase” at Mary Boone Gallery.

In his paintings, Zucker, 71, deconstructs the Doric columns he draws, as well as the materials he uses.

He cuts quarter-inch grids into drywall panels and removes the surface paper, leaving the highly absorbent gypsum plaster. Then each tiny square receives a touch of his watercolor brush with a shade of gray. The monochromatic mosaic effect recalls pointillism.

We spoke two weeks ago at Zucker’s Manhattan pied-a-terre, where he nests when not at his East Hampton home.

Rosboch: The show’s title alludes to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”

Zucker: I’m talking about an empire descending a staircase, not about the issues of what art is and the shock of the new.

I’m talking about trying to make a picture, an all-inclusive view of the decline, possibly, of western ideas where ironically painting may be elevated back into a neoclassic concept even though the society is deteriorating.

Long Ago

Look at David’s “The Death of Marat,” beautifully painted. Neoclassicism in its longing for quality really can flourish when decadence is up to your eye level. And we’re wallowing in decadence.

So what I did is different from Duchamp. I was trying to make paintings where beauty and control would be relevant in a politically charged art world.

Rosboch: You came to New York in 1968.

Zucker: You have no idea what the ’60s were like. With five other people, we had to buy a building on Prince Street -- we were blackmailed by the agent and he was going to take us all out if we didn’t buy it. So we paid $100,000 for a seven-story building.

On the ground floor was a luncheonette with terrible food, and I wound up with all kinds of dreadful recipes. I’d get up in the morning and start making fried peppers, garlic and onions.

Across the street was the famous Fanelli. Mike would come by and give artists free pasta e fagioli or your wife free stockings.

There wasn’t much else, only a few downtown galleries like Bykert and Paula Cooper.

Rosboch: How has the art scene changed?

Zucker: A critic friend of mine, Terry Myers, put it best: “In the early days there were plenty of places to live and nowhere to show. Now, there are plenty of places to show and nowhere to live.”

Other than that, there’s not as much communication between artists. And there’s big pressure on young people -- they must feel they’ve got to make it by their late 20s. The lack of a mainstream direction must be hard.

Theoretical Physics

Rosboch: You’re an avid reader. Does literature influence your work?

Zucker: Not directly. I read a lot of contemporary fiction and thrillers and some science stuff as well -- theoretical physics. I think that’s really interesting in terms of painting.

The essence is that now that they’ve discovered the Higgs boson and everything is composed of matter, there’s nothing that’s not matter.

I thought that was very curious in terms of somebody like Cezanne, for instance, who struggled with the rendering of space and form. And I have a feeling that maybe he sensed that everything was mass and that’s why he had trouble with shapes.

The show runs through April 27 at 745 Fifth Ave.; +1-212-752-2929;

(Lili Rosboch writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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