A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

Q&A with Joe Zucker

by Anjulie Rao (MA 2014)

During your time as a student at SAIC, which artists influenced the development of your style?

My mother...took art history classes at the Art Institute, and she was so influenced by one of the teachers that...I was packed off to the junior school at the age of five.

This is really what has led to why I am so diverse as an artist. If you think of somebody five years old walking through that museum for 20 years, you get a kind of involvement with the totality. You get a positive attitude about what you see. It all soaks in if you're very young. This becomes an important experience. So the biggest influence was the diversity of the collection.

Why is the grid such a prominent feature in your work? 

In the painting studio, I just couldn't figure out a way to paint anything that was relevant. And one of those days I got the idea staring at the white canvas: it's construction. Instead of reducing—as our father, Clement Greenburg taught us—the subject of the painting to the limits of the stretcher bars, I decided to tunnel into the warp and weave of the fabric itself, so that I was not really reducing it beyond the white blank canvas. I was now reducing it to the very structure.

In your 2007 BOMB interview with Chuck Close, you say, "In a lot of things that I do, the imagery is determined by the material..." Why did you choose gypsum board as a canvas for your most recent show?

To get the paper off the gypsum sheet rock, you had to peel off the paper so you could get down to the plaster. So then I had a plaster fresco to work on. And watercolor is the best medium to work with a fresco. You apply the paint, and it soaks right in. There is a fantastic technical relationship between  gypsum and plaster and watercolor.

It's a question of high/low. I think that that this is why materials like gypsum board—the notion of taking something that's coarse and mundane and moving it into the area of the pristine. That 38–cent, shitty gypsum board is now made into a painting. 

You once said, "Labor-intensive art has been reduced not by the lack of interest in Zen philosophy but by the computer." What are your hopes for the future of painting?

When I talk about labor and Zen, I think of all the people in the early days in New York that were driven by the notion of process—not the product. The moments alone with that object...I think there was a time factor that didn't give you instant gratification. I think a lot of things done now are advancing popular culture in which people like myself, who are trying to break down the notion of quintessential style, open the floodgates in which even personal identity is evaporating. Unfortunately, I think young artists have to deal with instant gratification. 

Do you have any advice for young artists on what practices they should focus on during their time in school?

I have been a believer that the more you know the better you are as an artist. That if you can draw, or understand philosophy, or are into theoretical physics—great. I think that all provides a wellspring for ideas, and people have hidden talents. If you allow diversity in your program, there's space for you to take your intellect and make something creative. I think that's very valuable. In school, you need all the ammunition you can get.

Any other general advice for young artists who are about to graduate? 

A sense of competitiveness and obsessiveness about what you're doing is absolutely paramount. The hardest thing is to go to the galleries and face up to what you see. Also, young artists must ask themselves, "How much of [my] life [am I] going to give?" A friend once told me you can't give it all—you can only give 90 percent. If you give it all, you aren't you. I think that's good advice.