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Joe Zucker, prolific painter of innumerable styles, dies at 82

A photo provided by Maxine Hicks shows artist Joe Zucker in his studio in East Hampton, N.Y., in 1999.MAXINE HICKS/NYT

Joe Zucker, an influential painter who took his obsession with process and materials to unique extremes, died May 15 at his home in East Hampton, New York. He was 82.

His wife, Britta Le Va, said the cause was multiple organ failure. Mr. Zucker had suffered numerous health problems since being injured in a car crash in 2022, including, near the end of his life, metabolic encephalopathy and three underlying infections.

Through a prolific and inventive six-decade career, Mr. Zucker made too many visually distinct types of work to easily summarize. But he aimed for “a logical connection from one diverse style to the next,” he told his friend Chuck Close in a 2007 interview for Bomb magazine. And all of the work was “conceptual and literal,” he said, attempting to fuse the means of its making with its ends.


“What I was and still am doing,” he told The Brooklyn Rail in 2010, “has always been about trying to take a specific image and put it together with how I made it or what it was made of.”

Drawn to make work about the lingering sin of American slavery and its ties to the cotton industry, Mr. Zucker dipped thousands of cotton balls into acrylic paint and glued them to canvas, as he did for “Paying Off Old Debts” (1975), a 10-foot-long sepia-tinged image of a Black man moving an enormous bale on a hand truck. He also used paint-dipped cotton balls to make brightly colored pieces, like “Woman With Halo and Sceptre,” that referred back to ancient mosaic.

He made work about painting itself, pouring acrylic directly into shallow boxes of the type used to store paintings, transforming the boxes into monochrome works in themselves. His depictions of sailing ships, too, had a curiously concrete double meaning — a ship’s wooden masts and canvas sails were the perfect stand-ins for wooden stretcher bars and canvas surfaces.


“Some people think I love sailing ships,” he told Close, “but for me they are just part of a visual strategy.”

He painted abstract grids and colorful boxing matches, drew cartoons of dinosaurs, constantly revised an enormous multimedia wall hanging called “100-Foot-Long Piece” and, in 1984, made a “Portrait of Joseph Smith” with five wooden squeegee handles sticking out past the frame — one each to hold two gloves, two socks and a ski mask.

The intentions behind all these approaches were probably as manifold as the approaches themselves. About the paintings that dealt with slavery, of which there were many, he told Close, “If you’re going to make a painting about pain, suffering and racism, you might as well make the object of the racism the tools with which you make the painting.”

But he also insisted that subject matter was beside the point, that painting to him was a purely formal exercise.

Poet and critic John Yau, a longtime friend, suggested in a phone interview that it might have been Mr. Zucker’s background as a working-class artist that drove him to use materials anyone could afford.

But the closest thing to a single answer might be the story of how it all started, while Mr. Zucker was earning an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“One day I was standing in my studio, and I couldn’t figure out what to put on the canvas, so I decided I would paint a picture of the canvas,” he told The Brooklyn Rail. “I would reduce it to the subject of how canvas is made, and it was going to be reductive in a way that had to do with the material construction, not reductive in the way of what Mondrian did with cubism.”


The result was a painting — and then a heady, self-conscious, beautiful series of paintings — made from strips of brightly colored fabric woven loosely across stretcher bars like upholstery.

Joseph Irwin Zucker was born May 21, 1941, in Chicago to Leah (Pride) Zucker, who worked as a nurse before marrying, and Irwin Zucker, a scrap metal dealer.

In addition to Le Va, he is survived by a brother, Charles Zucker.

While growing up, in a racially mixed neighborhood on the city’s South Side, Mr. Zucker attended Chicago Sinai Congregation, a Reform Jewish synagogue. His mother also brought him to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she had taken an art history class while training as a nurse, both to take classes himself and to wander the museum, beginning at age 5.

“This is really what has led to why I am so diverse as an artist,” he said later in a 2013 Q&A with the art school. “If you think of somebody 5 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.”


After high school, he turned down a scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Technology, played basketball briefly at Miami University in Ohio and finally returned home to enroll at the School of the Art Institute, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964 and a master’s degree in 1966.

Four of his woven paintings were included in the exhibition “Twelve Chicago Painters” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1965. When he graduated, he was offered a teaching job at the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design), which, as he said in Bomb, “avoided a possible journey to the Mekong Delta.”

In 1968, while visiting from New York, painter Don Nice saw Mr. Zucker’s work and offered him a job at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Through Richard Serra, he found a loft, and through artist Bob Israel, with whom he’d had a two-person show in Minneapolis the year before, he met Chuck Close. Eventually he met dealer Klaus Kertess, who put him in a three-person show at Bykert Gallery in 1969, followed by other group and solo shows.

Over the years, Mr. Zucker also showed in New York with gallerists Holly Solomon, Paul Kasmin, David Nolan, Mary Boone, and others, as well as around the world. He was included in the Whitney Museum’s “New Image Painting” show in 1978 and in several biennials, and his work was collected by the Brooklyn Museum, the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.


By the early 1980s, though, Mr. Zucker had had enough of the city, and he moved to East Hampton.

There, in addition to continuing his art practice, he spent many years volunteering as assistant basketball coach at Bridgehampton High School. He can be seen in that capacity in “Killer Bees,” a 2017 documentary about the school’s team.

Speaking to Close in Bomb, Mr. Zucker said, “I approach my body of work as a series of problems that are being solved within a certain framework.”

He added, “I rarely paint things that I like.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.