Joe Zucker, one of the most elusive talents to emerge in the wake of the Abstract Expressionist boom of the postwar era, died on May 15 at 83. The news was confirmed by David Nolan Gallery, which staged several exhibitions of his work.

Beginning in the 1970s, Zucker experimented relentlessly with the physicality of painting as a medium, defying notions that flatness was essential to it. His signature technique involved dipping wads of cotton into paint and gluing them to a canvas. When dry, these pieces of cotton still appeared glistening and gloppy, acting as a reminder that Zucker’s process was as important as his product.

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“Zucker was an inventor of style with a revolutionary attitude toward art, a storyteller, and frequently the smartest and most humorous person in the room,” David Nolan Gallery said in a statement. “Like the pirates he compared his art practice with, Zucker was a cultural anarchist, influencing future artistic generations with his innovative spirit and embrace of materiality. He will be sorely missed.”

Zucker was born in Chicago in 1941, and obtained an M.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966. “The museum school had enabled me to see masterpieces early on, and that really shaped my body of work,” he told his friend, the artist Chuck Close, in an interview for BOMB.  “Seeing a Veronese one day, a de Kooning the next, Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles—it bred an appreciation for different physical natures of painting. It undoubtedly influenced the eclectic nature of my work, which is experiential rather than aesthetic; it comes from a natural experience of loving painting rather than a theoretic disposition.”

Throughout his career, his subjects shifted with little warning of trajectory. He addressed material concerns and historical narratives, and concocted fables that starred pirates and Merlin. Finally, he crafted landscapes that were bent into sharp geometries.

By the ’90s, cotton had ceded to cords and cardboard, each employed to sculptural ends within the frame. In the case of the cords, he strung them between wood frames in a tight grid formation, then thickly painted between the lines, sidestepping the need for a canvas. His idiosyncrasies (and general wackiness) made him a tough fit for painting enthusiasts. He bristled against the self-seriousness of his predecessors, and was restless among his peers, who responded to pomp with Pop cheekiness. 

In the ’70s and early ’80s, he showed at at the Bykert Gallery alongside Brice Marden and Chuck Close. Later on, he also had shows at Holly Solomon, one of the venues that upheld Pop art and Minimalism (and irreverent in-between artists like Zucker). He also had shows at Mana Contemporary, Marlborough Gallery, and the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, on Long Island. Zucker eventually moved his studio from New York City to East Hampton.

In the early 2000s, Zucker was the subject of simultaneous shows at Gavin Brown, Paul Kasmin Gallery, and Nolan/Eckman Gallery, each considering a different period in his career. Paul Kasmin, for example, showed his “crate paintings,” inspired by pouring vibrantly colored paint over an elaborate geometric grid constructed from strips of cardboard, laid inside a cardboard box. He’d include the lid, too, effectively making the painting its own container. 

“Many of my paintings are their own tools,” he told Close of the crate paintings, adding, “I regard my work as conceptual and literal rather than expressive. Therefore I have a fear of writer’s block rather than a fear of creating pictorial imagery. I concern myself with continuing a logical connection from one diverse style to the next.”