February 24, 2015

John Zurier: Poetic Reticence

Hearadsdalur 3, 2014-15; oil on linen, 22 1/16 x 24 13/16 in.

This has rarely happened to me, but when I saw John Zurier's show "West of the Future", currently at Peter Blum Gallery, my awed reaction wasn't just "I love these paintings", but "I want to make these paintings". Their quiet attentiveness, simplicity, attention to surface and materials, their qualities of light and mood, led to a physical longing on my part: a longing to feel the paint, whether distemper (glue size and pigment) or oil; to make the marks; a longing to mix the colors and spread them on fine or coarse canvas. In Hearadsdalur 3, the blue ground is a translucent dark, as of a luminous evening. Each line, each small mark of white, although looking casual, feels carefully considered, and very alive.

Hearadsdalur 3 detail

You can see different qualities of light in each element: line, thicker white irregular dots of paint, the blue expanse. Zurier has spent time in Iceland; the landscape and culture has influenced his work. Some of the titles in this show are Icelandic. His last show, which I wrote about here, was very much influenced by his visits to that starkly beautiful country.

At Havalsnes, 2014; distemper on linen, 24 x 28 in.

There is a deep sense of naturalness in the paintings, as if Zurier quietly observed the surface and found what was there.

At Havalsnes detail

The small rectangles of blue paint in At Havalsnes are bright bits of light, perfectly balanced, in a mysterious fog.

Four Times, 2015; distemper on linen, 21 5/8 x 29 5/8 in.

On surfaces that look almost unworked, are simple lines, crossed.....

Hearadsdalur 13 (Avalanche), 2014; distemper on linen, 27 1/2 x 19 5/8 in.

....or floating horizontally....

Where Time Sleeps, 2014; distemper and oil on linen, 78 x 48 in.

....or at slight angles. There is something so poignant about these minimal marks: they speak of much more than line and color; in their understated way they touch on life, on decisions made, on paying attention, on being open.

Afternoon (S.H.G.), 2014; distemper on linen, 28 x 35 in. 

The thin whitish paint settles to the lower right, as atmosphere swirls above. Lines––one darker and more present, one sinking into the air of the painting––move forward and back, adding structure.

Afternoon (S.H.G.) detail

I love the way this line touches the top of the rounded canvas edge and makes a little angle back down again; it disrupts the expectation of regularity; it becomes a personnage.

Hearadsdalur 21, 2014; distemper on linen, 17 3/4 x 21 5/8 in.

A field of painterly blue is broken by white shapes, and by corners of canvas. The delicate handling, the seemingly casual yet carefully placed shapes, the importance of materials, reminds me of the Japanese 20th century craft movement, Mingei, and especially the paintings of Lee Ufan. There was a show of this work last year at Pace Gallery, which I wrote about here.

Before and After Summer, 2014; oil on linen, 78 x 48 in.

Zurier sees the world as a poet does, distilling experiences into essences of color and light, touch and air.

Before and After Summer detail

Although his brush is always fluid, it doesn't call loud attention to itself.

Untitled (Spring), 2014; oil on linen, 25 x 16 in.

 The seasons, the landscape, are evoked by color, and by the light that flows through the color as it moves from dense to translucent. Like in the works of Joan Mitchell, the landscape is a poetic reference, not a representation.

Northern Morning Light, or Dalalaeda, 2014; oil on linen, 22 x 29 in.

The pink glow of morning as the sun rises, the cool pale blue behind: a beautiful memory of light, a touching and surprising painting.
Who wouldn't want to make work as sensitive, quietly graceful, and alive as these paintings?


  1. So beautiful. Thanks for sharing these and your writing.

  2. PLEASE make your versions of them.
    I suppose it is controversial to some, but I find it the highest regard to be completely inspired by the work of another, and even to copy it, while being true to myself as I work through the communion with the other, knowing I will be adding myself.
    I have had one protégé copy a work, and I was honored, without a shred of indignity.
    I undertook to make a Noguchi sculpture in black-painted pine this summer, from a sketch I'd made at the Smithsonian decades ago, and I felt the kinship of craft...hearing the sounds, nudging the shadows.
    I know it is copyrighted, and I could never sell it, but I revere the object as if he'd made it himself, 10 years before I was born.
    Please do it!

    1. I don't want to make versions of these, JBS, or a copy. I only have the feeling of wanting to paint these paintings. Some of the work I do––my potato prints and small drawings––get closer to the feeling of Zurier's paintings. But I can't make his paintings, and don't want to, except in my mind. Once I was inspired by a Richard Tuttle show to try to make watercolors similar to his, but my attempts were a flop; we have to do our own work, with inspiration nudging us forward.

  3. Beautiful paintings and writing.

  4. The way you look and see, write about how you experience all of this, makes me want to paint, write, visit exhibitions and musea with you; be your neighbour. Happy to have met you here: great inspiration. These beauties on screen, together with your writing makes it come alive.

  5. This is a wonderful post Altoon, among so many here that have also spoken deeply to me. I too am veyr drawn to his work. Thank you for giving it a worthy context--sublime minimalism of both the words and the images.

    1. Thanks, Deborah; I'm so glad you also respond to this work.

  6. beautiful. gotta see these...........also can't believe i missed the nevelson's - damn!