JOHN ZURIER: Night Paintings at Larry Becker

John Zurier, Night 23, 2007, 30" x 20", distemper on linen

I've had the opportunity to see John Zurier's work on two other occasions -- last year at Peter Blum in Soho, and two years ago at the Whitney Biennial. Both of those shows presented difficult situations for this work. At the Whitney, the noise and chaos of the 3-ring circus that is the Biennial rendered Zurier's work almost invisible. Although, for anyone who did stop the whirlwind long enough to notice, his paintings were literally like an open window in a smoke-filled room. At the Blum show, the huge tomblike rectangular space of the gallery seemed to contain the group of paintings in a way that distanced the viewer, making the paintings read like a line-up of small color spots on three expansive walls. I mention these difficulties to emphasize the extreme vulnerability of Zurier's work. More than any other painter I know, Zurier takes painting out to the edge of nothingness, and then hangs out there, exploring the territory.

The new show at Larry Becker in Philadelphia puts Zurier's work in an optimum context for clarity. Becker chose to exhibit a group of new paintings that are unified by theme, palette and scale, making the entire installation in this wonderfully intimate space resonate as one piece, while also encouraging close examination of each painting. The show consists of 12 paintings, all but 2 are 30" x 20" (2 larger ones are 42" x 26"), painted on raw linen stretched over wood panel. They are done in distemper (dry pigment in a vehicle of water and rabbit skin glue), which makes the water soluble surfaces extremely fragile, a feature Zurier says he likes very much. Exploring various shades of deep blue, the paint is scraped on with a knife in many very thin layers, sometimes leaving small moments of raw linen showing through the field, then often scraped in horizontal bands as the last move. The colors vary from piece to piece but within a very focused range, from deep pthalo to a cooler almost ultramarine, to a dense cool black. Many pieces have a brighter pthalo or almost veridian line painted along the left edge, and many contain buried hints of sienna throughout the surface. The paintings pull the viewer in to a close examination of every nuance of surface, color and gesture; and they reward such scrutiny, eminating an understated elegant poeticism in every aspect of the painting.

In a statement accompanying the show, Zurier mentions a childhood attempt to make a painting of the open sky between two buildings, which is an interesting reference to the tremendous difficulty of his continuing endeavor. These are paintings of extreme delicacy, craft and awareness that aspire to a state of total inclusiveness. Certainly romantic in spirit and born of deep experience, they are also supremely humble, direct and true.