Unpublished, and not edited; written March 1978
by Wade Saunders —
“Life party-colour’d, half pleasure, half care.” Matthew Prior
Marcel Duchamp said he loved our bridges and our plumbing. Both sustain Manhattan, but it is the plumbing or piping that predominates. Pipes and conduits appear in galleries, lofts, apartments and subways. Lengths are joined with threaded couplings; hangers descend from joists to carry pipes across spans as they branch and multiply. Although some pipes terminate in sprinkler heads or fixtures, most continue through our space, pursuing a seemingly private destiny. We ignore them so long as they keep quiet. In her recent show Barbara Zucker made pipes hiss, rattle, and steam visually. She also played with the action of color in metal sculpture and with the many references ruffles make. The pieces are all variations on a single idea and single form.
Her composition is frontal or radial; non-assertive, non-progressive, non-systematic. Her pieces have no structure to disclose. The fabrication is unremarkable, though not sloppy. The pieces seem amateur, direct, expeditious. Stolid forms are ornamented as pieces of conduit sprout ruffles and stele unfold fans.
Harlequin Poles consists of four aluminum conduits running from floor to ceiling. The conduits are each encircled by aluminum ruffles. The largest conduit is flocked and encircled by the ruffle of the largest diameter; the next size conduit is painted with automotive paint and encircled by four open ruffles of smaller size; the third pole, also painted, bears eight stacked collars of a smaller diameter; the fourth fifteen yet smaller. The ruffles are variously colored with six anodizing dyes.
Ruffles were used in Northern Renaissance fashion to set the head or hands off from the body. They remained on as part of the costume in Commedia dell’arte and, later, in the circus: ruffles set the clowns apart from the public. A ruffled collar permits one to do or say as one pleases. The ruffles give license to Zucker: she is emboldened to work with color. A ruffle also separates one thing from another, but the rise and fall of its planes suggest, paradoxically a coupling of the two things so separated, a mutual necessity.
Particolor, as Zucker uses in her work, has been heretical in abstract metal sculpture. Color is handled as a unifying skin in such work and is applied after the completion of form. In process work color is usually accepted and exploited as it inheres in the material. Sculptors interested chiefly in color, rather than in color as an adjunct to form, have generally not worked in metal.
Zucker’s work asserts that color has been a missing and missed actor, a truant Harlequin in sculpture. To make certain that color, not the idea of painted sculpture, is primary she uses anodizing and flocking—industrial processes rarely seen in art—to color her pieces, Anodizing slows the corrosion of aluminum alloys by uniformly oxidizing the surface metal with acid and electricity. The resulting layer can be dyed; seven colors are generally available. The colors are used as connection codes in industry: each system—water, air, fuel—has connectors of exclusively one color. Anodized color is ambiguous. Sometimes it seems to sit in the metal, but under its surface, so that we look through the metal to see the color; other times the color is atop the metal like a transparent paint, energizing the light, silvery aluminum. An anodized surface reflects light differently than a painted one because of its double nature, neither matte nor glossy.
Flocking presents a thick, matte, monochromatic surface at close range. From a distance the napping serves to set light scattering in different directions, so that the color looks like a joining of subtly different values. Flocking originated in the Middle Ages as a way to salvage wool and cotton waste and was part of some paper-making processes. Today inexpensive fabrics used in clothing and home furnishings are flocked to simulate more expensive materials.
In Harlequin Poles the flocking and anodizing are set to work at cross purposes, with the auto paint on the thinner poles providing a reference. As one moves around the piece the large flocked pole keeps changing its color and pattern. The planes of the anodized collars pass in and out of shadow; the color is sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque. Each color absorbs varying quantities of its neighbors. The anodized ruffles are arranged to lead the eye up and down the poles, with a trace of a spiral motion. On close approach the flocking goes flat while the anodizing becomes almost painterly, like a wash pulled across the surface, Color is invoked to act independent of form; the sculpture levels the traditional hierarchy of form ruling color.
The piece suggests Maypoles, carousel poles, barber poles, candy canes, all things celebratory. They also parody ‘50s pole lights, which were held in place with similar springs. The ruffles refer to tutus, folding Halloween decorations, propellers, the fluting under mushroom tops, and radish roses. Zucker’s pipes came to seem integral to the place, and I wondered why the gallery hadn’t arranged their plumbing more intelligently. The sprinkler pipes in the ceiling began to look dissociated, underdeveloped.
The ruffles function like garters holding her pipes in space. Ruffles are no longer—in some sense—properly serious forms in our culture, so it is good that Zucker makes them credible. But they may only be viable in her work. Her ruffles also make us aware of the closedness of the inside of pipes; the external clamor makes their interiors more mysterious, more secret. The poles are a continuation of Zucker’s concern with private spaces, difficult of access, suggestively female.
In Three pieces of conduit spring from the floor to various low levels before making gradual 90-degree arcs so they point horizontally. The end of each is adorned with an incomplete ruffle, each ruffle is flocked a different color. We see a change in the color from plane to plane of the ruffles. The immediate reference is to flowers bending before the sun, or, in this context, following the track of the gallery lights. The ruffles suggest sunflowers, but also the spine of an iguana, the flaring of a peacock’s feathers, a cockscomb. The colors hover in the air. We imagine the ruffles can open and close like accordions, but they are rigid. The piece is spare: there is only the color, the hint of reference, and an astonishing cheer.
Under the Bridge and Small Connection have ruffles emerging from half stele. In each there is a play of surface against surface, either dimensional against flat, or flocked surface against raw surface. Compositionally elements with different visual effects are juxtaposed: a shining piece of tin glitters against a grey flocked mass in Small Connection; a red flocked wedge sprouts from the corner of a rusted marker in Red With Rust. It is as though beautiful fans were opening from out of gravestones.