Published  27/02/2007

The Possibilities of Paint: An Interview with John Zinsser by Cindi Di Marzo

The Possibilities of Paint: An Interview with John Zinsser by Cindi Di Marzo

For John Zinsser, painting and paint are more than a process and medium; they are his subjects. During his career, Zinsser has remained committed to the possibilities of painting and abstraction, while the contemporary art market moves from one trend to the next. His method of reducing and defining the terms of his art grounds it in basic premises, which then open up a vast range of potential effects and responses. Looking at Zinsser's paintings is a refreshingly physical experience. In his hands, 'abstraction' is freed from intellectual, philosophical and critical baggage and serves as a conduit to unselfconscious experience.

Zinsser builds his paintings in two layers; the effect of each work depends on a number of variables, including the colours the artist chooses, how he applies the paint and the ways in which the colours and textures interact. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Zinsser's work is the delicate balance he achieves between expertly controlled execution and lighthearted revelation. What he reveals is joy in material form. Even the titles of his works ('Maritime Union Holiday' and 'Politics and Reverb', for example) are intended to set viewers free from literal interpretation; rather than a clue to meaning, each title serves as another layer for viewers to savour for its sound, mystery or playfulness. There are also many glimpses of the artist at work in the telltale marks of brushes, palette knives and other tools. Such glimpses of the creative process allow viewers to experience paint the way the artist himself might.

Zinsser's commitment to abstraction is matched by an equally strong faith in painting as dialogue. For him, a painting is the place where artist and viewer meet; the painting itself participates in this meeting by contributing something spontaneous and unpredictable. The inherent characteristics of paint make themselves known in surprising ways depending on the conditions present, from drips and splatters to optical illusions. From there, the effect of a work on viewers depends upon context. Finding a frame in which to 'see' a work is a process that Zinsser believes can be learned. In his roles as teacher and lecturer, he says, he seems to have found a calling in helping students learn how to intellectually view art and express their impressions within historical and contemporary contexts.

Born in 1961 in New York City, Zinsser visited museums there with his parents and became interested in art and drawing. The family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, when his father (writer and editor William Zinsser) accepted a teaching position at Yale University. William Zinsser wrote the classic writing primer, On Writing Well (1976), based on a class he taught at Yale. The writing principles championed by Zinsser's father - clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity - are essential elements of his son's reductive aesthetic.
In New Haven, Zinsser attended an arts high school. When he enrolled at Yale, he majored in American studies and the history of art. A pivotal experience, he says, was a course he took with Ann Gibson. Now a professor at the University of Delaware, Gibson has written extensively on abstract expressionism. What he learned in Gibson's class sparked an 'epiphany' Zinsser; she expanded the definition of abstract expressionism, placing it within a literary and philosophical tradition and identifying its relevance beyond a particular time period, movement or group of artists.

In 1981, Zinsser began to exhibit his paintings in New York. After graduating from Yale in 1983, he moved back to the city. Almost immediately, he was drawn into a circle of well-known abstract painters who served as mentors. Exhibiting with them, he gained entry to what might seem like a charmed situation. Certainly, Zinsser benefited from his relationships with these mentors, but he also lacked the camaraderie of painters of his own generation. Eventually, he met and befriended a group of graduates of the Yale MFA programme. In 1988, he co-founded the Journal of Contemporary Art with media artist Philip Pocock, one of these associates. The journal served as a printed form of the dialogue he sought to foster between artists with different styles and viewpoints.1 Zinsser has contributed articles and interviews to other publications, as well, including Art in America, the Brooklyn Rail, Paris Review and the Painter's Journal at

Today, Zinsser maintains a studio in an old pencil factory in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Prior to moving his family to Brooklyn, Zinsser lived and worked in Manhattan. Although painting always was a primary focus for him, he has worked as a freelance writer and teaches. The move outside the city was a turning point, he says, an opportunity to paint full time.

At this stage of his career, Zinsser has built an impressive resumé that includes a steady stream of exhibits in the states and Europe; private and public commissions (including several paintings for a permanent installation at Republic Towers in Dallas, Texas); and representation in the collections of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, Virginia; Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut; Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut; and Sammlung Goetz, a private collection of contemporary art in Munich, Germany. In this interview, Zinsser discusses his work, the continued relevance of abstract expressionism and the place of dialogue in the creative process.

CDM: You chose not to major in art at Yale. Did you still intend to pursue a career as a painter?

JZ: I arrived at Yale as a young idealistic dreamer. I came from a sophisticated background - but was full of open-eyed naiveté. I had loved art since childhood. I drew obsessively from an early age (my parents had a 'no TV' dictum). As a teenager, I had the good fortune to be sent to a 1970s-era hippy alternative high school in the woods of Connecticut. (It was an amazing inversion of the standard nightmare: here, the artists were cooler than the jocks.) I took a lot of drawing and painting classes, essentially at a college level. During the summer before college, I had the opportunity to intern for the architect Peter Eisenman, when he was director of the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City. So I got to soak up the intellectual ambience there, while working on axonometric presentation drawings of Eisenman's 'House X' for reproduction in a Japanese architecture magazine. With college looming, Eisenman urged me, 'Be an English major!' (I think he had majored in philosophy at Cambridge.)

So, I arrived at Yale a funny combination of fully prepared and conflicted. I had been through a lot as a teen and I wanted to start out all over again, as a person. Freshman year at Yale was highly romantic, the whole class living on Old Campus, a quadrangle surrounded by Victorian-era dorms. I lived in 'Vanderbilt' (named for the wealthy family), where a small group of friends would typically stay up all night listening to records in dark gothic wood-panelled rooms. I was attracted to the would-be rebels, holdover hippies, valedictorians-turned-losers, hyper-intense intellectuals and hockey players (the biggest partiers). These largely were not prep-schoolers, but were more a fall-out generation from the high school American dream. One thing we all shared was suffering from high parental expectation syndrome.

At Yale, the scene was purely social, requiring constant hanging out. By contrast, the 'foundation' art classes there were removed, morbidly boring, labor-oriented, dry and self-serious. The instructors - bitter artists angry not to be teaching at graduate school level - practiced negative reinforcement. During one crit with my freshman-year drawing instructor, Robert Reid, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. But the emotion causing this squeamish sensation was hard to pinpoint. Anger? Embarrassment? I got the feeling the art major wasn't for me.

By contrast, the classic reading-and-writing humanities courses were electrifying, with expansive professors and huge lists of books to be read weekly. I naturally fell into English, art history, American studies. To be an art major meant removing yourself from the main of the student body. Also, there was just no time for making art. Talk was more important. I took art history from incredible professors. Vincent Scully taught a classic survey lecture class in a huge, darkened auditorium filled with rapt students. In a more intimate setting, I took a seminar on abstract expressionism from Ann Gibson in her first year of teaching.

CDM: I read a quote in which you spoke of a moment, at age 21, when you realised that abstraction was a powerful means to access a deeper experience. Can you describe the circumstances of that epiphany and how it led to your subsequent development as an artist?

JZ: Yes, it's true. I had an epiphany. But the funny thing is, it didn't happen in front of a real painting, or in a studio painting class. It happened through looking at slides in Gibson's seminar room, and hearing her, with her then-subversive personal feminist take, describe the literary and philosophical climate surrounding the paintings of Franz Kline, William Baziotes (a favourite of hers), Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. I 'got it' in a deep and personal way.

This idea, that abstraction was a conduit to unconscious experience, was of course central to the development of modernism in the 20th century. But for me, the frame of historical reference to understand it through was largely literary. I had read extensively the canon of present-tense-consciousness writing typified by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Louis-Ferdinand Celine. To me, abstract expressionism carried on this wild, open-eyed manner of describing experience. These writers are strong on self-identity and acute sensory awareness. And then, looking at abstract paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, I saw this whole attitude more clearly expressed in visual terms. But I also took this mode of painting at face value, as a kind of American cultural signage, with direct crossovers into the 20th century-built landscape. These works looked so blunt to me, literal; real and representational.

CDM: It is now more than two decades after that initial dawning. How has your view of abstraction been affected by many years of working to define your art?

JZ: I started from a position that is about trusting intuition, chance and process. I always put a faith in materials first - that paint has a kind of authority of its own. Paint has a unique power to assert tactile reality, pushing toward a larger visual and bodily response. More and more, I now think about this paint phenomenon with regard to the initial development of European surrealism early in the 20th century. The artists of this movement reached inward to discover identity by using automatic drawing and other methodological processes. (Think of the drawings of Andre Masson or the use of paint-blotting in Max Ernst's landscapes.) These practices seem to espouse an ideal of shared-consciousness; that a viewer viewing a painting is an extension of a larger field of thought, and that the viewer 'makes' the painting through his or her own 'triggered' associations. I like this philosophy and am increasingly using it by contemporary extension.

So I'm approaching my work now as a psycho-pharmacologist might, looking for visual catalysts, ways of painting that will get a viewer's synapses popping. Again and again, my work relies foremost on sheer visuality, the belief that a painting, under the right self-imposed confining circumstances, might 'show you something,' something that you didn't know that you knew.

CDM: When you were young, you developed an interest in Andy Warhol, and your senior thesis at Yale dealt with Warhol's works from the 1960s. In retrospect, what aspects of Warhol's images struck you as a young person, and continued to influence you through your college years?

JZ: As a teenager in the 1970s, Warhol was a fascinating public idol to me. Right up there in my personal pantheon with Lou Reed and Truman Capote. Of course, these were artist celebrities, in as much as they were pictured in magazines and newspapers going to Studio 54. [Editor's note: At the time, Studio 54 was a celebrity-frequented nightclub in New York City.]. But there was more to it than that with Warhol. The paintings were very meaningful to me. Not so much in terms of their subject matter, but just how they looked.

By the time I got to write my thesis paper on Warhol in 1983, I was consigned to researching arcane rare 1960s-era publications in the dark stacks of Yale's Sterling Library. (Who knew that Taylor Mead, Edie Sedgwick and Paul Morrissey were hidden there?) Warhol was considered by the academic community to be a lost cause, a joke, an anti-art artist who made art into parody. Of course, now, in retrospect, he is seen as the canonical, defining artist of the era. For young artists, he has eclipsed Picasso, and consumed Duchamp along the way.

More and more, I think of Warhol's work in purely painting terms. Let me touch on some qualities: the incorporation of the photographic source as a means to access a 'default' subject matter; the reduction of art-making labor as a way to make a painting more direct, mechanical, literal; the power of repetition; the assertion of the picture-plane as a rectangular object-like site; the use of photo silkscreening as a way to filter colour through a black half-tone dot matrix; the use of the colour silver in its literalness and industrial qualities; the toughness and severity of self-restriction in painting practice; the speed of making something and how that affects the speed of viewing something; the use of an active procedure that allows things to happen in the process of making; finally, ease and nonchalance balanced against great finesse and assuredness; and a belief in intuition. To let your work be your work.

CDM: Your studio contains few details not directly associated with your materials: wood, canvas, paint, tools and many finished canvases, from small studies to some measuring 84' x 120'. This seems in keeping with your minimalist approach.

JZ: I've always run my studio this way. Of course, I'm surrounded by newspapers, books, journals, reading material. I start to get nervous if I'm not around reading material. But I don't like an over-aestheticised studio. I recently visited the painter Kate Shepherd's studio on the Lower East Side, and every object in it was perfectly considered. Even the view out the window seemed perfect. (Her paintings are lovely, too.) When she, in turn, came to visit my studio, she said, 'Oh, your studio is so ugly'. I take that as a compliment. When people come over, I want my place to look like a Meineke Muffler car repair shop, strictly business. My space was previously a garment sweat shop and I kept all the awful fluorescent lighting fixtures. It helps me to think about labor. About manufacturing. About the ability to lose self-consciousness through directed action.

It took me a while to see Greenpoint as beautiful. But now, every semi tractor trailer truck I see, I just say, 'Oh my God, look at that truck!' Also, in Brooklyn I can make big paintings. What happens with this scale-shift is that paint moves from being illusionistic to becoming literal. At large scale, the 'wall' of the painting can become a thing, breaking free of the quality of imagery.

CDM: Seven years ago, you moved your family to Brooklyn. Can you describe how living and working in Greenpoint differs from your routine in New York?

JZ: I love Manhattan. I grew up in Manhattan, in Yorkville, on the way Upper East Side. Then I lived downtown on Avenue A after college in the 1980s, when the gallery scene was exploding there. In the 1990s, I lived with my wife in the Chelsea Hotel and had a studio in TriBeCa. It was a charmed existence, in part because of the richness of these places just as places. I was living with ghosts. In the everyday present tense, Manhattan was to me a 'charged ion atmosphere,' that is, I met meaningful people just through circumstance. And then, routinely, they would become a major part of my life. Also, if I thought about someone enough, I could 'conjure them up,' they would appear on a street corner soon thereafter.

When I moved my studio to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, seven years ago, I felt like I had lost all of this. I felt exiled to Siberia. My unsympathetic Chelsea dealer wouldn't even visit me. I had known about the area for years. It was a place where my artist friends had long lived, and taken refuge, like art hermits. But that's not my personality. It all seemed so grey, forbidding, bleak. My studio is in the former Eberhard Faber pencil factory on Greenpoint Avenue, down by Franklin and West streets. I'm along the waterfront, flanked by an expanse of the East River. You can look across to the Con Edison plant in Manhattan on Fourteenth Street with its smokestacks pouring out white steam on a cold winter's morning.

CDM: Some of your recent paintings - 'Chance and Reason' (2005) and 'The Insiders' (2005), for example - have some interesting optical effects depending on the lighting and position of the viewer. How did you develop the technique for these works?

JZ: Through direct observation. I've been having intense visual experiences and revelations through the continual use of silver aluminum paint. I realised a couple of things about the colour silver. It's a colour - and it's not. It has associations to the industrial landscape of factories, lightposts, radiators. As a 'non-colour', it's a kind of greyed-out white, like the colour of New York sky in wintertime. When painted thin on canvas, it projects a classic kind of light outward. Seen in an interior natural light setting, it's like the Northern European painter's light coveted by artists. If a painting changes in relation to where a viewer stands, that means that it is interactive. They're un-photographable. I try taking pictures of them from multiple perspectives, but it just doesn't do any good.

CDM: The colours that you select for your duo-tone paintings have a dynamic relationship; their inherent qualities harmonise, part, rejoin and play off each other. Within your minimalist frame, colour takes on enormous import. Can you describe your own sense of colour? For example, you mentioned that silver is a particular favourite for you.

JZ: I have always been attracted to colours as they exist in the world, rather than making imitative colour. So, chromatic, out-of-the tube oil colours, typically cadmium reds, yellows and oranges. Also cobalt blue. And for the ground, I will often use a commercial oil-based enamel paint, in black, silver or white. All of these colours have associations to observed experience - a garage door, the wall of a warehouse, the side of a truck. Within a context specific to painting, they become, by their very use, representational, a means to conjure the world through a two-dimensional illusionistic planer image.

My emotional relationship with colour comes after the fact. There are paintings that are in my emotional colour range, not because I painted them to be, but because I am having that sustained after-reaction as a viewer. I always feel close to blue paintings. Reduction of colour offers clarity, contains formal concerns, moves the emphasis from the objective to the subjective - and easily back again.

CDM: By making the process of painting so palpable, you give people who have never painted a chance to engage directly with the medium. As you work, do you have a sense of creating such an experience for them?

JZ: That's certainly one of the appeals of making paintings through such a material and process-driven engagement. It draws the viewer in as a participant. I feel the 'libido' of painting has long dwelled in its tactile, visceral corporeality. To invite such a response is natural, reaching the viewer through primal associations of touch, permission. This way, an abstract painting can be read as a sublimation of the human sexual response.

CDM: When I visited you in the studio, the concept of dialogue echoed throughout our discussion. Early in your career, dialogue in the arts was part of your consciousness. More recently, you had established a relationship with abstract painter Rudolf de Crignis.2 How did you meet de Crignis, and how did this dialogue develop between you over the time that you knew him?

JZ: It's a funny thing, 'dialogue'. The term is so central to the larger cultural understanding of how a community of artists exists. And, in a broader context, either your work is considered to be 'part of the dialogue' or not, and this is its validation with accordance to a larger, ongoing art historical and market trajectory. My dialogue with de Crignis (who just recently died, unexpectedly) began through exhibiting together, first in a group show in 1995 at Pamela Auchincloss Gallery. We literally started a conversation at the opening that went on - in a protracted way - for another ten years. Sometimes this meant actual studio visits, formal and polite. Most other times, casually on the phone. Rudolf, as a person and a painter, was so demanding (the majority of his paintings were blue squares) that you had to be as rigorous in your own responses. Work can't develop without dialogue, but my dialogue is multi-generational, from 70-year-old monochrome painters to recent graduates of Hunter College [in New York City]. I just like painters, particularly abstract ones. I just like the way they think about the world. The way they talk.


1. The Journal of Contemporary Art now functions as an online journal only:

2. De Crignis passed away in December 2006, at the age of 58. Born in Switzerland, De Crignis began his career as a performance and video artist and later embraced abstract painting. At the time of his death, he lived and worked in New York City.

For more information on John Zinsser, go to:

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