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Artist Joseph Zirker standing with two of his artworks.

Artist Joseph Zirker standing with two of his artworks.

Joseph Zirker: 70 Years of Printmaking

An interview with California artist Joseph Zirker

de Saisset Museum staff conducted an interview with artist Joseph Zirker to discuss his ever-evolving artistic practice. Zirker is represented in the museum’s permanent collection. [Published April 11, 2018]

Joseph Zirker is a known innovator in printmaking. After nearly 70 years in the industry, he has made a name for himself in the Bay Area. Discovery, experimentation, and transcendence of the norm are part of his daily process. His development and patenting of the cast acrylic monotype technique is one of his many innovations in the printmaking world.

Zirker received his B.F.A. from the University of Denver and his M.F.A. from the University of Southern California. He has taught at USC, Otis, San Jose City College, and Stanford University, and now resides in Menlo Park. Zirker has held solo shows in the Bay Area, Reno, and Chicago, in addition to international exhibitions in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Art Museum, the Portland Art Museum, as well as several Bay Area institutions including the de Saisset Museum, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The de Saisset Museum’s permanent collection houses 36 of Zirker’s monotypes and sculptures.

Museum Director Rebecca Schapp, Assistant Director Lauren Baines, and Marketing & Special Projects Assistant Emily Lindsay sat down with Joseph Zirker on January 31, 2018 to learn more about his career, his techniques, and his roots in the Bay Area art community.



Emily Lindsay: You’ve been a professional artist for many years, but your career has mostly focused on printmaking. Can you talk a little bit about your background and how you’ve transitioned [from other forms of printmaking] to monotype, and the different techniques that you’ve used?

Joseph Zirker: I actually began making monotypes back in the 90s - I think in the 80s, actually, yeah - and at that time I invented a method called viscosity monotypes, in which I made an image in soft inks, oil-based, and rolled over with a stiffer ink, giving a dimensional quality. And then in 1999 to the present day, I made a discovery one night - one day, actually. I had a vessel that was made out of polyethylene that was filled with ink that had dried and I needed that vessel so I pulled out this chunk of ink - actually it was acrylic paint. And I thought about it that night and realized that if I could peel off a bunch of acrylic dried paint that I could paint on that surface and make a monotype. So the next day I did that and I did it inside of that vessel. I painted a 4-sided image and when it dried I pulled it off and I had a little -


[EL] -a monotype?

A monotype that was in the shape of that bucket [laughs].


[EL] So was that discovery the beginning of your Cast Acrylic Paint technique, then?

[JZ] Yes, that was the beginning of cast acrylic monotypes. Cast because they are like molds which you pull something off of.


[EL] And you actually patented that, didn’t you? That technique?

[JZ] Yes, my wife Eva insisted that I patent it. It was a waste of money [laughs]. But she felt that I should get some kind of recognition so I did that.



A Day in the Life

Rebecca Schapp: So Joe, do you work every day in the studio?

[JZ] When I have the chance. Lately I’ve been interrupted.


[RS] But otherwise you like to get in there every day?

[JZ] Yes, yes. Ordinarily I work 4-5 hours now. I used to work 8-10, you know. But I get tired. But when I’m in the studio, I’m pretty focused. I don’t think about myself.


[EL] What do you do to keep your daily routine exciting? You’ve been making all these discoveries so it sounds like every couple years is pretty different, but what is a day in your studio like?

[JZ] Well, I operate on the assumption that I don’t know anything and that I will make huge mistakes and I start out making a mistake, and I think artists - there are many artists who use that approach. You make an image and you have to do something with it. The two-dimensional things are...I don’t think out. Yeah. But the three-dimensional things involve construction and so I get involved in how to make something, you know? And I’ve collected all kinds of wood and plastic and I use an archival glue to put these things together. And sometimes I destroy them and start over.


[EL] Do you have different approaches, then, to your 2-D versus 3-D work? Do you find yourself destroying your 2-D work if you’re not happy with it?

[JZ] I put it aside, usually, and then I come back and look at it and sometimes I am very discouraged but then later on I look at it again and it has some quality. Yeah.


[RS] So Joe, when you start the 2-D work, do you just kinda go freeform with it? You haven’t pre-sketched anything, you haven’t…

[JZ] The three-dimensional stuff, I do some planning, yeah.


[RS]But the 2-D, you just let it go...?

[JZ]  Yeah.


[RS] ...where it takes you?

[JZ]  Yeah.


[EL] Is this a process that you’ve been operating under throughout your career? Have you found that you’ve changed your approach or your routine, I guess, as your career has gone on?

[JZ] Yes, I think. I’m reading this book by Eric Kandel: Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. It’s a wonderful book! It’s an awfully interesting book. And the reductionism, the simplification, is what I try for now.



Current Projects

[EL] Is there anything that you’re working on now that you’ve been inspired by recently?

[JZ] I’ve decided that I want to work large.


[EL] I like that.

[JZ] So I’m working on pieces that are monotypes but are like tapestries. They just hang on the wall, they’re not to be framed. I’m working on pieces that are 60 inches by 44 inches, which is as big a plate as I have. I hope to do a series of these pieces that are related and changing as I go along. And then I have a piece which is, I guess it’s 4 feet by 20 inches or something like that, that I’ve been collecting very odd sayings from people and headlines that are fairly ridiculous.


[EL] That’s not hard to find.

[JZ] I have a portrait of Trump in there with a headband that says monster [laughs]. It’s kinda fun. And then I have another piece that I’ve been adding to. I made up this saying: “Chaos is fortune’s love.” My son, Dan, says that sounds somewhat like Shakespeare. I don’t know exactly what it means [laughs]. In that piece I have taken the word “chaos” literally and any time I have an image that doesn’t seem to work with anything else, I slap it in there [laughs]. One of the images is of, in my house in the den area, the linoleum is as old as the house which was built in like 1929. I accidently kicked off a piece and it came out the shape of a bird! So I put that piece, the actual linoleum, in “Chaos is Fortune’s Love.” Before I did that I scanned it so I have some images of that bird. That’s what I do. Also I’m making small acrylic prints now and I have quite a few of them which are ideas for larger works.


[EL] So that’s an ongoing thing? How are you going to know when it’s finished?

[JZ] Well, it probably can keep on growing.



de Saisset Connection

[EL] You know that the de Saisset Museum has had a long working relationship with Paula Kirkeby and Smith Andersen Editions, and that’s a relationship that you share as well. Could you talk a little bit more about your relationship and any work that you’ve done with Smith Andersen and Paula Kirkeby?

[JZ] Well, we had a pretty long professional relationship as well as a friendship that developed over the years. And I think Paula was, you know, she gave me at one point I think starting in the 70s, maybe a little earlier, she gave me a solo show every year. And she also included my work in various other group shows. I felt like I was recognized.


[EL] And you were also featured in the tribute show that the de Saisset Museum did to honor Paula Kirkeby [Unique and Multiple: Selections from Smith Andersen Editions, the Legacy of Paula Z. Kirkeby]. [This exhibition was guest curated by Robert Conway.]

[JZ] She donated a tremendous amount of work to the de Saisset.


[EL] Is there anything else you wanted to share with us?

[JZ] Oh, yes. My question is why did you think of me in terms of jazz[i]?


Lauren Baines: So it came up through a few staff discussions. We’ve been doing more to highlight work from the permanent collection. We were’s not maybe shown in the Jazz Greats show, but it has kind of this industrial approach, thinking through the machinery, through the clubs, through kind of the smoky ambiance. We have, actually, other Machine pieces in our collection and there’s a rack where they all are. We were just looking at them and it came up in a staff conversation and it was just like, “Those would pair so beautifully.” So for us it made a lot of sense.

[JZ] Well there is a kind of, I was going to say spontaneity, I suppose. But working in two dimensions, there is a relationship to the energy. There’s another word I’m looking for…spontaneity, of course, but then there’s...


[LB] Maybe improvisation?

[JZ] Improvisation! Thank you. Improvisation is the relationship. You never do the same thing twice. Different artists interpret a jazz song entirely differently - and they never sing it the same way twice! I don’t have a background in - well, I had a classical music background in terms of learning an instrument and playing an instrument. But I never improvised. I always played off the score.



Currently On View

Our hope is that Joseph Zirker continues to play off the score, intriguing us with his technical and aesthetic innovations. You can see more of Zirker’s work at his website

[i] The de Saisset Museum currently has on view the exhibition Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection. Six of Zirker’s monotypes from the Machine series are also on view through June 16, 2018.


Joseph Zirker standing in the mezzanine of the de Saisset Museum with two pieces from his Machine series.



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