John Zurier

Each painting has to be very, very natural and have its own plane and light to it, and its own composition. The brush stroke is about finding what's enough, and what's exactly right. Like in Japanese gardening, you want to allow some leaves to remain when you're sweeping a path so it will feel natural.

John Zurier has said that one of his first painting problems was largely a failure: “I tried to paint the sky seen between two buildings so that the whole of my painting would be nothing but an empty blue space…I thought it would be very easy to do, but found it nearly impossible.” His reductive, near-monochrome paintings, watercolors, and prints evoke the ephemeral quality of nature and memory—like the slow swirl of sea foam, the fading tones of an echo, or the warmth of a spring haze. Informed by Abstract Expressionism, Japanese aesthetics, and the Icelandic landscape, he has expressed interest in “simplicity, surface modulation, and color” as they are “tied to our experience of time.”

Since 1974, Zurier has lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was born in Santa Monica, California, in 1956 and had Richard Diebenkorn drawings hanging above his baby crib. While growing up, he was influenced by his parents’ collection of art mainly by German Expressionists and American Abstract artists. In high school, Zurier became interested in Japanese gardens, which led him to study landscape architecture in college. He received a Bachelor of Arts in 1979 and a Master of Fine Arts in 1984 from the University of California, Berkeley. As his interest in Japanese aesthetics continued to grow, the traditional principles of simplicity, suggestion, incompleteness, and impoverishment became foundations for his paintings. “One of my favorite Japanese terms is jinen or ‘naturaliness,’” Zurier has said. “It means things as they really are, or from the beginning to be made so without any calculation, as in water runs downwards and fire goes upwards. It’s not intellectual and can’t be conceptualized.”

In 2002, Zurier traveled to Iceland for the first time at the suggestion of a friend. While there, he, his wife, and a group of friends went on a six-day horse riding tour. He returned in 2011 and has visited there regularly during the summer months since then. Zurier speaks of the Icelandic landscape and culture as influences on his art. The country’s light, fog, sky, and ice are suggested in his abstract paintings through a precise mixture of pigments. He grinds his own oil colors and makes tempura paint by mixing pigments into glues. Curator and critic Robert Storr has described Zurier’s colors as “powder blues, deep indigos, warm and cool grays, daffodil yellows, plum purples.”

During his visits to Iceland, Zurier was also exposed to the country’s poetry, and he has created and titled art based on his reading. As Lawrence Rinder, Director of the Berkeley Art Museum, has written: “Works like Zurier’s unfold in time. Precisely like poetry, or even music, they play as the eye rests, wanders, and awakens.” In 2011, Zurier collaborated with poet Bill Berkson on the book Repeat After Me. Zurier made watercolors on Japanese notebook paper to complement poems by Berkson.

John Zurier has exhibited in the United States and Europe, and his work is in permanent collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Microsoft Corporation Art Collection, Redmond, Washington; and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. He participated in the 30th São Paulo Biennial (2012), the California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach (2010), the Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2008), and the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2002). Zurier was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010. In 2016 he made etchings for the first time at Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Zurier is represented by Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco; Peter Blum Gallery, New York; and Gallerie Nordenhake, Berlin. He lives in Berkeley, California, and is an adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

-Katharine Fulton-Peebles, Crown Point Press


  • John Zurier at Crown Point Press, 2016 (5 minutes)

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