On the occasion of her recent exhibit Judy Pfaff: Five Decades at Ameringer/ McEnery/ Yohe (September 10 – October 16, 2010) the artist stopped by the Rail’s headquarters to speak with Rail publisher Phong Bui about her life, work, and more.
Phong Bui (Rail): In his monograph of your work (Judy Pfaff, published by Hudson Hill Press, 2003), Irving Sandler describes being shocked by your first solo exhibit at Artists Space in ’75, J.A.S.O.N. / J.A.S.O.N, (an acronym of the first ten months you had been in New York). It was essentially a synthesis of everything you had done up to that point—drawing, painting, collage, printmaking, sculpture, construction, architecture, environments, and so on. All these elements that are still part of your pictorial language, though perhaps they have metamorphosed.
Judy Pfaff: Well, at the time it was like a glossary or an appendix of moments. I had just barely digested the things I had learned at graduate school and the things I had seen in New York. It was a humbling experience. That installation was more like my diary of what I had experienced in New York that year, an homage to all the art I saw. It documented my first year. On one side of the gallery, all the imagery was personal. After acknowledging what I had learned, that side was my side, more autobiographical. I think one could see the shift but I don’t know if anyone knew. With installation so much happens, so many decisions are made late night that change the trajectory for the better.
Rail: Did you make the whole installation by yourself, or did you have help?
Pfaff: In 1974, entirely by myself.
Rail: Irving also described astonishment at your show Reinventing the Wheel at the Neuberger Museum four years later in 1979. That was your attempt to rethink the relationship between abstraction and figuration.
Pfaff: Which was at the time a big issue at Yale Graduate School. You were either with the modern and abstract camp or the traditional and figurative camp.
Rail: You mean the Al Held vs. William Bailey predicament.
Pfaff: Yes. That was the dialog and the two of them firmly stood for each side. You know Al, sometimes he would say, If there’s space, does that make it figurative? That issue really haunted him, and challenged him to come up with ways of making his paintings more wild and alive, which is increasingly the case with his late work. Still, he was doggedly an abstract artist. It was his identity. But it also was my debate.
Rail: There was also the debate around the notion of the “New Image” in the late ’70s, which involved many artists of your generation, including Susan Rothenberg, Robert Moskowitz, Neil Jenny, Elizabeth Murray, and Joe Zucker in painting. As for sculpture, the leading examples were Joel Shapiro, Nancy Graves, Bryan Hunt, and a few others. However, the reference of the figure has never reappeared again in your work since then.
Pfaff: When I was teaching at Cal Arts 1976-79 I was in my early 30s. I had been so busy with working for money, traveling to install, and round the clock work in the studio that my friendships with people suffered as a result. And it really bothered me at the time that I was such a bad friend. For me that installation (Reinventing the Wheel) was my way of taking the time to identify all the people in my life and give them a shape. In fact, each of those figures was made with a minimal range of wooden sticks and no features; they represent each specific person, each specific relationship. Also, it partially came about from a relationship I had with Ramman Schlemmer, Oskar Schlemmer’s son who worked at Holly Solomon. Schlemmer, combined constructivist language with the figure, which I thought was great. To my mind, Schlemmer and Aleksandra Ekster gave me footing, evidence that I could make figures and completely go to the other side. The funny thing is once I made these figures, surrogates, of my friends, I thought, Oh good, I get them now, I’m closer to them now I don’t have to do the figure again. So that was the extent of the reference to the figure. I haven’t felt the need to address that again.
Rail: Let’s go back to the beginning. You spent your freshman year at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1965.
Pfaff: At the time I was married and my husband was in the military, so I was going back and forth from Newfoundland where he was stationed at a remote radar site in Stephenville, Newfoundland. I traveled back an forth. I went to Wayne on and off.
Rail: Did you know the painter Ellen Phelan, even though she was probably a few years ahead of you?
Pfaff: I didn’t know her personally, but I knew of her, mostly because she was an amazing personality. At the time, I imagined her to be a beatnik—wild, smart and creative. She always dressed in black and had this handsome boyfriend—I think his name was John Roberts. She represented the kind of creativity that was running amok in Detroit at the time. My memory of her is very clear. She was cool.
Rail: Did you also study with the legendary artist Robert Wilbert?
Pfaff: He was not my teacher. But he was a big deal in Detroit. One of the reasons I got into Wayne State was because my high school friend Todd Smith, whose father (G. Alden Smith) was the head of the art department there, spoke for me. Wayne State for the short time I was there introduced me to an extremely creative community of sculptors, painters, poets, activists.
Rail: And from Wayne State you went to Southern Illinois University?
Pfaff: Not directly. I had to move from Detroit and Newfoundland with my husband to his new base in Sweetwater, Texas. Then I left David and Texas. I remember driving across country and landing in this very small town of Alton, where SIU’s campus was at the time. Alton was a Mississippi river town full of poets and writers very close to Principia College which, though it was the most tumultuous time politically, it was a real intellectual, intimate community. And it was perfect for me because I was so eager to learn.
This is what happened: I left Southern Illinois University and I left my husband at the same time (1968). I lived in Sweden for a year. Then I came back from Sweden I moved to Washington University where my boyfriend suggested I see the work of this wonderful artist and teacher named Arthur Osver. So I did, then I called him and said, I’d love to study with you, you’re such a good artist. You know I didn’t really have the proper grades, mostly because mine was not a continuous education, with everything transferring from one school to the other. Osver was sort of the Robert Wilbert of St. Louis. He got me into Washington University, and he sent me to Norfolk in the summer of 1970. And you know, it made everybody nuts, because I was brand new, no one knew who I was. But Robert Reed, who was running the program, liked me even though I was irascible. I’m easy on one level because I work hard and I’m lively; I will make a big soup and have people over. But I’m also critical. If I think someone is an asshole I’ll probably tell them that.
Rail: That’s something you could certainly share with Al. [Laughs.]
Pfaff: Yes. In fact when Al and I met, it was like, as Al used to say, a glove fit. We matched each other. We argued all the time. We were both street fighters. He thought he was right, I thought I was right, and that’s something that I don’t think most people enjoy, but I like it, especially because Al was so smart, and he won all the arguments. I would go home and try to figure out what he was saying. I’d try and put my own thoughts together and I would come back and counter attack. Al could talk about art, artists, looking, and many other interesting subjects forever. There was never a moment in which he wasn’t completely engaged. He didn’t have anything between on and off. He was obsessed with ideas and constant inquiry. He was streetwise, but not literary—he wasn’t educated in that way, but he was totally smart, which I liked. That’s probably why we got on together, because in that way we were similar.
Rail: Were you able to see the Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials exhibit that Marcia Tucker and James Monte curated at the Whitney in 1969?
Pfaff: No, I didn’t but when I was Yale’s Norfolk Summer School, one of the visitors was artist Richard van Buren, who was very close friends with Eva Hesse. She had just died. He talked about her and other artists who were in the show. I remember being excited about seeing the works of Alan Shields, Lynda Benglis, Jack Whitten, Jo-Baer, and many others who were really interested in alternative strategies for making things.
Rail: Your relationship with Al is legendary in the art world, but what about your relationship with Nancy Graves?
Pfaff: That came later, in 1980, when I had my first show at Holly Solomon, which was called Deep Water. Nancy came in and she really liked the show, and she left a note with Holly saying she wanted to meet me. Up to that point I only knew of her camels and I really loved the way she made them inside out with so many different materials like burlap, wax, and fiberglass in sort of odd, quasi-scientific way. So we became friends and then we traveled together one Christmas to Sicily. She was very, very different from me. She was elegant, knowledgeable, and an incredible workaholic—the last part we shared. She brought all this real knowledge about Greek and Roman influences through her deep interest in anthropology. She probably thought I was a hoot, because whatever museum we went to, I was more interested in the moulding on the staircase, how low the ceiling was, how damp the room was, or why did they put this next to that, and so on. Meanwhile she was really fascinated by what she should be fascinated with, the objects, which is what we came there to see in the first place [laughs]. We were great chums together. I could learn from her. I don’t know if she learned from me, but I think my experience of how I viewed spaces was so different than hers, and that was why we got on together. We could really enjoy ourselves looking at things with two different minds. I admired her elegance, her intelligence, and her creativity. When she died in 1995, I was sort of upset that the art world wasn’t more upset. I felt she was an influence and a talent that should have been more acknowledged and appreciated.
Rail: I also like her films.
Pfaff: Oh my goodness, her films were amazing. At that point I had only seen the flight motion of the birds (“Aves: Magnificent Frigate Bird, Great Flamingo,” 1973) and her first of the three films she made about camels (“200 Stills at 60 Frames,” 1970), which must have been an interest that she had shared with Richard Serra because he had his first show in Italy (Galleria La Salita, Rome, 1966) with live animals and stuffed animals.
Rail: I thought that last film, “Reflections of the Moon” (1974), with those incredible 200-odd stills of the moon’s surface, was quite beautiful. I thought that her appetite for different materials that come together was remarkable.
Pfaff: I agree. Another thing we shared was seeing each other’s work through the materials. For example, I was working at Pilchuck, which was this glass-blowing place that Dale Chihuly put together, and the glass-blower there was a good friend of mine named Billy (William) Morris, who was gorgeous, most talented, and the head blower, or gaffer. And I realized there are two or three things that can work with glass. Bronze is one of them; the coefficient of expansion is the same, so you can meld them together. They don’t explode on each other, they don’t shrink and destroy each other, and they work as a material. Even though Nancy was doing all this incredible bronze work. Bronzes and casting, I mean crazy casting. I thought the introduction of glass would be a natural pairing.
Rail: And her patina is remarkably beautiful.
Pfaff: Unbelievable, yes. But when I got back from Pilchuck I told her that she should go there and work with Billy, which she did. That’s when she got her brain hemorrhage and ended up in the hospital in Seattle.
Rail: I think your and her work share a desire for making forms that integrate abstract-expressionist style with inspiration from science and archaeology.
Pfaff: The only difference is, she was born with a natural relationship to the land and animals and so on, where mine is sort of more synthetic, but you’re right about that connection.
Rail: Could you describe the relationship of your work to Alan Saret?
Pfaff: Oh yeah, I think he’s the world’s best sculptor. He was a champion for me because all of the male sculptors at the time were more involved with big weight and mass. Saret was doing the opposite. Even though he’s very logical, his rhythms are perfect in everything he has made. His works are never as casual as they appear. So his work was important to what I was trying to do: I didn’t want anything heavy, I didn’t want anything black, I didn’t want anything minimal. I wanted illusion, I wanted space, I wanted anti-gravity, I wanted buoyancy and color, and something that had a living system involved with it. I can’t say we were friends, but I thought that he was the most interesting artist on the planet. I remember he had a huge article in Artforum in 1970, which inspired me to call him up and make a visit to his studio, which I think was on Leonard Street. Once I was in the studio and there was nothing in it except a tub in the middle of the room and a light source coming from a hole in the wall to the floor. Super smart, super felt, not cold, not like process, not obvious. It was not only science; it was like mad science. He was in his own world. He seemed free, strangely independent. He wasn’t alone, but he was a loner, and that is not my M.O. at all, but what he did was the antidote to other heavy things, which was brilliant and gutsy.
Rail: And you also identify with Vertov’s films, especially Man with a Movie Camera, a silent film from 1929. It has no story, no actors, but is famous for its range of cinematic techniques, from double exposure, fast/slow motion, to jump cuts—
Pfaff: —slicing, tracking shots, upside down, downside up, whatever. That was my argument. You have to remember that there were a lot of complaints about museums, owning objects, commodities, money, and so on. Yet there was no money in the art world. So these installations of mine were about the opposite of all that: I was interested in exploring ideas about space and time.
Rail: So you were basically not that interested in structuralist film. [Laughs.]
Pfaff: That’s right, yes. Although they were considered the ruling class.
Rail: In the early ’70s, when feminism was gaining momentum in the art world, many weighed in on your work through that lens. Arthur Danto thought women were remarkably adept at finding new genres or so-called new ways to combine existing genres, rather than restricting themselves to painting, a medium long-dominated by men. On the other hand, Linda Nochlin observed the issue of gender in your work, writing that, “There has always been a tendency to equate artistic ‘formlessness’ in the sense of rejecting rigid structure with femininity.”
Pfaff: She basically said that when a male artist does it, like Jackson Pollock, for instance, it’s a heroic stance, deep in the cyclical, unconscious way, but when a woman does it she’s off her rocker.
Rail: Needless to say you were subject to scrutiny from all sides.
Pfaff: I was. I didn’t really quite understand all of it fully, because I was too busy trying to pay the rent. I was working, I was teaching, I was running around. Life was pretty crazy. Like I said, there was no money. There was nothing to sell. To make things even more difficult I was showing with Holly who was quite a character and had her own battles to fight. She was rejected by other dealers. So being part of that family probably was not exactly a favorable situation. [Laughs.]
Rail: Which brings us to the most important aspect of your work: you allow emotion to be as present as other formal elements. The most pointed example would be “Either War,” your installation at the Venice Biennale in ’82, which was made after the Falklands War.
Pfaff: Right. Adding on top of the war, just about three month before the biennale opened, the official curator had just died, so there was an interim new curator and everything was very disorganized and there was not enough time. This was when Anish Kapoor, Julian Schnabel, and Salle were shown together. I got there and I had no place to stay. The work hadn’t arrived, so I just decided that I would sort of re-stucco the ceilings and take out some bricks. There was no electricity, there was no toilet; it was kind of a mess. I was remembering my grandmother, who was a sergeant major in the Royal Air Force in England. She used to talk about the fear of noises overhead. England was covered with these balloons which were filled with helium and painted silver, and at night, no one could see them, but they would explode in the air. Anyway, I found all of these big pipes from the pipe organ of an old church that was being dismantled. I felt the cone shapes I had brought with me would have the same carrier for sound. I was thinking about Michelangelo and the Futurists—everything Italian. But in the end, emotion is my only true sign. The state of dishevelment of the whole show, the state of affairs in the world, the degree of difficulty with the logistics there on the Guidecca led to “Either War.” It had resonance for me in being site- and event-specific, and my underlying uneasiness and need to find a narrative to hold the imagery together. Memories of my grandmother’s war stories was the answer, the glue.
Rail: One of the great pleasures in this exhibit is seeing “Frio” (from the “Badlands” series) for the first time, in the flesh. Not only did it remind me of the neo-expressionist pathos of the 1980s, it actually calls to mind Stella’s book Working Space, which dealt with the whole issue about painting at the time, not so much whether painting should be done in a certain way, but rather whether it could be carried on at all. I mean given that it had already inherently built-in unavoidable literal and theatrical associations. Obviously this sort of argument has never concerned you one bit.
Pfaff: Right. None of that really concerned me. Let’s put it this way: if things get too French, especially in a room, part of me just gets hungry and wants a cup of coffee or something. I want to leave the room, because I know I’m going to say something terrible like Fuck off, or Who cares.
Rail: [Laughs.] No one ever thought of “Deep Water” (1980) as the product of French Structuralist theories, but it was a significant step in your work. It basically refers to the underwater environment.
Pfaff: And an extension of body and mind. I knew what I needed to do: a direct experiment that would open up a lot of possibilities in my work. I also thought it was a great argument. I really wanted sculpture to have the levity and the expansion that a painting could have. So that was like, yippee! I got to the Yucatan. That was like reading the Bible or Shakespeare for the first time. Everything came in colors, like bad taste colors, even fluorescent colors, flowers were really stinky and smelly. Stuff that would aesthetically upset the art world. I also thought it was a woman’s argument. It’s interesting that you mentioned feminism, because I’ve never really been allowed to enter the feminist discourse because my work is not political enough, or the imagery is not readable.
Rail: That makes sense. There is also another side of your work which is monochromatic, and more about drawing than painting. For example, “Flusso e Riflusso” (in State I, 1992).
Pfaff: That piece, among others, really came about after one morning I woke up and said to myself, I am not going to make another big installation that makes me crazy and makes me feel like I’m a performance artist, which I’m not. I’m giving the wrong messages, I’m destroying everything, I don’t have anything. So I’m going to learn to make a thing.
Rail: And this change took place in the early ’90s?
Pfaff: Yes. It really had to do with my stay at Pilchuck, which was high up in the mountains, with a beautiful view looking out over this valley into the San Juan Islands. I had never been happier. I don’t really understand it exactly because I’m not a nature person; I don’t like hiking, I don’t climb rocks. But “Deep Water” was about this transparency and upbeatness. Not only was it optimistic, but it’s like, when life is not full of pain, it has color. For example, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Java are fantastically beautiful places. The climate is easy. That was what I felt while I was there at Pilchuck, and I wanted to get connected with that energy. Kiki Smith is an artist I admire because she could sort out her emotional life through her body, but in my case I was struck that there were these exterior motives such as landscape—though I thought it could be internalized in other ways without making reference to the body.
Rail: In addition to the lyrical balance of constructed, quasi-geometric lines versus the lightly bent, more fluid lines on the left that we see in “Flusso e Riflusso” there is a wonderful contrast between the large cedar wood drift form and the delicacy of the woven wire on the right.
Pfaff: I remember calling Ursula [Von Rydingsvard], who had a studio upstairs from Pilchuk in the same building for over 20 years and saying, Ursula you can’t believe all the cedar trees and roots they have here. They look like muscles and tendons of a Leonardo drawing. Of course Ursula is totally uninterested in using any natural form but milled, dimensional, neutral, cedar. But I think having smelled the scent of cedar for so long from her studio this piece was my own connection to cedar even though the form was more figural. In some ways, it’s both figural and referring to landscape at the same time.
Rail: That body of work opened up new possibilities in terms of different abstract language, without giving up the reference to landscape, that became more invested in legible form in the late ’90s—I mean your installation at Andre Emmerich in 1997.
Pfaff: Oh yeah, it was called “Round Hole, Square Peg.”
Rail: Right. Apart from many circular forms that were poured directly on the floor, there emerged the prominent use of the grid, which I thought was necessary because it provided a structure that could not only negotiate with the architecture but allow other organic and natural forms to coexist.
Pfaff: That whole installation came about mostly because Andre’s gallery was a painter’s gallery. It had one big room and three little rooms. Actually, if you look at a floor plan, it’s laid out like a Greek cross with four equal length crossings in the middle at right angles to each other. Also, at that point, I had moved into this big beautiful studio upstate near Bard, where I still teach, which was once a tugboat factory. One day I walked into the gallery and looked outside the window, down below to 57th Street, and I realized it was in the same depth and distance as the river was to my house. So that anchored the show for me. Also I used to just complain about how nothing happens up here except watching the river flow with all of its tiny incidents like a log floating slowly on the water surface, or a boat going by, and so on, but then gradually life was okay, particularly after that show.
Rail: That’s great because that experience came right after your previous installation, in which you had to deal with bigger space—I meant “Coroa De Espinhos,” (Crown of Thorns) the piece you made for the 1998 São Paulo Biennale.
Pfaff: I was lucky to have this amazing assistant named Dylan Farnum who had been a student at Columbia. He majored in American Studies, but he taught himself how to do welding. And he was really smart. So that show came about because of Dylan’s expertise with welding and astonishing energy. We all came down to São Paulo. We chose the site at the far end near the glass-wall extension of a Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist building. It was a totally transparent space looking out at the park, Ibirapuera. I had been chosen to represent the U.S. and I did not understand the politics of the Biennale. Americans were not popular. It was a grueling physical installation that ended minutes before the opening. In some ways it was my best piece. I had been living in the space for a few months. It had so much to do with specific cultural sensations and structures of São Paulo.
Rail: Did he work on the commissioned piece for the Elvehjem Museum at the University of Wisconsin?
Pfaff: No. By then he had to move to Walla Walla in Washington state and now he runs a foundry there. That was the expertise of my other assistant Jamie Hamilton who also assisted me for this show that was at Ameringer Yohe—which was probably one of my best shows—called Neither Here Nor There in 2003. He is a rock climber, so he can rig and knot, and he knows how to move weight around, but at the same time he’s so agile like a dancer. He’s really talented.
Rail: I’m glad you give such credit to your assistants. Another change I’ve noticed in recent years is that your once expansive use of umbrella has been frames substituted by lampshades.
Pfaff: Umbrella frames are so beautifully made; the engineering aspect is amazing. Maybe I also associate them with Duchamp’s circles, but I like their geometry, and I just can’t get enough of them. There were these lovely little mom and pop stores in Philadelphia. One makes umbrellas, and the other makes shoes. That’s where I bought a hundred different kinds, big and small, English and American made, aluminum and wooden ones, and so on. They’re useful to me as an image. Anyway, the shift from umbrella to lampshades came after my experience working with wire work at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia a while ago. Also, it had to do with a few other things, including having grown up with Singer sewing machines everywhere in the house, in England. My grandmother was a seamstress; I used to sew my own clothes, and I was looking at old parasols and Chinese red lanterns. And finally, it came at a good period of time when I went back to working by myself with drawings and works with paper. The paper lanterns give off all the right messages of easy, light, and celebratory material.
Rail: And would you say the increased volume of making things lighter has also been somewhat informed by the works on paper?
Pfaff: Absolutely. For the very same reason: I now enjoy more and more working alone, as well as working with my hands. Except for the welded aluminum frames, which are made by Satoru and Atsuko Bauman.
Rail: You know, I understand the need to variegate ways of staining or blotting, in order to unify not only the encyclopedic collision of images but also the surface. Nevertheless, the frame seems to be inseparable from the drawings. Not only are the frames silver leaf, but they get stenciled and painted with various motifs and patters in order to extend the overall imagery of the drawing into the frame.
Pfaff: Well, you know I used to work for a framer. So I was aware of the kind of philosophy of framing being extremely neutral. And I’m thinking in the opposite as much as possible. But you’re right. The frames and the drawings are one. Sometimes people will buy it and they’ll tell dealers, I’m going to change the frame, and I’m like, Why would you do that? It’s like cutting a quarter of the drawing off. That doesn’t make sense.
Rail: Do you think your inclusion, in recent years, of images that derive from the natural world has in some way generated a sense of calmness in your work?
Pfaff: I would say so, Phong. I also think nothing rolls off my back, but I’m sort of not from the outside looking in, and I’m also not from the inside looking out. I’m sort of in my own space, especially with the MacArthur grant, which I got in 2004. I was able to build an extra studio so I can put together some of my old works, like “Frio” in this show. I now have great tools and pay my assistants well. It kind of put an elegance in my life that I had never had before, which, in a funny way, I’ve always wanted.
Rail: Well, Nancy would have been very happy about you gaining elegance.
Pfaff: I’m becoming more Nancy-esque, yes.
Rail: I know so many artists over the years have studied with you at Bard, including Gandalf Gavan, Nicola Lopez, Ishmael Randall-Weeks, and others, all of whom have grown into their own beautifully. And every one of them credits you for being a devoted and passionate teacher. How do you maintain the rigor that making artwork requires in your teaching?
Pfaff: I don’t think like that. I’m incredibly fascinated with what my students do. I like looking at their work and talking to them about materials and techniques. That’s a resource that I can offer. At times I can be quite mischievous in that if they develop a particular interest I go out of my way to encourage them even more. I never was interested in compartmentalizing their potential. I was in the city last week taking my students to see a lot of shows in Chelsea, and I was proud to see many of women showing their work in different galleries. I think, I did no harm. I gave permission. I have a family.
Rail: One last question: Five decades is a long time. What does it even mean? When I walk into this show I see different pieces that barely represent a tiny glimpse of what you have done. And the way installation art has opened up as a result of your effort, What are your thoughts on how installation art has evolved
Pfaff: The show title Five Decades is a little misleading. When I first heard the title from the gallery, I thought it was a mistake or that they thought I was much older. They were including 2010 as an other decade, but there was another issue. For most of my work, all the installations do not exist. All that remains are the drawings and brief moments when I would try my hand at making objects. Big objects, but still objects. When I became 60 a sudden panic came over me. I realized that I had not taken care of any my work. The installations were destroyed and the autonomous objects were molding in my basement or just in parts randomly strewn in any space available. With the grant, I had the space and time to pull them out and with the help of Rob van Erve restore what does exist. I had been so neglectful for so long. With the MacArthur, I realized my body of work was taken seriously. It was high time I did the same.
The word “installation” seems to mean many different things. For me it is very specific. It is a work that has a short shelf life, one place, one moment in time, where the place and space dictate the form. Moving it would not make any sense. I am thrilled with how younger artists have expanded and exploded the sense of time and space and introduced many different strategies and narratives, beyond the teacher.