MARCIA HAFIF with Phong Bui
Although Marcia Hafif and I have known each other since 2005 (we met at one of Robert Ryman and Merrill Wagner’s legendary annual holiday parties, and I have since had the pleasure of visiting her SoHo studio a few times), it wasn’t until a day before the opening reception of her recent exhibit, The Italian Paintings, 1961 – 1969 at Fergus McCaffrey (April 21 – June 25, 2016), that I was able to view this particular body of work. After we left the gallery, Marcia invited me to her studio to discuss, among many other things, the genesis of the work. What follows is the beginning of what we intend to be an ongoing conversation.
Phong Bui (Rail): Why is this group of paintings referred to as The Italian Paintings?
Marcia Hafif: They were painted in Rome, Italy. That’s what makes them Italian paintings.
Rail: And they were shown often in Italy during the ’60s then collected and shown at MAMCO (Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain) in Geneva in 2001?
Hafif: Yes. It’s a remarkable institution. It was Christian Bernard’s idea of a free-flowing museum showing and collecting contemporary art. He was the director of Villa Arson in Nice, from 1986 to 1994, before becoming director of MAMCO.
Rail: How did he become aware of your work, especially this body of work?
Hafif: I painted all these works in Rome in the eight years I lived there, from 1961 to 1969 before I returned to the States. I just left the paintings there. They were put in storage and stayed there for the next thirty-seven years. Finally in the late ’90s the storage facility was closing and I had to move them. At first, someone in Germany wanted to take them but it didn’t work out. Then Josselyne Naef—
Rail: —Who, together with Sophie Costes, did an amazing interview with you for the catalogue of the MAMCO show!
Hafif: Exactly! It was Josselyne who helped me to move them all to a temporary location in France. And from there she, together with Hubert Besacier, helped locate museums that wanted to keep some of the paintings. They went to four different museums immediately. They went to MAC (Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon), to Nantes and Dijon, as well as to MAMCO in Geneva where the largest quantity of work was shown. MAMCO performed marvelous services: they collected the work, they restored a lot of it because it had been stored rather badly for thirty-seven years, and it was Sophie Costes who was responsible for their care and the catalogue raisonné.
Rail: So what we see in the current show at the gallery is just a small selection.
Hafif: Yes, of between 200 and 225 paintings and at least 250 drawings that I had pretty much forgotten about.
Rail: You certainly were prolific during the golden years of Rome. I’d like to begin with your painting class in the summer of 1960, with Richards Ruben, which seemed to set an important new beginning for you and your life at the time.
Hafif: I’d graduated from Pomona College and gotten married; my husband was in school, so I needed to support us. I taught elementary school for several years, then once he became a lawyer I stopped teaching. I began to paint again. But I realized that it had been quite a while since I’d been involved with painting, so I decided to enroll at the graduate school as a graduate student in art history. I thought I would get a degree in art history so I could later teach. What I really wanted to study was contemporary art but there was no such thing at the time. Instead, I was required to study Italian Renaissance and Far Eastern art. Both turned out to influence my life tremendously. It was because of the Italian Renaissance study that I went to Italy, to see what I had been studying. Japanese culture also occupied my mind: Japanese food, art, clothing, and philosophy, everything! But, after one semester, the summer came and I realized I was not really an art historian. I didn’t enjoy writing long papers on some subject, so I decided to take a summer painting class. This class was different because it was taught by Richards Ruben.
Rail: An abstract painter of the same generation as Diebenkorn and Ernest Briggs, among others.
Hafif: That’s right. And Ruben was then showing at Ferus Gallery. Anyway, it was an intense class, five days a week, three hours each morning. And he said “that’s not enough, come for three hours in the afternoon too.”
Rail: What?! [Laughter.]
Hafif: Plus, “Bring your lunch because we’ll talk at lunch time.”
Rail: Wow. Who would teach like that today?
Hafif: I don’t know anybody. Even then, nobody taught like that. He was really special. And I didn’t understand what he was talking about. [Laughter.] But I did that class for six weeks, seven hours a day for six weeks, and it really changed me. It allowed me to give up any representational aspects of my work. He would do things like set up a still life, or environment, with a coffee table, a water glass, a newspaper, a radio, all against different colored paper on the wall. He would give instructions to a nude woman sitting on the couch: don’t stay still, read the paper, play the radio. And then he projected colored lights on the whole scene too.
Rail: Such over-stimulation! [Laughter.]
Hafif: How are you going to paint it? You couldn’t paint it in a traditional, still life way.
Rail: Did he do that deliberately as an exercise?
Rail: So how did you manage? How did you choose to respond?
Hafif: I began to work with colors and shapes, which eventually led me to begin something almost like monochromes.
Rail: Can you elaborate?
Hafif: Well, I wouldn’t say it was just monochrome painting, but I began using a single color and digging into it and making a kind of radiating form, treating it plastically rather than as flat. I would literally move the paint so that it was thicker in some parts. So what you’re seeing is the light, shadow, and so on. I think I was moving away from painting towards something more three-dimensional, without crossing over into sculpture. Then, when the class was over I thought, “What am I going to do?” [Laughter.] I separated from my husband, found a little place to live, and just began experimenting. I made some little constructions, old pieces of wood nailed together and painted, and did things like that until I decided I really should move to Los Angeles so I could see what’s going on with other artists. I rented a house in West Hollywood with a friend of mine who had also just divorced her husband, and moved there. We were within two or three blocks of Ferus Gallery. We got to know all the people at Ferus Gallery, that had been co-founded by Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps [and the poet Bob Alexander in 1957].
Rail: But Kienholz left a year later to focus on making his work.
Hafif: Yes. It was just Walter Hopps and Irving Blum, and they didn’t have a secretary. Sometimes they would call me and say “We have to go out, can you sit in the gallery for a couple of hours?” I could walk a few blocks and sit there a while. And I guess the idea was that they would pay me sometime, but we didn’t talk much about it. [Laughter.] I didn’t see it as a job, really. One show Walter did was Giorgio Morandi landscapes.
Rail: It was in 1961. Morandi was still alive. He died in 1964.
Hafif: I know, because later, when I was living in Italy, I thought I would try to visit him but I didn’t manage to for some reason. At any rate, I was taken by the Morandi show. But one of the shows that came a bit later was a Ken Price show (1961) with these little sculptures, mostly small sculptures, some in a box, which also struck me. I remember when it came time to think payment I said to Walter, “Well, I don’t really want to be paid, I want to have one of the sculptures.” I think I contributed an additional twenty-five dollars. So I have this little sculpture. It was included in a show with Franklin Parrasch in Los Angeles this year.
Rail: Did you get to know him or Ed Moses, Llyn Foulkes, and the others at the gallery?
Hafif: Kienholz, Robert Irwin. Yes, I got to know all of the artists to some degree or another because the scene in Los Angeles was much smaller then. There were other galleries but there wasn’t anything like Ferus. It was the most original, most different, and most contemporary gallery of that time. I remember making a trip to San Francisco and meeting Jay DeFeo. She was working on Deathrose (1958 – 1966) at the time.
Rail: Now called The Rose, which took her almost eight years to paint. As you’ve mentioned before, taking a class on the Italian Renaissance prompted you to move to Italy in the winter of 1961.
Hafif: Yes, exactly. Well, that in addition to my interest in Europe. I thought “I’ll go to Italy for one year. And who knows? I’ll live in Florence, and then I’d like to travel in other parts of Europe.” I was naïve about the size of Europe. It’s not that easy. Plus, as soon as I began painting and collecting painting materials I was burdened with so many paintings and so much material that it was no longer easy to travel. So I became more definitely based in Rome. I did take the train up to Venice for the Biennale the first year, 1962. I was there making paintings and showing, not only in Rome but Florence, Venice, and Bari.
Rail: That’s kind of courageous to do on your own: getting divorced, moving from California to Rome.
Hafif: I had a little bit of money from my divorce. Very little, I would say. I lived on one hundred and fifty dollars a month. But things were very cheap in Rome. You could have a very nice lunch for a dollar. I think I rented an apartment for forty dollars a month. It turned out that that apartment in Via del Babuino was right in the center of the art community.
Rail: Near the famous bar Rosati, where I went several times in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Hafif: My studio/apartment was a very short distance from Piazza del Popolo, and the bar Rosati.
Rail: How would you describe the transition, if there was any, between what you were doing in L.A. and what you were doing in Rome?
Hafif: Images I had used in Los Angeles were developed toward more use of flat color, changing further as I chose new mediums, from oil to enamel, then acrylic as it became available in the mid ’60s.
Rail: As one can detect the graphic references to the human body and sexuality, I was also excited to see the painted collages.
Hafif: Those reflect my visits to churches in Rome, seeing a lot of inlaid marble. The collages are made from strips of the paper that is wrapped around meat, cheese, and bread when you buy it at the butcher or cheese shop. I saved the paper for making these collages.
Rail: And each has four bands of white, one in the middle of each of the four sides. They seem as though they were cut with a razor blade first in order to enhance a relief-like presence before getting painted over with many layers of white paint. They almost have a three-dimensional quality about them.
Hafif: Yes, visually and literally.
Rail: Absolutely, especially when you’re in front of the work.
Hafif: When I found the new apartment I began to number the paintings instead of using the forms of identification that I had used before, letters of the alphabet.
Rail: Numbering is a form of serialization, which brings me to a question about two paintings in the show that look like chess boards, one entitled February the other March, both painted in 1963.
Hafif: One refers to the Marienbad game made popular by Alain Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad.
Rail: Which you must have seen at the Venice Film Festival at the time that you went to see the Venice Biennale in 1961! I think it won the Golden Lion award of that year.
Hafif: It was 1962 that I went to Venice, but I had seen the film by then. I had learned the game in California. Here’s roughly how it works: there are sixteen markers divided into four rows of one, three, five, and seven. The two players take turns removing as many markers, pennies or match sticks for instance, from one row as they wish. The goal is to be the player to remove the last marker. If you know the trick actually, you can usually win.
Rail: Were you aware of John McLaughlin’s abstract painting?
Hafif: Yes, I was. There are some paintings of mine that might have had some references to his, but not with this body of work. I admire his painting a lot in general.
Rail: He was such a huge figure in California. The “Light and Space” movement in some ways evolved out of his paintings. I like his concept of “neutral form,” which works to enhance the viewer’s natural desire for contemplation by omitting any references to the image (object). Would it be fair to say that there is an equal interest in how you mediate mathematics and geometry in your work?
Hafif: Yes, in a more playful and less formal way I was interested in shapes and how they worked. I was interested in the hexagon, how you draw a hexagon in a particular painting. The other thing that was happening was my technique for arriving at an image, which was to prepare the canvas and sit looking at it, to let an image come to mind.
Rail: You just sit there until it comes.
Hafif: Right. [Laughter.]
Rail: Once the images come to you, you make a drawing. Then what?
Hafif: Then I used a tracing on paper to transfer the shape as precisely as I could on the canvas. Circles are especially difficult to paint.
Rail: I don’t see any paint buildup on the edges—so each sheet must have been taped.
Hafif: Yes. I taped the shapes so I could paint right up to the edge.
Rail: Your abstraction is so unlike anyone else’s. It perhaps refers to your body, not anyone else’s.
Hafif: Even though I see them as abstract, a friend I hadn’t seen for a while came to visit and she said, “Oh, it’s all about being pregnant.” I said “What?” That had not been my conscious intention.
Rail: The fact that you sat while pregnant in front of a blank canvas until the image appeared means that pregnancy could very well be in the image.
Hafif: I’m not sure if it was so direct, but I wouldn’t know what I was going to do until I had the canvas ready. The canvas is there and it’s like a screen that you’re projecting on to. I would project an image onto the canvas, and then paint that image.
Rail: What about the group of six paintings 58., 59., 60., 61., 62., 63. (Mirror, Mirror I – VI) from 1964?
Hafif: Again, I’m interested in cutting out one space to make another space, using just one shape and two colors. I don’t know why I was so involved with circles. A lot of the work involves circles. But I think the continuity is in the fact of strong color forming the negative shape.
Rail: You’ve spoken often about the balance and imbalance of negative and positive space that is in rapport. You’ve mentioned that one color can generate a loud or discrete presence next to the other, as one shape relates to the next.
Hafif: And it depends on each painting each time.
Rail: How do you go about deciding the color, Marcia?
Hafif: I don’t know. [Laughter.] I guess I pick colors I like. I don’t think they refer to anything, especially.
Rail: I know that you were friendly with a lot of Italian artists around the art group Forma 1, like Pietro Consagra, Piero Dorazio, Giulio Turcato, and Carla Accardi, the only woman member of the group.
Hafif: I was closest to Carla Accardi. In fact, I had a show together with Carla and Giulio Turcato at QUI Editalia.
Rail: A three-person show.
Hafif: Yes. The show was called Imagini del Colore. A critic who was interested in my work, Marisa Volpi, organized this show. She wanted Carla Accardi, me, and another woman artist. I’m forgetting who. And we both foolishly said, “Oh we can’t have a show with only women.” [Laughter.]
Rail: That’s amazing.
Hafif: I know, how stupid can we be? [Laughter.] So she invited Giulio Turcato whose work has been shown by Sperone Westwater recently.
Rail: Besides references to the body, was there anything else that may have made a more subtle yet immediate impact on these paintings?
Hafif: I was reading William Burroughs at one time, which I think influenced some paintings.
Rail: Why did you decide to leave Italy after eight productive years?
Hafif: I needed to come back to my own country and work in a new context and speak in English again.
Rail: Was your Italian husband okay with that?
Hafif: Not really, but I needed to leave, so I did.
Rail: So you brought your son along.
Hafif: Yeah, I did. And then we kind of shared him over his early years. Sometimes he lived in Italy, went to school in Italy, and then he came to stay with me.
Rail: You’re close to your son and his family?
Hafif: Absolutely. That’s why I live in California, in Laguna Beach. He lived there and encouraged me. He said, “You have to have a place here. You have to come to California.” I don’t live with him, but he’s not far from my studio.
Rail: One more question I forgot to ask earlier: why did you decide to go back to graduate school?
Hafif: Since I was independent from the husband in Italy I thought having a graduate degree would allow me to teach. I did eventually teach for many years, though never full time. I taught at Sarah Lawrence College for six years, and variously also at SVA, NYU, and Princeton as a visiting artist. I should add that being in graduate school at UC Irvine was very useful for me, too, with an interesting group of fellow students there at the time: Chris Burden, Nancy Buchanan, Barbara T. Smith, and others.
Rail: And Robert Irwin was a popular teacher.
Hafif: He had a very special way of teaching.
Rail: Could you describe it?
Hafif: He would make appointments and come to each of our studios which were scattered throughout different parts of Southern California. He would always be late because of the travel time between them. But once he came to a studio he was there. We had a couple of hours at least to just talk about whatever we wanted to talk about. And it was very helpful and very interesting to think and talk about art in a broader sense.
Rail: You were also working with photography, film, even sound works during that period.
Hafif: I thought that graduate school could allow me to explore areas that I hadn’t before. I took time off from painting to see what would come. Regarding the sound work, for one example, I was spending a lot of time sitting on the beach, watching the ocean. If you close your eyes sitting in front of the ocean, waves are crashing to the left, to the right, back and forth—distance is felt. It’s like listening to an orchestra. And I wanted to communicate that to others. I got a recording of the ocean, an exhibition opportunity came up at USC, and I was given a slightly darkened space with low steel platforms about sitting height that I arranged like a pier—perfect for people to enter, sit down, even on the floor, and listen to the sound of the ocean. My first film was a three-minute shot of a cloud changing shape very slowly.
Rail: [Laughter.] Like John Giorno breathing in Warhol’s Sleep.
Hafif: Yes! [Laughter.] Except mine was just three minutes, not five hours and twenty minutes.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.