Judy Pfaff’s boundary-breaking installations and multimedia works balance wild exuberance and carefully planned structure.
Stepping into a Judy Pfaff installation can be an overwhelming experience. A forest of imagery both abstract and figurative, natural and artificial, seeming to swirl and press against the walls and ceiling, surrounds the viewer, transforming him or her into a participant. The diverse shapes and textures of Pfaff’s compositional elements, the mixture of 2-D and 3-D elements, and the riots of color make her installations into essays in sensory overload, a quality that could be chaotic were it not for the artist’s attention to form and structure. This carefulness lurks below the surface—in a manner of speaking, because there is no one surface to these works—but it is there, making Pfaff’s architecturally-scaled installations essays in controlled chaos, or perhaps uninhibited order.
Not all of Pfaff’s art is installation-based; she also makes paintings, prints, multimedia collages, and three-dimensional wall pieces. A 1988 wall piece of hers is titled Horror Vacui, and the Latin phrase alluding to nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum could well be a description of Pfaff’s busy, dense aesthetic in general. While charting various paths ahead, her work is very much an outgrowth of the period in the 1970s when artists began to tire of the chilly restraint and severity of Minimalism and reintroduce such seemingly long-forgotten traits as bold color, figuration, and gestural mark-making. As the art critic Kim Levin expressed the mindset in 1979, “All the words that had been hurled as insults for as long as we could remember—illusionistic, theatrical, decorative, literary—were resurrected…. It was defying all the prescriptions of Modernist purity. [We] were finally bored with all that arctic purity.” This was not only Post-Minimalism but Postmodernism, and Pfaff was one of the moving forces.
In a 1982 interview, Pfaff described herself this way: “I’m at war with conventions. I’m against what’s expected, what’s safe.” She came by this scrappy attitude naturally, as the product of a tough background who had to carve out her own road in life. She was born in London in 1946, into an England wounded, exhausted, and economically drained by six years of war. Her father, a Royal Air Force pilot, deserted the family, and her mother emigrated to Canada, leaving Judy with her grandmother, a seamstress in the poor East End section of the city. When Judy was 10, she went to join her mother in Detroit, and at 15 she left home to marry a man by the name of Pfaff who was a military pilot—like her absent father. Discovering an interest in art, she managed to get herself into Washington University in St. Louis, where she majored in fine art, and then to Yale’s MFA program. At Yale, she studied painting with Al Held, who became a lifelong mentor of hers. In Held’s boundary-breaking 3-D abstractions, in which colored cubes, tubes, globes, and lines swirl through an illusionistic space, one can see a strong influence on Pfaff’s art. Some passages in her installations almost look like Al Held paintings translated into real space. Another influence was Frank Stella, who began with the flattest of flat art but at the beginning of the ’70s surprised everyone by causing his paintings to project outward from the frame and the wall.
Pfaff graduated from Yale in 1973, and the next year she had her first show in New York. It was at Artists Space, the not-for-profit gallery founded by critic and art historian Irving Sandler and Trudi Grace that launched several major careers—not only Pfaff’s but those of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. Sandler recalled being shocked when Pfaff arrived to create her installation on site and began by chopping holes in the gallery’s pristine white walls. This first foray into room-filling installation art, titled J.A.S.O.N.-J.A.S.O.N., was conservative by Pfaff’s later standards, in fact rather austere in its nearly monochrome scheme and in confining itself to just a few simple materials like plaster, sheet metal, lights, paint, wire, and wood. As she evolved as an artist, Pfaff would grow more and more exuberant in her constructions, not only in terms of materials—she expanded her repertoire to include such things as fiberglass resin, Lucite, Mylar tape, colored plastics, and chicken wire—but in the way she would gather together and mash up a wide variety of art-historical references, ranging from Cubism to Kurt Schwitters’ Merz constructions to Alexander Calder’s structures, Marcel Duchamp’s Sixteen Miles of String, Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages, Jean Tinguely’s self-destructing machines, Arte Povera, Piet Mondrian, and Abstract Expressionist painting.
The connection to Ab-Ex is especially important. Like Jackson Pollock’s, Pfaff’s work is heroically scaled and action-oriented; it has a quality that Irving Sandler, in a major essay titled “Judy Pfaff: Tracking the Cosmos” (2003), called “theatricality.” For the participant-viewer standing within it, a Pfaff installation can seem like a theater, a space within which dramatic action occurs. They can seem like action paintings so energetic that they have leapt off the walls. In describing her working methods, though, Pfaff tends to use cinematic rather than theatrical analogies: “I structure my work more the way films are put together; it’s like quick splices and dissolves in films, particularly those of the Russian avant-garde [such as] Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. You don’t know exactly why, but when you’re in the work you get excited, even panicked by the structuring of the scene.”
The word “structure” is key here; even if Pfaff’s work can often look and feel wild, it is always the product of painstaking planning, not to mention extremely detail-oriented and technically challenging fabrication, much of which she does herself in her massive, barn-like studio. She has said, “There is much structuring even though my work looks casual. It’s totally structured even to a fault.” This careful attitude eventually made Pfaff unhappy with the impermanence of the installations, which were destroyed after the exhibitions were concluded. In the late ’80s, she sought out commissions for site-specific permanent installations, and also evolved a hybrid form of wall-relief, in which many of the qualities of the room-filling installations could be achieved in a portable work that can be mounted on a wall. In her permanent commissions, Pfaff of course has to contend with the inbuilt nature of the space she is given, which to some extent dictates the nature of the artwork. In making Notes on Light and Color (2000), at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Pfaff had to work with a semicircular wall. To her it suggested the retina of the human eye, so she went in an optical direction, creating an installation that is calmer and quieter than most of her works. Luminous colored discs seem to float amid hourglass-shaped sculptural elements, drawing viewers’ attention to the process of seeing.
While Pfaff’s work is very urban, drawing inspiration from the manic intensity and visual complexity of modern everyday life, she also includes nature, but in a way that does justice to the way we experience it in the post-industrial age. It is noteworthy that Pfaff was included in the recent traveling exhibition “LandEscape,” dedicated to the wide range of contemporary-art responses to landscape. She has made extremely powerful use of natural elements in a 2017 installation, Tivoli—>Tisbury. Named for the Hudson Valley town of Tivoli, N.Y., where she has her studio, and Tisbury, England, where it was installed, it mingles medieval cathedral architecture, colorful structures that recall a Renaissance orrery, and actual trees with elaborate root systems penetrating into rock.
Recently Pfaff has been making flat or nearly flat works that combine aspects of collage, assemblage, and photographic imagery. Earlier iterations of her flat-art approach involved encaustic painting augmented with ink, collaged photographs, and even burn marks; the latest ones use digital imagery (drawn from source photographs of the urban scene) and break the boundary of the traditional frame by allowing certain elements to “poke” out of the expected rectangle. Pfaff’s “Quartet” series from 2018 is a dizzying four-part essay in visual density, layering one space on top of another, frames within frames, filling each with so many colors, shapes, and allusions that it dances on the ledge of confusion without falling into the abyss.
She has also recently made pieces, mainly abstract, using oil stick and encaustic over vintage paper from India or old Chinese-American documents; the fact that these have handwriting and other previously-created marks on them allows the artist to create a sort of historical and cultural palimpsest. From a formal point of view, they represent other ways of creating a complex, multivalent effect that allows a nominally flat work to have more dimensions than two.
Pfaff’s art, in all its phases, embraces the messiness and chaos, visual and otherwise, of modern life, without letting it be a cause of anxiety or despair. Whether in her gigantic installations or in small sculptures, wall works, paintings, and collages, she finds the joy and pleasure in our crazy world and channels it straight into the amazed viewer, who is more than just a viewer.
By John Dorfman