FEATURE — Fall 2005


Working Wonders

The sense of magic created by award-winning artist Judy Pfaff gives audiences an appreciation for her highly complex artworks and not of the intensive labor involved in producing them.

By Kristin Tennant

For more than 30 years, Judy Pfaff has steadily earned her established place in the art world—a standing that’s evident in a long list of honors, including a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship and works in such prestigious institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art.

But for one so firmly planted, Pfaff, B.F.A. ’71, is difficult to pin down. She hasn’t settled into a predictable aesthetic or subject matter in her work. This sense of anticipation and surprise at what she might make next perhaps has been her signature, even since her earliest days as an artist when she refused to be categorized as a painter, sculptor, printmaker, or installation artist. Pfaff is adept at all media, at blurring the lines between them, and at following her instincts rather than logic.

Notes on Light and Color, 11-1/2’ x 70’ x 30’; plaster, dyes, UV fluorescent and incandescent lights, contact paper, pencil, glass;  2000; installation: Jaffe-Friede and Strauss Galleries, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; photo: Rob van Erve.
Untitled, 53” x 53”; mixed media on paper; 2003; photo: courtesy of the Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, New York, New York.

“I really act on what I currently feel and think, not by what I’m used to or known for,” Pfaff says. “I’m not bound by a signature material or style. My work, from one show to the next, is very additive. It’s like my schooling—I take what I learn from one piece and add it to wherever I begin the next one.”

The bulk of Pfaff’s work is site-based installation—she doesn’t know exactly what she’s going to create until she gets into the space and begins putting it together. This process gives Pfaff freedom to reflect an immediacy of thought and life experience, as well. For instance, her April 2005 exhibition, at the Braunstein/Quay Gallery in San Francisco, was on the calendar months in advance but emerged as an installation about friendship, intimacy, and tragedy. In the two-person exhibition, she shared the gallery with Jane Rosen, a close friend for more than 30 years.

“There was a certain amount of nostalgia in the show for me, which reflects where I am in my life right now,” Pfaff says. “Something quite tragic had recently happened; a mutual friend of ours [Pfaff and Rosen] died at Christmas. Most of what I created in the gallery was above your head—you had to look up into it and almost enter it like you would a chapel or other small, intimate space.”

Although Pfaff calls herself a “dyed-in-the-wool abstractionist,” she freely admits themes in her life shape her art. At one point, while temporarily working in the attic of a Victorian house as she transitioned between studios, Pfaff noticed the past—everything from references to her grandmother to the intricate patterns of antique lace doilies—creeping into her work.

“If something happens to me—if I move somewhere, or meet someone, or travel too long, or at times when I’m involved in interpersonal things or gardening all the time, or a loved one dies—it pulls my work in that direction. It’s codified, but I think these themes are revealed in the work even if it’s not on the surface.”

“My whole life is about the labor, but I want my work to seem magical when it’s done, like a vision that transports people.”

But the bulk of Pfaff’s vocation is about the labor, not the thought process. Her work involves creating highly complex structures out of a wide range of materials, requiring a set of complicated engineering skills and fabrication techniques. Pfaff says she comes from “real working-class stock” in England, and she likens herself more to the “common guy”—someone who “gets a new tool and becomes obsessed with what it can do,” and “guys who work with stone and build garages”—than to other artists.

Cyclopaedia, 23-1/4” x 106”; lithograph, wax, resin; 2002; Tandem Press.
Green’s Garden, 18-1/4” x 96”; Kodalith, lithograph; 2002; Tandem Press.

“I never felt I was in as elite a world as I am,” she says, referring to the art world. “I love meeting the suppliers of my materials and talking to people who work with the same materials every day, doing more typical trades with them. These are just normal people, and they’re very fascinated with what we’re doing in the studio. They’re attracted to the pioneering spirit of the large-scale handiwork.”

While the process is labor-intensive and involves working with a team of assistants to solve complicated fabrication problems, the result Pfaff hopes to achieve with her installations is a sense of effortless wonder.

“Do you know the way a child imagines what an artist or moviemaker does? Like at the beginning of Disney films, where they take a single paintbrush and with a single stroke create a full-color, sparkling scene? That’s what I’m after,” Pfaff says. “My whole life is about the labor, but I want my work to seem magical when it’s done, like a vision that transports people.”

It’s with this sense of magic that Pfaff straddles two worlds—having access to elite galleries and museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York while simultaneously speaking to those who generally don’t consider themselves artistically literate.

Dragon, approx. 18’ x 30’ x 30’; balsa wood, wild grape vine, rattan, woven wire: wire fencing and wire mesh, paint; 1981; installation: Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York; photo: Eyris Productions.

“I think there’s a lot of mischief and a sense of permission in my work,” Pfaff explains. “It’s open-ended. You don’t have to read about it or get lots of information. You can simply approach it and evaluate it at face value, with your own ideas and interpretations.”

Pfaff also has a talent for communicating with students. In her role as the Richard B. Fisher Professor in the Arts and director of the studio art program at Bard College, in New York, Pfaff not only guides students in the development of their ideas and the actual making of objects, but she also passes along wisdom gleaned from more than three decades in the studio and art world. Her advice ranges from reality checks, such as the time and money it takes to be an artist, to the importance of gathering a close community of smart people around you for good dialogue.

“You can work hard and have a daily practice in your studio, but if it happens without a conversation—without being a part of the larger art world—the work will suffer,” Pfaff says. “I tell my students not to let the intense conversation that began for them in art school fade. I have great artist friends who have really inspired me and functioned like a family over the years.”

And for students who are having what Pfaff calls a “crisis of faith” about their vocation—who are questioning why they are doing this seemingly self-indulgent work in a world with so many problems—Pfaff shares with them her own path through that territory, and then gives them space to work through the issue on their own.

“Anyone who’s really thinking about their place in the world has these questions,” she says. “I just try to be a good person and connect with the outside world and do work that is honest,” she says. “I get a lot of generosity and good will in response to my work, so I seem to be connecting with the things people are thinking about. I hope I can help someone turn a corner. And, besides, this is my only voice. This is what I happen to be good at, so this is how I participate in the world.”

Kristin Tennant is a free-lance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.

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