Sculptor Judy Pfaff: A lifetime of achievement

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Artist Judy Pfaff has won numerous awards, among them a MacArthur Fellowship; and now, ten years after the MacArthur, she has yet another feather to put in her cap: the International Sculpture Center (ISC)’s 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award. Pfaff, a longtime professor of the Arts at Bard and co-director of the college’s Studio Arts Program, has the added pleasure of sharing the honor with her close friend and fellow sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard, who also is being recognized by the ISC (stay tuned for an upcoming Almanac Weekly piece on von Rydingsvard). “We have both known each other since I started teaching at Yale in 1980 or 1981,” said Pfaff. “We shared a studio in Brooklyn for 26 years.”

While she characterized von Rydingsvard as “the quintessential sculptor,” Pfaff noted that her own installations and assemblages evolved out of painting. Hence the award points to the crossover tendencies of sculpture in recent years, especially evident in the more hybrid sculptures of the younger generation, who are deploying video, performance and other nontraditional approaches.

The ISC officials call Pfaff “a pioneer of site-specific installation art in the 1970s. She combines painting, drawing, sculpture, installation and architecture to create works that are equally dependent on intense planning and improvisation.”

For many years, Pfaff was something of an iconoclast. Her installations and prints have been aptly described by critic Roberta Smith as “elaborately impure, implicitly narrative environments.” Forms inspired by nature and natural materials are juxtaposed with the garish and artificial. Exquisitely wrought details emerge from a chaos suggesting combustion, evisceration, decay, implosion, growth and other elemental processes.

In her latest work, Pfaff deploys paper, foam, melted plastic, shellac and natural materials such as branches, sunflowers and tree fungus for her kaleidoscopic creations, which are both biomorphic and cosmological, fragile and tough, gross and heart-stoppingly beautiful. They hide nothing, but are imbued with a mysterious reserve, as if they are still in the process of becoming or revealing; they are self contained but also fragmentary, like a beating heart torn from a body. Some are illuminated, which lightens their mass, suggesting floating marine organisms.

Born in England in 1946, Pfaff received a BFA from Washington University and an MFA from Yale. Outside of those bare facts, her life defies the trajectory of a conventional art career. She was married at age 16, traveling back and forth to a military installation in Newfoundland, where her husband was based, from her hometown of Detroit. She briefly attended Wayne State and Southern Illinois University and spent a year in Sweden before earning her degree at Washington University. As a struggling artist in New York, she chose materials based on what she could afford, such as aluminum foil and wire.

Pfaff moved to the mid Hudson Valley in 1992, after joining the faculty at Bard, eventually settling in Kingston. She was close friends with another Kingston-based artist of international renown, the late Nancy Graves, and has consistently shown her work in galleries around the nation and world, with upcoming shows scheduled this fall at the Pavel Zoubok and Loretta Howard galleries in New York’s Chelsea.

Pfaff recently spoke by phone to Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods from her Tivoli studio:


What initially attracted you to sculpture?

Because I graduated from Yale with a degree in Painting, there was always this feeling that sculpture was backwards. You had to be compared to this huge history of painting, and sculpture seemed free from that. The work was just about the materials. By the time I got out of Yale [in 1973], sculpture was more a part of the formal conversation than painting. What I didn’t realize at the time was I was an anathema. My work was described by one critic as an “explosion in a glitter factory.” It was like when that painting by Duchamp [Nude Descending a Staircase] was called “an explosion in a shingle factory”; maybe it wasn’t so bad. “Explosion” suggests things going outward, not inward.

At the time I was mortified. The art world was quite small when I was in SoHo in the early 1970s and in TriBeCa a little bit later. There were only three or four bars and three or four conversations you’d bump into.


At the time, Minimalism was all the rage and was viewed as the endgame of art. What was your reaction?

Sculpture was being redefined. It was all about its mass, density, materiality – just the facts. It was highly intellectual, and intelligence came in gray, white and black. My private rationale was that thoughts could be transparent, have color and illusion, which came from painting. Because initially this was an argument I had with things that were solid and opaque, I started using basketweaving and rattan: materials that were useful for making everything in cultures that didn’t have metal and carving. Plus these things were cheap, and I could manipulate them without a lot of tools. They were mutable and could take color. They were really light. Also I used rubber bands. I was living in SoHo one block from Canal Street, which was a hardware center, the place for electronics, plastics, little fans…it was fantastic.

I had a lot of airplay, and yet I was somebody considered not to know what she was doing, someone who had run amok.


What materials are you using now?

Obviously money is not as much of an issue, as it was then. There are so many resins and foams, many in iridescent colors. There are all kinds of new materials. You can get paint in all kinds of pigments, and some has pumice in it. I might use soot from an oxyacetylene torch without the oxygen on: It burns dirty and this incredible black carbon comes out.

Today there are more lights in my work. I’m almost afraid of the dark, and I have the TV on 24/7. I just installed something from a piece from 1987. It was kind of a still life, and had a lampshade three feet in diameter with two lightbulbs in it. I used lightbulbs to light the work because I couldn’t get the gallery lights to work right.


How did your discovery of new materials and tools affect your work?

Always a new tool could generate a new language. When I would get stuck, without even realizing it I’d just pick something new up and it would yield a surprise.


Some of your installations were enormous. Tell us about your process of construction.

The first show I had, I had built these pieces on the roof of my five-story building in Brooklyn. When I brought the work into the gallery, it looked terrible, because it didn’t have the light and the wind and wasn’t related to the trees. I fixed it in there. The gallery became the studio.

I would improvise a lot. Even if you make a model, there’s a lot of surprises in the gallery space. Some specs feel too big, some too small; some are claustrophobic, and there’s a hum in your ear you didn’t expect. You didn’t realize the most basic thing about it. If I’m good at anything, it’s making really fast decisions. I can remake or rethink a thing I’ve been working on in my mind and change it up pretty darn fast when I realize I was wrong.

Even with printing, everyone comes in with a solid idea, but I start from scratch. I do a lot of prints at Tandem Press, which works with hundreds of artists. When they saw me, they panicked, because I can’t tell them what it’s going to be. It gets misconstrued that I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s that I really don’t like to communicate; it feels pretentious. What comes next is so reliant on what comes first.

I can’t remember anyone telling me what to wear to school, how to cash a check, save money. It’s funny: When I teach students how to weld, I teach them the way I learned, which is: I bought a welder and figured it out. I’m so glad OSHA doesn’t look at videotapes of me doing this. I don’t wear a helmet because it gives me a headache, and I don’t like outfits for things. I’m a little bit feral.


What’s the particular appeal of prints versus painting?

I’m very dyslexic, and printing is full of reversals and surprises. You’re working with people, and when I tell them, “Let’s print this a certain way,” sometimes they misunderstand me and it comes back better.


Are you still making large installations?

Today the world is different. Installations are more conceptual. An artist can hire 50 people to make something. It’s numerical. There are people who are more professional than me, people so young and bright who do remarkable things and manage to do them all over Europe and Asia. I keep thinking I didn’t read the fine print. I was raised in that time of being sort of anti-gallery and anti-commodity.

For big installations, you have to be invited, and you also have to have people willing to travel with you and work 24/7 on it. That doesn’t really exist anymore, the way it used to; everyone has their own life. In the last five years, no one’s in the studio except me, unless I’m having something crated or framed. The next two shows in New York will be in smaller gallery spaces not really suitable for installations.


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