Sculptor Judy Pfaff: A lifetime of achievement

An unusual childhood

You grew up in postwar London without your parents. What were the circumstances?

My mother left for Canada right after I was born. At that time, right after the war, there was a huge immigration to Canada. I met her when I was about 12, and never met my father, because he was Irish and in the Royal Air Force. My brother was the firstborn of this Irish family, and my father kidnapped him and took him to Ireland, where he was raised until he was five. My mother went to get him and got pregnant with me.

My grandmother was a seamstress who was really kind. She was in the Women’s Royal Air Force, in charge of a group of women who sewed dirigibles filled with helium. When the German Messerschmitts would fly over London, these dirigibles, which were silver and at different heights and invisible to the planes, would explode.

 

Did you live with her as a young child?

I lived in many places, but the family was scattered. My brother was taken care of in a different place. When we met, he had a more proper accent than I. I was Cockney. I was rough. Where I lived wasn’t an orphanage; it was a group home. Families had lost their homes, and with no home to go to, a lot of children got brought to these group homes. I was there until I was nine. There was not much oversight. I could slip away.

My good friend Ursula wanted to find my family, and we went to Ireland. On the way back from Dublin to Shannon, we stopped in a small town and within 20 minutes, Ursula (who had planned this out) found my father’s family, the Baldwins. My father was dead, but she found my uncle, who was a welder and had nine dogs. He lived in a three-room flat with the male dogs in one room, the female dogs in another, and he’d take them out separately. He was an interesting person. He died yesterday at age 97.

 

A mentor along the way

In one interview you compared your time at Yale to being in prison. Especially considering the prestige of the school, that’s an interesting comment. Could you elaborate?

I arrived at Yale with my dog and car cut up in back and made into a tent, where I lived while driving across the country. I had been married and divorced and was a little older. I walk into this place where you think you’re going to the world’s best school, not because of the quality of teaching but because it’s so competitive. They get the cream of the crop. They can choose the best and then abandon them.

The conversation was a lot about working by yourself, hoping you’re doing okay. You go to the first crit of the season by bringing your painting down to this pit between the third and fourth floors. You weren’t allowed to say anything. Seven men in a row who had been arguing for 30 years about figuration and abstraction would start, and it wasn’t applicable to what they were looking at. I decided not to make paintings so I wouldn’t have to bring them down there and be told what was wrong with them. Not only could I not win this, but I don’t even know the language they’re speaking.

 

But you became very close to one of your teachers, Al Held, and have credited some of your success to him.

Al was fantastic. He was self-taught. He was a Brooklyn Jew who sold pickles on Delancey Street and went to the Village to get laid because there were beatniks. On the GI Bill he got himself to France. This is a guy who didn’t finish high school, but was one of the smartest guys I knew. He pissed you off like you couldn’t believe, but I liked that. I liked arguing with him and we left friends. He doesn’t have a reputation for respecting women, but he did. Also he looked like Marlon Brando. What was there not to like?

 

What did you learn from him?

He used to say to me, “You are very intelligent with your hand, but don’t know much. I need you to go to the Met to look at this. Everything is an idea” – he’d say “idear” – “what are your idears?” I made things that looked okay, and there was no one who ever questioned that, but he said, “Who cares if you are talented?”

Thinking about it now, Al in his own way had a rough hand. The one thing that came easy to me was difficult for him. Without Al and without Yale and without that document behind my name, I don’t think I could have done anything.

 

What prompted you to leave New York and take the job at Bard?

[Bard president] Leon Botstein called me and wanted me to take this job as chair of the Art Department back in 1992. I was teaching at Columbia University, where I was head of the Sculpture Department, and it was a great job; plus, I was on 125th Street, and being close to Harlem was my dream. Leon said I could make the whole department: “This will be your baby.” I liked him and I liked the school, and his offer was so intriguing. Al was upstate, and the first year at Bard I stayed in a room in his house.

 

You have said you were a terrible student, so it seems ironic you’ve had such a flourishing teaching career.

Teaching has always paid the rent. It is stability, and I was pretty good at it!

My first teaching job was at Queens College. Most of my students had never been to Manhattan. It was a design class, and the girls looked fantastic; they had on eye makeup and little outfits. I had the idea to bring in some clown makeup. I had them put it on their faces like a Picasso portrait. They were so clever with makeup, I got them to learn things and it was fun, because it was stuff they knew. We can do Fauvism and Cubism through makeup. Some of the students were doing really good work.

 

How would you characterize the students at Bard?

Bard students are like no others, because of the quality and openness of the school. I’ve been there 20 years now, and when I first went there, lots of the faculty had been there way too long. I stocked the school with new people and brought in a lot of women and real talent. It wasn’t based on one strong teacher, and that’s what’s really worked.

I think it’s the best undergraduate Studio Art program in the country. My last class was yesterday and we went to Dia:Beacon, then to Rosendale where one of the technicians at Bard, Roman Hrab, had a show, and then a big dinner at my house that ended at 10 p.m. It’s a different kind of bonding, so bright and open. There’s a kind of privilege, but they kind of get over that pretty fast.

Last year I spent six months teaching in Laramie, Wyoming, where there’s a different kind of student. They’re all ranchers’ kids. Knowing they were working kids, I found these old barracks where we sheetrocked everything. Everyone in my class got a private studio for the first time, and we did an installation and a book.

Within a short period of time, they became as sophisticated as my students on the East Coast. They had real skills in learning how to draw and paint, but this other thing about ideas was harder, and that’s what I could teach them.

 

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