I’ve spent the last few weeks going through piles of old art magazines. I’ve saved them for years. They’ve moved across country with me, been boxed and carted from house to house but rarely reread. I’m in a stage of clearing away the old, throwing out potential art supplies I’ll never use, even getting ready to give away a rolling ladder from my days working in a large warehouse studio.
I thought I’d just dump the magazines but I couldn’t do it – it felt like throwing away my identity as an artist. Instead, I’ve been going through them page by page, cutting out images and articles that catch my eye, and then tossing the rest. One of those images that caught my eye was a print by the installation artist Judy Pfaff. I hadn’t known she made prints and that caused me to want to know more.
I planned on concentrating on the specific qualities of Pfaff’s installations in this post but as I read more I realized that her comments about her working methods and motivations would be useful for beginning artists and students still searching for direction. But first, let me describe her work to give context to those methods and motivations.
Pfaff began as a painter and this reveals itself in the way she uses color and gesture in her large installations. Instead of using only paint and canvas, her artworks may include plaster, wax, tar, lights, steel, bedsprings, branches, fiberglass resin, blown glass, leaves, found signs, paint, formica etc. etc. Yes, a profusion of materials that burst forth and surround the viewer.
Walking into one of Pfaff’s installations is like entering a three-dimensional rendering of a two-dimensional space – a painting come alive with movement, and surprises to discover with each step. The writer Betsy Sassier has described the experience as being like Alice going down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
For all the wild excess found in the work it is marked by a strong understanding of the formal elements and principles of design. Pfaff will balance red with green, large with small, line with mass as part of a natural tendency to have balance be a commanding part of the work.
Color also plays an important role in Pfaff’s work. Of color she says, “I’m very involved with color…each piece is very coded. I don’t usually talk about that, but what I mean is that even just black and white mean this or that. When I sampled things in earlier pieces, they were always specifically about color and emotional and even visual sensations…Color has always been known to have a powerful, spiritual aspect…It can be ecstatic and clairvoyant. When it became formal – and when the Abstract Expressionists made it an emotional language – it had another aspect. Light and color can contain content.”
All artists have their own working methods that they develop after years of making art. For beginners it can be frustrating looking for ideas and trying to find a way to maintain momentum. Some artists set up rigid rules to follow, others investigate a single subject with specific materials. The whys and hows are numerous. Pfaff is an artist whose method combines spontaneity with advanced planning and intuition.
She says that there is a gestation period during which she knows if it’s going to be a big piece or a piece about architecture but until she’s knee deep into the work she doesn’t really know “what it is or feels like.” She flails around a lot and yet with a strong sense of what she’d like it to feel like. She focuses on something while she’s making it but then steps back and sees things she didn’t plan, for instance, the shadow of someone walking by, or the sunlight that enters the space at a specific time of day. There are moments when total surprises happen. She describes how for one exhibition she spent months preparing large prints that would be part of the work but never even unrolled them once she got to the gallery. This does not mean that the earlier work was a waste of time, since it inspired what occurred in the gallery.
While working Pfaff usually has a story that centers her investigations. These stories remain hidden to the viewer but are essential to her working method. She notes that she always needs something to do a piece about. Sometimes these are family stories, other times homages – to other artists who’ve played a part in her life, to friends, to her house, even to her garden. She says of her work, “They were not only site-specific but a diary…It’s like I follow my life and if it goes this way then the work will tend to go that way. So for me it’s interesting because I think, well, I wonder what’s going to happen next…your life keeps adding these layers…”
Nothing is preset, changing with the flux of daily life. The pieces develop over time, a push/pull relationship as she adds and subtracts, editing, until she begins to discover the relationships and narratives contained in the work.