Contributed by Jason Andrew / De Kooning once said, “Every so often a painter has to destroy painting.” Cezanne did it. Picasso did it. Then there was Pollock. As de Kooning put it, he “busted our idea of a picture to hell.” And after him came Judy Pfaff. Ever since her three-wall breakout show in the backroom of Artists Space in 1974, she has been at odds with the stringent attitudes and moral fervor that burdened postwar painting. In a suite of four new wall-sized works at Miles McEnery Gallery, Pfaff draws inspiration from a lifelong interest in the natural and the spiritual realms.
Straight out of Al Held’s classroom at Yale, Pfaff took a sculptural approach to painting. Strong color, bold three-dimensional accents, and a strong impulse towards architecture have been the currents driving her art. “I’m at war with conventions,” Pfaff said in an interview with Irving Sandler in 1982. Because her work escapes definition, her eclectic, freewheeling gestalt has been mistaken for artistic gesture linked to the Abstract Expressionists. But the visual opulence of her work is more appropriately described as a kind of global orchestration of ideas.
I’ve always thought that she was at her best when she fully embraced her unbridled effervescence and cast aside the conventional limits of an exhibition space (and the marketplace, for that matter), as she did in first installation of hers that I saw at the André Emmerich Gallery in 1997. When it’s uncanvassed and unbound, her work conveys a risk-courting adventurousness that is all the more compelling because it edges toward the ephemeral – like performance and indeed life itself. This disposition cuts sharply against the “objectness” of painting.
At McEnery, Pfaff sticks close to the gallery walls, allowing a clear apprehension of the work, the space, and the aesthetic conversation. But although her gesture is tightly registered within a rectangle, the four works in the series called Quartet resonate like a naturalistic symphonies. Each work is composed of a list of materials that only Pfaff (or a bowerbird) could use convincingly: wire fencing, melted plastic, paper lanterns, artificial flowers, electric lighting, encaustics, framed drawings. All this and more rest on top of found photographic images enlarged digitally, printed, and laminated on panels.
Two colors, crimson and gold, dominate Quartet. Viewers who took piano lessons as kids might recognize the long, colorful strips of acrylic Pfaff uses to frame each work with a kind of treble clef above and bass clef below. Inside this musical structure, tantric yantras function as visual percussion held in place by a repetitive rhythm of whirling, digitally-manipulated printed flora. In Quartet Two, these whirlings playfully loop out from the wall to form a shelf of melted pastel plastic. A freestanding sculpture effectively expands the footprint of the work out three feet from the wall. Quartet Three is a frenetically fast visual stanza, with the blur of a high-speed train. It simulates being trapped in a mobile crowd in Chinatown or caught in a fast-moving caravan.
Nestled into the heart of each of these visual/musical compositions are framed works on paper that act as semibreves. They are worlds within worlds, and further evidence of the artist’s hand at work. Quartet Four includes six collaged sheets of pages torn from an illustrated guidebook on the New World warbler, a migratory species that moves freely from Central America to North America. Could this be Pfaff longing for a borderless world? The Quartet Series continues a kind of glissando in a long and quietly defiant career. To her great credit, Pfaff’s more-is-more-aesthetic leaves us wanting just that — more.
“Judy Pfaff,” Miles McEnery, New York, NY. through March 9, 2019.
About the author: Jason Andrew is an independent scholar, curator, and producer who co-founded and directs Norte Maar, a non-profit organization that creates, promotes, and presents collaborative projects in the arts. He can be followed on Twitter, @jandrewARTS.