Portfolio: Judy Pfaff | Visual Art | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
As a young artist in the 1970s, Judy Pfaff helped to redefine contemporary notions of sculpture, with an expansive vision that spilled out into energetic, improvisational installations that complicated the relationship between sculpture and the architecture that contained it. Working with a wide range of materials, Pfaff has woven a painterly aesthetic into her three-dimensional work, crossing back again to inject a sense of sculptural structure into her drawings and prints. More recently, she has begun to incorporate photographic and digital imagery into her installations and prints.

The prolific Pfaff recently completed a sweeping, site-specific installation at the Rice University Gallery in Houston, Texas. Improvised in the gallery space, .....all of the above combines welded steel spirals, dried vines, yellow and orange Day-Glo strings activated by UV lights, and drippy lines on the walls made by snapping paint-dipped ropes against the surface to create an intricate environment, an unexpected jungle for the viewer to negotiate. Closer to home, a large exhibition of her recent prints and drawings is now on view through April 7 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, accompanied by a small exhibition of works selected by Pfaff from the SDMA’s permanent collection. The artist will present a gallery talk and sign catalogs for the paired exhibitions at the museum on March 27 at 7pm.
—Beth E. Wilson

Judy Pfaff on her Work

On Printmaking
I’ve always done prints and drawings, always. No one buys those installations, so when you see things that are portable that I’m not attached to, they’re probably two-dimensional. If you get an installation of mine, you inherit [my assistant] Ryan, myself, a crew, the dog, the noise, the dirt. We wreck the house. So if you don’t want that, then you get prints and drawings. The prints are getting a lot of airplay because Tandem Press has been very successful at promoting them, taking them to all the print fairs, so maybe now people are noticing them more.

I don’t know how this show [at the Dorsky] got put together. Had they asked me, this is a great ceiling to hang sculpture, I would have brought things in. I think this is a space that would handle especially my work very, very well, the 3-D work. It happens that it was made a prints and drawings show. Printmaking is not a change of heart at all—it’s always been part of what I do.

Telling Tales
I am at war with the Chelsea motif of one work with 20 feet of blank space on either side of it, lit well. What I do is a mix between salon and whatever. I tell stories. Once a print is sold, the story line goes away and it becomes a single object. When I put them back together, I can put a narrative (or a false narrative) together. The black-and-white wall over there, that’s a little road trip…images in the car, going to my friend Jane Rosen’s house in California. The second one above is my old studio in Kingston, and the ride in my little rubber boat to the lighthouse…it’s called Naaimachinemuziek, which means “sewing machine music” in Dutch, and it’s a term the Dutch might use to describe the little putt-putt motor in the boat; Kingston was a Dutch city, so everything has, like, 20 layers, which are not interesting, except to me, but I need it to get into each thing. There’s a thread of my experience that runs through it…but it’s not necessary for the viewer to know all that. You might think, why is she lumping these things together? Even not knowing the story in my head, I think you can get a feel for the sensibility, there is a particular touch. Everything has meaning for me. All these images are full of nostalgia and memories for me, so there’s a whole insider story. But every artist has that. Some people really like to tell the story, with wall text explaining everything, but I’d rather have [the works] exist by themselves.

Learning by Making Art
If I don’t learn something doing a show, if there isn’t a new motif, a new ingredient, a new set of techniques, I would stop. I’m a bad learner. I was a bad student. I hate books, I hate reports, I hate authority. I’m really a little feral in that way. So for me, I realized a long time ago that making art is a way I teach myself. So if I want to know about Japanese prints, or Victorian building, or the landscape, I’ll just immerse myself in that. It’s like reading a book I forgot to read growing up. A new show is a chance to have a new thing to think about. The installation in Houston is very involved with the weather, because every time I think of Texas, all I think about is terrible storms, terrible politics. It was like: Great, we can do tornadoes, and for me it can be a sort of political metaphor.

Living Upstate
I started teaching at Bard in 1994, and I traveled around as a carpetbagger for a couple of years, until I finally got a place in Kingston. Now I’ve bought an old Victorian, sort of an Addams Family place, in a strange little community there. It’s the first time I ever had a place with rooms with specific functions. I’m used to having a big loft space where the kitchen is in the corner.

I miss the city intensely, though. If I had my druthers, and didn’t have a job up here, I’d probably still be there. I’m getting used to it up here, though, after all this time. I still don’t hike, fish, climb rocks, or anything. But the fellow next door to me has the most beautiful farm, that has cows and I get my turkey there for Thanksgiving. It’s like the quintessential child’s idea of a farm, it’s perfect. The guy who runs it is from Brooklyn! And even with my craggy self, I do find I’m getting to like it.

So now I’m a rural artist. I like new endeavors, new climates, and new things to look at, and new landscapes. It’s like the Victorian house brings with it a built-in set of images from the turn of the century, and you live there and it winds up in the work. If you’re paying attention, it has to.

There is a beauty in the landscape, and there’s a landscape element, almost a fantasy concept of it in the work. I think that the Hudson River landscape and the romance of it have found their way into the work. It’s almost ridiculous.

On Winning the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship
I was an emerging artist until just last year. And then I became the trusty old MacArthur fellow who’s been around for a very long time. When did that happen? I think it’s just in the perception of the art world. I got bumped upstairs. In a funny way it makes me very nervous, because everybody knows how much money you make. There’s something very public about that. The fellowship did make building my studio in Tivoli and putting heat in it possible. It has relieved me from my lifelong terrible worry about money. In the last few years, making prints and drawings has saved me [financially], and the MacArthur on top of that? Oh my God, I can pay people better, I can take them out to dinner, I can be more generous.

It’s been the roughest two years, and the best two years, since the MacArthur. Sometimes I think, if I hadn’t gotten it, nothing bad would’ve happened to me. It reminds me of that old TV show, “The Millionaire,” [every episode of which began with a man] who drops a pile of money on someone’s doorstep. Ninety percent of the time that show ended badly. I’ve heard of people who win the lottery—somebody wins $50 million and four years later they’re homeless. For a year I thought, it’s the “MacArthur curse!” But now, two years into it, I think I can change it to “the MacArthur fabulous life blessing.”

Portfolio: Judy Pfaff
Hillary Harvey
Judy Pfaff pauses during the installation of her work at SUNY New Paltz’s Dorsky Museum.
Portfolio: Judy Pfaff
Hillary Harvey
_Magnoliaceae, Ed.30,_letterpress, encaustic, wax, 13" x 24", 2005.
Portfolio: Judy Pfaff
Hillary Harvey
_Untitled (chandelier #1), Ed.30_, photogravure, intaglio, surface roll, 14.25" x 20.5", 2005.
Portfolio: Judy Pfaff
Hillary Harvey
_Mezzo Giorno, Ed.30_, photogravure, intaglio, surface roll, 14" x 76", 2004.
Portfolio: Judy Pfaff
Hillary Harvey
_Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Ed.30_, intaglio, surface roll, acrylic, 15.5 x 52.25", 2005.
Portfolio: Judy Pfaff
Hillary Harvey
_Colored Lace_, intaglio, surface roll, wax, 13" x 24", 2005.

Brian K. Mahoney

Brian is the editorial director for the Chronogram Media family of publications. He lives in Kingston with his partner Lee Anne and the rapscallion mutt Clancy.
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