Judy Rifka and I met 10 years ago, when I was selecting a work of hers for an exhibition. Her studio was dense with paintings, a testament to how prolific and energetic she is. The studio visit was followed by lunch at Union Square Café, where we sat near the bar, under murals she painted in the 1980s: playfully drawn nudes, recumbent among bowls of fruit. To talk to Rifka is to hear about a lifetime breathing art, an uncensored lust for trying out ideas.
Rifka was born in 1945 and grew up in the New York area, studying at Hunter College, the New York Studio School, and Skowhegan School of Art, before receiving her BA from Empire State College, SUNY and an MA from Adelphi University. Her work is a unique hybrid of painterly gesture, endless explorations of space (a legacy of her training with Abstract Expressionists), popular culture, and a casual, frenetic style of drawing with line. In addition to using shaped canvases and three-dimensional stretchers, she is known for unstretched works, with collaged, cut-away layers of canvas and color. Recent work includes video pieces, made for social networking sites, in which cut paper pieces become doubled into Rorschach “monsters” using Photobooth’s mirror image effect.
Rifka is associated with the Lower East Side arts scene of the late 1970s and 1980s – no wave, Colab (the artists collective founded in 1977), Jean-Michel Basquiat, René Ricard, John Ahearn, and Jenny Holzer. She was included in the legendary “Times Square Show” of 1980, as well as the 1975 and 1983 Whitney Biennials, and Documenta 7, Kassel, Germany, in 1982. Rifka was the subject of numerous one-person exhibitions, including Trestle Projects, 2014; Gallery 6, Richmond, Virginia, 2011; The Chocolate Factory, 2007; Anderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, 1984; and Reed College, Portland, Oregon, 1982. Her work is in the permanent collections of major museums, and in 2008–09, was placed in over a dozen museums through the “Herb and Dorothy Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States Gift” with the assistance of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
In the 1980s and 1990s, she was represented by Brooke Alexander Gallery, New York. Over the past several years, Rifka has created a major presence for herself on Facebook. She uses it daily to post photographs of work-in-progress, videos, witty one-liners, and selfies, and to dialogue with a wide community of artists and peers.
Rifka and I recently re-connected at her Gowanus studio, where things were just as lively: black-gessoed, unstretched canvases on the floor, the walls, stacked on tables, and flung over chairs. Rifka cut out a black square canvas-collage and gave it to me—telling me she designed this work to be affordable for everyone—before we headed to the local Italian wine bar to talk.
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Jennifer Samet: I have always been interested in your lifetime involvement with different phases of the New York art world. How did you begin making painting?
Judy Rifka: I was interested in painting from the time I was three years old. I didn’t suddenly decide to be an artist. I remember drawing on my crib wall with my sister, and spilling blue ink on a silk-covered chair in our house. My mother, after she discovered it, had to paint the whole chair the color of the ink. My family owned a house in East New York. I had an easel on the terrace, and painted out there in a little smock.
In kindergarten I did a beautiful drawing of the playground. You had to raise your hand to identify your drawing. When it came to mine, a blonde girl named Chickadee raised her hand and said it was hers. I was embarrassed, so I did nothing. She took the drawing.
My family moved to rural Connecticut and then Long Island for most of my growing up. Then I went to Hunter. After three years I decided I couldn’t be an artist unless I had seen all the major paintings in Europe. I went hitchhiking through France, Spain, Italy, and came back up through Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands.
Then I decided to stay in London. I’m not an especially social person, but I seem to always end up in the middle of what’s going on culturally. I had connected with a group of street singers in Amsterdam, who later invited me to stay with them in a Victorian house in Putney. Donovan had previously stayed there and continued a friendship with them, occasionally visiting. At a performance at the Marquis club, I met Phil Ochs. I was sure that I was going to stay in London, but Phil convinced me I should return to the United States, telling me there was an exciting music scene in the Lower East Side. Sadly, Phil took his own life after we had lost contact.
When Donovan came to perform in New York, he and his friend Gypsy Dave invited me to stay with them on East 39th Street for the several weeks they were here. Some of the songs he was composing came into being as we sat around the living room. Nico and Paul Simon were occasional visitors. When Donovan left, I returned to my apartment on East 11th Street, painting in the sunny front room. Soon after that, I was accepted to the New York Studio School, and began a total immersion in painting.
JS: Yes, you went the New York Studio School in the early years of its founding. Why did you decide to study there, and how did it affect your work?
JR: I decided to pick up school again, but didn’t think I could make myself sit in a chair at Hunter, so instead I found the Studio School. I was like a sponge. I tried to get as much as I could from everybody there: Milton Resnick, Esteban Vicente. Mercedes Matter, George Spaventa.
I absorbed it and understood it was a taking-off point. I learned to understand paradigm-shifting. That is was what it was about for me. You don’t just sit there and follow in everyone’s footsteps. You have to paint your way through it, and that takes time.
It was always a search. I met David Reed at the Studio School and we hit it off right away. We went to the Southwest and painted in the desert for months. We were influenced by the Abstract Expressionists: not only to be an Abstract Expressionist, but to keep figuring out what it was all about. It was never just about making the painting.
I started thinking about the space. I was asking myself, what does everybody think that painting is about, that it doesn’t have to be about? What conclusions are they drawing that we are ready to break out of? They were always talking about space. I was interested in Malevich and the discussion about Suprematism.
I studied dance for about eight years in the 1970s, and for me, these issues were related to dance. I studied in the workshop run by the dance company Natural History. I also performed with the group Black Hole at the John Weber Gallery.
In dance, you are in a place, then you think about where you want to go, and then you go there. You make a body out of your intentions of where you want to go, and that is a physical connection. In painting, you put one thing down, then you think about where you want to put another thing, and so on. After that, it looks like some kind of space is built up. Hans Hofmann talked about this. However, there is no actual space in painting: that space always becomes an emotional connection.
Making a physical connection of your intention is the same as growth, the same as how any form works, how a pseudopod works, how evolution works. You decide where you want to go, you go there, and then you build a body to go there. This becomes the form. So the space disappears, and a form, or a body, comes out of it.
Malevich, over one hundred years ago, tried to work his way through it, tried to understand that space. I found out later from someone in math that that it is a convex hull. At that time, I tried to learn how to computerize these ideas of evolving the space around the figure, which would form the figure. I remember trudging through snow to meet a man who I thought could help me computerize it. But he dismissed the idea that it could be done. It was the 1970s. Now I’m using the Photoshop feature “Puppet Warp” to do this.
JS: Your early painting, from the 1970s, was very formalist and abstract. By the 1980s, your work had become more figurative and you were considered an early postmodernist. Can you tell me about this transition?
JR: The geometric abstraction is still there within them, but I started adding people and subject. Since much of my work was based on dance, figures started being included. I did silver paintings with small red figures in them.
I felt isolated in the 1970s formalist work. I started getting out more and wanting to be part of the incredible life of that time. People were showing art at night. I wanted to bring my art into the world, and I did that, showing videos in nightclubs.
Age-wise I’m always straddling the fence: I’m the youngest one of the 1970s generation and the oldest one of the 1980s generation. I was friendly with Keith Haring and René Ricard at the time. I began showing the figurative work with Brooke Alexander Gallery, and I showed with them for fourteen years.
JS: You are very active on social media, especially Facebook, using it to show images of your work, photographs, and videos. You have spoken in other articles about the importance of social media to you. Can you talk about this?
JR: There was a period of time when I was working in my studio for years, but not exhibiting much. People would say, “Oh, we never see you.” Facebook became a great solution for me. I could show the work I was doing every day.
I didn’t have to wait for anybody. It’s great not having that power over you. Even when I couldn’t afford a big studio or materials, I would work digitally, and get it out there. It is so accessible. So many people see it. That is why I have all those Facebook friends. I want a big impact. I want a lot of people to see it, to know what I’m doing.
It’s been great for me, but I think it’s great for a lot of people. Having work in a gallery gives it an imprimatur, but we need that less and less. Most artists are not having the full fulfillment of their career expectations. Like Clay Shirky’s book, “Here Comes Everybody,” I think, “Here does come everybody.” The Internet changes a lot: even just the idea of everybody being together in a communication. People have it so wrong when they talk about interactivity in museum shows with touch screens. That is not interactivity. Interactivity is interactive communication in a very real way, through pictures, through talking.
Malevich talked about hyperspace. I think what he was really trying to get to, and he really didn’t know what it was going to be, was something like the Internet. The Internet was going to be the hyperspace, the fourth dimension. And Walter Benjamin — I’d like to see him alive today. He got very interested in film, but the Internet is the next step after film. We have just begun to fully use it communicatively.
It changes the idea of the last word. You can change your idea, your opinion. It is not in print or written in stone. It is ephemeral. It lasts as long as your last thread, or your last article, or the last part of your last article.
As much as the Internet has changed the game, we are holding on for dear life to the painting and sculpture and the shows that we know and love. I put some posts up— kind of tongue in cheek—about the new definition of painting. I said the new definition of painting is art on stretchers in a gallery.
Sometimes, when I go to someone’s studio and see all the canvases on stretchers, it seems pretentious, almost funny. How long can you keep doing that? But, on the other hand, with my unstretched work, people don’t know to deal with it. Although they could just staple it to the wall and tell it like it is. It makes it more fun – it’s like a shirt that you throw over a chair.
JS: Yes, and you work across the media: in addition to collaged paintings on unstretched canvases, you’ve done big murals in restaurants, hybrids of sculpture and painting: paintings stretched around armatures, and installations. What informed this kind of experimentation?
JR: Most people are so simplistic about space in painting as a simple element of design. I think it has to be reconsidered in this age when we know so much more about space, so much more about color. That’s why I got into the curved field. You can’t just keep putting these things around a surface. Now any layman should be somewhat familiar with curves in space, gravity, spatial changes, new discoveries about curves in the universe. A lot of the shaped canvases I did, and the “Totems” and “Paintings in the Round,” as I have called those bodies of work – are about the curved field. And that is why stretchers get boring to me too.
I was using acetate the way people use Photoshop. I had whole filing cabinets full of acetates that I could connect up this way and that. I enlarged and reduced too. Then I would build paintings out of them. My work became more physical. I stacked canvases and made shaped canvases. Ron Gorchov was the first to do shaped canvases. Then mine were next, and then Elizabeth Murray did them abstractly.
I like challenging my paintings and the compositions by adding a lot of layers, materials, and elements. So after everything is done and looks great, I am still squirting paint on top of it, squirting color on top of it. There are scored lines, cut lines, cut-away lines, cut added-in lines. I used to fasten the second layer of things with a clear acrylic matte medium to make it stick on. Then I began thinking of paint being as being both glue and pigment. I started being very bold with it: using colored paint both underneath and above as the adhesive.
People talk about context. I think you contextualize it by bringing it into the present with more and more input. Videos are another way to make layers, to put things together in different ways, like adding soundtracks to images. The video work started out as photographs. Then I decided to use not just one photograph. I realized it was the movement I was interested in, not just choosing one frame of it.
JS: How long do you work on your paintings? Earlier, you described a process of painting where one puts down a mark and then considers the next one, but I can see you are extremely prolific, that your work feels physical and rapid, and that you are working on the floor.
JR: Yes, a lot of painters will put an element down, then look at it for a while, and then have an idea about changing it. I don’t work that way. I like to be in the middle of it. It is down on the floor; I am in it.
Everything takes one day. Aristotle said about Greek tragedy that it would have to happen in one day. I really like Oedipus and Electra. And some of those pieces remind me of the development of a tragedy and how it works itself out in one day. I can’t leave it until it’s finished. Start to finish – it is one intense day. I pay attention a lot.
Socrates said, “I listen to my oracles.” That idea — that we have a voice inside our head telling us what to do — you listen to that. In painting, I listen to it. I got that from Dick Mock, who was a very charismatic, influential student at the Studio School. He was a mentor to me, a person I could listen to for hours. He was the one who said, “Pay attention. When you feel like walking away from that painting, pay attention to what your last idea was. What made you feel like walking away? Realize what happened.”
When you have an idea, you don’t say no to it. You say yes to it, and let it get louder and louder. Maybe it is a very hazy place, but I keep going with it. I follow it all the way.