TIVOLI, New York — It is a slate gray wintry day when I visit Judy Pfaff in Tivoli, New York, but inside her home and studio, and even on the exterior sidings, there couldn’t be more color. She has built, on her property, a group of structures: some massive, others more intimate. It is a compound entirely dedicated to building, sculpting, and painting the huge variety of elements her installations can encompass. Each space is used for a distinct purpose: housing the specific tools, machines, and materials necessary.
Every corner of her living spaces reveals painted walls, Asian textiles, Marimekko towels, modernist furniture and geometric rugs, glass tiles, rice paper lamps, handmade chandeliers with blinking bulbs, and Christmas lights strung all year round. There is an abundance, certainly, but it all feels lived-in, touched, deliberate, and earthy.
In her home, and in her work, the histories of individual objects, and the various cultures they signify, are integrated into a kind of gestalt. We recognize that elements are uprooted, but they are grounded by the way they interlock. Her installations might combine massive tree roots, fluorescent lights, glass drops, and paper – but they nevertheless communicate an overarching mood or emotion: from exuberant to elegiac.
The room where we settle in to talk is a “drawing” studio: recent paintings on paper cover the walls in rows from floor to ceiling. She calls it the most private of the spaces, one which her assistants never enter. Although Pfaff is considered a sculptor and installation artist, her work incorporates painting throughout, and is orchestrated in a painterly manner. Despite the size and virtuosity of their engineering, her installations are approachable: there are human-scaled parts, like these small paintings on paper, familiar patterns, and photographic images.
Judy Pfaff was born in London in 1946. She received her BFA from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1971, and her MFA in Painting from Yale University in 1973. Pfaff has displayed more than 100 major solo installations in such institutions as the Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin; the Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado; the St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio; and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. Pfaff was the represented artist for the United States in the 1998 Bienal Internacional de Arte de São Paulo. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2014, and a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. She is the Richard B. Fisher Professor in the Arts at Bard College’s Studio Arts Program in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and she is represented by Miles McEnery Gallery, New York.
Jennifer Samet: I know you were born in London and lived there before coming to the United States; what do you remember of that time?
Judy Pfaff: These days in quarantine seem to go on and on, and I’ve been spending time going through old photos and letters, trying to sort out details of my early years. I have very few memories of my early childhood in London, and the ones I do have turned out to be wrong. I didn’t know my mother or father, and I didn’t meet my older brother until I was seven. As postwar London was rebuilding, there was space for me to go on adventures, with rubble everywhere. I had time and space to excavate and run around unhindered. I realize now that it was also a time of secrets. There was a custody battle for my brother after the war that went on for years.
I didn’t even know my last name as a child. When I think about it now, it is curious to me that I didn’t care. I didn’t understand families or relationships. I had a lot of freedom. I ran around, with no one telling me what time to come inside or what I could or couldn’t do. From stories, I realize that I was pretty wild and unruly, given English standards.
My brother, my grandmother, and I immigrated to America — to Detroit — to meet and unite with my mother. Not surprisingly, we didn’t get along at all. Within weeks, I found a family to live with. I was living in a deeply poor Black community in Detroit. Moving in with various families, I had this ability to figure out how to meld, so that I would be taken in and not kicked out. I could be helpful with chores, helping with their children and adjusting to different lifestyles.
I now think that ability to attach and mimic, in order to survive, has a relationship to my work. Holly Solomon used to say, “Be careful where Judy goes,” because that place would show up directly in my work. My first show, Deep Water, (1980) came from a trip to the Yucatan; Rock, Paper, Scissors (1982) was influenced by going to Japan.
JS: Did you draw or make art as a child? Are there early experiences with museums that were meaningful to you?
JP: As a young person, I always made things. I used to do things like origami. When I went to the library, I would look at how-to books, to learn how to make paper chrysanthemums, or work with crêpe paper or papier mâché.
In high school, I was living in a household with nine children, and that’s how I met my first husband. He was the best friend of the oldest son in the family. I met and married David Pfaff when I was 16. He was very kind, brilliant, and obsessed with cars and motorcycles. He was an Air Force officer, and he studied philosophy in graduate school at Northwestern University with Paul Tillich, an existential theologian. He was really trying to get me out of this situation in this family I was living with. He knew my life needed structure and protection, and he gave me that.
Even as a high school student, I would go to the Detroit Institute of Art all the time. The Diego Rivera murals there are astonishing. And cool people would be there. At 16, I had an Alfa Romeo. In Detroit at that time there was a big Motown scene at the clubs. I loved it. So many people I knew were backup singers for Motown groups. So, between the cars, and the music, and having someone supporting me, it was a fantastic time.
I went to Wayne State University for a couple of semesters. It was during the Vietnam War. My husband was sent to Newfoundland so I lived there for about a year. Then we drove to Mexico City by motorcycle. And then he had a tour of duty in Texas, so I lived there for a year. After that, I couldn’t do it anymore; I couldn’t follow him around to these places. When I left, my husband bought me a truck, and put in everything he thought I would need for a new life. And then he sent me on my way. We stayed friends, and I introduced him to his next wife. He lives in Carefree, Arizona, and still rides motorcycles.
JS: After that, you went to graduate school at Yale for painting. Can you tell me about your experience there, and how you ended up making sculpture, building, and creating installations, even though you were studying painting?
JP: Al Held was my teacher, and he was very important to me. He took me seriously. Before that, because I was considered “talented,” I could get away with murder. No one would really talk to me. But Al was dogged. He would ask, “What are you doing; what does this mean? If this is what you’re talking about, why did you do it that way?” He also insisted that I go to museums. The first question each week was “What did you see this week? What are you thinking about?” I had a good hand, so Al would say, “You’re not that smart, but your hands are really intelligent.”
When I came to New York in 1973, I worked with contractors fixing brownstones. I sanded floors and tarred roofs. I did carpentry. Everyone had huge loft spaces and you had to build them out. It was all illegal, so you learned how to do it yourself. I still like building things. My place upstate is a whole collection of different kinds of structures.
I also used to work for the great framer Jed Bark. It was over the top, in terms of caring for the work and figuring out the best way to frame it. That was a good lesson. Jed was hip; he was going out with the dancer Trisha Brown. He had the basement space of a building in SoHo. Paula Cooper was on the first floor, and Gordon Matta Clark lived upstairs. On the third floor was Weston Neff, who was then a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, and the videographers Jaime Davidovich and Carlotta Schoolman. The then-artworld came through Jed’s shop.
JS: An early body of work that you made were sculptural portraits of people you knew at CalArts. Can you tell me about this work?
JP: From 1976 to 1979, I taught at California Institute of the Arts. I made “stick-figure” sculptures that were portraits of people I was close to. That work was made at a moment when my relationships were going askew, and I was wondering why. I thought I should make a facsimile of the person in order to figure them out. So they had to be made of the right material, and the right color, and have the right attitude and stance.
I used rock maple to make a tall, lean portrait of Richard Artschwager, who was also teaching at CalArts, and a good friend. He was a yankee, and a carpenter, brilliant and a little opaque. The image I came up with was a 12-foot wooden figure walking into the wall. His response was that it was more a portrait of me than of him, as I was still always hitting my head against the wall. He thought the portrait was a form of transference.
When I started making this work, all I could think was that Al Held was going to freak out, because of the figurative aspect. He was a fierce believer in abstraction. At Yale, there was a complete divide between the figurative artists and the abstract artists. It sounds ludicrous now, but that’s how it was.
JS: You also worked with aluminum foil early on; can you tell me about that work?
JP: Yes, I had a whole year of working with aluminum foil. That was to exorcise Richard Serra out of the loft I had, which used to be his studio. All of his early works, using latex rubber and lead, were made in the loft on Greenwich Street. He also made the big oil stick paintings there. I thought Serra would hate aluminum foil. This material was the opposite of what he championed. It was bright, light, cheap, mutable, and lowbrow. So, at that time aluminum foil was my “signature” material.
JS: What was the initial impulse to begin making installations, and how did people respond to the work?
JP: The work initially came out of problem solving. I struggled with how to make an object. It’s much easier for me to paint the wall, or drag something into the space. I find it very difficult to make just one thing, because as soon as I do, I think it would be better with another thing. I was pissed off about how limited the language of sculpture was, and how it was owned not just by abstraction and conceptual art, but it seemed limited by “truth to materials,” and should be singular, monochromatic, opaque, and non-narrative.
But the installations were not a big idea I had. I would make big things on a rooftop. When I brought them into a gallery, I found they lost a lot of energy from being in an airless space. I brought things in to make them more alive. My installations were about moving space, color, and formal issues. There was also an overriding narrative which guided them — whether it was perceived or not.
There wasn’t a precedent for painterly installation in New York City. For me, the work had to be one of a kind; it had to relate to the space; and it couldn’t be transposed somewhere else. People hadn’t really seen work like that. Architects were interested; fashion magazines were interested, Newsweek reported on them. That was sort of fantastic, because I was just trying to stay alive. After every show, I would be in so much debt. It was a mess. I’m not a big seller. I have very rarely sold work. The installations don’t sell or get moved to museums. After they were shown, everything was thrown away.
In the late 1980s I made work for Holly Solomon’s midtown space which could be taken apart. She sold works to the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Albright Knox, and the High Museum in Atlanta. That was the last time there was a group of significant sales like that. It was a moment. There was a lot of interest in what I was doing.
Holly Solomon was the only gallerist who would say, “Can you do more?” She was voracious. Day and night, I would work in there, filling up every square inch. She loved watching things grow. She would say, “Let’s do it.” She was amazing. I worked with her for 13 years. And never since have I worked with someone like that.
JS: Can you tell me about the spectrum of different materials you combine in the work?
JP: I’ve always really cared about choosing the right materials, and using good materials. When I painted I used rabbit skin glue, lead white, and I made my own oil paints. I also do my own framing, and use a lot of silver leaf. I use only beautiful handmade old paper. The paints are encaustic. And I really care about the quality of things: this soft thing next to that. I think about the feel and touch of materials. I’m really quite cautious.
Now, I am using old Indian ledger papers, which I found in Jaipur. I also get paper from old Chinese horoscope books, and sheets used for learning calligraphy. I have a real fascination with Asian aesthetics: the sensibility, the abundance in it, the beauty of things which are commonplace but also handmade. Anything that has a memory in it organizes me.
I use textiles from India. I am drawn to how they are repaired. Holes are often patched with another piece of fabric, which doesn’t match, so they are wildly idiosyncratic and have a curious randomness. It’s just done, and it’s still beautiful. The speed of that decision-making is interesting to me.
JS: Does that relate to the speed of how your work comes together? How would you describe the pace of your process, and how it manifests itself in the interlocking complexity of the different materials, themes, and forms?
JP: My work comes together both quickly and slowly. The materials are brought in quickly, but then I reflect, or get lost, and after that, it comes to me what to do. I don’t like to sit with the angst of it. I need something livelier.
I want a density in the work — to have things going on in layers. I used to think that most art is kind of stingy. There is a demand in much of art to read the text panel to understand what you are experiencing. Generosity and openness are important to me, so that the viewer is not intimidated, threatened, or belittled. There’s no coming to school and feeling like you didn’t get the homework done. You can enjoy it, even if you don’t know everything about it.
I think of an artist like Alexander Calder. He liked children and he liked that they liked him. He integrated his domestic life with his studio life. He made jewelry and utensils for his wife, Louisa. There was delight and playfulness incorporated into his engineering.
Despite my suspicions of the strategies of many artists, and of graduate school education, there are a lot of artists now who are making amazing work, in this spirit. Most of the work I like has a funny kind of storytelling. One’s life is in it: including the cleaning, the cooking, the child-caring. The men I knew at Yale didn’t waste their time on silly things. I can, and I do — and that’s what I like in the work. Women are beginning to see that they can talk about themselves. Right now, that is available. It never used to be. Try talking about that at Yale in the 1970s! It just was not a conversation that happened. You never talked about anything personal or emotional, and if you did, it certainly wasn’t part of the dialogue.
Each of my installations, from the very beginning, tracks direct experiences of my life. Each one is a story, beginning with JASON/JASON, shown in 1974 at Artists Space. It chronicled one year in New York; the letters of the title standing for July, August, September, October, and November. Deep Water was about immersion in Mexico: color, culture, and transparency.
Rock, Paper, Scissors, at the Abright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, was surrounded with the greatest collection of Abstract Expressionist painting, and I paid homage to it. Buckets of Rain (2006) was a lament for Al Held, and my mother, who died that year.
But the most specific and important installation to me was Tivoli-Tisbury: A Romance (2017). I live and work in Tivoli, New York. Tisbury is in Wilshire, England. It was my first show in England, and I was going back to where I was born, and where I had worked at a Rudolf Steiner College in 1966. I was invited to a 13th-century tithe barn. It was the most beautiful space I have ever seen. It was an epic, full year of work: to prepare and research, to ship parts and equipment in a container, and finally, to be in residence for a few months. The small town of Tisbury is near Stonehenge, Woodhenge, and Salisbury Cathedral. Stone for the cathedral was quarried there. The history, beauty, and power of the landscape was overwhelming. Paying homage to the place, and acknowledging the people and its deep history consumed me. I learned so much.
It was self-financed. I wanted so much to tackle it. It ended up being the proverbial tree falling in the forest. No sound. It has taken me a while to come back to the studio. Now, so much of my time has been spent moving and building. I’ve set up a foundation and I am making lots of drawings and small pieces… waiting for the next big project.
When I work, I circumambulate everything. I avoid the question, and then, at the end, I have to figure out what it is, and finish it. When I start a new piece, I find that everything starts off where I left off before. I begin again. The work gathers relationships, and I realize I have advanced. I understand the materials better and make better decisions. It’s wonderful to watch what you know. You don’t know what you are going to do. But, you start from what you do know, and it evolves from there.