LOS ANGELES — Although Martha Alf (1930-2019) is recognized for her distinctive pear drawings, her inaugural posthumous exhibition at the Michael Kohn Gallery, Opposites and Contradictions, sheds new light on her breakthrough moment as a painter. While the exhibition presents a small selection of later drawings, hung salon-style, the primary focus is on the body of work that earned Alf a place in the 1975 Whitney Biennial: her paintings of toilet paper rolls, which she preferred to call “cylinders.” Such phrasing is significant because, by this point in her career, she was a formalist who boldly applied what she learned about abstract painting to still life, but with a twist in the form of unconventional subject matter. As she wrote at the time, she was “finding reality through an artificially contrived arrangement customarily associated with the stage or an altar, which raises the most mundane of material objects in our society to the authoritative power of an icon. It is about the absurdity of the idea that a roll of toilet paper is so important to our society that it can become a symbol of it.”

Born into the Silent Generation, Alf was a frustrated faculty wife in the 1950s, and would never identify as a feminist. Nevertheless, the Women’s Liberation movement impacted her enough that she earned her MFA in 1970 at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she explored abstract painting, became involved in Southern California’s blossoming art scene, and broadened her knowledge and understanding of contemporary art. 

Prior to entering UCLA, Alf was painting kitchen still lifes in a style influenced by the Spanish Baroque master Francisco de Zurbarán, who depicted fruit and everyday objects aligned horizontally on a shelf and emphasized volume through strong contrasts of light and shadow. After receiving her degree, she returned to this subject and format, but with two major shifts. Reflecting her prior life as a housewife, her objects of choice were now cheap consumer items from the local supermarket, and the compositions became increasingly abstract. At a time when representation and abstraction were considered polar opposites, Alf began merging the two.

Without forsaking light and shadow in “Spray Deodorant Caps” (1970), Alf painted a cylindrical shape made by stacking a light pink deodorant cap over a darker pink one, and inverted the color arrangement in the field by placing this homemade sculpture on a light pink shelf against a dark pink background. For “Zee Green” (1971), inspired by the pastel colors of 1970s paper towels, facial tissue, and toilet paper, she created an interaction between the two paper towel rolls by standing one up and laying the other prone, foreshadowing the anthropomorphic properties she would eventually give to pears. All this is set up on a pink shelf against a powder blue background, a palette that she called “bathroom colors.” 

Toilet paper rolls first appear in Alf’s paintings in 1971, a year before women artists in Southern California installed three conceptual bathrooms for the landmark exhibition Womanhouse. In her Costa Brava series (1972), which presents the rolls in pairs, she seemed to have a field day exploring color relationships in the manner of Josef Albers, but working with representational imagery rooted in domestic consumer culture. 

In moving to depictions of the single roll in 1973, Alf placed her subject center stage and perfected her treatment of light and shadow, essentially transforming each roll into a monolithic altar set against a backdrop resembling an Ellsworth Kelly geometric abstraction. In the earlier examples, the rolls are rendered in intensified shades of actual toilet paper, such as blue and salmon. By 1974, she was painting the rolls in the improbable color black, giving her cylindrical altars funerary overtones. She created her ultimate parody of male-dominated high art with “Black” (1974), in which she satirizes Ad Reinhardt by centering a black toilet paper roll within a monochromatic black field. Although this may seem a critique on the surface, both artists viewed their images as iconic. So, in actuality, Alf was paying homage.

Martha Alf, left: “Spray Deodorant Caps” (1970), oil on canvas, 13 x 20 inches; right: “Zee Green” (1971), oil on canvas, 22 x 36 inches
Martha Alf, “Black” (1974), oil on canvas, 37 x 46 inches
Installation view of Martha Alf’s pear drawings in Martha Alf: Opposites and Contradictions at Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles
Installation of Martha Alf’s 1975 Cylinder paintings of black toilet paper rolls in Martha Alf: Opposites and Contradictions at Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Martha Alf: Opposites and Contradictions continues at the Michael Kohn Gallery (1227 North Highland Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through August 5. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

David S. Rubin is a curator, writer, and artist based in Los Angeles. He has held curatorial positions at MOCA Cleveland, CAC New Orleans, Phoenix Art Museum, and other museums and art institutions. He...