Judy Pfaff: Neither Here Nor There
Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art until October 11 (20 W. 57th Street, 2nd floor, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212-445-0051)
Patricia Tobacco Forrester: New Paintings
A.V.C. Contemporary Arts Gallery until October 11 (41 E. 57th Street, fifth floor, at Madison Avenue, 212-888-1122).
“Mario Naves, Collages,”
Elizabeth Harris until October 4 (529 W. 20th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-463-9666)
That installation art had its origins in a set of values which were essentially anti-aesthetic makes Judy Pfaff a doubly remarkable figure. Not only was she one of the pioneers of the new medium; as a consumate aesthete, she also represents, a dissenting strand within it. Whereas the impulse behind installation for her countercultural, iconoclastic contemporaries was militantly antagonistic towards the object, in Pfaff’s hands, as Clausewitz might have put it, installation is painting and sculpture pursued by other means.
This is not to portray her as a counter-revolutionary or to deny her personal connection with the avant-garde of the 1970s. That she brings formal concerns to installation doesn’t make her a formalist. But, at the same time, she takes an abstract delight in readymade materials (she is the crucial forerunner to Jessica Stockholder and Sarah Sze in this respect.) In Ms. Pfaff’s work, there is an ambiguous back and forth between indulgence in the sheer shape, color, and texture of her appropriated bric-à-brac and poetic awareness of actual, redolent things in the world.
Her latest installation, at Ameringer Yohe, is her first exhibition in New York City since 1997, when she showed at Andre Emmerich, which has since closed. It is also the first opportunity for New Yorkers to see a significant change in direction, first signaled at the 1998 São Paolo Bienal, where she represented the United States. If her work in the 1990s had tended towards sculptural unity, her new approach revives the radical informality of her earlier forays into environment.
“Neither Here Nor There” falls roughly into four interconnected zones. , though the installation is far from visually unified. From scaffold, architectural ornaments, and found objects, Ms. Pfaff and her assistants have created structures that are at once dense and sprawling, and they have painted, stenciled, and collaged the walls with a panoply of decorative detail. While one room is dominated by grids built out of tape on the floor and a floating frame of plywood, the style in another room is determined by circuitry, with vaguely Islamic motifs zig-zagging around the room in welded metal strips and plaster vase-forms. But despite a density of spatial and referential layers, despite a cornucopia of materials and a corresponding abundance of style and touch, from delicate intricacy to studied nonchalance, , there isn’t the overwhelming sensuousness one might imagine.
In fact, the work shows remarkable expressive restraint. Forms are built up or broken down with disarming poise. Even where architectural trimming is deconstructed to expose its underlayers, this incident forms an isolated phrase on the wall. If a room is an installation artist’s blank canvas, Ms. Pfaff leaves much of the canvas bare, despite the seeming alloverness of her approach. This is where the new work contrasts with her 1990s sculptures, with their Frank Stella-like exuberance and deliberate over-stimulation. Environment has become her support again, but without a corresponding ambition to envelop the gaze. Instead, the eye is left to roam around on its own, to find scattered effects rather than lose itself in the visual forest.
It is bizarre that such a “material girl” as Judy Pfaff should remain so cerebral in this way. The sense of deliberation, of isolated phrases and interventions, brings to mind Katharine Hepburn’s reported criticism of Glenn Close and Meryl Streep: you can hear them thinking. But in Ms. Pfaff’s case, that may not be a criticism. At Yale her mentor was the problematizing abstractionist, Al Held.If her subsequent tastes and preoccupations took her into the company of the “pattern and decoration” artists of the late 1970s, and if her use of materials is poetic as much as it is formal, at the end of the day her vision still remains heady and hard-won.
Down 57th Street at AVC Gallery in the Fuller Building, Patricia Tobacco Forrester does equally remarkable and inventive things within a chosen medium at the opposite end of the trendiness spectrum, watercolor. Ms. Forrester was a few years ahead of Ms. Pfaff at Yale, where classmates included Richard Serra, Rackstraw Downes, and Janet Fish. She has not only made watercolor her exclusive medium, but made the exotic landscape her chosen motif. In a way, it was as brave to join a genre that attracts so many illustrators and amateurs as it would have been to pioneer a new medium such as installation.
What makes Ms. Forrester’s work so compelling is its unpredictability. Technically speaking, these paintings achieve their intensity through outsize scale, strong inner light, formal complexity, dramatic cropping, and high-octane color – abetted by the artist’s fearless decision to expose her paper unglazed. But what makes them so demanding and satisfying has to do with obsessive attention. And it’s attention not so much to detail as to nuance.
“Beech/Birch” (2003), a 10-foot-wide triptych, has both alloverness and depth. The painting depicts a violent competition between the tree species, in which growth entails strangulation in a way that mirrors the precarious vitality of watercolor itself. A painting like this bathes the retina in chromatic luxuriance, but Ms. Forrester holds back from a sentimental view of nature. She collides passages of precision and ambiguity managing at once to summon the immediate presence of wood and to evoke the ethereal movements of water. In her paintings, such strange bedfellows as vibrancy and mystery are encouraged to cohabit.
Artist Mario Naves is a critic for the New York Observer, so perhaps it’s fitting that his chosen expressive medium, papier collé, should entail a degree of cutting and tearing. Joking aside, he is a collagist of great charm and sophistication, whose fresh, intriguing works at Elizabeth Harris are at once delicate and pack a punch. Although he prepares his own stock of painted and impressed papers rather than finding materials out in the world, the fiddly intricacy of his touch recalls Kurt Schwitters, the Dadaist who appropriated bus tickets, matchboxes, commercial labels and the like in his quirky constructions.
The more obvious source of inspiration, of course, are the late cutouts of Matisse. Other modernist strategies come to mind, particularly those pioneered by the Surrealists, such as frottage (rubbing) and decalcomania (a form mirror imaging itself through folding and impressing.) While Mr. Naves remains an abstractionist, his affinity with Surrealist collage encourages a sense of narrative in his lively compositions. Anything but polite essays in spatial dynamics, these teasing, voluptuous objects of desire might just be subjects of it, too.
This article first appeared in the New York Sun, September 25, 2003print