A Singular Mix of the Sensualist and the Ascetic: Marcia Hafif, 1929 to 2018
Marcia Hafif and I would have dinner together over the years, often at her loft. Her space was always serene, meticulously appointed, nothing superfluous, reflecting her current projects and life. Many pictures of Marcia come to mind. In one of them, she is in her kitchen, the light—Vermeer-like— streaming through the large window, the vegetables, carefully considered and impeccably arranged on a wooden chopping block, a Japanese knife in hand, expertly cutting them just so. Then in one improbably elegant swoop, she drops them into a ceramic bowl—where they fall beautifully. Or watching her make tortillas, or tea or, really, just about anything. Each gesture of her hand as she touched things, lightly, fastidiously, seemed to be a kind of gathering of information, taking possession of them matter-of-factly but also seeming to invent them anew. I imagined that was how she would paint, draw, make her small sculptural forms, her hands deft, steady, unfailing, her movements assured, without wasteful flourishes. She was a singular mix of the sensualist and the ascetic, one who keenly observed the world, its matter and materiality, and thought about it and brought those observations, however filtered and condensed, into her art, into her ideas about art and life, all inextricably intertwined.
Marcia Hafif was born Marcia Jean Woods in Pomona, California on August 15, 1929 and died April 17, 2018 in Laguna Beach, California, aged 88. She is survived by a son, Peter Nitoglia, and his family.
She attended Pomona College, graduating in 1951 and interned at Ferus Gallery for a time, the gallery that put Los Angeles on the contemporary art map. She married Herbert Hafif around then, the marriage dissolving ten years later. Always eager to explore what she wanted to explore, she left for Italy in 1961. Intending to stay for a year, she remained in Rome for eight where she made the paintings that catalyzed a much-respected six-decade career. Returning to California in 1969, she began to work in film, photography and sound, all of which she would incorporate into her production throughout the course of her life. She earned a MFA at the University of California, Irvine in 1971 and soon after, moved to New York, eventually settling into a spacious loft on Mercer Street. During the last few decades of her life she would split her time between New York and her house in Laguna Beach..
Among her books of published writings and photographs were Pomona Houses, 1972, and Letters to J-C (author and artist Jean-Charles Massera), 1999. She also made text-based installations such as the erotically charged musings (some called them pornographic, she said) that she chalked across a blackboard in Rooms, PS 1’s legendary 1976 group show. These were recently reprised at that institution in a new version.
But she was primarily a painter. The relocation to New York was, in a way, a quest to find a way to paint again after it had been declared dead by many in the art world. In search of that, she made her first pencil on paper drawing on New Year’s Day in 1972, no doubt a symbolic act signifying a new beginning. She covered a moderately large piece of paper with short vertical strokes following each other, from top to bottom. This repetitive marking without expressionistic inflection became the basis of much of her work, including the color experiments that comprised the body of the work which she came to call “The Inventory.” This included the magisterial Extended Gray Scale, 1972-73, a series of 106 small square paintings that consisted of gradations of black to white, the number of canvases representing as many shades as she could differentiate.
In her oft-cited 1978 Artforum essay “Beginning Again,” Hafif determined that the way to do so was to just proceed, a method and point of view that would inform her practice from that time forward, based on a study of color that would make visible the “qualities and attributes of a specific pigment color in a specific medium and format,” she wrote. During that period, from 1974-81, she exhibited with Sonnabend Gallery in New York and Paris, adding to “The Inventory” other series such as Mass Tone Paintings, 1973; Wall Paintings, 1975; Neutral Mix Paintings, 1976; Broken Color Paintings, 1978; and Black Paintings, 1979. It ultimately numbered 26 different sequences, the last the Shade Paintings of 2013–18.
Despite the range of her ventures, Hafif has been most frequently allied with monochrome painters such as Olivier Mosset, Joseph Marioni, Phil Sims, Frederic M. Thursz and Gunter Umberg, appearing in group exhibitions with them here and in Europe, where she has always been better known. Of late, she was the focus of renewed attention. Some recent exhibitions include Marcia Hafif, The Inventory: Painting at Laguna Art Museum, 2015; Marcia Hafif: The Italian Paintings 1961–69 at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, 2016; and Marcia Hafif, The Inventory: Paintings at Kunstmuseum St. Gallen and Kunsthaus Baselland, Switzerland, 2017. A solo exhibition of her work is on view until April 25th at Galerie Rupert Walser, Munich; and upcoming exhibitions in 2018 include: Marcia Hafif: Films (1977–99), Lenbachhaus, Munich; and Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart, Pomona College Museum of Art. She is represented by Fergus McCaffrey.For “Made in Space,” a 2013 group show at Gavin Brown (curated by Peter Harkawik and Laura Owens originally for Night Gallery), she created a wall text inscribed over an immense yellow rectangle: She wanted to write the text herself was was eventually dissuaded. Unflinchingly direct and even shocking (perhaps because it was conceived by a woman in her 80s), it was a challenging text about a woman’s right to have strong sexual feelings at any age. Her message was clear: desire never abates. Hers certainly never did–not for art, not for life.