Judy Pfaff by Betsy Sussler

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing


BOMBLive! New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Branch March 3, 2008

The following is a transcript of the conversation.

Betty Sussler Buckets of Rain was completed in 2006, and evolved as you said after the death of several close friends and family members, your mentor Al Held, and your mom. But I’m also wondering if you called up even older memories for that project of loss and destruction. Particularly ones you must have carried with you say of London, right after the war. I would have to say, there looks to be a certain amount of destruction in the piece or a replication of an idea of destruction.

Judy Pfaff I’m not sure I would say that, because ironically my memories of post-war London was of bombed buildings but I thought it was so beautiful. When I go back now I just think it’s so together and organized, but I had no sadness about that. The sadness would probably be of my grandmother’s stories of the war. They were just, you know, the radio and family and stories. But I was loose in London. The family in a way. So I remember being as sort of the debris in the devastation, especially in places where I was. It was kind of a freedom, because no one could find me. I was always getting lost. I was never going to school—I was in reform school.


JP So I remember it’s being sort of … . London is not … . England is not like that. England is quite directed, and England is quite orderly and mannered. I don’t deal with [the loss] very much. I think [that’s] what surprised me. By the way, today is the, I told you, second anniversary of my mum’s death, today. A lot of people during AIDS, a lot of times where were waves of people dying. I don’t think I felt it until a couple of years ago. It must have been that I just figured, Not only am I next in line, but that I have not been paying attention to a lot of things. So it came over me like, Wow, you’ve been so busy doing, managing things, and surviving New York and other things, that there were lots of things about being human and aware that I just hadn’t paid attention to. So I think my memories of London are not like that.

BS I wanted to ask you about the burning kits and drawing with fire. Given that fire is an all-consuming element and, of course, has connotations about being a life force and also is leaving darkness in its wake, as well as—and even though you said it didn’t refer to you, it does for many people—call up images of hell. So I’m wondering just what is it like drawing with fire?

JP It is the very coolest thing I ever did. I always thought that artists were pyromaniacs and believed they were orphans. Like there’s no artist who thinks of themselves as being a product of a mother and a father. And fire is always major. I think the funny thing about that (and there’s some mischief in this) this is a gallery on 57th Street, which is about as clean a place … . The gallery owners decided to just leave until I was finished, because they were just getting heart attacks! It’s also the soot—you know, they’ve got Hans Hoffmans in the back room, real stuff back there—and it’s going through the ventilation.

BS Taking the electricity apart … .

JP But it was fabulous. It’s just carbon! You know acetylene is very dirty stuff. So it’s this soot. It’s the purest sort of soot. You know, the Sumi ink is the capturing the soot from candles?

BS I didn’t know that!

JP Yeah, so it’s very beautiful. It’s also velvety. And if you touch it—that’s what was interesting. If you touch it, it just falls. It’s like … .

BS It’s like paint.

JP Like paint. It’s like …

BS And graphite.

JP Yeah, it’s like shadows. It’s beautiful, beautiful stuff! And you can’t focus on it. So you sink into it. This lovely spacelessness or something. It’s nice.

BS Al Held—

JP Yeah.

BS —Called you visually intelligent, which I would say he’s absolutely right.

JP He also called me “the dumb blonde,” so … .


JP That was the second sentence.

BS Once in a while that’s okay!


BS But it seems to me that you never stopped being a painter. That’s what you bring to the sculpture, to the installations. You said this earlier, An understanding of how this hand sweeps a gesture into art. And I would say one more thing, there seems to be a narrative in all of your pieces in that they unwind, they intwine, they meander, and as groupings, they rove from particular to the universal. You say that you think sculpture tells a different kind of story than painting. As a writer that really intrigues me. Why? What do you mean by narrative?

JP When I was a painter, a real painter with paint and canvases … . Do you remember the movie called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

BS Oh, do I, yes!

JP It felt a little bit like that.

BS The nightmares!

JP I would get a little possessed. I’m also a little messy; so I would be sort of covered. I’d be mixing my own paint. I was sort of a mess. Making sculpture, it separated the parts. I could make something in the morning and make something in the evening and then [make something] a month later, and find relationships and find the narrative. It would come about more slowly. With painting, it’s just like this marathon.

BS Do all the installations and sculptures have a back-story?

JP Yeah.

BS They do. So can you tell us one? Perhaps one that’s really personal and that nobody knows yet?


JP Yeah, one was called “Either War” in Italy ‘82? My grandmother worked for the RAF, Britain’s Royal Air Force. She was a seamstress. She sewed all these … She says [that] she saved London. She said [that] she was a seamstress, and she made all these sort of balloons. The day we arrived in Venice, the Falkland Islands was … . There were a couple wars going on. We’re also in Italy, which was a little crazy. I was thinking it would be about the futurists, and I really realized that the futurists was sort of about noises and …

I used to say [to my grandmother], What was the most frightening thing? She said, It was the noises above your head, and the sound of things exploding. You can hear … . there was just this strange … .You didn’t know where anything was coming from. So the whole piece, I thought, had this very Italian aspect and kind of this back-story about my grandmother and what she thought was frightening. But all of them have that. I don’t tell anybody. I tell you now. But it’s 20 years later!


BS Well, I should have gone one by one! But why did she think she saved London? What was she selling?

JP Because these balloons were inflated. And the German planes couldn’t tell the difference between the sky and the balloons.

BS Oh my gosh, I had no idea.

JP And [the balloons] exploded. London was full of balloons! Big. Not balloons. Yes, balloons. What were they called?

BS Balloons. I don’t know.

JP Blimps!

BS Oh, blimps. Fascinating.

JP It was silver. It was a good look, because it reflected the sky. So the planes couldn’t locate them, so they, instead of bombing them, just flew into this invisible protection.

Audience Member 1 I saw your installation in the convention center in Philadelphia. Is that a permanent piece?

JP That is a permanent piece.

Audience Member 1 So in a sense, that’s a commission—

JP —But that’s commission. The difference between commission and a real work of art is three years, juries, signing contracts, being bored to tears. You make a model; you get this gig. You think, Oh god, so I guess that’s the good news. But it’s really quite the bad news. Then it takes forever to do it. A place like the convention center, do you know, called us from Philadelphia. So I was actually sort of an odalisque who called her. I never said that! That’s the back-story!

Audience Member 1 So do you think a commissioned piece is a watered down version of what you do or like to do?

JP I think it’s, you know, it’s gigantic. It’s very … . I had a great crew; the crew was students from Columbia University in American Studies. But it’s more technical in a way. You know, it’s set in stone the minute the model is agreed upon. So there’s no improv. You’re just happy [that] it goes together, fits, went on the truck, got there, the unions didn’t … . I got in a huge fight with … . Philadelphia’s a union town right, you know that? The riggers I had were from Camden.

Audience Member 1 Uh-oh.

JP Oh no! I didn’t know Camden was not Philadelphia. (laughter) I don’t know. So it was, well, Philadelphia unions are scary. You know there are riggers, and then there are riggers? There are riggers for rock concerts; then there are riggers for things that stay in place forever. And I hired the wrong [concert] riggers.


So not only did I do the wrong town, but I did the wrong thing.

Audience Member 2 This is a quick question. You’ve been a huge influence to me—

JP —You look good!


Audience Member 2 It’s like meeting a hero, quite frankly, to see you. So my question is kind of personal, and it’s none of my business really to ask it, so please just say that to me after I say it. But in the video, it says you have not met your father. I was just curious about that. I’ve read a lot by Joseph Campbell and he talks about the “hero’s path.” One of them is the death of your mother and your father and the bravery then to go forward. So I’m just sort of curious about that part of your life.

JP It’s very funny. Because my mother just died, I went through some papers and found my birth certificate. Where it says father there’s a blank space. Now this is England. Have you ever seen English documents? They’re pretty legit. They’re big. They’ve got seals, and they’ve got real names and stuff. I was born out of wedlock, I guess. There was a custody battle going on with my brother. My father’s Irish, and he stole my brother and took him to Ireland. If the English courts would have known … . My mother tried to get her son back. So if the English courts would have known there was another child, she wouldn’t—she couldn’t—have [him back]. So I was anonymous for quite a long time. I met my brother when I was about nine. He was raised differently; so I was cockney, and he was not. So we didn’t even have the same language. But I went back to Ireland (with Ursula von Rydingsvard, my friend), and we found my uncle. I have a picture of it. It’s very funny. I had on a cardigan that was tweedy and corduroys. He opens the door. We’re identical! Identical! Same height. He has a cardigan.


JP He’s a welder in the back room. He has dogs—nine of them, none of them neutered. So four of them are over here (the girls), five of them (the boys) are over here. He’s mad as a hatter. He lives on the edge of a golf course. This in Ireland, in Thurles in County Tipperary. He didn’t even notice. He was enamored with [my friend] Ursula, because she’s tall and dark and beautiful. So it was actually very funny. I met this whole family. My father actually had been a painter. My brother had hired—gosh, I can’t believe I went through this—Scotland Yard to find out about the family, because he wanted his sons to know really from where they came. But I liked not having a father. When I came to America and you have to put [on the immigration form] “mother [name]?” “father [name]?” I’d say, Nope.


JP And when I went back to Ireland I thought, Now I think I’m Irish, not English. That’s what I think, and I think Uncle Mickey and I have a lot in common.

BS I always feel like I’m walking into a drawing when I walk into one of your installations. It’s almost like Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland. It’s a world I always knew existed, but never got to be in until I got to be in one of yours. You have, in fact, made stage sets.

JP Yes.

BS Blitzstein’s opera Regina. I’m curious. What was that like? Do you make a set for people to perform in, with site lines, and a traditional perspective, which I don’t see in your work? What did you do?

JP It was interesting. I don’t know if everybody knows this, but Regina is [based on] Lillian Hellmann’s The Little Foxes, [the movie].

BS I don’t know it. Tell us.

JP I saw the movie. I didn’t do the opera particularly. I mean I did after I did it. I was working with a Hollywood producer who did the Lion King; he was the producer of the Lion King. This was his first foray into opera. He knew a lot, but it was done also it was done at Bard [College]; it was done on the Gehry Stage with Leon Botstein, my boss, [as] the conductor. So it was like, Oh my god! I have never felt … . I never… . You know.

Then I read the thing. I did the libretto. I met the actors. I met the da-da-dah. I thought, Oh my god, if this doesn’t work, I’ve lost a job. It was interesting, because—and I will do this, this is the narrative part—the main image of the opera is this big circular staircase in this house, which is a Victorian house. I live in a Victorian house. So I knew how to do this. It was like, I got it! I know how to build it! I know! I’ve done this!

Because I was not a set-designer … . What set designers do—which is good that they do this—they draw it out and they give it to someone to make the set. Not that simple. But I drew it out, and then I drew it out, and then I drew it again. And when I started making it, it changed again. So the director is losing his mind.

BS You have to block the actors.

JP You have to block everything, which is … . I knew that! Now I know that!


JP So it was interesting. The director brought the actors in to my studio. And it was pouring rain; it was a thousand degrees. And these were pretty refined people. They thought it was a hoot. They loved it! They loved that it was real. That’s what they kept telling me. The staircase is really made out of steel and glass. It was real material. The back looked as good as the front. The side was as developed as the front. The director, it calmed him down, because they liked it. They said [that] they felt good and different, because it was unlike any other set. They knew it was like “a work of art” or a sculpture or something. They liked it!

A pioneer of installation art in the 1970s, Judy Pfaff synthesizes sculpture, painting, and architecture into dynamic environments in which space seems to expand and collapse, fluctuating between the two- and three-dimensional. Pfaff’s site-specific installations pierce through walls and careen through the air, achieving lightness and explosive energy. Her work is a complex ordering of visual information composed of steel, fiberglass, and plaster as well as salvaged signage and natural elements such as tree roots. She has extended her interest in natural motifs in a series of prints integrating vegetation, maps, and medical illustrations, and has developed her dramatic sculptural materials into set designs for several theatrical stage productions.

Judy Pfaff was the subject of the episode “Romance,” part of Season 4 of the PBS documentary series Art:21–Art in the Twenty-First Century. This web exclusive video interview was filmed after the episode was screened at the New York Public Library.

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