I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In a time when science and art refuse to behave categorically, Judy Pfaff’s work moves even farther beyond, bending the rows that keep things in line. She creates varied environments as only an urban person could, using strong materials to lift up and move an often airborne, visual story. This wrestling match between the artist, materials, and the space her work encompasses sometimes ends in weightlessness—the sculpture understanding the building so well that it conceals itself from the viewer, only to appear where it’s least expected. In 1998, Pfaff represented the United States at the 24th International Bienniale of São Paulo, where she built a temporary installation inside a building by Oscar Niemeyer. Inspired by the transparent walls and the nature outside, she created an installation that acknowledged Niemeyer’s architecture while bringing the view in through the window—including fallen trees, and some natural material cast in foam. During this interview Pfaff was at work on a project for an office building in Portland, Oregon. Working in a foundry in Walla Walla, Washington and at the Pilchuck Glass School, she is creating a piece that again links inside and outside. The centerpiece of this sculpture is a 65–foot fallen cedar. Using materials like bronze, cast acrylic and glass, Pfaff continues to explore the relationship between nature and architecture, giving the traditional conversation between building and sculpture a poetic push.
Mimi Thompson What are you working on in Walla Walla?
Judy Pfaff It’s a commission for an office building in Portland Oregon. I love that part of the country. I got smitten by the landscape—it turned my work around. It’s very rural, especially since I’ve lived mostly in London, Detroit and New York. I was terrified at first—the leaves were way too big, it was way too wet, and I had no way of negotiating the land. It feels very exotic to me. You can study, things by looking at them a lot; it has been a great education with the land. It’s like Jurassic Park—everything is so lush and overgrown—or, like Jack and the beanstalk.
MT Is it a foundry that you are working in?
JP It is a foundry. The last two or three years of her life Nancy Graves came out here [Walla Walla] to work. For her to leave the East Coast and work in a remote part of the West meant to me that something special was to be found there. And there is heat and fire, the casting—everything turns to liquid with enough heat. I thought it was a natural relationship with these two mediums, glass and bronze. I’m casting some stuff for the first time, learning how to make the molds. I have this terrible habit of needing to know how things are done.
MT That’s one of those good habits. What are the molds made of?
JP The molds are urethane rubber—I love the language—these “mother” molds go over them. Then the waxes are made and they are invested and then the bronze is poured. I’ve never seen a process with more throw-away stuff. It’s like if you have a Christmas present of a pea and you have to go inside a mattress to get at it.
JP There’s a lot of excess. I start thinking, That rubber looks good, the plaster looks great and look at the wax, whoa, that looks excellent. And then you get the bronze and—clunk!—you tool it, weld it and then well, yeah, that was great fun. I would get stopped along the way by the beauty of all the materials leading up to the final bronze.
MT What kinds of things are you casting?
JP A lot of different things. We cut down a beautiful grandfather tree—the base of the tree was rotten so it needed to be cut down. I saved it from being felled by the county, so that it can now have an afterlife in Portland. It looks like a menorah. In the Northwest everyone has a tree by their cabin or house that their grandparents or great-grandparents planted. There is a relationship between the building and the tree. So I got this commission and I thought, What’s wrong with this building? It needs a tree. A lot of office buildings have such anonymity, and in this case I wanted to bring the landscape in. The piece goes in and links visually to the outside. The tree is 65 feet tall. The main material is the wood of the tree, and it has a bronze base. There are cast glass and cast acrylic tidal pools, a bronze waterfall and this big, big tree. I don’t think the people on the commission really understood me, but they liked the idea of this relationship. There’s abstraction and a lot of naturalism—which has me worried. Before this piece, if I were to have a tree as a sculpture I would have had it upside down. This really looks like a tree—
MT Bronze has a way of making everything very serious and legit.
JP It’s a different sensibility for me. In the past the reviewer would list materials like plastic, contact paper…and I would think, there’s no plastic, that was wood; or, that was steel but not rubber. In one review there were six materials mentioned and not one of them was in the show.
MT Well, that is unconscious—you can stay at home and make it up.
JP The work is much more there than it looks. I use strong materials. A friend of mine said, “You’re the only one I know that makes it big and makes it go away.”
MT It has a free look, a loose look, and people don’t associate that with more solid materials.
How was it representing the U.S. at the São Paulo Bienniale?
JP Paolo Henterhoff organized this huge show around the topic of anthropogia-cannibalism. It was about ingesting other cultures—like Brazil ingesting European culture. There were other interpretations too. The artists representing their countries really just did their own work. Paolo created this complicated group of exhibitions, and it was a lesson for me—these international biennials are more political than I thought. I felt very naive about the meaning of it all. I had sent everything down, everything, all my materials, even a coffee maker. It felt like a big deal—I made a huge piece and of course brought down way too much stuff.
MT You fulfilled everyone’s idea of the U.S.
JP Right. My piece was 120 feet long and 20 feet high. São Paulo felt very Catholic, dark and ritualistic. The atmosphere seeped into the piece and was a real education, but not an exchange of ideas in the traditional sense.
MT Is it difficult going out so far into space all the time? Your reach is big.
JP The last show I did at Holly Solomon was seen as ebullient. They think I’m having a party but it’s much more rigorous. I really admire Alan Saret’s work—he was schooled in architecture and then let nature take its course. He’s not my mentor; Al Held was my mentor. Al as a teacher is street smart and I learned very specifically from him. I learned from Alan Saret by looking at what he did. Alan deals with air and his work is spiritual without being fluff. He’s so on. He trusts that he has the knowledge and lets it go—he feels like a warrior to me in that way. He’ll be resurrected and given his due.
MT It’s a cyclical thing. I remember one of his shows, which was made out of shimmering wire tumbleweed shapes. They were transcendent. You did a really large commission in Philadelphia. And you fabricated it yourself?
JP No one would fabricate it. But we did it, it was 400 feet long. My lawyer got me a space in Granite Springs to work on it. The building was made of river rock—it was used as record-keeping storage space. It was perfect. When you get the space, everything else seems easy.
MT What materials were you using?
JP Mechanical tubing, steel, aluminum, glass. I had been thinking of the great ceiling at Grand Central with all the stars and some cosmological things up there. The kids really like that. We came in on time and I didn’t go over budget. Now I love it. I love it when the project’s over. There are always wonderful stories about them—I feel like a road show that stays. This piececirque CIRQUE is very big but it disappears, it’s the opposite of a Japanese garden I saw in Portland, which is small but feels gigantic.
MT And yours is large and in the photographs it looks like it floats.
JP What I like about the Japanese garden is that you don’t have to understand all the layers of meaning, but even as just an observer there are things you can get—it operates for both the layman and the aesthete. I went to a graduation ceremony today and I was thinking how long it takes to know who you are, and you can’t say that to the students because it feels so fresh and right there to them.
MT They’re not going to believe you.
JP I love being my age, I guess, and then when I get to be eighty I could be Louise…
MT Brooks, Nevelson?
JP … any Louise you want. And then you can do or say or think…
MT Any damn thing.
JP I love the feeling of being, not carefree, not centered exactly—I don’t doubt myself in quite the same way. And if I go to a museum it’s funny to look at friends’ work—I know certain artists by heart. It feels accessible and I can read it. It used to be like Sanskrit and cuneiform; now it’s like memos and love letters—I don’t have to think about why, I just know it. When you’re young, you don’t know objects in that way.
MT But you have an inkling about it, which makes you keep looking.
JP Being a teacher you can see little light bulbs go off.
MT Do you like teaching at Bard?
JP It’s interesting—it’s a hard job. Leon Botstein, the president, is extraordinary. He’s brilliant, mischievous, and he wants the best for the school and gets it. I had a brief interaction with the graduate students in the Yale painting department—it was like breathing. They are so smart and I wasn’t responsible for them: we could have a conversation. Undergraduates are harder for me. When they are young you have to be more careful and you can’t take shortcuts. But they often surprise you.
MT Earlier you mentioned critics looking at your work incorrectly, calling it festive.
JP I think color is a big button that gets pushed real fast. There was a moment when there was a lot of attention being given to decorative art and pattern, and I was in a gallery where a lot of that was shown and I think my work was contextualized that way. I always thought my work was psychological or more intense and not just a fun place to be. In the first show, which was called Deepwater, I wanted the work to be transparent—kind of go through layers. I wanted to convey a feeling of being immersed, of not being on sure footing. It was a psychological metaphor which came from snorkeling. I was terrified being in that deep water space, yet not really knowing what it all meant.
MT Yes, very enclosed, a kind of suffocation and yet it’s so beautiful. You feel a kind of fear and amazement. There is some quote of Matisse where he talks about the world under water. It’s more…
JP Mysterious? And complicated too. All that refracted light. It was the first time I found something which let me find my way into thinking about 3-D work but that didn’t have to be about an object or a central image—it was ambient.
MT In one interview you talked about installation work being psychologically dangerous. What did you mean by that?
JP For me, because nothing is preset, I feel that it reveals a lot about what I’m going through at the moment. If things are thought through or theoretical you’re in fairly safe territory—I know my parameters and what the thing is going to look like.
MT It’s not so emotional?
JP No. There was a show in Germany in 1981 called Westkunst, a survey from ‘35 to ’81. I was uneasy being there because the work had this very charged Grimm’s fairytale feel to it. There were a lot of painters, Schnabel, Baselitz—the wild guys; I had a sense that women were not part of the conversation. The floors were tar and the walls had a special covering. It was some kind of fire-preventive coating. I worked on the wall and it kept peeling off—it wasn’t meant to be painted.
MT The wall was chasing you away.
JP It was one of the most repellent surfaces, and I had never been in an international show before.
MT Were there any other women in the exhibition?
JP In the historical section from 1935 to 1981 I don’t think there were any women, and in the contemporary section, in a corridor, there was a collaborative work by Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin; and a piece by Barbara Bloom.
MT I think the whole area of painting has been less open to women. There’s more of a myth about it than, say, video or photography. It deadens painting to have it so dominated by one sex. It’s a bit better now, not so monosexual.
JP Even when I was at school, when you went into sculpture or areas other than painting, you were exempt from the tradition. I felt there was more space and experimentation going on, for instance, with people like Lynda Benglis: there was an openness to move form around, or to move ideas around. But I didn’t find that in painting, which is thought of as the highest form, the most difficult and the most private, whereas in sculpture you’re dealing with logistics and practical problems. All my degrees are in painting.
MT Your work is painterly.
JP I just gave a talk where this woman came up to me and said, “Oh, I know your work from a long time ago and I thought it was a painting.”
MT I guess if you see it only in photographs it flattens out.
JP It actually looks like a Kandinsky. When I see photographs of my work I think, Oh my gosh, what happened to that space I cherish so much and want to work with?
MT I think of you as laying these pathways in your work for the viewer to move through. It’s about a lot of things that you just don’t get in a still photograph.
JP Someone asked me how long I’ve been using trees in my work and I thought, Oh, a few years…but it’s been twenty years. It started with a branch or twig and now it’s a whole tree.
MT Its a wonderful progression—it’s a leitmotif that has grown more complicated.
JP It had always been there but I hadn’t realized it. You think you know what you’re doing, you have all this rationale, but thirty years later you find you hadn’t realized the simplest thing in the work. It’s unconscious. Sometimes I think I should sit down and think about it.
MT That might stop the whole process.
JP I don’t think the way I do installations is the way most people do them—most people are protected a bit more when they do them.
MT They are not as free?
JP I think it’s a different set of rules. I don’t take my installations on the road or redo them. They are dismantled and few elements will be reused. In that sense they are truly site specific.
MT A lot of your pieces have shapes with multiple meanings, like the plaster stupa forms, which look like breasts.
JP That’s another thing that’s stayed with me. For instance, there are the dots, like polka dots, or cells, and now the dots are like drops of water. I have discovered that the forms I use constantly evolve, like the branches becoming an entire tree. As I grow older the forms grow older, maybe more salient.
MT So the forms really have gone from being abstract to representing more specific things?
JP With that my fear quotient has increased. My training is in abstraction and my thoughts are modernist. To introduce things about myself or the planet has been harder, whereas my students can talk about their lives, loves, mothers, fathers real fast.
MT I think its a generational thing; everyone’s much more frank now.
JP I appreciate it, it makes teaching much better. You don’t have to go through so many layers. It is generational. I don’t think I could access it; it’s never been part of my language. It reminds me of Eva Hesse’s work, which was very personal. When Eva Hesse was alive she was seen as having similar concerns as Sol LeWitt—minimalist and systemic. Then when she had her retrospectives at the Guggenheim and MoMA that really set the record straight. People saw that she didn’t make neutral rectangles hanging in a series.
MT People really equated Hesse and LeWitt?
JP They were seen in the same context. There wasn’t yet a language to understand Hesse’s work.
MT You seem to be involved with nature and science in an organic, nonclinical way. There’s a book out, Consolience by Edward Wilson, which talks about how different disciplines are joined naturally, that the divisions we’ve given them are artificial.
JP That’s a nice word. My first husband—I was married when I was a kid—was a physicist, and I used to torment him with questions. I wasn’t very good at school, but if people tell me stories, or I see images, I can get it. I will discover something by making it and then reading about it, so I learned in reverse. Sometimes I just know something intuitively, I know I’m on the right track.
MT I think we’re also getting away from having to categorize everything so fiercely.
JP I had some friends who were involved with Rudolf Steiner and I went to England to visit them. I stayed on a farm which taught teachers in the Steiner schools to see the links between painting, art, botany and medicine. It felt right, it didn’t scare me. I have always been on the periphery looking at different groups; I have a fear of being drawn into religions and getting lost. But Steiner’s kind of linkings, not being so compartmentalized, has always made a lot of sense and now everyone thinks it’s a good idea.
MT In one of your interviews you mentioned how David Diao told you that your work was too Chinese for him.
JP He said that to me when I was a student at Yale. My work looked like Chinese landscape painting to him.
MT Do you feel a real influence from the East?
JP Absolutely. I traveled with Al Held once to Japan and we had these fights, which is usual for us. He would say that Rome was his city—the architects used real materials, had real objects. He thought Japan was the land of ensemble sensibilities. There would be a beautiful meal in incredible ceramics, the view out the window with the mountain in the distance and the perfectly placed tree in the foreground. In Italy you had a specific thing to see, like the Pantheon. He also liked the materials in Italy, stone and marble, while Japan was the land of bamboo and paper. He’s very smart. I thought he had absolutely identified it, but I identified with that ensemble sensibility. We all see the same things, but how we appreciate and identify them is different.
MT You combine both worlds—you use heavy, strong materials but they look ephemeral.
JP In Japan my work was not seen as Asian influenced, even though the work was an homage to ikebana and the rock garden, to their architecture, to the clashing of new and old. The tradition of how to use materials in Japan is so deep, and so my big piece looked irascible to them. In my piece there was no place to rest your eye, and in Japanese culture it’s really about smooth transitions.
MT And controlling the viewer’s eye. We were talking earlier about how you would like to do a piece for a Frank Gehry building. The same small group of artists seems to rotate in and out of these commissions.
JP Mostly these artworks are architectural but don’t push and shove at the building. Or the work complements the architect. It’s like a buddy system, they don’t knock on each other, and they look good together. Some sculpture is architectural, and wonderfully so. But it seems often that in order for art to be in a building, it has to be architectural itself. I think architects are looking for something that won’t irritate. I like the idea of buildings like Frank Gehry’s, which have so much personality, so much handwriting.
MT Both of your work has an airborne sense to it. How do you compare the ’70s and ’90s?
JP They’re light years apart. There is a lot of video and photography that looks pretty professional and anonymous.
MT There seems to be a vaster and quicker sea of artists, but if something is really genuine it comes through. I think the time that an artist spends working on something comes back to the viewer—the time and the level of thought.
JP I’ve always trusted that. When you go to the Met and stand in front of some great object you can get it at some level, and if you study it you can get more; it’s available. And teaching is similar, I’ve been doing it so long that the same thing seems to be true; it’s like reading tea leaves: you get kind of good at it.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee