Judy Pfaff is a sculptor, painter, printmaker, and installation artist. A pioneer in installation art, she has been recognized for her innovative approach to space. Her complex installations unfold their ideas in a navigation of space and time. “We live in an unsettled, unstable world,” says Pfaff. “It is raucous and staccato . . . and an installation, with its total openness, allows me to plunge into that spacey void and edit the chaos into a dramatic and sensual environment.”
Pfaff was born in London and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She received her B.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1971. She received an M.F.A. in painting from Yale University in 1973 where she studied under the painter Al Held, whose rejection of Modernist flatness in painting and use of geometry and multiple perspectives would inform her work.
In the 1970s, Pfaff began making colorful, visually active installations that encompassed an entire gallery. She incorporated a range of materials, such as wire, plastic tubing, and fabric into seemingly spontaneous installations. In 1980, Pfaff visited Mexico where she first experienced the underwater world when she was snorkeling. From this experience came four large collage studies, “Untitled (Quartet for Quintana Roo),” which showed a world of great beauty, the ocean beneath its waves.
Pfaff’s installations grow organically within their site-specific spaces as she accumulates, subtracts, and refines their element. There is no focal point, but rather an environment which is to be explored and experienced. While she has a strong idea about what the installation will look like, she never knows exactly what will happen. She uses a myriad of objects: vines stained with dye, foil, welded steel, rope, lights, foam board, etc.
Pfaff has also turned her attention to working with paper. She was originally a painter, and this can be seen in the deftness of her drawings. She brings qualities of painting, sculpture, and architecture to her works, which establish a dynamic push-pull relationship with a wall. Her framed mixed-media works on paper mingle with exuberant assemblages that burst from the walls. Her framed works reject the idea of an image as strictly two-dimensional. Instead, like her installations, her drawings and prints are layered accumulations.
Recent works on paper, exhibited at the Greenfield Sacks Gallery in Santa Monica, are seven-foot-long, multi-layered collages that combine elements of woodblock print, hand paintings and digital imagery. Named “Year of the Dog” for the Chinese Year in which she was born, Pfaff made one print for each of the 12 moons of the year, although only six are shown in this exhibit. Each is a panorama of negative and positive shapes with images drawn from nature, such as trees, branches, birds, leaves, and the moon. Her use of cut shapes, active line, and paint that shifts into a form and then bleeds or falls off the edges makes the work both solid and amorphous.
Her assemblages riff on this theme of nature with inventively cut and layered paper lending volume to her botanical shapes. An earlier grouping of framed collages on paper from 1999 – 2002 show her engagement with nature and its underlying structure. In one piece she set architectural plans and sepia photographs of forests against images of turtles, leaves, birds, and butterflies all set out like specimens.
Her recent 2018 show in New York featured five major wall reliefs titled “Quartet” with works numbered one through four and a fifth designated as “Quarter + 1.” Again Pfaff merges painting and sculpture in assemblages that measure ten by fourteen feet, with elements extending up to five feet into the gallery space. In each “Quartet”there are one or more long horizontal paintings on paper that hang on the wall in frames, embellished with gold an silver leaf. These works – although sculptural – appear mainly as tour-de-force homages to painting.
Pfaff was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2004. She has mounted over 100 solo exhibitions and installations in galleries and museums worldwide, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. She has a permanent installation at the Philadelphia Convention Center, “CIRQUE” the largest suspended sculpture in the world. She is the Richard B. Fisher Professor in the Arts at Bard College, New York.