California-born Marcia Hafif was known for her decades-long dedication to ascetic monochromatic abstract painting. Her study of pigments led to single-color paintings, made in series and intended to be installed in such a way that each exhibition became a work of art in itself.
Hafif studied at Pomona College with the intention of becoming a writer, but she switched her major to studio art. After graduation she married, taught elementary school, and studied art history for graduate work at Claremont College, focusing on the art of the Renaissance and East Asia. She divorced and moved to Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery.
She was particularly taken with the monochromatic still life paintings of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi. While Morandi only painted simplified jars or vases, she stated, “There were these surprising differences in shadow, volumes that disappeared. There was a movement to them.”
In 1964, she moved to Rome, a decision inspired by her study of Renaissance art at Claremont. She started painting various facets of abstraction and lived for seven years with the man who would become the father of her son. She had her first show in Rome at the Galleria La Salita. In 1969, she returned to the United States and enrolled in the first M.F.A. program from the University of California, Irvine. There she was mentored by Light and Space pioneer Robert Irwin, exploring color and how light bounces off it. She abandoned a “Pop-Minimal” style of abstraction and immersed herself in the monochrome.
In the 1970s, after settling in New York, she worked with pure color on paintings that were without figuration or composition. She started by making a drawing of short vertical marks that started in the upper left hand corner of the paper and then filled the entire page. This work, “April 13, 1972,” and other such drawings helped her formulate her strategy for her monochrome paintings. “I then took those same strokes and applied them to brushstrokes.” These small, repeating strokes make her paintings feel as if they were vibrating.
She built her 1973 work, “An Extended Grey Scale,” out of 106 individual panels, each measuring 22” by 22” in a rainbow of colors – all tinted with black. Looking closely at all of these paintings, a viewer would see thousands of overlapping brushstrokes that reflected light. Her three “Black Paintings,” 1979-1980, were made with the same profusion of brushstrokes, mixing umber and ultramarine to make the color black. In two paintings, the ultramarine dominates. In the third painting, the umber dominates creating an earthy impression.
Hafif also worked with sculpture. Her 2002 sculpture “The Oval House” was a cream-colored, cloth architectural model with rounded rooms and sewn-in beds. This minimal space was a dwelling place for solitary contemplation.
She began to have long-overdue recognition when she exhibited in the Hammer Museum’s 2014 “Made in L.A.” Biennial. In 2015, she had an exhibition, “Marcia Hafif: From the Inventory,” at California’s Laguna Art Museum. She participated in a two-venue solo show in Switzerland at the Kunsthaus Baselland and at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in 2017. In 2018 after her death, Pomona College Museum of Art gave a survey of more than one hundred of her artworks in Marcia Hafif: “A Place Apart.” Her work can be seen at a new exhibition at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, “how we are in time and space: Nancy Buchanan, Marcia Hafif, and Barbara T. Smith.”
Her work is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum.