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Lemongrass, by Judy Pfaff (Braunstein Quay Gallery)

At a pre-opening soirée for Judy Pfaff’s show at the Braunstein Quay Gallery in San Francisco last week, Pfaff talked about how different—and personally satisfying—it has been to be working in her studio again. So much of her focus recently has been installation-centric: massive venues and complex sculptural structures that have required an big interdisciplinary team to execute. The “sculptural paintings” that comprise this show, “Tivoli Gardens”, feel like Pfaff let loose with something wild in herself, plumbing the store of treasures that most artists keep of those things that just can’t be throw out—cut outs, paper edges, pleatings of rice paper, metallic scraps, fans, gourds (mostly from Pfaff’s own garden), fake flowers, crimped wire, distressed bicycle spokes, Asian momentos, honeycombed shipping material, lacy paper shards made by artful torching. She spoke of looking under the leaves and the ground cover of her garden to discover the beauty of the tangle of the living and the dying. And it is all there, celebrated as a full cycle of life coming in and life going out.

The work on exhibit at Braunstein Quay, like many of the new pieces included in the “Five Decades” retrospective at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe (through October 16th and written about briefly here), is exhuberantly expressive, friendly, fecund, playful, entertaining and completely seductive (in the most positive meaning of that term.) If there were a soundtrack for this exhibit it would be the warm and bubbly chuckling of pure delight. The smells would be loamy and soft, the fragrance of slow, wet decay.

Several of the pieces in the San Francisco show are cordoned into extremely generous box style frames. A few have been left naked and exposed. Some artists and critics have strong feelings about frames and never like the containment that happens “under glass.” But I think these Pfaff-devised and designed protective structures work just fine.

Trust, Pfaff Style

I have been a long time admirer of Pfaff’s work. I first saw her work in New York City many years ago and have subsequently seen exhibits in other venues like Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ birthplace in New Hampshire, Philadelphia, and at the Rose Art Museum (once the jewel of the now notoriously besmudged Brandeis University) in Waltham. That show took place in 1995 during what many of us now refer to The Golden Age of the Rose—that halcyon time when curatorial leadership was provided by gallery director extraordinaire Carl Belz. The Rose never regained its aesthetic footing after he left.

Pfaff titled her Rose exhibit “Elephant,” a reference to the blind men who each are convinced that their small hand hold on a very large creature is an accurate description of the whole. At an artist talk that Pfaff did at the Rose in conjunction with that show, she told a story that demonstrates one of her most admirable personal qualities—a sturdy trust in her artistic self.

With her self-effacing candor she described how she arrived at the Rose just 13 days before the show was set to open. She had a truck full of tools, supplies and a vague memory of how the interior of the Philip Johnson-designed museum was laid out. But upon arrival she immediately realized that she had remembered the space all wrong and that the ideas she had been brewing would not work. A large opening in the center of the upstairs gallery space required something completely different.

So she climbed into the cab of her rented truck parked just outside the museum to think. Well, she reminded herself, the answer is usually right in front of me. And as she spoke those words she saw a tree at the edge of the parking lot that was growing out of its bounds. She knew immediately that the tree was what she wanted. And needed.

Pfaff tracked down the grounds staff (who told her they were planning to remove the tree anyway) and had them extract it with the root system in tact. How she was able to marshal the student assistants and the know how to get that immense structure into the museum is a mystery as is the 24/7 effort needed to put the show together. By the time she had festooned that immense structure with her signature sculptural linkages, she had created a visual knock out. I experienced that tree-centric installation as an encounter with primal enormity—the birthing of something immense, like a deity or a goddess. And all of her images pulled together, 2-D and 3-D, into what was an unforgettable show.

At no point in this story did Pfaff give in to the frantic or lose that essential trust that she would find her way. I don’t know too many artists who would have the cujones to face a 13 day deadline with so much assurance. I have thought about story that hundreds of times since, especially when I am in an agonizingly protracted struggle with envisioning a next step.

Carl Belz’s Account of “Elephant”

I found a wonderful blog post by Carl Belz sharing his up close and personal account of working with Pfaff to bring “Elephant” into existence. You can read it here.

Close up view


California is, for me, a complex brew. I grew up in the Bay Area so visits to that childhood domain are laden with the peculiar confluence of emotions that most of us carry, consciously and unconsciously, from our early life and family of origin. But California is also a harbinger of the future tense, offering glimpses into a number of versions of where attitudes and lifestyles might be headed. There are lots of possibilities, and the essential tension between the past and the future is visceral, poignant and personal. Overlaid on top of all of that deep tissue vibratory sensation is my ongoing search for aesthetic resonance, wherever that might be found. And there were some fine high points for me. Here are a few.


Untitled, by Eva Hesse. Ursula Hauser Collection courtesy of Hammer Museum

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Annie Philbin, director of the Hammer, is on my all time greats list for conceiving of the utterly brilliant and perfectly timed Charles Burchfield show. Curated by artist Bob Gober, this show unveiled the brilliance at the core of an artist I had, out of ignorance, moved to the stadium seats. Never again. Burchfield was a visionary and a nature mystic, and his paintings have to be seen in the flesh to fully comprehend the scope of what he was doing. (I wrote about the Burchfield show at the Whitney Museum here.)

Currently on view at the Hammer are two shows worth seeing: Paintings by Eva Hesse (I was surprised by their existence too) and Mark Manders’ conceptually provocative installations. While Hesse’s paintings do not convey the brilliance that played out in her later sculptural works, seeing this body of work enriched my understanding of what she was struggling through when caught in the tangle of irreconcilable differences between her two professors at Yale, Rico Lebrun and Josef Albers. In her journal she wrote, ” “To hell with them all. Paint yourself out, through and through, it will come by you alone. You must come to terms with your own work not with any other being.”

But the highlight of my visit to the Hammer was seeing two paintings from the collection that were on view: A wall sized work by Mark Bradford, and an equally commandingly sized painting/collage by Elliott Hundley. Bradford’s piece is the most lyrical and exquisite rendering of his signature style of surface distress and sociological implication. I can’t stop thinking about its swirl of energy and passion. Hundley’s piece, a sea of pinned on images over a highly layered surface, is playful and engaging.


Resnick Pavilion, LACMA
Renzo Piano’s massive addition is reminiscent of the Robert Irwin-renovated (with OpenOffice) arena that was once a Nabisco factory and is now Dia: Beacon. The natural light, intoxicatingly lush, was a wonderful way to see the Olmec collection on view. (Two other shows, in more traditional controlled light galleries were of less interest to me.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen Olmec objects in daylight, and I have been searching and studying this Pre-Columbian culture for 40 years.


Getty Gardens
They never tire for me. Every season is a revelation. Robert Irwin, once again.

And the views of Los Angeles from the Getty Center at sunset are spectacular. You just can’t not celebrate the light.


Tivoli Gardens, by Judy Pfaff, Braunstein Quay Gallery, San Francisco
More breathtakingly engaging work by the one and only Judy Pfaff. (I wrote about her recent New York show here.) I will spend more time on Judy and the Tivoli Gardens show in my next post. Fecund, fantastical and ferociously fun.

Judy Pfaff’s work has inspired me for a long time. Her new show at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe called Five Decades, includes work from various times as well as formats. Seeing artifacts made by her always thrills something in me, particularly her 2D creations. But this show has playfulness and delight on exhibit in both 2D and 3D. Her aesthetic swings out wide and then comes round again and again to themes that are essentially her signatory concerns.

The show is up through October 16.


I’m still reeling from the news that Brandeis University has announced the closing of the Rose Art Museum. Once a bastion of painterly painting under Carl Belz’s visionary directorship, the Rose has been a cherished art destination for me for many years. The building, designed by Philip Johnson, is small and not one of Johnson’s best works by any means. But the sensibility Belz brought to the place was exemplary. Judy Pfaff, Joan Snyder and a number of other important women artists were championed by Belz early in that particular visibility curve.

The outcry has been overwhelming. From the New York Times today:

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that it planned to conduct a detailed review of Brandeis University’s surprise decision to sell off the entire holdings of its Rose Art Museum, one of the most important collections of postwar art in New England.

The decision to close the 48-year-old museum in Waltham, Mass., and disperse the collection as a way to shore up the university’s struggling finances was denounced by the museum’s board, its director and a wide range of art experts, who warned that the university was cannibalizing its cultural heritage to pay its bills.

“This is one of the artistic and cultural legacies of American Jewry,” said Jonathan Lee, the chairman of the museum’s board of overseers, who said that “nobody at the museum — neither the director nor myself nor anyone else — was informed of this or had any idea what was going on.”

This account from the Wall Street Journal (with an excerpt posted on Slow Painting), also caught me:

The National Academy and MOCA did come perilously close to “going away,” due to financial circumstances specific to them that predated the general economic collapse.

The academy clawed its way back from the edge by selling two Hudson River School paintings — its most important Frederic Church and its only Sanford Gifford — to raise about $13.5 million for operations. By the time its desperation-driven plan to sell came to light on Dec. 5…the paintings were already gone — withdrawn from the public domain by an unidentified private foundation.

In making this risky move, the museum forfeited not only AAMD membership but also art loans from and collaborations with institutions that obey the strong recommendation of the association’s board. “These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets,” Mr. Conforti [president of the Association of Art Museum Directors] declared.

“These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets.”

Is that true?

My son, ever the devil’s advocate, wants to know details about the collection being sold before he mourns its loss. He’s young and iconoclastic, very distrustful about how art institutions and their collusive insider taste makers determine what is valuable and what is not.

Yeah, I’m cynical too. But I do know some of the holdings at the Rose. And the thought that those works will be gone is crushing to me.

What’s the answer? As the financial infrastructures needed to keep our culturecraft afloat continue to disintegrate, the solution is not simple. But I still feel bereft.

Crown Point Press, a major force in the Bay Area art scene for 40 years, has produced prints with and for some of the greats including Richard Diebenkorn, John Cage, Richard Tuttle, Wayne Thiebaud and Pat Steir. In addition to a gallery and bookstore in its well appointed space on Hawthorne Street in San Francisco, CPP has a tremendous set of files, brochures and descriptive spec sheets on the artists who have worked with founder Kathan Brown and her team of Master printers.

I spent several hours rifling through the extensive resources and files during which I found a small monograph on Judy Pfaff, one of my favorite artists. It features an in depth interview with Pfaff by Constance Lewallen of CPP.

delfluss (image courtesy of Judy Pfaff)

Here’s a memorable passage from that exchange:

CL: [Your] work is not ironic as so much of the work being shown today, in which the artist is the art critic as well…You once said to me that a positive way of looking at this phenomenon is that now artists have created another arena for themselves–they can be critics, they can be businessmen.

JP: When I am in a generous mood I think that. But often I think it is very depressing that the whole art world seems to demonstrate that attitude now–cool, detached, competent. I think one of the things about being an artist is that you should be allowed to test murky, unclear, unsure territory or all you have left are substitutes that signify these positions. Having it all together is the least interesting thing in art, in being alive.

CL: Someone once wrote that your work deals with art at the fringes of confusion of life itself.

JP: I like that.

delumi (image courtesy of Judy Pfaff)