In the studio with Judy Pfaff: the genesis of two solo exhibitions

Judy Pfaff sculpture studio

Judy Pfaff east studio.

Visiting Judy Pfaff’s studio is special because I know I’ll see things I’ve never seen before. Pfaff’s fluent, unpredictable art spans a long career that includes the 2004 MacArthur “genius” award (given over a 5-year period) and the 2014 International Sculpture Center Lifetime Achievement Award. Pfaff’s solo shows at the Loretta Howard and Pavel Zoubok galleries, both at 531 W. 26th Street, in Chelsea, New York, opened October 18. On August 13, with two months to complete, transport, and install two totally different solo exhibitions, Pfaff candidly discussed her work-in-progress.

When Pfaff found her Tivoli studio, this former apple orchard had both flooded and burned. The standing structures needed roofs, floors, doors, windows, and other major building and infrastructure construction. As a child growing up in war-torn England and a predominantly African American neighborhood in Detroit, Pfaff created her own art fantasy worlds. She has deftly fashioned the insides of prior studios in rundown industrial parts of Brooklyn and Kingston, New York. Her Thanksgiving eviction (the building was sold) from the Kingston riverside studio in 2001 gave her little time to move. Tivoli became her greatest reconstruction challenge.

I drive along a country road surrounded by green hills with houses set far off the road and reach a huge complex with a long driveway. I park near a chicken coop (organic eggs) with wild amaranth growing inside and a three-story ruin of a scale house (for weighing apples).  On the other side of the road, I see Judy and her studio coordinator Rob van Erve at work in the southernmost end of a long building with several open bays and industrial doors. Judy deftly guides me through the studio complex: a huge tool shed/machine shop, a framing room, a drawing room (my favorite), the East and West sculpture studios, and the indoor garden dominated by a giant Monstera deliciosa (Swiss cheese plant); nearby, a Selenicereus grandiflorus (night-blooming Cereus), which blooms only once a year, is about to open! Among the exotics, in off the asphalt, a six-foot length of mossy earth has tall weeds growing out of it.

The huge archival reconstruction room with classic early sculpture is at the northern end of the building, and the archival data and giant Epson Printer room is more central. The Shaker room with its extra-large dinner table, book-lined shelves, and antique storage drawers leads to a guest bedroom complete with a regal mosquito net, antique dresser, skylight, and windows on all sides. We end up in the kitchen, next to a homey bathroom, its shower area framed by a giant boulder. Out the kitchen door is a lush garden with hollyhocks, lacinato and broad-leafed kale, giant tomatoes, two kinds of basil, thyme, and much more. All work areas are huge (each bigger than most city studios); the overall studio complex has two levels, and colorful woven rugs brighten the poured concrete floors. Many rooms have colored skylights and industrial sized doors for easily moving things in and out. The organization of each work area is immaculate, including the work-in-progress. After my studio visit, the hilly rustic landscape that surrounds and contains the studio and the absence of street lights on her road must have provided the perfect setting for the night’s August full moon and rare meteor shower (which she saw). Pfaff’s art abounds with nature’s elements and surprises. The artist has always been attuned to nature itself and epiphanies that arise.

Judy Pfaff Sculpture Studio

Judy Pfaff’s natural studio.

Jan Castro: What are you working on for your two upcoming shows?

Judy Pfaff: The two shows are opposites. Last year I was teaching in Laramie, Wyoming, and the winter before that I was all through Rajistan, India. Larmaie is a barren, high landscape –elevation around 8000 feet — devoid of color, and the wind howls through there, so the show at Pavel Zoubok will have minimal color. Loretta Howard shows mostly men of a certain era known for color field formalism – Frank Stella, Larry Poons, and Al Held, who was my teacher. I feel sympatico with their formalist, modernist language and see myself in that lineage, so I thought I’d add a woman’s view of that vocabulary to continue the conversation.

Castro: Where did your way of creating immersive art come from?

Pfaff: When you walk around this space, each room has a life in it, from the machines to the plants. The installation part is to bring the art back to life so that objects don’t go flat. I have this instinct to make objects feel at home and have many relationships with the space, with the light, and with the history of the place.

It was never an idea to make an immersive piece. For my first show at Holly Solomon, I made many pieces of  loose basket-like forms on the roof in Greenpoint – fabulous colors blowing around with the wind, being rearranged by the weather – and when I brought it to Holly’s, it went flat. I painted the walls, adjusted the lighting, made new pieces …anything to resuscitate the forms– everything had to be relational if not to the elements, now to the gallery space without seeming claustrophobic. I didn’t want it to be a fish out of water.


Second Nature, 2014. Installation, 2014, Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York, NY. Courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery and Loretta Howard Gallery. Photo by Bodycomb Studio, NYC

Castro: Nature is a heavy component of your work.

Pfaff: Being here, in Tivoli, New York, having ten acres of land, planting gardens, and then having to navigate the winters and cycle through again….being impressed, and daunted with nature and taking note, well, you have no choice.  Much of the material to make my work is outside now on the land.

I am in the middle of building two separate shows opening on the same day in the same building in Chelsea.  On one side, the east studio, the work is all plastic, synthetic, and artificial with saturated color and light (light bulbs). On the other side, the west studio, the imagery is conjuring up the landscape of Laramie, Wyoming.  In Laramie, the ice and snow just build up, and that wind howls. My dog Willy’s feet would freeze. In May and June, it’s still cold. You can drive hundreds of miles before you see another car. It’s scary; I respect people who have the resilience to live there.

Judy Pfaff Sculpture Studio

Judy Pfaff, east studio.

Castro: What is your philosophy of art?

Pfaff: Each work is a struggle and a gift. It has to have something I can feel and recognize. I want it to be intense. I want everything to have a vibe, an ingredient, an excitement. My shows usually have something going on. A lot of times, I’m working toward something in the dark.

I don’t like looking at things you have to think through. I want it to be exclusively experiential. I’m not without thoughts, but I would never insist you understand it. There’s also a funny friendliness to the work. People tend to like it or lump it. There are enough formal things, enough sets of opposites – borrowed, blue, old, new – a visual intelligence.

Castro: To what degree do you work with others during the making process?

Pfaff: Rob does the framing, electrical work and helps me install. I don’t like anyone in the studio anymore. It’s like cooking – a little bit of this, of that. I get to know what that material will do. I need that newness – that buzz. Not thinking interests me. Seeing interests me.

Castro: How does teaching add to your practice?

Pfaff: My students are super-smart and teaching is good. I’m open enough to tell them things, and they can take it or leave it. They think they can shock me – be conceptual, bad-ass, cautious. I like jostling the conversation or even feigning ignorance. I learn from them.

How Pfaff manages to mount three to five solo shows and many group shows each year as well as to teach at the Bard College Art Department since 1994 is beyond me. A keen, open-minded teacher, she co-chaired the department until this semester and is handing off the position to sculptor Ellen Driscoll.

The artist’s 21 awards and grants, her commissions and work in collections are listed at  Each line of her 48+-page c.v. is filled with wonders.  In 1997, for “Round Hole Square Peg” at New York’s Andre Emmerich Gallery, the artist cut holes in the walls, incorporated an entire dead tree that “fell at her feet,” and otherwise created a wild beauty that literally cut through the posh 57th Street gallery space. In 2006, for “Buckets of Rain” at New York’s Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, Pfaff crafted a floor-to-ceiling double hourglass-like shape with air between the top and bottom cones as well as tsunamis of grief and light on the walls and floors. Her 2013 “Holi” series juxtaposes melted plastic, expanded foam, paper, and pigment to create objects that transform their materials.  An intense artist, Pfaff transparently and emphatically draws from and brings together many traditions, cultures, sources, and forces of nature. Her art, with its own pulse and heartbeat, its own philosophy and trajectory, deserves closer considerations.  For starters, see

By Jan Garden Castro

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5 responses

  1. Jan recently pointed out that Kirk Varnedoe had agreed with her that Judy Pfaff has been at the fore of “expanding Jackson Pollock’s legacy” but that the connection doesn’t seem to get discussed by critics. In response to that I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

    Judy Pfaff has described her work as “trying to create an active field in every way: visually, physically, spatially“. Critic Irving Sandler interprets this to mean “a field of non-focused and nonhierarchical events” [1], an approach in stark contrast to Pollocks panoramic vision. Even Pollocks late and truly profound works, e.g. Lavender Mist, One: Number 31, Autumn Rythmn, are still aligned with the omniscient pictorial traditions of the 19th century – including popular entertainments like European panoramas as well as the epic strivings of the Hudson River School – all methods of presentation that imply an authoritative position and perspective.

    While Pollocks complex skeins of paint provide endless details and passages that reward close scrutiny, his large works constantly exert a kind of reverse gravity, pushing viewers back, front and center, where ones field of vision is filled, edge-to-edge, with ‘everything’. Pfaff’s installations don’t direct audiences to a sweet spot (‘the’ view). Instead, they relinquish control and invite people, in Pfaff’s words, “The piece only works if there is not one view or focus that is the “right” one; you have to experience it.””.[2] In another move away from Pollock’s panoramic approach she describes her intent to evoke “a feeling of going down instead of across”.[3] That quote is from Pfaff talking about Deepwater, her breakthrough show at Holly Solomon. Deepwater had aquatic origins and allusions but even after Pfaff stepped away from literal liquid references the work has always remained immersive, not to mention deep.

    In Kirk Varnedoe’s last lectures at the National Gallery[4] he starts things out by using Pollock and Johns as contradictory figures to explore the development of abstraction after the mid-1950’s. In comparing their work he makes a case for an abstraction that encompasses both expressive (hot) and detached (cool) approaches; an approach that results in “unexpected hybrids”. Varnedoe goes on to state that artworks like Johns’ White Flag would be “unthinkable without the seemingly antithetical influences of Paul Cezanne and Marcel Duchamp.” Similarly, a Pollock painting like Autumn Rhythm seems unlikely without the conflicting antecedents of Thomas Cole (scale, landscape, national mythology) and Andre Masson (automatism, the unconscious, personal mythology).

    The impact of Judy Pfaff’s installations goes beyond simply spatializing Pollock’s all-over approach to picture planes, shifting from canvas to environment. Pfaff’s advance “to the forefront of expanding Pollock’s legacy” is marked by embodying the kind of hybrid, unfamiliar and personally singular work that Varnedoe championed as being crucial to ways that artists “make our culture go”.[5] Her raucous, elegant, controlled and chaotic work provides a destabilizing effect on viewers and art/sculpture conventions, all towards opening ways to a different kind of experience and knowledge. As Varnedoe says: artists “produce our fresh understanding of the world of culture as separate from nature, as separate from the clock of events in the rest of history”.[6] Pfaff’s work is an art of idiosyncrasy and instability, a vision apart from Pollock and many of his peers who leaned towards essentialist notions of cultural universals and underlying ‘natural’ forms. These different outlooks are underlined, almost hilariously, in the contrast of Pollocks proclamation “I am nature”[7] with Pfaff’s casual remarks “I’m not a nature person; I don’t like hiking, I don’t climb rocks.”[8]

    In the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s, Pfaff’s work emerged from an art world still coming to grips with minimal and conceptual art. Despite the brief flash of the neo-expressionists, painting was a hard sell, not dead but smelling funny (as Frank Zappa described another artform, jazz, in the early 70’s). Modernism was under fire and many critics were hailing the new post-modern moment. In that environment critics, artists and art insiders were looking to anything but the history of painting as a source of validation and relevance for new work. In the scramble to get away from painting, and modernism, there were those who even tried to root Pfaff’s work in the culture of punk rock.[9]

    Although some critics of the time may have missed or disregarded the legacy of Pollock in Judy Pfaff’s work, Irving Sandler has written about it insightfully in his introduction to the 2003 monograph on her. He says “her work drew close to the Action Painting side of Abstract Expressionism, closer than any sculptor of her generation. Like Pollock and DeKooning, Pfaff balances the conflicting pulls of chaos and order”.[10] A little bit later he describes the sprawl of her work saying it “echoes the open field painting of Jackson Pollock.”[11] Notable words from a critic who was an active participant in the world of the Abstract Expressionists.

    The connection from Jackson to Judy is clear, but Pfaff has warped, welded, polished, sawed, and stretched Pollocks legacy – transforming it into a distinct vision, tenacious in its contemporariness, and distinct from anything that preceded her arrival.

    [1] Irving Sandler, Judy Pfaff: Tracking the Cosmos, (Hudson Hills Press, 2003), 3
    [2] Linda Nochlin, Judy Pfaff, or the Persistence of Chaos, in Judy Pfaff (New York: Holly Solomon Gallery, Washington, DC: The National Museum of Women in the
    Arts 1988-1989)
    [3] Sheila Bermel, Talking with Judy Pfaff, The Load (SUNY Purchase), (October 20 1982), 9
    [4] Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock, (PrincetonUniversity Press, 2006). Also available as six podcasts at The National Gallery of Art website: Delivered to a general audience, these lectures are a rich, passionate, and plain-English argument for the value of abstraction.
    [5] Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing, 272
    [6] Ibid.
    [7] Oral history interview with Lee Krasner, 1964 Nov. 2-1968 Apr. 11, Krasner states: “When I brought Hofmann up to meet Pollock . . . one of the questions he asked Jackson was, do you work from nature? There were no still lifes around or models around and Jackson’s answer was, “I am nature.”
    [8] Phong Bui interview with Judy Pfaff, Brooklyn Rail,
    [9] Sandler, “Judy Pfaff: Tracking the Cosmos”, 16-17
    [10] Ibid., 13
    [11] Ibid., 16

  2. Dear John,
    I greatly appreciate your thoughtful appreciation of Judy Pfaff’s art. Thank you for comparing, contrasting, and otherwise dissecting my comment and for for going into some of the ways that Pfaff has created new perspectives for viewers.

    I appreciate your aesthetic & website, too, and the research and years of seeing Judy’s work that went into your reply.

    A few other things that Pfaff’s art seems to insist upon: ideas of play, the exploration of plasticity and tactile and other qualities of materials, and framing the viewer INSIDE the art so that, as you point out, there is no single privileged point of view. Let’s keep this discussion going!
    Further comments from anyone?

    cheers, Jan

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