Divine Obsessions

Recent pieces by art star Judy Pfaff are on display at Robischon Gallery.

Surely one of the most appealing art-world attractions in Denver this spring is JUDY PFAFF: New Work, at Denver's prestigious Robischon Gallery. It's the kind of thing that's unexpected in the off-season, but there's a reason Denver audiences are being treated to such a big deal at this time of year: The show, originally set for a late-winter airing, was postponed because Pfaff just wasn't ready. And it was well worth the wait: The solo Pfaff exhibit is a museum-quality offering chock-full of marvelous works on paper done by the New York-based artist in the last year or so.

Pfaff is internationally famous and pretty much has been since she debuted her installations back in the 1970s. At that time, the glass wall that surrounded the art world, essentially keeping women out, was starting to crack or, more to the point, was being shattered. Feminists had begun pulling down sexist barriers in many fields of human endeavor that had effectively barred them, including the fine arts, and talented women artists such as Pfaff were among the first to take advantage of the new, more enlightened era. (It's hard to imagine today, with women currently playing such major parts in every area of the fine arts, that it was not so long ago that the art world had "No girls allowed" signs posted at every door.)

Born in London in 1946, Pfaff immigrated to the United States at the age of ten, settling in Detroit with her mother. She began her education at Michigan's Wayne State University but received her BFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 1971 and her MFA from Yale University two years later. At the time, Yale was a bastion of male dominance, and Pfaff was one of the few women accepted into the fine-arts department.

"Reverend M. J. Divine," by Judy Pfaff, mixed media on 
paper.
"Reverend M. J. Divine," by Judy Pfaff, mixed media on paper.
"Messers. Rossman & McKinstry," by Judy Pfaff, 
ledger pages on paper.
"Messers. Rossman & McKinstry," by Judy Pfaff, ledger pages on paper.

While a graduate student at Yale, Pfaff studied with non-doctrinaire minimalist Al Held. Pfaff is to Held what Jackson Pollock was to Thomas Hart Benton: virtual opposites. Pollock once said of his onetime teacher, Benton, that the regionalist master had taught the abstract-expressionist how not to paint. That's apparently the same kind of effect Held had on Pfaff. Whereas Held preferred to fill his canvases with a few big, flat areas of color, Pfaff wanted to use her installations to fill rooms with as many expressive passages as she possibly could. (See what I mean? Total opposites.)

This adversarial relationship (from a theoretical perspective, anyway) between Pfaff and Held has led some to misunderstand Pfaff's work as being post-minimal in style, as was done in no less an august publication than Art in America. The logic by which Pfaff is declared a post-minimalist goes something like this: She studied with Held; she did her work later than Held; and her pieces, unlike his, are not very minimal. But for post-minimalism to have any meaning at all as a descriptive term in art, there must be references to minimalism in the work -- and Pfaff's pieces don't have any. I suppose you could say, considering the Held angle and its relationship to Pfaff's completely antithetical approach (perhaps best described as an obsessive decorativeness), that she could be called an anti-minimalist, but that's hardly the same as being a post-minimalist.

Viewers are immersed in Pfaff's maximalist obsessions as soon as the show gets under way, and the recent works are characteristic of her nominally two-dimensional approach. (I say nominally, because even these "flat" pieces have three-dimensional objects attached to them.) The profusion of images and attached objects make her drawings intimately related -- visually and conceptually -- to her signature installations. As Robischon co-director Jennifer Doran says, "It's as though her installations have been compressed into these drawings." I couldn't agree with her more.

For these interconnected pieces, Pfaff drew from the influence of Victorian interior decoration -- a very new interest for her. All through the drawings on display at Robischon are motifs borrowed from fussy wallpaper, fussier plasterwork and even fussier pressed metal -- all standard features of high-style nineteenth-century homes like the one Pfaff lives and works in.

After spending most of her career in a lower-Manhattan loft, Pfaff recently purchased a large Italianate mansion upstate, in Kingston. The move was partly predicated by the fact that the drive to Bard College, where Pfaff has taught and served as co-chair of the art department since 1995, is much shorter than the one from New York City.

Her new house has an interesting history, having once been part of the vast real-estate holdings of the Reverend George Baker, better known as Father Divine -- a name he gave to himself since he felt he was God on Earth. Divine, an African-American born to freed slaves, was a traveling evangelist from Maryland who settled in Sayville, New York, close to Kingston, in 1919. At the time, he founded his very cultish Universal Peace Mission Movement, a religion combining various aspects of Christianity with early self-help ideas. Divine's church attracted both black and white adherents in the 1930s and '40s, which is probably when he purchased Pfaff's house and dubbed it "The House of Angels." The influence of the Universal Peace Mission Movement waned in the 1950s, but the religion still exists today, even though Father Divine -- its god, for all intents and purposes -- died on his estate in Philadelphia in 1965.

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