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.

Details

Through June 21
Robischon Galley, 1740 Wazee Street
303-298-7788

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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.

Though all of the Pfaffs in the Robischon show have some connection to her mansion, "Reverend M. J. Divine" refers directly to it - or, rather, to its former owner. (However, the painting does not in any way refer directly to the work and life of its namesake, unless the strong vertical bars are meant to suggest the prison bars the cult leader was jailed behind for a year in the late 1930s on the trumped-up charge of disturbing the peace.) The drawing -- done in watercolor, encaustic, oil stick and doilies on Japanese paper -- is mostly orange, with black vertical bars that look like the posts of an old cast-iron fence.

The doilies, which are circular and relentlessly even and symmetrical, are reminiscent of mandalas or even spirographs, both of which are favorite forms of Pfaff's. It's surprising that it took her so long to use them in her work. This is especially true considering how useful doilies are in making points about women and their changing roles in society. Pfaff, after all, isn't using the doilies to serve teacakes, but as collage elements.

The association of her new old house with Father Divine is just one of the autobiographical subjects Pfaff addresses in her drawings at Robischon. Others include the recent death of her grandmother, as in "Jesse Mabel," an oil stick and watercolor on Hosho paper, and of Holly Solomon, who is memorialized in "Miss Dworkin," an ink, oil-stick, encaustic and doily on Japanese paper. Solomon was the art dealer who gave Pfaff her first important commercial break by presenting the artist's inaugural Gotham solo, in 1979. But that was four years after her Big Apple debut in the 1975 Whitney Biennial. And the rest is art history.

Several drawings in this show have whimsical titles, such as "Frog n' Toad" or "Needle n' Pin," which are autobiographical themselves, since they are Cockney expressions that recall Pfaff's early childhood as an East Ender in London. Her Victorian mansion, the leitmotif in the background of all the drawings, also conjures references to London, since the style, though popular around the world, is named for Britain's Queen Victoria.

One piece that isn't very self-referential -- except for the London-Victorian connection -- is the monumental "Messers. Rossman & McKinstry," done in oil stick on ledger paper mounted on paper. Pfaff found boxes of nineteenth century ledger pages that had been carefully folded accordion style and mounted them in a grid on the horizontal sheet of paper. The regime of order inherent in such an arrangement is broken both by the painted decorations with which the pages have been covered and by the random way the pages unfold from the force of gravity. Some are still tightly held in their folded form, while others are all but unfurled. As Doran pointed out, all of the Pfaffs in the show have an intimate connection to the artist's more famous installations, but "Messers. Rossman & McKinstry" really makes her point, as it literally spills out of its frame. This drawing is the only piece in the show that's displayed without a protective pane of glass, bringing it closer in feeling to installation art than the others.

Perhaps because Pfaff's chief claim to fame is installation art, the Robischon show has been handled as a single, coherent piece, though each drawing is available for purchase separately. Doran, who runs the gallery with her husband, Jim Robischon, blocked out the hanging -- as usual -- putting various Pfaff drawings together, and in some places arranging them in elaborate multi-part patterns that constitute ad hoc installations. The drawings are further linked by the compatible artist-made frames painted with stenciled patterns over metallic shades.

The Pfaff show, which is a month into its six-week run, inhabits the entire main part of Robischon -- something this gallery rarely does for one artist. But it's easy to see why Doran and Robischon did it in this case. First, the 22 captivating and impressive mixed-media drawings need a lot of physical and aesthetic room to be seen properly, and second, there's Pfaff's formidable reputation as one of the leaders in her generation of women artists. Taken together, these two factors make this show a major exhibit -- not just for the off-season, but for anytime at all.

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