When artist Judy Pfaff blew into town in September, Hurricane Ike was turning Texas upside down. While one of America’s most influential artists can’t really be compared to a major weather event, The College of Saint Rose won’t forget the week that Pfaff stormed its new Esther Massry Art Gallery.
A sculptor and painter who shifts effortlessly from one dimension to the other, Pfaff has works in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the personal collections of Christo, the late Sol LeWitt and actor-art guy Steve Martin. Last year, she was a featured artist in “Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century” on PBS television.
Pfaff is also the first to exhibit in the new art space in Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts, a $14 million venue that opened last month on the main Madison Avenue campus in Albany. But in addition to bringing works from her studios in New York City and Kingston, Pfaff created new works right in the gallery, shaping an extraordinary show that won’t appear anywhere else on the planet.
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Beehive of activity
On Sept. 17, four days before the opening, the 2,300-square-foot space was a tumult of materials and objects, with Pfaff and an assistant whirling about as Willie, her gentlemanly black Lab, strolled calmly through the fray. Only narrow strips of the shiny maple floor were exposed, amid a sea of drop cloths covered with dripped plastic forms, carts of spray paint, welding torches, a table saw and giant pairs of pliers.
‘Paperworks, Year of the Dog, Pig, Rat, Etc.’
WHERE: Esther Massry Gallery, Massry Center for the Arts, The College of Saint Rose, 1002 Madison Ave., Albany.
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 9. Open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday, and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
HOW MUCH: Free
“She likes to bring in a lot of stuff and then design and organize it,” said Jeanne Flanagan, director and curator of the Esther Massry Gallery. “It’s a performance in itself. The gallery space has become her studio.”
Kneeling on the floor, Pfaff attached plastic flowers to one of 12 large collages, swaths of paper up to 9 feet long that start as paintings and drawings and morph into sculpture as appendages in the form of found objects, both natural and man-made, are attached and layered.
“It’s completely physical, much more than anyone would know,” said Pfaff, a small, fit woman with a warm smile and rosy complexion.
“This is the freakiest time,” she continued, referring to the presidential campaign, post-9/11 jitters and extreme weather in the same breath. “There’s a nervousness. We’re not the same people we were. You can feel it.”
Pfaff’s feelings, her responses to movies, books, conversations with friends, traveling to new places become part of her artwork. But because her work is spontaneous, without preconceived structure, she discovers those feelings and responses when the works are completed. “The framework comes in later,” she explained. “It’s not a personal history, not a story of my life, but rather reactions to things that happen in it.”
Order and disorder
During her week at Saint Rose, she thought about Hurricane Ike and recalled the Vietnam War days, when she lived in Texas, where wild storms roar across open spaces. Weather-related imagery and botanical themes (she’s an avid gardener) often show up in her work.
Even though it’s abstract, Pfaff considers her work straightforward and approachable, even for unschooled visitors. “They like it or they don’t like it. They don’t have to read a book to get it. They see a lot of energy.”
New York Times critics who dare to describe her work use words such as “airy,” “exhilarating,” “profuse” and “exuberant.” “She seems somehow to get order and disorder working for her at the same time, a sense of Woolworth’s meets Bauhaus,” one critic wrote.
“Year of the Dog, Rat, Pig, Etc.” includes drawings and paintings that Pfaff started in Hawaii, where she relished the Asian influences and lush tropical foliage. Personally, it was a transition time after the deaths of her mother and some friends, a sad period elucidated in “Buckets of Rain,” a 2006 installation at New York’s Ameringer Yohe Fine Art.
“The fog is lifting,” she said, openly beaming with pleasure.
Pfaff points to a collage with turbanlike paper forms and fake flowers protruding from a surface of bold red geometric shapes. “I’ve augmented drawings. The bones of them were here,” she said.
Another collage in shades of brown is “very involved with birds,” Pfaff said, recounting how she watches the patterns of birds flying over the Hudson Valley.
Her collages have a chaotic yet clean sense about them, and each has a different character.
Some are encased in 6-inch-deep glass frames or boxes, reminiscent of the birds and flowers preserved by Victorians in tableau d’morte.
In one frame, there’s a sensuous red and black floral pattern; in another, the paper is lacquered and viscous. Three-dimensional forms, such as origami flowers, twists of wire and Chinese paper puzzles are surprising complements to the flat surfaces.
While the collages and 21 other smaller pieces fill the Main Gallery with its 12-foot ceilings, a huge Pfaff sculpture inhabits the Vertical Gallery, a 325-square-foot space with 27-foot-high ceilings and a tall window overlooking Madison Avenue.
Created for the space from steel, foam and black aluminum foil, the sculpture looks like a waterfall suspended in air, surrounded by airy twirls of twigs and wire suggesting wind and clouds.
Pfaff used a spill of liquid foam for the “waterfall,” which in its solid state has the appearance of burned marshmallow Fluff. Twigs and branches were sawed from trees in Kingston.
Jamie Hamilton, one of Pfaff’s art students at Bard College and a mountain climber, assisted Pfaff with the aerial maneuvering of the sculpture. Saint Rose students also helped the artist, making paper forms for the collages, and performing odd jobs, like walking her dog.
Pfaff has been inspiring art students since the 1970s, when she encouraged young artists to work with unusual materials and move beyond traditional barriers between sculpture and paintings.
Since 1994, she has taught at Bard, where she is also co-director of the Studio Arts Program.
Pfaff has come a long way since her childhood in her native England and London’s Cockney East End. When her family moved to Detroit, she was the only white girl in a black school with mostly white teachers, and the restless Pfaff excelled at sports and art, the only subject where she could concentrate and focus her energy.
Pfaff went on to earn a master’s degree in fine art from Yale University. Over the years, she has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Four years ago, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and its $500,000 prize.
For Flanagan, a sculptor and art professor at Saint Rose, the connection to Pfaff goes back more than 25 years, when she saw a Pfaff installation at Holly Solomon Gallery in New York. “I was amazed and shocked by it. It surrounded you,” she said.
A few years later, when Flanagan and her husband, sculptor Paul Mauren, were living in Brooklyn part time, they became business partners when Pfaff was among a group of artists that bought a building together. That association lasted 19 years, until Flanagan and Mauren, who is also a Saint Rose professor, came to live full time in the Capital Region.
For Flanagan, the new gallery in the historic Pine Hills neighborhood, with its window view of Madison Avenue, promises higher visibility for Saint Rose exhibits.
For nearly 30 years, the college’s art gallery was in Picotte Hall, the art building on State Street in Albany’s Center Square. Small and windowless, with 9-foot ceilings, the space was never intended to be a gallery, and it didn’t have a street sign.
“People living on State Street for years didn’t know we were a gallery,” says Flanagan.