Posted by: ahmed22k | September 30, 2015


Red, yellow and black. Wheels. Suspended chairs and tables. Order. Chaos. That’s just a glimpse of what “Betwixt” has to offer.  The free-floating objects are actually suspended- yet they create a sense of lightness, contrasting with their implied weight.

Come take a look at her 1885-1992 exhibit at Mount Holyoke.

At a first glance, the scale of Pfaff’s work takes precedence; the magnitude of each piece is mesmerizing.

At a second glance, the installations look random.

At a third glance, there is a visual complexity to the work.

JP1-Betwixt MHC

Judy Pfaff, London born American installation artist, presented at Mount Holyoke College’s annual Louise R Weiser Lecture in Creativity, Innovation, and Leadership throughout Art. The Fall Opening Reception was held in Gamble Auditorium on Thursday, September 24, 2015.

Pfaff elaborated on her journey and style over the past five decades, allowing the student body, staff and local residents to receive a first-hand account of her artistic evolution and accomplishments.

Pfaff received her MFA in painting from Yale in 1973, “I knew nothing about sculpture,” she said.  She was also the only woman in her class, and said: “this must sound very strange to all the students at Mount Holyoke.” Between 1985 and 1992, the artist took her work to another dimension, quite literally by experimenting with new mediums; “I embedded oily material and painterly language,” she said, determined to work against conceptual art which was picking up momentum.

She claims to have always done the contrary to what is expected. “I wanted color, light and transparency in my work- the opposite of density and mass common in sculpture pieces,” she said.  “I wanted some kind of vitality.”

“I love imagery- patterns, I like to fit things and imagine opposites,” Pfaff said. “If I was a kid, I would be diagnosed with many problems, like ADD and whatnot.” Pfaff’s love for a sense of complexity and order in visual information is evident in her prints and 3D installations.

Another aspect of Pfaff’s work that echoes her voice and style is her ability to transform 2D to 3D and vice versa.  “When I was a painter I was always aware of translating space,” Pfaff said. Her emphasis on the spacial realm is also evident in her prints, where the “geometric and bold colors build upon and break the three-dimensional expectations,” she said.

While it is difficult to confine Pfaff’s work into a single category, her work is distinguishable through the combination of architecture and vivid colors used to represent landscapes. Her final work is an extension of the space she occupies, giving rise to an eclectic theme of visual installations. In a slideshow, Pfaff showed visual documentations of selective exhibits. The amount of work she has done is astonishing.

gu chika paGu,Choki, Pa, (Rock, Scissors, Paper)  … Steel, wood, plastic, organic materials, bamboo, lattice, signs, veneer paneling, Formica, steel grating, and paint, 20 x 40 (diameter) feet.

In this Installation in Vernacular Abstraction, curated by Roberta Smith, at the Spiral Wacoal Art Center, Tokyo, Japan 1985, Pfaff used many local inspirations in her work.

There are many Japanese elements hidden or evident, like Mount Fuji, rivers, and the language Kanji, allowing a fusion of multi-dimensional and flat surfaces.  Pfaff’s fascination with the stories of the Kawanishi people and her involved lifestyle in Tokyo allowed her to embed the city life and absorbed culture into the nuances of her work. The natural quality of the work contrasted heavily with the modern hectic lifestyle representations in her structural collage.

Pfaff also elaborated on her process. “Every material is special… In Japan, different materials mean different things.” Pfaff was very much aware of the sense of lightness and fragility of some of her materials and the dominating impact of what they mean and how they are used and viewed. A major question she had to consider was “How will this be received?”

The energetic quality woven with improvisation creates a complicated relationship between painting, sculpture, and architecture. Pfaff uses a wide range of materials from steel, wood, resin, plastic, fiberglass, plaster and most recently the incorporation of photographs and images. Pfaff loves experimenting and shared, “I’ve never taken a sculpture class. Sometimes I was never wearing glasses.”

In an Amherst exhibit, Pfaff went in under the impression that she was visiting an area similar to Vermont. “But there were only professors at Amherst… no woodcutters,” but she continued with her original inspiration of woodwork. Her final tree-like products were displayed in a “congested manner inside another body,” in a different environment than she expected. “I am always learning from doing work and simply being there,” she said.

“My work will change depending on if I’m in Brooklyn, or if I’m in Upstate New York with ten cats and dogs, dead things, leaves roots- where I’m home…My work follows where I am.”

“In Upstate New York, things are calmer, there is zen,” she said. So when she was making art that contrasts with hectic city life, such as flowers and leaves and nature, in New York a gallerist advised her “life is more interesting than art- don’t open the window.”

Pfaff balances planning with intuitive decisions. This intensity coupled with spontaneity brings about a sensational quality in her work that can be enjoyed because of the organic feel encapsulated within the technical skills she applies.

The artist explained why her work is geometric at times and more organic at other times. While space may be one factor that influences the outcome of her final products, inspiration and mood are other key factors. “I incorporate memories- not nostalgia- Oh and television!”

She elaborated on how motivation is like a “fire-it goes out,” she said.  “It must be rekindled again.” For instance, she has to prepare herself, “winter is coming, I hate winter, but I use it as a source.” In one of her works, she was inspired to create art after recovering from a catatonic phase, when she was deeply affected by the state of dying relative and friend.

Pfaff’s goal is to always “get information and evolve,” she said. The artist continues to move around. Her constant journey was reflected in the images of her different studios in Brooklyn, Soho, Tribeca and many other places- I lost count; “If you were a realtor you should have followed me around,” she said.


I loved how Pfaff was very honest about everything; her work, her attitude, her interests. When I approached her at the end of the session to ask her a few questions, she talked about how attached she is more attached to her 3D work compared to her 2D work.  She really is the quintessential artist who is super energetic and can jump from one topic to the next. In her talk, she had mentioned how she didn’t know “a sh*t about color, Indian goddesses, and gods,” but wanted to incorporate that culture in her work after a trip to India. She started talking about that again after she got distracted by the henna on my hand. The next thing I knew I was being interviewed;

“Did you do this yourself?” “What materials do you like to use?” “How do you say your name again- Spell that for me please.” Oooh, your background makes for an impressive resume itself.”

Thank you Judy Pfaff!

Pfaff is extremely blunt and her care-free personality and love for energy and movement could not be stressed enough, “I cannot stand static things … at Chelsie people look at things so long that don’t do anything.”

“I’m not such a good reader… I’m no theoretician but I’ve got smart hands.” Sure enough, she went over to one of her pieces and started pulling at the strings and weight balls, showing us how her installation can move!

Just a side note- DO NOT COPY HER. She has artistic licensure; she can do whatever she wants.

Her honesty also came across when she discussed the art world, and how she thought making art used to be a lot easier. Nowadays there is a lot of power in the hands of the curator. “Art is supposed to be fun,” she said.


Though I prefer making 2D work as a budding artist, and her work may be too abstract for my personal preference– I still formed a very positive impression of her. Because despite the enigmatic quality to her work, she is not unpretentious at all.

Moreover, I am amazed at her body of work. Her CV will blow your mind. I don’t know how she managed to do all that work. Granted she may have had assistants helping her, but to get inspired, buy materials, travel, install, uninstall, reinstall requires a lot of time and effort. Being an artist is clearly her full-time job.  I’m not sure how she makes money since she probably just spends it all on materials and transportation, but the quality and quantity of her portfolio is unbelievable.

As for the talk, I think she is a great speaker, humorous too. She speaks to the point- maybe a little too much to the point. I wish she had taken the time to show the audience the nuances of the work and break down the photographs in her presentations. Sometimes I didn’t know what she was talking about- no matter how entertaining her stories and comments. Sometimes she would just mention that she has used certain imagery, or say “there’s a mountain in there somewhere” but there was no way to visualize because either the picture didn’t allow it, or the audience was only given ten seconds to really study the image on the screen.  45 minutes just felt rushed; there just wasn’t enough time to go through her work “from the beginning.” One does not simply discuss their entire career through hundreds of images in such a short amount of time. I was definitely overwhelmed with the visual content.

She should (but probably can’t) do a series of talks! But I do appreciate that she spoke in layman dialect.jp23

A New York Times critic, Roberta Smith, wrote of Pfaff’s work, “she has been creating elaborately impure, implicitly narrative environments for more than 25 years. She is at the top of her form in the airy, exhilarating Neither Here Nor There.

This work was constructed right after 9/11, Pfaff lived 4 blocks from the World Trade Center. She created a sense of reconstruction, inspired by prints to represent a fusion of different architectural qualities like Islamic and Buddhist art. I first saw chess pieces but there are very distinct symbols and shapes used adhering to different cultures. Was this a response to the negative stereotypes circulating about different ethnicities after 9/11? Was she trying to find a way to create harmony and peace?   I think Pfaff uses different sculptor-specific vocabulary in her work by embedding photos on the floor surface and background. I don’t even know what I should call this approach or technique.

I guess what I loved most was her use of markers that allowed her to distinguish each of her own pieces because they were extensions of personal narratives and other significant events.

In “Prototypes,” 1978, Pfaff created 3D portraits, except they tried to capture distinct personality traits rather than focusing on resemblance. The sculpture on the right portrays a friend of Pfaff’s walking into a wall. Pfaff narrated, “He thinks it was actually a portrait of me dealing with him.”


In an exhibit at the Columbus Museum in 1995 Pfaff got the idea when a tree fell down in front of her, and “I thought: idea!”  She took out the roof and lowered the temperature of the space down by twenty degrees. This was in the winter, “We were frozen,” she said.

JP5-“Cielo Requerdo”

Installation in Landscape as Metaphor, Columbus Museum

In the image below, a similar version or another version of this installation piece is at display at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. She uses the dominance of the male aura, a vibe she felt during her tenure in Brooklyn, and combines it with the fragility of growing feminism. Why she chose metal, I’m not exactly sure, but I’m sure as a sculptor she has her reasons for what material properties signify.  But there is something about a battle going on here, the impurity of sculptor making, an inherent vice, and a sense of finite and infinite as parts of the sculpture come together and other parts unravel.

jp6—“Los Voces” (1992)                                             

Artwork by Judy Pfaff

-Es Possible (1989)

According to Pfaff, the work above was made in response to watching a soccer game in the ’80s. It is all “geometry, guts, and glory—very masculine in its use of primary colors and hard-edged angularity.”

JP92. jp10



“Untitled” (2010)

These reminded me of candy wrappers, or distinctly shaped sweets, I love this eclectic selection of candies called “Quality Street” but the installation turned out to be “Chinese lanterns, floral prints, and other paper-based collage materials” leaning towards the floor supported by an anchor that isn’t visible unless you look for it in person!

As a budding artist, I can tell that there is a lot of thought put into her installations; Pfaff has clearly looked into composition, foreground, mid-ground and background; there is a sense of balance that is achieved that may be difficult in abstract work. The final result can be interpreted in any way we like.

Even after listening to her talk, asking her questions and reading what other critics have to say, I’m not sure how she manages to pull off a lot of improvisation. I think I am more in awe of Judy Pfaff’s approach to her work than the work itself; her confidence, her beliefs, her boldness. I’m more in awe of the impact of her work and the feeling it evokes than the materials and shapes. But then I guess they all contribute to the way she manages to create chaos and order, all within a single body of art, representing the power that shapes and materials can have over a viewer. Is this combination of order and disorder a contemporary quality?  I’m just left wondering:

How does she create a paradoxical relationship within her work? What goes on inside her head?



. Sun, Oct 18, 2015, 6:42 PM


I have read your review of Jude Pfaff’s lecture, and it is truly stellar! You do a fantastic job of providing a clear, compelling, and thorough account of her talk, and this would have been enough. However, then you push much further. You engage with a range of examples of her work in sophisticated and deeply perceptive ways, and you also give me a vivid sense of her as a person and an artist, which is unusual in this kind of review. The story of your exchange with her was striking! You assess her talk and provide your opinion in ways that are honest but careful. I’m now fascinated by her work too, which is the best sign of an excellent review.
Grade: A

Best, AM

Amy E. Martin

Chair of the English Department
Associate Professor of English and Faculty Member in Critical Social Thought
Faculty Director of the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program
Mount Holyoke College


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