Marcia Hafif (1929–2018)

Marcia Hafif painting “Shade Paintings,” 2013. Photo: Taketo Shimada.

AT DIFFERENT POINTS IN HER CAREER, Marcia Hafif proposed a cave, a solitary room with no distractions, and a lusthus (gazebo) in the middle of a remote forest as appropriate environments for and as art. Within the contemporary milieu, such possibilities promise particular grace, sheltering us from the chaos by which we find ourselves surrounded. She was not suggesting escape, however, for she also engaged consistently in an ongoing practice: studiously, carefully, one stroke after another. Nor was this proposal insular. Hafif’s almost lifelong practice of mark-making toward seemingly monochromatic surfaces, beginning in 1972 and continuing until her death in April, was intersected by conscious acts of dialogue—across geographies as she traveled and painted in situ, across spoken and visual languages, and even across religions. Perhaps best known is her essay “Beginning Again,” published in Artforum in 1978, in which she defended painting itself and defined the pared-down practice of her work and that of others: “The artist is involved in being as a way of doing and in letting be. . . .”

On several occasions, Hafif exchanged abstract marks for representational ones, composing texts across walls that asked her viewer to engage with her subjective presence in the world: as an aroused woman (Schoolroom, 1976), as an aging sexual being (From the day a woman…, 2013), and as a human facing the limitations of age and death. Schoolroom, just recently restaged for the MoMA PS1 anniversary show “FORTY” (2016), mourned, in meticulously composed cursive, the places she would never see again and the pain she experienced in old age, in an act of radical visibility for a society that disdains aging and hides death. Yet she tempered this reflection on loss with a patient understanding of all that she still had: “In spring I walk west to find the Ginkgo trees prickly with new growth…” In an era of distraction and incivility, Marcia’s meditative existence was a model for us all—insistent, curious, and attentive. Each mark, over sixty years, encourages us to be in dialogue with the world, and to see. Each work provides a generous abode.

Hafif was always exploring the world around her in multiple forms, and I am one among many who enjoyed days of conversation with her, reflecting on life and practice, sharing in her accumulated accomplishments: She had a persistent interest in working. She had a meticulous eye. She had a gift for making friends, and a lovely family. She had the ability to laugh. She had a beautiful record player in her studio, balanced in a corner on a small green table. She had the ocean at hand. She wrote to me this past winter to chat about playing with my children in the warm sun on the beach, where I last saw her. I will remember her there, bathed by the light and color that deeply informed her life’s work and infused with the vitality that fueled it.

Jane McFadden is Chair, Humanities and Sciences, at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California.