Jean Pfaff

Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst

During a stay in Rome in 1983–84, Jean Pfaff made a series of small-format, mostly postcard-sized watercolors. These watercolors capture intuitive moods in subtle colors that build on a single, dominant tone, at times recalling the hues of late afternoon shadows or the tonal richness of a weathered facade. Only after his return from Rome did Pfaff assemble these watercolors—originally conceived as individual, abstract pieces—into collages. The watercolors thus became the starting point for new, different works, thereby losing their autonomy but gaining a new dimension. By overlapping the watercolors in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal sequences or layerings, Pfaff creates an illusion of space that is mediated by the subtly competing color-spaces of the individual pieces. To counterbalance the pieces’ tendency to dissolve, he adheres to an austere constructivist composition that still allows the viewer to sense their palpable atmospheric quality.

At the same time, Pfaff further pursued his experiments with these compositional principles in the so-called “Sandwichbilder” (Sandwich paintings, 1984–86). Here, the collaged material consists of smaller canvases in various standard formats that have been mounted under, over, and next to one another, resulting in painting-objects that deal with spatial relations, tonality, surface texture, drawing, and compositional problems involving figure and ground. In these small montages Pfaff demonstrates a playful, virtuosic handling of images, which he combines into fresh, delicate, witty, and even theatrical constellations. In the course of this playful exercise, which keeps the works oscillating between painting and object, their identity as paintings wins the upper hand, while their object character is transformed into a kind of metaphorical weightiness. The combined canvases are very similar in hue and are all rectangular in format.

Emerging from this intuitive, whimsical use of paintings and elements of painting is a new concept that seems to call for further development on a larger scale. This is just what happens in the works of the last two years. In these, Pfaff retains the superimposition of canvases and the serial arrangements of the earlier work, though not to convey the sense of object; rather, he wants to express the principle of concealment: in order to create a new image-reality, one must cover a preexisting reality. But the theme of covering also implies uncovering, as it is manifested on the surface of the painting, in the paint itself. In ways somewhat reminiscent of the transparent, overlapping layers of a watercolor, Pfaff now creates painterly color-spaces that, while maintaining their purely surface quality, also allow depths of the image to rise to the surface as suggestive presences. These are color-planes that have been applied in dense layers and remain connected with their deeper grounds through the layers of pigment, just as a multilayered construction of canvases would project the image onto the surface.
Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.