New York

Judy Pfaff

André Emmerich Gallery

Although I’ve always liked Judy Pfaff’s work, it has left me at times a little unsatisfied. Her abstract installations conjure up a Gesamtkunstwerk-like idea of the artwork as a whole and enveloping world—the painting you can walk through, the sculpture that decompresses its solidity to suck you inside it. Jackson Pollock turns up regularly in the writing on Pfaff, as if she were trying to realize in three dimensions the sense of absorption in an entire cosmos that his giant allover canvases can provide. Funnily enough, though, it is Pollock’s flat paintings that allow the greater suspension of disbelief. Spreading throughout the gallery space, Pfaff’s works seem to try to erase or replace the architecture—inevitably a losing game. Glimpsing familiar walls, ceiling, and floor behind the elements she adds, you remember that you’re still on this side of the looking glass.

Alice through the Looking Glass, of course, was written for children, and there is or used to be a whole genre of children’s books like it, about the dream of passing into another world, complete and self-contained. There are adult and art-historical analogues of this fantasy (Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, say), but even so, it is probably unfair to attribute it to Pfaff too neatly; a worldly, material-savvy artist (and one with a deep sense of fun), she is, I think, more concerned with quite concrete and sophisticated ways of engaging space than with some vision of the total artwork. If her work tends to make me think less of art’s potentials than of its limits, I was probably just too immersed in the Narnia bibliography as a child.

Pfaff’s 1997 installation Round Hole Square Peg answered my issue with her work by seeming more a conversation than a competition with the gallery space. In one room, in fact, an arrangement of straight metal rods or pipes like a jungle gym suggested diminishing echoes of the architecture around it—spaces within the space, cubes without walls. This area was predominantly geometric, but the show as a whole described a landscape of connection and interrelation: some of the rectilinear metalwork ran out into the gallery hall, where it became a kinetically curving matrix. Part of this in turn bent into the room opposite, where it melded with a singular object: an airborne cluster of tree, a crowd of branches and roots all jammed together haywire, and some of them also jammed into the ends of the metal pipes—providing, perhaps, the round hole and square peg of the title.

This nature/culture dichotomy/fusion was restated elsewhere with a wall that seemed to melt, flowing outward in an organic billow of plaster. It was also complemented by a series of circular forms on the walls and floor—some plaster, some rubber—suggesting raised rings of ripples, or perhaps targets, or an event on a potter’s wheel (as when a floor circle mushroomed into a domelike bulb). Materially gloppy and tactile yet symbolically cosmic in their suggestion of the mandala, these circles were echoed in a drawing on a freestanding wall. Some of the drawing’s markings took the shape of small holes drilled in the wall, and occasionally right through it; since the wall stood in front of a window, the result was a spy’s-eye view of the street. To the nature/culture or chaos/order balances, then, could be added those of inside/outside, symbolic/literal, and spiritual/worldly.

Working in a paler and narrower palette than in the past, Pfaff for the most part also stuck closer than before to the gallery’s walls and floor. Allowing clear views through the space, she seemed largely to accept it as a frame (though meddling with it when necessary), and this containment made the little symphony of symbolic registers she composed all the more effective. Simultaneously serene and dynamic, cerebral and sensual, Round Hole Square Peg seemed mistitled: the words indicate a mismatch, but this was a place of harmonious fusion.

David Frankel