New York

Judy Pfaff, There Is a Field, I Will Meet You There [Rumi], 2014, steel, Plexiglas, fluorescent lights, plastic, expanding foam, dimensions variable.

Judy Pfaff, There Is a Field, I Will Meet You There [Rumi], 2014, steel, Plexiglas, fluorescent lights, plastic, expanding foam, dimensions variable.

Judy Pfaff

Loretta Howard Gallery/Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Judy Pfaff, There Is a Field, I Will Meet You There [Rumi], 2014, steel, Plexiglas, fluorescent lights, plastic, expanding foam, dimensions variable.

A half century ago, the time-honored distinctions between painting and sculpture surrendered to the forces majeures of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and their offspring. Judy Pfaff’s two-gallery exhibition reminded us of that moment in the 1960s when young artists, cued by Eva Hesse, smashed those mutually defining species together to form a single pictorial/sculptural continuum. Some five decades later, Pfaff remains the exemplary figure—the last artist of this type still standing as others (notably Lynda Benglis) have reverted to a sculpture of autonomous objects. Pfaff’s recent installations and smaller wall reliefs at Loretta Howard and Pavel Zoubok not only underscored the primary rank of the artist but also highlighted the enthusiasms of the particular dealers in question: the one for heroic scale and go-for-broke fearlessness, the other for the more placid joys derived from the long tradition of collage.

While both galleries featured complex, three-dimensional installations, at Loretta Howard, pieces evincing the inorganic and the clamorously demotic—embodied in the shrill aggression of fun-house neon and of heated plastic rent and tugged into spiky forms and luminous ribbons—particularly tested the settled boundaries of good taste. There, as well, a good deal of work invoked a mode suspended between Color Field and Op art, particularly those pieces that speak to early friendships: Jules (all works cited, 2014) recalls Jules Olitski; Moon Dog, Devil Dog (for Larry) pays tribute to Larry Poons; Helen reminds us of Helen Frankenthaler; the ambitious quasi-illustrative Blue Note, (for Al), with its musical-staff-like superstructure, nods to Al Held. Although one found aerated, color-saturated plastic mounds at both galleries, the effect at Pavel Zoubok tended to the fungoid or lichen-like—the artist getting all moony about nature. (A bit of this drift toward sentimentality was also found at Loretta Howard in There Is a Field, I Will Meet You There [Rumi], its floating, cloud-like plateaus of Gupta domes a saccharine Bollywood vision.) At Zoubok, the mineral and the organic root figured prominently, the stone and rhizome, taking precedence, for example, in Hanging Judge, with its vast, ensnaring bottleneck of tree roots that occupied the center of the gallery. Any number of installations at both galleries still assaulted the eye, rushed off the wall, lay scattered on the floor, or could have been walked through or explored as islands hanging from the ceiling or projected out from the wall. In short, Pfaff’s swirling installations remain the meat and potatoes of her contribution, even as this MacArthur Fellow now punches seventy.

Mind you, these two Pfaff shows did not invite a determination as to which part of her work is more significant—the early versus the late—nor, for that matter, did they allow us to ascertain which strain in Pfaff’s art, the natural or the artificial, cancels the other out. Instead, the exhibitions engaged a more pressing issue, the decades-long struggle between an atomized, decentralized abstraction and a unitary, rationalist Minimalism. Neither mode is, in principle, superior to the other, though, in measure, greater approbation has been given to the reductivist side of things. Still, if coloristic Abstract Expressionism as sculpture is currently sniffed at, Pfaff remains the singular force within that tradition, the antidote to today’s arguably excessive adulation of Minimalism and Conceptualism. With this double event, Pfaff is more firmly ensconced in the pantheon than ever.

Robert Pincus-Witten