Following is the conclusion of the conversation between Judy Pfaff and BOMB Magazine‘s Betsy Sussler that took place on March 3, 2008 at the Mid-Manhattan Library.
BS: I’m going to ask you two more questions, and one of them actually comes from Patricia Spears Jones, who’s a poet. I don’t know if you’ve met her, but she’s a contributing editor to BOMB. A.M. Homes, the writer, has this really great trick when she interviews people. She calls up all of her friends in a panic and says, “I don’t know what I’m going to say. What would you ask if you were interviewing this person?” and then she comes with a list of their questions combined with her questions. So I did that too. I thought, this will be fun. So, Patricia Spears Jones asks this: “I have been fascinated by the colors in your work? What do they mean and are there ones that you have never used and why?”
JP: I’m very involved with color. Initially, I was involved with Goethe’s idea of color, then Madame Blavatsky, and I worked for [Josef] Albers, believe it or not. So each piece actually is very coded. I don’t usually talk about that, but what I mean is that even just black and white mean this or that. When I sampled things in earlier pieces, they were always specifically about color and emotional and even visual sensations. But no, color is a huge deal to me.
BS: The earlier ones especially were so exuberant. It was never just instinctive? You really always had an idea of what the color….
JP: Yeah. The first show in New York that someone might have seen was called Deep Water. I had just come from a trip to the Yucatan as a response to doing a failed show about subatomic physics, and I thought, painters don’t use color? There was this equivocation that thinking is sort of gray and black and brown and sober and in Merida, which is this perfect colonial town in the Yucatan, and is also my favorite town of all time, there were just beautiful flowers. The sea is turquoise, and I just thought this really has the color of life. The way things look when they’re alive, like flowers and birds and fish and this and that. Also, I was probably at war with—do I say it again?—Richard Serra, who is about weight and mass, and I thought, throw it away. Get the air in there and make it circulate. You don’t own it. You don’t dominate anything. Don’t have the language that painting could have. That was a very south of the border show.
The next one I did at Albright-Knox, the whole palette was for all of the people. There was the Clyfford Still motif, there was the Jackson Pollock; it was the moment. So there was a kind of homage. It’s like, if I go to Japan, I think it’s totally Japanese, but they don’t think it’s Japanese at all. I think there is a difference between references to things and paying homage to things.
BS: That actually might answer my last question, which is, do all the installations have a back-story?
BS: They do. So can you tell us one, a really personal one that perhaps nobody knows yet?
JP: Yeah, one was called War In Italy. My grandmother worked for the RAF, the Women’s Royal Air Force, as a seamstress. And she sewed all these…she says she saved London. She said that she made all of these sorts of balloons. And it was the day that we arrived in Venice, and there were a couple of wars going on. And the whole thing, I thought, referenced this because we were also in Italy, and so I thought it would be about the Futurists, and I really realized that the Futurists were about noises. My grandmother used to say, “what was the most frightening thing? The noises above your head and the sound of things exploding.” So the whole piece, I thought, had this very Italian aspect to it as well as this back-story about my grandmother and what she thought was frightening. But all of them have that. I don’t usually tell anybody, but I’ll tell you now that it’s twenty years later.
BS: Oh, I should have gone through [every installation] one at a time. How did she think she saved London? What was she selling?
JP: Because these balloons were inflated and the German planes couldn’t tell the difference between the sky and the balloons. They were all around London. London was full of balloons, big balloons. These balloons, what are they called?
BS: Balloons… I don’t know.
JP: Blimps. And they were silver, which is a good look because it reflected the sky. So the planes, the Messerschmitt, is that right? The planes couldn’t locate them so instead of bombing them they just flew into this invisible protection. I hope I’m remembering this correctly.
BS: Even if you’re not, it’s really fabulous. I’m going to read how you answered Mimi’s question, which is actually exactly what you said ten years ago. Mimi asked how your installations are “psychologically dangerous,” and you said…“for me, because nothing is preset, I feel that it reveals a lot about what I’m going through at the moment.”
JP: I said exactly the same…
BS: You said exactly the same thing. If things are theoretically well thought-out then you’re in fairly safe territory. It’s like ,“I know my parameters and what the thing is going to look like.” So yeah, ten years doesn’t make any difference.
JP: She lies consistently…
BS: And with that….
JP: By the way, I don’t drink beer. I don’t know why I said that because I never ever drink beer.
BS: I was going to say, you don’t look like you drink beer.
JP: No, I never drink it. I think there are three lies in that thing, the first one, and then the cock crows, but no, the first one is that I don’t drink beer.
BS: But it was funny.
JP: It was funny. It was a joke, yeah.