Conversations | Judy Pfaff with Betsy Sussler part 1


The following interview took place at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library on March 3, 2008, following a screening of the Art:21 episode Romance. Featured artist Judy Pfaff spoke with Betsy Sussler, Editor-in-Chief of BOMB magazine.

BETSY SUSSLER: Hi everyone, I’m really pleased to be here, not only with Judy, but also with Art21. Both Art21 and BOMB magazine are about presenting the artist’s voice and developing ideas through conversation. And at BOMB, we do in-depth interviews between artists about the creative process. BOMB interviewed Judy almost ten years ago in 1999, and actually the woman who interviewed her, Mimi Thompson, is here tonight. I thought I would start my series of questions by reading one of the questions that Mimi posed to Judy ten years ago and take it from there. It’s still certainly apropos…

JUDY PFAFF: Are you going to read the answer?

BS: I thought I would let you answer it and then at the end of our talk I would read the answer that you gave ten years ago. And really, you are not required to give the same answer. So in your interview with Mimi you described your installation work as “psychologically dangerous,” which is a very interesting question given the piece that we just saw. And what Mimi wanted to know then, I also want to know now, which is, what did you mean by “psychologically dangerous”?

JP: I’m trying to put myself back there. I have a feeling that what was happening then is that the works were so spontaneous and so of-the-moment because there was not a lot of censoring going on, and because I listened to everybody and saw how much self-awareness they have and how brilliant they are. I don’t have that going for me. It’s sort of like the clock is ticking and it’s really ticking the moment the work is being done. I can read the work sometimes, especially later, and think, oh my god, I was a mess or that this particular thing was happening or that the exhaustion is in the work. There’s stuff in the installation that I don’t really want to put in there, but I think it gets in there. Maybe I was speaking about that.BS: Well, I think it makes [the installations] stronger emotionally. I would say that everyone there knew what they were talking about. I mean that’s the remarkable thing about creative processes, how much you learn. My first question is actually quite in line with that. But the piece that’s being discussed in the film that we just saw, Buckets Of Rain, was completed in 2006 and evolved, as you said, after the death of several close friends and family members including your mentor Al Held and your mom. What I’m wondering is if you called up even older memories for that project of loss and destruction, particularly ones that you must have carried with you, say, of London right after the war. It seems to have a certain amount of destruction built into it or to replicate a very personal idea of destruction.

JP: I’m not sure I would say that because ironically my memories of post-war London were of bombed buildings, which I thought were so beautiful. When I go back now [to London], it seems so together and organized. I have no sadness about that. The sadness would probably be from my grandmother’s stories of the war. But they were just stories from the radio and from my family. I was sort of loose in London. I remember the debris and devastation as providing a kind of freedom because no one could find me. I was always getting lost and never going to school. I was in reform school at that time.

I remember it as being so different than it really is because England is not like that. England is quite directed, quite orderly and mannered. I have never dealt with loss very much. By the way, today is the second anniversary of my mom’s death. A lot of time during AIDS there were waves of people dying, but I don’t think I felt it until a couple of years ago. And it must have been that I figured out that not only am I next in line, but that I have not been paying attention to a lot of things. So it came over me like, wow, I’ve been so busy doing and managing things and surviving New York that there were lots of things about being human and aware that I hadn’t been paying attention to. I think my memories of London are not like that, not filled with loss.

When I go to the movies and I see other people’s memories of [London], I think, oh I guess that’s what I should have felt.

BS: Once you reach a certain age, you start having to deal with death in a way that we didn’t have to when we were younger. And you’re absolutely right, it’s about coming face to face with your own mortality and also the loss of people you’ve loved and who you’ve spent decades with. You’re not alone in that denial. Michael Goldberg’s memorial was last Saturday, and for those of you who don’t know, he was the quintessential great American painter. He was called a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, but what he really was, was an all-American Expressionist painter. And I was in denial; I didn’t want to go to the memorial, not because I didn’t love Michael, but because I didn’t want to admit that he was dead. I told myself that maybe I just hadn’t seen him in a while or he was away, and in that way one didn’t have to deal with it. So I think, yes, as you get older you do begin to deal with death because it’s not just the people who are some distance from you, but people who are very close to you. And you’re next…

JP: It’s funny too because a few days before Mike’s memorial was my dealer, Andre Emmerich’s, memorial. And because I wasn’t as attached to Andre, and it was a huge crowd, and everybody was talking about him, I just thought there’s something to learn about this. He was a very complex character and I only knew one side of him, and the funny thing is that people learn about you when you’re dead. I don’t feel as lost as a few years ago. Elizabeth Murray dying for me was gigantic. Now it seems okay, it seems better, but it makes me think, hmm, I wonder what stories are going to be told. Something seems so interesting about it all now.

BS: Yeah, that mythologizing and storytelling, but actually, that’s one of my questions. A year after Buckets Of Rain, you did another piece at the gallery and it was much lighter. I’m wondering, what happened in that year to make you be able to jump back to light? How did you come to accept these things?

JP: I was getting pretty morose and I think my friends suggested that I not go there anymore. Also, I did a piece quite a short time after in Houston, Texas. I did live in Texas a long time ago, in 1965, and everything I remembered about Texas was the weather and how extreme it was. I usually need something to do a piece about and since that’s the only thing I could remember about Texas, I thought, we’ll go there. And it seemed like a good metaphor for lots of things in Texas anyway. It’s like I follow my life and if it goes this way then the work will tend to go that way. So for me it’s interesting because I think, well, I wonder what’s going to happen next. I’ve done pieces about my house, my garden, and my friends. So it makes it that your life keeps adding these layers, which I like, and then the layers probably do reflect back all the way.

BS: What is the piece you’re working on now?

JP: I’m doing a lot of drawings. I went to Turkey recently, which was a strange trip with some really wonderful people, including twelve artists, filmmakers and writers, and my friend Steven Watson, who’s a wonderful sort of guy who can gather people together. I decided no more teaching and quit school to go to this Muslim country. I had such a great time and it was so different. It was like a new education, and I think there’s something important in that.

I think what was curious about the show that’s on this clip is that it was one moment in one time. It’s gone now, in a funny way. So now it’s this new stuff, new geometries, new faiths, new atmospheres, and it’s a lesson for me too.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 of this interview.