Conversations | Judy Pfaff with Betsy Sussler part 2


The following is the second part 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 wanted to ask you about the burning kits and drawing with fire. Given that fire is an all-consuming element that has connotations about being a life force and also leaving darkness in its wake while calling up images of hell, what is it like to draw with fire?

JP: It is the very coolest thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve always thought that artists are pyromaniacs and believed that they are orphans. I don’t know any artists who think of themselves as being the product of a mother and father. Fire is always major. I think the funniest thing about fire, and there’s a mischief in this, is that a gallery on 57th street—which is about as clean as you can get—the gallery owners just decided to leave until I was finished installing because they were having heart attacks because of the soot everywhere. They’ve got Hans Hoffmans in the back room and the soot was going through the ventilation system and it was fabulous because it’s carbon! Acetylene is very dirty stuff, but it’s the purest sort of soot. You know how Sumi ink is made by capturing the soot from candles? Well, like Sumi, acetylene has a velvety quality to it and if you touch it, it just falls.

BS: It’s like paint and graphite.

JP: Yeah, it’s like shadows. It’s beautiful, beautiful stuff. You can’t focus on it so you sink into it, like a lovely spacelessness or something. It’s nice.

BS: It’s interesting you bring up the word shadows because one of the notes I made when I was watching that particular piece was that when you draw it looks like you draw from shadows. How much do you use light and the space to define what the next gesture is going to be?

JP: Well there is a call and response, that’s for sure. I think what’s interesting—since we were talking about Abstract Expressionism—is if you look at those movements you can really see my height and the length of my arm when I’m on the ladder. It tracks the movement so that there’s a kind of factualness in watching the movement and how the soot collects. And the work really does have movement built into it, so that if you’re walking slowly or moving quickly or deliberating on something, you can really feel the movement. It’s like Abstract Expressionism.

BS: I’ve always said walking into one of your installations is like walking into a painting or a drawing: a place that I always imagined could exist when I look at a two-dimensional object, but have never physically experienced before until your work. It is pretty fabulous and kind of like being Alice going down into the world. And trees…

JP: A lot of trees, a lot of trees.

BS: When do trees start coming into your work? Why? Trees are rooted in the earth, but are pointing to heaven and are, like humans, intermediaries between the underworld and the heavens. In ancient civilizations they are the home of elemental spirits, as I’ve no doubt you know. For Buddhists they are the symbol of great awakenings, for Jews they are trees of knowledge, which is, as we all know, both good and evil, and for Christians trees symbolize both death and resurrection. So what sources are you referring to?

JP: Well, all of the above.

BS: When did you start using them and what do they mean to you?

JP: Someone asked me about that a long time ago, and I said, “oh yeah, occasionally I’ll use them.” I always use them. I think my interest started with branches, then I moved on to roots and trees, and then whole trees and trunks. I used to drive out to Long Island with my friend when I first moved to New York, and I would tell her about all of the trees. I would be like, “go to the gas station. Behind that tree, that one [tree] goes like this.” I knew all of the trees. “Not the sycamore and not the elm, not that, but the shape of this one and where it was in relation to other things.” So I think it’s just always been something that I have eyes for, you know? If only I could remember all of them. And they are so powerful. I think I get it, therefore I think everybody else will get it on that level too.

BS: Well I’m kind of curious which came first, the tree roots or your drawings? I ask because the roots look exactly like your drawings.

JP: They look exactly the same.

BS: And when you were washing [the tree branches] off, I was going, oh my god, it’s a Judy Pfaff. It’s not a tree! So, next question…

JP: I think the tree came first.

BS: Really? Your work, but specifically Buckets Of Rain, has been described as contending with Manichaean good and evil. Have you heard about this? How do you feel about the terms good and evil? Do you equate them with light and dark and do you think of them in terms of your work?

JP: With that piece, yes. Definitely with that one.

BS: In what way?

JP: On a basic level, dark is dark and light is light. I didn’t want to take it much further than that. In Asia, it’s completely reversed so it’s not really the same set of things.

BS: Well, it’s ancient and profound. I actually went to the old Wikipedia and looked it up because I had no idea about this particular….

JP: So you did research here?

BS: I love doing research. It’s my favorite thing to do. When you do research, you can go anywhere. You can travel. In any case, I studied a little bit of Persian theology, but I didn’t know anything about this Manichaeism. It did start in Persia, but what they say is the most striking principle of Manichean theology is dualism. The prophet, Mani, postulated that two natures existed from the beginning: light and darkness. The realm of light lived in peace while the realm of darkness was in constant conflict with itself. Have we met? Is that humanity in constant conflict with itself? I thought, wow, okay that works. The universe is a temporary result of an attack from the realm of darkness on the realm of light. I thought, well yeah, that’s nice. Lily got it right, she really did.

JP: Actually, I’ve always had sets of opposites and things. It’s almost like a reflex. If there’s too much red, then I add green. If there’s too much big, then I want small. If there’s too much, if it’s too visual, pull in something else. So, it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction of mine to balance things. And to be extreme in those balances, not just sort of a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but to really be extreme.

BS: Interesting, because that’s your cosmology.

JP: Yeah it is.

BS: Al Held called you visually intelligent, which I would say is absolutely right.

JP: He also called me the dumb blonde—that was the second sentence.

BS: Once in a while that’s okay. But it seems to me that you never stopped being a painter; that’s what you bring to the sculpture, to the installations. And you have an understanding of how a hand sweeps a gesture into art. I would say one more thing: there seems to be a narrative in all of your pieces in that they unwind, they entwine, they meander. And as groupings, they rove from particular to the universal. You say that you think sculpture tells a different kind of story than painting. As a writer, that really intrigues me. What do you mean by narrative?

JP: I think when I was referring to it, and especially when I was a real painter with paint and canvases—do you remember the movie called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

BS: Oh do I, yes.

JP: It felt a little bit like that. It’s like I would get a little possessed. Also, I’m very messy, so I would be sort of covered in paint. I would be mixing my own paint, and it was just a mess. Making sculpture allowed me to separate the parts: I could make something in the morning and in the evening, and then a month later find relationships and the narrative. It would come about slowly. With painting, it’s just like a marathon for me. It’s my relationship with it. It’s not all painting or all painters. For instance, Lari [Pittman] has a very nuanced and additive process.

BS: Yeah, and he’s got Catholic relics. He grew up in Colombia. We interviewed him

JP: Like Hymie the chicken. Aww his suit, oh my…

BS: Well right in line with that, I always feel like I’m walking into a drawing when I walk into your installations. It’s almost like Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. It’s a world that I always knew existed, but never got to be in until I got to be in one of yours. You have in fact made stage sets such as Blitzstein’s opera Regina. What was that like to make a set for people to perform in with sight-lines and a tradition perspective, which I don’t see in your work? What did you do?

JP: It was interesting. I don’t know if you know this, but Regina is based on The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman. I didn’t do the opera particularly. I mean I did it, but I was working with a Hollywood producer who was the producer of “The Lion King.” This was his first foray into opera. He knew a lot, but it was done at Bard [College] on the Gehry stage with Leon Botstein, my boss, as the conductor. So it was like, oh my God, I have never.

And I had to read the thing. I did the libretto, I met the actors, I met the tenor. I just thought, oh my God, if this doesn’t work I am lost. It was interesting because the main image of the opera is this big circular staircase in this Victorian house. I live in a Victorian house, so I knew how to do this. It was like I got it. I knew how to build it. I knew I’ve done this. Because I was not a set designer, I didn’t do what set designers usually do, which is that they draw it out and they give it to someone else to make the set. It’s not really that simple. Anyway, I drew it out again and again and again, and then when I started making it, it changed again. So the director was beginning to lose his mind.

BS: Because you have to block it.

JP: You have to block everything! I now know those words. So the director brought the actors into my studio and it was pouring rain and it was a thousand degrees. And these are pretty refined people, but they thought it was a hoot. They loved it. They loved it! It was real and that’s what they kept telling me, “the staircase is really made out of steel, there’s glass in the window.” It was all real material. The back looked as good as the front, and the side was as developed as the front. It calmed the director down because they said they felt so good on this set, and that it was different than any other set that they had been on because they knew it was “like a work of art” or a sculpture or something. And they liked it. So that was a successful collaboration in that it didn’t overshadow the story. It was in response to the text and the actors and all that stuff.

BS: And they probably felt safe.

JP: They felt safe. I did not feel safe. I was like, oh my God, what if it falls…

BS: It’s made of steel, whereas a normal stage set is all façade, and you go in the back and it’s all gerrymandered, and you go, oh my God, is it going to hold me? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

JP: It was very nice, but when I saw The Lion King, I wanted things to rotate and come and down and people to come through, you know. It was a very sober play and a dark sort of opera. It wasn’t a playful set. So it was an odd relationship, but it worked.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the conclusion of this interview.