In examining the work of Marcia Hafif, it has struck me again how arbitrary recognition can be in the art world. Factors such as gender, age, being in the right place at the right time, one’s name, the credibility of one’s dealer, and pure luck often appear to have greater effect on the reception of your artwork than the quality of the objects themselves. This is particularly galling given that our practice is supported by the allegedly authoritative rubric of art history, which suggests objectivity based on something more concrete than the roll of a dice. Thankfully, periodic revisions occur to admit overlooked members into the canon, but how much easier would it have been to shortcut the struggle and be born male, live in New York City during the 1960s, and be represented by Leo Castelli.
Having encountered Marcia’s work under the careful guidance of the Viennese dealer Hubert Winter, I’ve struggled to understand why she has not received the recognition that she deserves in the United States. In looking at Marcia’s paintings, works on paper, photography, film, and critical writings created since 1961, the authority and coherence of her output rules out any possibility that the lack of recognition is due to some fault in the work itself. There must be other reasons. These are my thoughts on what some of them might be.
A Californian, but not a California artist:
The name Hafif lends an exoticism that has not been helpful in identifying her as a California artist of the same generation as Robert Irwin (b. 1928). She was born Marcia Woods in Pomona, California in 1929 and the Hafif name owes its origin to her 1951 marriage to Herbert Hafif. She spent the first 30 years of her life in California, completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Pomona College in 1951, and spent the 1950s teaching, attending painting classes, and working towards an MA in Art History on Italian Renaissance and Far Eastern art. In 1960 she was in West Hollywood seeing many Italian films, meeting the artists showing at Ferus Gallery and occasionally helping out there. Thereafter in 1961, she packed up for Florence, Italy to surround herself with the art that she had studied. Planning to only stay for a year, she settled in Rome to paint, raised her son (born 1963), staying into 1969.
Hafif’s time in Rome meant that her work did not register in the evolution of West coast minimalism, post-minimalism, and conceptualism during the 1960s (work with which it shares an affinity). Aside from the time spent at University of California at Irvine for her MFA from 1969 to 1971, Hafif only began making work on the West coast in 1999 after establishing a studio in Laguna Beach. Forty years have elapsed between her solo exhibition at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in 1975 and her solo exhibition at Laguna Art Museum this year.
The missing Italian Paintings:
Between 1961 and 1969 in Rome, Hafif created what she has come to call the Italian Paintings, works that have never journeyed to the United States. Her first solo exhibition anywhere in the world was at Galleria La Salita, Rome, in 1964, and she showed regularly in Italy, achieving some commercial success, despite her works being attacked by critics for their “American cold squalor – similar to that provoked by traffic signs hung on the wall of a driving school” and were also criticized for being too large – “American size.” Upon leaving Italy to return to California to undertake a MFA in 1969, she abandoned these works to begin afresh. The Italian Paintings languished in storage until Christian Bernard, the Director of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva (MAMCO) took them under his care, exhibited them at his museum in 2001, and published a catalogue raisonné in 2010. That publication provides a tantalizing glimpse at the splendor of the work, and I am happy to say that in May 2016, the gallery will present a selection of the seldom seen Italian Paintings in New York. The paintings represent a large and critical omission from the history of American art of this period and are a critical element in the lack of reception her work has received in her native land.
In New York “Beginning Again”:
Arriving in New York in 1971, the artist was in her early forties when she settled into her loft in SoHo. As a painter, she could not have arrived at a less auspicious time just as the funeral ceremony for the death of painting was at its most solemn. In Hafif’s important Artforum essay “Beginning Again” from 1978, she describes the circumstances and thought process of that time, which lead her to deconstruct painting down to its fundamental materials and techniques; and to this day the essay amounts to the most compelling explanation of the continued veracity of monochrome painting. Beginning again meant leaving behind her Italian Paintings and undertaking a systematic exploration of the possibilities of pigment and process that has yielded an Inventory of 27 series of works (to date). Pivotal in that development was An Extended Gray Scale, a single work which Hafif completed between 1972 and 1973, and is a recording of every tonal variant she could perceive between white and black on a series of 22 inch square canvases (eventually amounting to 106 panels). The gallery will present An Extended Gray Scale in Art Unlimited at Art Basel later this month, and it will be the first public exhibit of this work in its totality. Notably, Hafif gained representation by Ileana Sonnabend in 1974 and had solo exhibitions at the gallery in both New York and Paris through 1978. Hafif’s work was included in Alanna Heiss’ first exhibition at P.S. 1 Rooms in June 1976. Things were looking up.
The Power of Representation:
However, sales at Sonnabend were modest, and with the gallery’s new focus on German Neo-Expressionism, Sonnabend ceased representing Hafif after her solo show in 1981. Seven years passed before her next solo exhibitions at Julian Pretto in 1988 and 1989; and despite a solo show at P.S. 1 in 1990, only six modest gallery exhibitions have occurred in New York in the 25 years between then and today. In contrast, in Europe during the same 25 years, Hafif had over 70 solo exhibitions at galleries and museums. Stylistically, the 1980s and 1990s were tough years for artists working in New York with minimalist and conceptual practices as the Neo- Expressionist tsunami washed away almost all before it. Those artists who continued to have the opportunities to exhibit and remain in the visual consciousness of museum curators, art critics, and collectors were represented by stalwart dealers. Those whose representation lapsed or were not shown by the ‘right’ gallery suffered a reputational decline that in most cases had little or nothing to do with the veracity of the work that they made.
Hafif has written that, “It never occurred to me that I could not succeed in painting on the basis of being a woman… Painting was painting, as math was math.” In further retrospect she noted that, “there was a naiveté in this that served me well, it allowed me to proceed.” One must agree with Hafif’s assertion with respect to her day to day practice as an artist; however, she like so many other female artists has suffered a delay in proper recognition by critics, curators, and collectors. Arguably, Hafif’s overall reticence in discussing the feminine quality of her work has in fact delayed her reception more so than other women artists. It is also interesting to consider whether the neglect of the Italian Paintings and their absence from her Inventory was in fact a further impediment to the re-appraisal of her work since 1981. However, at different times in her life Hafif has explicitly addressed her sexuality, such as in the Rooms exhibition at P.S. 1 in 1976 and in Made in Space, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Venus over Manhattan in 2013.
A Lineage and Tentative Peer Group:
In dialing back the beginning of Hafif’s career from 1972 to 1961 (a relatively late beginner at the age of 31) a coherent peer group begins to emerge. Having been born in 1929, she fits generationally with Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923), Robert Irwin (b. 1928) Robert Ryman (b. 1930), and Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). This continuum of conceptually-minded and materially engaged abstractionists begins with Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and continues through Wladyslaw Strezeminski (1893-1952), Josef Albers (1888-1976) and onto Hafif and her peers. Her meticulous attention to pigment and the almost obsessive documentation of its nuances shows affinities with Albers. The systematic way she has approached and advanced her Inventory has a curious parallel with Richter’s Atlas. Like Richter, she chose to restrict her color palette at the beginning of the 1970s to paint gray monochromes. Hafif and Richter’s interests in the texture of paint also align both with Ryman while differentiating them from the flatness one finds in Kelly. Curiously, Richter too had a late introduction to galleries in New York, having had his first exhibition at Reinhard Onnasch Gallery only in 1973. He too suffered with the arrival of Neo- Expressionism, coming to the awareness of the greater American public only in the 1990s.
Ultimately, Marcia Hafif’s achievement exists in her own terms, and I encourage you to experience the work in the flesh. I am confident that you will come to share my respect and admiration for this singular artist as we work towards gaining her the recognition she deserves.