Installation view of Marcia Hafif’s An Extended Gray Scale at Unlimited, Art Basel, Fergus McCaffrey, 2015

On Wednesday, May 20, 2020, Alanna Heiss and Jarl Mohn participated in a virtual Live Q&A on Marcia Hafif’s An Extended Gray Scale (1972-73), hosted by Fergus McCaffrey and Allyson Spellacy. With grateful thanks to our panelists and those who tuned in, we now provide the answers to any questions left unanswered. 

Q. What was Marcia’s approach to making each Gray Scale painting?  Was it a mathematically evolving recipe of black and white, or more intuitive?

A. For Marcia’s An Extended Gray Scale, she began with a white canvas and ended with a black one, intuitively marking the barely perceptible shifts in tone in-between over a ten month period in 1972 and 1973. Upon moving to New York, she began thinking about what else she could examine beyond the palette that an artist might use. She determined to make this work and decided to create as many paintings as she could perceive the difference between and she didn’t know how many it would be. She declared the work complete after 106 panels.

Q. In reference to Marcia’s Schoolroom, how many times was this wall text work shown and where can I read it?

A. Marcia’s provocative wall text works, Schoolroom, have been shown four times: twice at MoMA PS1 (click here to view the 1976 version, and here to view her updated 2016 iteration – both install images were featured in this talk), and in 2013 at the Made in Space show curated by Peter Harkawik and Laura Owens for Night Gallery, Los Angeles, which traveled to Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, an image can be found on the artist’s website here. 

Q. When I had the opportunity to visit Marcia’s home and studio in 2014 or 2015, I was struck by the many photographs she had perfectly organized in binders. I’d like to know your thoughts on Marcia’s photography practice and its relationship to her paintings as well as to similar works by artists like Ed Ruscha whose Los Angeles Apartments series is well known.

A. Marcia took many photographs in series, taking care to label and archive them. She tells a thoughtful story to Micheal Ned Holte in the catalogue, Marcia Hafif: The Inventory, where she describes showing the Pomona Houses photographs to Ivan Karp, in the hope that she might be seen in a similar light to Hilla and Bernd Becher who were then exhibiting at Sonnabend Gallery. Karp independently made the prints into a book when Marcia was away for the summer. She says: “I can’t really take credit for it. People think it was influenced by Ed Ruscha, but I didn’t even make the book myself. I made the photographs.” Subsequently Sonnabend visited Marcia’s studio and started to represent her paintings.

Holte: So you got to exhibit as a painter because you had made photographs of houses in Pomona. 

Hafif: Right. That’s how I got to paint.

Fergus McCaffrey is currently showing a vintage group of prints from 1999 in our current show MERCER STREET: Marcia Hafif, Joan Jonas, Shigeko Kubota, Jackie Winsor. Click here to learn more. 

Q. Where have her films been screened? Are there any plans for upcoming screenings?

A. A selection of Marcia’s films were most recently presented at Tate Modern, London, co-curated by Sebastian Schneider and Tate Film, in November 2019. Her films were part of programming during the Pomona College Museum of Art in 2018, and she had a comprehensive exhibition of films alone at Lenbachhaus in 2018. This weekend, May 23rd through May 24th, 2020, Fergus McCaffrey will screen a series of never-before-seen shorts on our FM Forward. Click here to watch

Q. Could you speak more to Marcia’s practice? Did she work on a number of projects simultaneously? Can you elaborate on how her experimentation with different media maybe connected to or impacted her painting practice?

A. Marcia typically worked on a series at approximately two year intervals and the way she came to a new series was quite idiosyncratic. She embraced everyday events that would become a part of her work that often had little to do with painting – walking in the park, people watching, viewing swans on the lake – all of which she would then write about, becoming series of small stories. These experiences would then inform her painting practice. As Gregory Volk once wrote in Hyperallergic: “While nothing is representational in Marcia’s paintings, they still evoke things in the world: the way wind sweeps across a sandy beach, the facades of buildings, the color of the sky or of the earth in a certain slant of light.”

Q. Is there a reason why people ignore her Italian series? When was the first time it was shown in the U.S.?

A. Marcia’s time in Rome meant that her work did not register in the evolution of West coast minimalism, post-minimalism, or conceptualism during the 1960s (work with which it shares an affinity). Upon returning to California in order to undertake an MFA in 1969, she abandoned these works to begin anew, physically and conceptually leaving this body of paintings behind. Her Italian Paintings remained in storage until Christian Bernard, the Director of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva (MAMCO) took them under his care, exhibiting them in 2001. In May of 2016, the gallery presented this series for the first time in the United States and these works represent a large and critical omission from the history of American art of the period.

Q. She was in Italy during the time of Arte Povera, did she intersect with these artists physically or conceptually?

A. She did! In the early and mid-1960s, Marcia lived in the Piazza del Popolo, which was the center of the Roman arts community. She learned Italian and immersed herself in the culture. She met Umberto Eco and David Smith at Bar Rosati and lived across the street from the artist Carla Accardi and the two became close friends even exhibiting together. She showed at Galleria La Salita alongside various artists from Manzoni to Christo. She met Luciano Fabro, Giulio Paolini, and other Pop and Conceptual artists eventually important to Arte Povera. In 1969, she decided to return to California desiring to work in the context of her own country.