Judy Pfaff has been showing her work since the 1970s, but her spontaneous exploration of dimensions and materials continues to inspire younger artists to blur the distinctions between painting and sculpture. New York Times critic Roberta Smith has described her dense but uncluttered installations as “airy,” “exhilarating,” “elaborately impure, implicitly narrative environments.” Another Times critic, Benjamin Genocchio, has observed that “it is remarkable how all the elements seem to hang together and develop on one another. She seems somehow to get order and disorder working for her at the same time… a very contemporary quality, given our lives today.” She gained international prominence in the 1980s, a decade when her work garnered an enthusiastic following among those interested in the connection between “high” and “low” art.
Pfaff has a strong, kinetic connection to her work. “Sometimes students ask me – they want to be told – ‘How do you do this?’” she has said. “They do all the reading, but when they get their hands in it, they find out the stuff has a mind of its own. It’s like having children, I would imagine.” Similarly to the development of a child, Pfaff’s art grows in a way that is both unplanned and highly engineered. Upon entering an environment where she will be working, Pfaff seldom has an idea of what her completed installation will be like. Her resulting forms seem familiar, yet as a result of her process there is a freshness to her work.
Judy Pfaff was born in 1946 in London, England, and raised in Detroit. She received her BFA from Washington University in St. Louis. While completing her MFA from Yale in the early 1970s, she studied at the Yale University School of Art with artist Al Held, who was a mentor to her personally and artistically. Pfaff has mounted more than a hundred solo exhibitions and two hundred group exhibitions, and has received numerous grants, including a 1983 Guggenheim Fellowship in sculpture and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work is in collections in Germany and the United States nationwide, notably at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Pfaff represented the United States in the Venice Biennale in 1982. In 2004 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She lives and works in New York City.
- Rachel Lyon