+ Judy Pfaff
Suzanne McClelland, NiceNiceNice, 2010, polymer and oil on board, 24 x 18 in. Courtesy of Sue Scott Gallery.
Judy Pfaff, Underbelly, 2010, various papers, honeycomb, cardboard, lanterns, artificial flowers, gourds, 8 x 8 x 12 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery.
Q+A: Suzanne McClelland
How has the artist you chose influenced or inspired you? What does feminism mean to you? Does it influence your practice or the way you position your work? Some public figures have said we live in a post-gender condition, would you agree?
The "F" word seems to scare so many people these days, even some women. Reagan was successful…he and Nancy squashed a lot of voices in 1980. I have been shaped by the many facets of activism that I witnessed close up, while growing up in the '70s. Anti war protests, unions, the SDS, Weathermen, Black Panthers and many factions when civil rights and feminism were in conversation. It was not about unity. They all spoke to each other, and heard each other some of the time…and sometimes it was just "parallel play." I perceived this as language embodied in action or speech functioning as action. The single most important thing I absorbed was that individuals who hold power always make choices—to be responsive and to let people in the front door—or not. Silence is a position that works well for the privileged in our culture. It is powerful and can often offer open space but it can also be calculating and look like a steel door. My mentors have been soft-spoken and verbally engaged people, people who act and have created a position for themselves by refusing to block movement or to disappear.
My mother worked with the local NOW offices in our western Pennsylvania town where the Catholic Church blocked Planned Parenthood from having any public presence. She also was elected to the all-male public school board in our rural Michigan town. Voters had chosen to cut school buses, art, music and all sports for girls, yet they found the money to light those football fields at night! The philosophy of many of the voters in these manufacturing towns—women and men who preferred funding boys sports over arts and sports for all genders—was the following: "I didn't get this stuff, so why should these kids have it." My mother didn't wait—she spoke up and helped change things with a sense of adventure, humor, optimism and hard work.
So later, as an artist new to NYC, in the years that Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holtzer, Lady Pink, Basquiat and Schnabel (and a resurrected Cy Twombly) were part of the public discourse, I looked and found two people who were not afraid to hear a woman's voice come out of a woman's body. Judy Pfaff was my teacher and an early influence. She is still an artist who lives and breathes art. I saw her installation at Holly Solomon Gallery in 1983 and discovered, in that room, that the art I connect with is materially adventurous and fundamentally conceptual, which to my mind meant it contained a series of conscious and semiconscious decisions…consciously abandoned for viewers to enter. Judy responds to visual history with a distance and yet is deeply inside of her work. She is inclusive and observant of the ideas and materials that are potentially useful for making things. She looks and she listens to the world and is never afraid to build something that is bigger than her own body and mind expanding. She includes students in her studio life in ways that are inspiring.
Judy knew Elizabeth Murray, who I met in 1992 while making prints at ULAE in West Islip. The fact that they were friends and colleagues was very important to me. I grew to know Elizabeth from inside this printshop where our work was being made. Dissecting processes and sharing the same master printers alongside someone like Elizabeth was a life changing experience. She generously invited me into her world, so that our children became close friends and we spent time together upstate. We traveled together to see Sarah Charlsworth's museum exhibition in D.C. and Laurie Simmons' museum show in Baltimore. We shared the top floor of a building on 15th Street where her woodshop was set up next door to her painting studio. I saw how her drawings became wood constructions and then how color could actually optically dissolve those powerful physical forms.
Both Judy and Elizabeth are light in spirit but tough in the studio and they were tough in mine. From both of these artists I learned, in different ways, how to live and make art in this world of women, men and children who are often inclined to place faith in male voices, first. It was educational to see Judy and Elizabeth manage the absurdity of life. They both knew how to belly laugh and how to allow snubs, exclusions and erasures fly by them. They helped me understand how much artists really do need each other to stay sane.