June 7, 2016

Marcia Hafif's Witty Minimalism

 Installation view of the exhibition "Marcia Hafif: The Italian Paintings, 1961-1969" 

This exhibition buoyed my spirits, even on a day of seeing several great shows. I loved the off-beat humor of these paintings, their play with associations of the body and organic geometry. Hafif takes a minimal format of two or three colors, and in many of the paintings just two shapes, and what emerges is an unexpected image.This series of works were completed when Marcia Hafif (b. 1929) was living in Rome, and they haven't been shown in the US before; lucky us that Fergus McCaffrey has mounted this lively show. 

128, September 1966; acrylic on canvas; 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in.

A strong central "figure" in violet is surrounded and pushed inward by a strong warm yellow, complementary colors which create an edgy tension. The two shapes argue with each other as to which is dominant, though in this painting, the purple seems to win.

161, October 1967; acrylic on canvas, 55 1/8 x 55 1/8 in.

 In the press release for the show, Hafif mentions that this painting of the hill shape is the most important to her of the series. She speaks of trying to equalize the figure/ground relationship:
In painting this shape, I used two competing colors, attempting to avoid figure on ground, to equalize the two spaces, but the hill remained dominant....I was placing a positive shape in order to create another positive shape by default, balancing the shapes and balancing the color so that no one prevailed.
The shape is a hill or a breast or a nose or....

157, October 1967; acrylic on canvas; 23 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.

I think that 157 is more successful in this figure/ground balance. Being around farms a lot, I keep seeing a cow's teats, but they are interlocked with the soft upward fingers. For me, this is a very amusing painting.

165, October 1967; acrylic on canvas; 23 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.
168, November 1967; acrylic on canvas, 55 1/8 x 55 1/8 in.

Here are two variations on a double dip curve, both very sexy and definitely flip-flopping in their dominant shapes.

72, March 1965; acrylic on canvas; 55 1/8 x 55 1/8 in.
73, March 1965; acrylic on canvas; 55 1/8 x 55 1/8 in.

These two paintings, of an earlier date than the ones above, have a more sedate organic geometry. They reminded me a bit of Paul Feeley's work. I especially like the push of forms in 73; they have strong presence against the shape created between them.

58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, (Mirror, Mirror I-VI), November 1964; acrylic on canvas; suite of 6, each 19 3/4 x 19 3/4 in.

This series uses a more pure geometry: of circles, partial circles, and rectangles. Pictorial tensions come from circles being squeezed between rectangles....all except the final painting, where the violet circle floats on the red ground, attached gently to its neighboring rectangle.

60 detail

Looking closely at the paintings, we can see the meticulous care with which they are made. One color is painted more thinly––in this case the violet–––while the red is painted more thickly. This results in subtly different textures for each color.

45 (Nearer), May 1964; acrylic on canvas, 66 7/8 x 78 3/4 in.

The idea for this painting is so simple––circles and bars––yet these elements move and shift spacially, making me wonder what I'm looking at.

15, March 1963; lacquer on canvas; 15 3/4 x 23 5/8 in.
13, February 1963; lacquer on canvas; 15 3/4 x 23 5/8 in.

Lastly, here are three paintings that I think of as "game board" paintings.....

22, April 1963; lacquer on canvas; 17 3/4 x 17 3/4 in.

.....with circles placed on a patterned surface. Over these few years in Rome Hafif created an impressive body of work, using a minimalist vocabulary while alluding to things in the world. Her later paintings, which you can see on her excellent website, are sensuously minimal and nearly monochromatic. I loved seeing these Italian paintings, a quirky prelude to the more austere work to follow.