Judy Pfaff is home after returning from Sweden two nights before. “I’m calling from Tivoli, N.Y., trying to get used to what time it is now,” she says brightly. If she’s tired, it’s not evident.
Pfaff doesn’t have a lot of time between engagements. She lectures part-time at Bard College where she’s been a professor of art since 1994. Last week, she taught a sold-out workshop at Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. Now, she and one of her assistants are busy preparing and packing crates for a show of sculptures and works on paper at Provincetown’s Gaa Gallery, opening Friday, Sept. 3.
At the vanguard of installation art since her first large-scale work in the mid 1970s, Pfaff’s work flew in the face of the cool minimalism of the times — an unbridled, full-throttle charge that engaged the senses and invigorated space. For Pfaff, more is more. Her work is characterized by an eyes-wide-open, constantly curious approach, finding new ways of seeing — fresh nooks and crannies relating to science, psychology, astronomy, or the body.
Melted plastic, twigs, steel wire, paper lanterns, and exhaust hoses all find their way into unpredictable, lively interactions. “I do love surprises,” says Pfaff. “That’s why I have to be the one installing it.”
It’s not enough to think of Pfaff as simply an installation artist, even if it’s what grabs the headlines. Her forays into painting and printmaking are not mere asides but fully realized components of her overall practice. The oil stick and encaustic works on vintage paper at Gaa are housed in hand-built silver-leaf frames. Full of polka dots, concentric circles, and lush surfaces, they are inviting, mandala-like forms that engage and amplify the sculptural work.
The wall sculptures at Gaa Gallery are about 70 percent ready-to-go. It’s the other 30 percent, happening during installation, that fully animates the work. Like all of Pfaff’s onsite work, these pieces are specific to the space — a continuation, Pfaff says, of work she showed at Gaa last year. “Those had a lot of lights in them, and this work will also have a lot of light,” she says. “They’re pretty optimistic, strangely. Whereas the ones last year were all red — more to do with the body, heart, and internal things — this is a reprieve from that.”
Where is that optimism coming from, after a year and a half of Covid? “I have no idea,” says Pfaff at first. Then, after a pause, she says, “My flowers look better because I can take care of them. I’m doing all the things I never had time for in real life.”
Much of Pfaff’s work is “full of politics, or about gender identity — whatever is going on.” Lately, however, “I watch far too much politics and news all day,” she says. “In the studio, I don’t really have to do that to myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, or that I’m not involved. It just means I give myself a break.”
For all the heavy lifting — the construction and componentry — there’s a buoyancy to Pfaff’s work, with the hand of the artist always evident. Though she has assistants, “I don’t know how to direct a lot of people,” says Pfaff, who seeks help only for the engineering and technical aspects. “I don’t sit in an office — it’s almost like being a monk. There’s something very privileged about being an artist. You can make your own way with it, so to give away that freedom doesn’t seem to follow the definition of being an artist.”
Pfaff has recently started using colored neon lights — glass tubes filled with gas. “It’s like Christmas,” she says. “You put the lightbulbs on a little tree, and it looks fantastic. It might be a cheap shot, but it works.
“It takes me a long time to understand and get loose with a new material,” she continues. “It offers so many problems initially, and you think, ‘How could I possibly use this material, which is belligerent, breaks, and blows up.’ ” She is eventually able to tame it, reveling in its potential to fall apart.
“Each show is a learning tool,” says Pfaff. “I’m soon to be 75, but I’ve only just come to terms with it. This show is so curiously Pollyanna-ish. I think a little more joy is a good antidote, a good medicine, for me.”
The event: A show of works by Judy Pfaff, alongside works by Mary Frank
The time: Friday, Sept. 3 through Oct. 31
The place: Gaa Gallery, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free