Marcia Hafif (1929–2018) is highly regarded for her œuvre of monochromatic paintings, being associated with minimal and process art and the Radical Painting group. After graduating from Pomona college in 1951 she travelled to Italy and settled in Rome, living there for almost ten years, producing a cohesive body of work, titled as Italian paintings. In 1969 she returned to the United States and accomplished an MFA at UC Irvine in California, beginning to experiment with photography, video, film and sound. In 1971 she moved to New York—in a moment when painting seemed to be irrelevant as artistic medium—where she began to deal again with painting. In her essay “Beginning Again” she undertakes a deconstruction of the medium—accentuating her as vivisector of painting in a crucial moment of its history.
Her understanding of painting as a tactile, visual, retinal object; considering the factors of making a painting; acknowledging it as historical statement; and as a form of thought—transmitting philosophical experiences—reveals the conceptual aspect of her work. “The painter contributes/incorporates his body”, said Paul Valéry and Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote about a certain way of active seeing, which cannot be reduced to a thought process and can only be experienced in doing so. Both descriptions very much apply to Marcia Hafif as an artist—mentioning that the strokes of a brush stop “serving an intention”, whilst becoming “the intention itself.” Each brushstroke is not in a representational relation but becomes a necessity of an interaction between the painter and an experience.
Only a few exhibitions in recent time started to shift the focus from her painting to the remaining, mostly overlooked body of work. Screenings of her videos/films at the Tate Modern (2019) and Lenbachhaus Munich (2018), as well as A Place Apart a show at Pomona College Museum of Art (2018) highlight Marcia Hafif’s work as thinker, writer, maker and the more intimate aspect of her works on paper.
Since her moving to New York, drawing and writing have played an important role in her breakthrough as an artist in 1972, e.g. the Mass Tone Paintings, shown 1974 at Sonnabend Gallery; in 1976 she was part of the inaugural show Rooms of MoMA PS1 with her piece Schoolroom—consisting of a pornographic text written on the former school boards and a mural painting in shades referring to murals in Pompei. “I have always been a reader, a painter, a writer.”—proving her approach across different media and her refusal of a singular narrative.
Looking closer on her diverse œuvre crystallizes out the influence of place and time on her practice. Each media and practice bears relation to a specific environment. Roman paintings, TGGT paintings, the photographs of Pomona Houses, videos like Vienna Suite, architectural work like the Lusthus Wanås or the designs for the museum A Place Apart, etc. are all characterized by an indexicality of space and time. This thorough examination is also displayed in a very distinct conceptualization of the difference between repetition and series. Vienna Suite, a series of photographs taken in Vienna (exhibited at Galerie Hubert Winter in 1998) and a video made out of these photographs—set to the musique d’ameublement of Erik Satie—highlights especially what she mentions as cinematic way and shows her critical engagement in how we are used to see images and narratives.
At the core of Marcia Hafif’s artistic practice, across all the different media she has used, lies a particular constant: “[…] the isolation of an element from a context and its focusing in depth through a technique which provides the lucid perception of an experience. A visual experience though, which becomes by force of intensity and attention to all data of life, a trope of ‘conscience’.”This obviously implies a phenomenological quality of Hafif’s work, which is grounded in the importance of the incidental, the awareness of one’s situatedness, the experience of everyday life and its bridging with philosophical thought. Combined elements of Eastern philosophies, Husserl’s phenomenology and poststructuralist thought like deconstruction, her comprehensive knowledge of art history and her analytic eye, lay the foundation for her study and analysis of presence and temporality.
The totality of her work—spanning over a period of more than five decades and the implementation of a variety of media (painting, drawing, video, film, photography, architectural designs and writing)—has to be considered in its entirety to render the underlying conceptual approach of Marcia Hafif intelligible in order to broaden the reception of her work, which is still mainly focused on her monochromatic painting. This exhibition is the first posthumous one at the gallery in cooperation with the Estate.