Judy Pfaff ‘Roots Up’



Set in a 13th Century barn, the 140-foot long sculptural installation is an ode to the creative strength of a landscape that inspired Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral and the ancient dwellings of England. Made of wood, chalk, stones, root balls from 300 year-old Sycamore trees and found modern materials it is a celebration of the creative vitality of this area of Wiltshire best known as the Cranbourne Chase.

Judy Pfaff, now 71, is a pioneering American installation artist who describes her work as ‘painting in space’. Pfaff was awarded the MacArthur fellowship – one of the most prestigious accolades for art in the US – her work is a response to the locations they inhabit and combines sculpting, painting and printmaking to make immersive installations.

The exhibition, which also features paintings and drawings, is the first Pfaff has held in the UK.

It comes in a career that has seen Pfaff rise from being a teaching assistant in the Design Department of Yale University to holding over 100 solo exhibitions and installations in galleries and museums worldwide, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Albright Knox Art Gallery Buffalo and the Guggenheim. Group exhibitions include those with Eva Hesse and the rising stars of New York in the 1970s and 1980’s.

When the trend toward minimalism dominated the New York art world of the1970s, Pfaff began making huge, visually vibrating installations that inhabit and transform their environments. Never limiting herself to a single medium, she incorporates a range of everyday and industrial materials including Plexiglas, foam, steel, photographic prints, melted plastic, tree stumps, and colored lights. “We live in an unsettled, unstable world,” Pfaff has said. “It is raucous and staccato […]. An installation, with its total openness, allows me to plunge into that spacey void and edit the chaos into a dramatic and sensual environment.”

Having spent her childhood exploring rubble piles in post-war England, she has reflected also that, “because there was no home that was secure, probably I made up and made all these things that were my kind of home… I thought they were beautiful places to go.”

Beyond the domestic space of the self-made home, there is consensus amidst Pfaff’s work that a wider spiritual space is possible, simultaneously and without contradiction referencing the austerity of a cathedral and the temporality of a mandala. Like a mandala, the life of Pfaff’s work is brief and burning, deconstructed and sections discarded after a show comes down. Each installation considers the specific spatial geometries of the room, the ceiling, the street out the window, so that no two shows are ever alike.

In 2015, Messums Wiltshire invited Judy to show in the 13th century monastic barn recently restored into a multi- disciplinary contemporary arts centre. After visiting Messums Wiltshire in the autumn of 2015 and again in late winter 2017, Judy was struck by the spirit of the land and the immensity of the barn and its thatched roof. She returned to the US with hundreds of pictures of the barn, Salisbury Cathedral and the surrounding landscape from which to begin working.

Located 15 miles from Stonehenge, archaeologists continue to discover prehistoric sites of worship in the area surrounding Tisbury where Messums Wiltshire is based. The chance to respond to such a spiritually fertile area has inspired Pfaff to make a work as audacious in scale as it is in concept. Having never shown in England, the exhibition is a homecoming to both the literal land of England and the cultural heritage and ancestry it embodies.

Pfaff enters each exhibition space not knowing exactly what will happen. Although site-specific, Pfaff’s installations grow organically within their spaces as she accumulates, subtracts, and refines their elements. As with all of her installations, Pfaff has been preparing for the exhibition for months in her Tivoli studio in upstate New York. Tools, materials, and installation components board a freight-shipping container on July 17th to cross the Atlantic to Tisbury, where Pfaff and her crew joined them in early August. On site, she will gather local materials and helpers to synthesise and re-envision the sketches she made in a warehouse on her studio property one-third the size of the Messums barn. From Tivoli to Tisbury, the show will have spanned two years and some 3,500 miles before it opens to the public on September 23rd.

Judy Pfaff was born in London in 1946 and raised in Detroit. She received a Master of Fine Art from Yale University in 1973 where she studied under the painter, Al Held. A pioneer of installation art in the 1970s, Pfaff synthesises sculpture, painting, and architecture into environments in which space seems to expand and collapse; fluctuating between two and three dimensions. She exhibited work in the Whitney Biennials of 1975, 1981 and 1987 and represented the United States in the 1998 Sao Paulo Bienal. Her pieces are in the permanent collections of MOMA, Whitney Museum of Art, Tate Gallery, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Detroit Institute of Arts. She is the recipient of many awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center (2014), the MacArthur Foundation Award (2004), and the Guggenheim Fellowship (1983). Pfaff lives and works in Tivoli, New York.


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