Amstel Gallery at The Yard, Herald Sq.
Curated by Gregory de la Haba
By MARK BLOCH, Whitehot Magazine, Aug. 2016
Part 1: December 13, 2015-May 10, 2016
Part 2 May 10-2016- July 13, 2016
For the longest time, I have wondered about Judy Rifka’s art. I arrived on New York’s Lower East Side in 1982 and she was already going strong. I knew she showed briefly at Gracie Mansion and had received some deserved notoriety even then, still, I could never wrap my head around it. I know her from Facebook, where she moved from friend of friend to friend but every time I tried to “grok” her work, to use a phrase from that era (or before) she seemed to have shape-shifted (to use a phrase from this era) into something else. I was pleased when I heard late last year she had a show of both old and new work about to open at The Yard, a large office, work space and conference center, courtesy of Amstel Gallery. So when I entered the Yard at Herald Square over the last several months, I saw figures and other recognizable objects painted with Judy Rifka’s familiar lines, and I saw unrecognizable abstract shapes folding over themselves like metaphysical origami suggesting new relationships that she then depicted in little movies or in later works that flaunted completely new configurations of her previous ideas. She has painted on plywood or, I heard, had “pioneered” irregular armatures or, as I saw in some deliberate detective work, on canvas with no stretchers at all, even making fun of the stretcher “obsession” in the art world while squirting paint in between layers of canvas where no one will see it because a current interest is using paint as an adhesive as well as traditionally. So she sticks layers on top of strata that already hide more layers.
But those stretcher-less works of a year or so ago that I saw in her Gowanus studio were not present here. What I was seeing were current works, silver lines on black backgrounds and punctuated by clusters of colorful circular discs dancing into our future; then, in the second “half” of this extended show — the last few months — fewer of those and many more of her earlier work form the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The first half of the show featured mostly the new work with a mere hint of the old. Greg de la Haba chose wisely to take an even closer look back at her early career in Part Two after he closed Part One in which Rifka’s works shared the space with work by Jay Milder.
Rifka’s stand — now and before — has always been for a kind of pious but irreverent, live action cartoon geometry. She dances with it then pushes it away with All-American chutzpah, always making way for a next evolution which may already be in progress. For decades, Judy Rifka has been riding waves of an imagined world between art and science into her own subconscious and out onto the public petri dish that is the art world. It is easy to become drawn into the cross-fertilization. Ann Harmon has said “she builds up the surface, adding material to the canvas to create a third dimension.” While this has always been true, it is not always achieved in the same way. Rifka, talking about “how a pseudopod works,” offers, “you decide where you want to go, you go there, and then you build a body to go there. This becomes the form. So the space disappears, and a form, or a body, comes out of it.”
The functions of primitive organisms called pseudopodia include locomotion and the capturing of prey. They are critical in sensing prey that can then be engulfed, ingesting nutritious matter and turning into networks as they merge, extending and contracting themselves continuously. If it resembles “how evolution works” or some other intellectual subject, then it interests Rifka and she says so.
“Malevich, over one hundred years ago, tried to work his way through painting space,” she has said, and adds, referring to her own work, he “tried to understand that space. I found out later from someone in math that that it is a convex hull.”
Now while a hull is the water-resistant body of a boat, a convex hull in mathematics may be visualized as that shape, seen from above, that is created where the boat’s hull meets the water’s surface. In other words, a convex hull is simply an irregular shape and in Malevich’s case, it might have been an irregular shape as well as a “regular” shape such as his famous “square” that may or may not have been created, in his Constructivist pursuits, with mathematical precision. But it would appear that such precision was not what Malevich was going for nor is it what Rifka seeks. She has said about another artist and teacher who was influential to the generation before Judy’s in his teachings about shapes and colors pushing and pulling, “Hans Hofmann talked about this. However, there is no actual space in painting: that space always becomes an emotional connection.” So we move from motivation to space and back again.
Rifka studied dance for eight years in the 1970s (including a workshop that performed at the John Weber Gallery) about which she has said, “You make a body out of your intentions of where you want to go, and that is a physical connection.” So one could say the “emotional connection” to “physical” lines and shapes created by the act of painting and drawing, just as in dance, or any other physical action, is where an artist’s “intention” is manifested. “Intentionality becomes a body,” Rifka has said, “a body that designs itself. You don’t know what the shape will be in the end.”
Marcel Duchamp pointed out in his lecture “The Creative Act,” the manifestation may or may not be faithful to that intention, and the results are unimportant because all art will ultimately be judged half a century in the future regardless of what the artist intended. Still, the word “No,” underlined, interrupts a large area of negative space “painted with green blackboard paint, intended as a child’s blackboard with painted chalk marks,” she says about work of hers from 1978 or 79 that is one several dozen that populate the current show and it screams out for our appraisal. It represents but one of the many periods of the artist’s output but both the familiarity of the child’s blackboard and the defiance of the “No” are themes seen again and again in this show and representing a prolific output from the ‘70s to the present.
Judy Rifka was born in 1945 and grew up in Brooklyn, rural Connecticut, Long Island and finally NYC. Her family owned a house in East New York and a summer resort in Connecticut. She remembers drawing on her crib wall with her sister and spilling blue ink on a silk-covered chair and working out that painting the whole chair the color of the ink was a possible solution. She had an easel on the terrace, and painted out there in a little smock and has photos to prove it. “In kindergarten I did a beautiful drawing of the playground and a blonde girl named Chickadee raised her hand and said it was hers. I was embarrassed, so I did nothing when she took the drawing.”
Perhaps it was a combo of the idyllic terrace situation and seeking revenge for her own unexpected passivity that led to that early art heist that has given Rifka her edge: a love of art coupled with a drive that refuses to repeat itself while ebbing and flowing with recognizable themes and a knack for breaking rules.
Part of her education included Hunter for three years then hitchhiking through at least seven countries “to see all the major paintings in Europe” finally deciding to stay in London a while when she was through. There she met Donovan and Phil Ochs, two important singers of that era. Later Donovan came to perform in New York and she was invited to stay with him on East 39th Street where Nico and Paul Simon and other glamoratti were frequent visitors. But “when Donovan left, I returned to my apartment on East 11th Street, painting in the sunny front room.” That gives us an idea of both the public and private, the go-with-the-flow and self-possessed Judy who also attended Skowhegan School of Art in Maine and Empire State College and in the 1990s Rifka completed her BA and acquired an MA to assure her teaching status at Long Island’s Adelphi University.
But the learning that affected her most occurred when she came back to NYC from London and settled into the New York Studio School from 1966 to 68, setting the stage for a “total immersion in painting.”
“I’m not an especially social person, but I seem to always end up in the middle of what’s going on culturally, she has revealed. So after refusing to “sit in a chair at Hunter,” she studied with founder of the Studio School, the Spaniard Esteban Vicente, and with another founder Mercedes Matter, a woman who had also been part of the American Abstract Artists and whose mother was a model for Edward Steichen and whose father photographed Giacometti and studied with Matisse. Other NYSS teachers Rifka had were George Spaventa, whose ideas for his sculptures came to him in dreams and finally Milton Resnick, the poet and painter of abstracts so thick with paint that some of them weighed over two hundred pounds. Rifka put into practice all of that and everything else she learned about abstract painting.
Meanwhile writer Andrea Scrima once described an audience, most of whom were women, at “A.I.R., the first artist-run gallery for women on Crosby Street, at the time. A panel was in progress “on feminist art; while people were quarrelling over David Salle… Judy Rifka said she never even realized she was making political art until someone pointed out that the subject matter was a female… in a triumphant pose.”
“I learned to understand paradigm-shifting,” she has said, explaining both a single painting as well as her long career of leaps from one visual breakthrough to the next. “You don’t just sit there and follow in everyone’s footsteps.” Rifka recently told Jennifer Samet. “You have to paint your way through it,” adding, “that takes time.” Judy Rifka's career spans over 50 one-person shows and many notable accomplishments including group shows and an impressive list of international museum collections.
In a multi-part 1974 composition “Untitled (six pieces)” in enamel on wove index card paper, now part of the collection of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, Rifka arranged identical independent paintings, each 5 x 8 inches, to form a larger continuous image. The artist added a personal touch to the artwork, installing it herself on the back of the Vogels’ front door. Then in 2008–09, her work was placed in over a dozen museums through the “Herb and Dorothy Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States Gift” with the assistance of the National Gallery of Art and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Rifka has been a favorite of saavy collectors since before she was scooped up for a decade-plus by a gallery and then returned to free agency in the 1990s. “Paul Najar brought me to Paris in the 70’s to work for a month and show. He bought an entire series following the plywoods.” This September Rifka will be featured in a major retrospective of that period where at the Jean Paul Najar Foundation in Dubai under the aegis of Najar’s daughter, Deborah Najar-Jossa, who continues the legacy of the foundation. Rifka will be continuing with the legacy of her “plywoods” with a new related installation Rifka will design. “We are thinking of calling it Retro Active or close to that, as the work shown is a continuance and development on the pieces from earlier." At the Part Two opening at The Yard, a movie by Rifka of the plywood pieces spun her past right into her future and this Dubai show. “Back and forth from color to tonal mesh scale breakdown to morphing shape and back,” she told me.
Judy Rifka has been at this a long time. She was in the 1975 Whitney Biennial. She is associated with the Lower East Side arts scene of the late 1970s and 1980s – No Wave cinema and music, and the downtown culture that brought the spirit of the East Village to the legendary “Times Square Show” of 1980. Rifka also was in Documenta 7, Kassel, Germany, in 1982 and again at a Whitney Biennial in 1983.
She was an early member of Colab, the artists collective founded in 1977 and about which a book has just been published, “A Book About Colab (and Related Activities),” edited by Max Schumann of Printed Matter where a discussion of Colab was recently held.
“I did not go to a lot of meetings but I had experiences with Colab members, working with them, participating in various shows” from her loft on White Street, Rifka said. “In the late 70s Walter Robinson and Edit de Ak had a artist magazine called ‘Art Rite.’ Because my children were small and it was hard for me to get around town, I decided to do 2000 individual issues by hand at home we had the size paper printed up with the Art Rite logo” and so while her friend Tom Otterness played with her baby, Rifka “went to work. The subject matter was mostly about really about the Zeitgeist of art in the New wave post modern post-minimal world in transition.”
To create what become Issue 21 of Art Rite, Rifka used “qwips” which were the very first experimental fax machines for typestting on a drum like old records and manufactured by Exxon. A rough copy of the original manuscript was received as late as 20 minutes later. “Alan Moore recommended I be involved with the qwips,” Rifka said in a recent talk at Printed Matter. "That was a real game changer for me.”
“It was a Colab project, they lent the qwips to us. I worked back and forth with lots of Colab members I loved it. That and the Art Rite Mag gave me a very good start in working collaboratively and in active communication, back and forth with other artists, art that was in constant communication with people . I'd be doing these collages and writing and sending things back and forth. It plays on with me now... in terms of my art... constant communication... that was the beginning of that with me...”
Indeed, Rifka from the start, “thought of Facebook as an arts platform,” she said in a recent Huffington Post article called “Facebook as an Artistic Platform: An Interview With Judy Rifka” by James Scarborough. Her explorations with Colab “solved the problem of having work sequestered in my studio.” She has been hailed as a master of social media as hybrid between online gallery and promotional strategy.
She explains that “Facebook came to life for me in a 2008 thread… It was a quiet summer holiday, and we bantered for two days. By the time the thread ended, I started actively pursuing the forum.” Rifka, well known for her posting of art on Facebook and other social media platforms, has said she thinks of other people’s comments “as a form of Greek Chorus… the chorus chimes in. They agree. They disagree. They interpret, they give insights.”
Rifka read Clay Shirky’s 2008 book, “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” and concluded that social interaction was the wave of the future. “People have it so wrong when they talk about interactivity in museum shows with touch screens. That is not interactivity,” she asserts. Always one to see the bigger picture, Rifka links her Constructivist-influenced “convex hulls” of the late 70s with what she is doing today. “Malevich talked about hyperspace,” she said, linking it to “something like the Internet. And the fourth dimension.”
Her friend René Ricard came to prominence in The Paris Review and ArtForum magazine where his most oft-cited article during this time, “The Radiant Child,” in the December 1981 ArtForum, though more about Judy Rifka than Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, is remembered for being the first time Basquiat was critically mentioned in ArtForum whose career Ricard was later credited for helping to launch — as well as Haring, Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente.
“Ricard was both a commenter on and participant in some of the most seminal artistic moments of New York City's vibrant scene,” said the curator of the Rifka show, Greg de la Haba. In citing Ricard’s praise of Rifka he asked, "Is innovation important?… The trick is to make it appear that the innovator ripped it off from you. A good example of this principle is the case of Judy Rifka's work at the debut of the '70s. Her single shapes on plywood are among the most important paintings of the decade. Every painter who saw them at the time recognized their influence.... At the first group show at the Mudd Club I was arrested by a gray painting with a little red blob in it and some drawing on it of Patti Astor,” Ricard continued, “obviously the work of an extremely sophisticated handler of paint.”
“Although I'd never seen a Judy Rifka of this type the outline of the red left me in no doubt as to its author... I saw I was right. Hers is the poetry of New York.” This praise by the widely respected Ricard, who died in 2014, cemented an already growing reputation. In the 1980s and ‘90s, she went on to be represented by Brooke Alexander Gallery in New York, having solo shows every year from 1982 to 1989 and again in 1991. Today her work is also in the collections of oil companies, banking and insurance institutions, retailers and publishers.
“Ron Gorchov was the first to do shaped canvases.” Rifka said of the artist whose double images on surfaces shaped liked tv screens-started in 1967. Rifka adopted three-dimensional stretchers in exhibitions as early as 1982 and were featured on the cover of Art in America in 1984 for her series, "Architecture”. “Mine were next, and then Elizabeth Murray did them abstractly.” She said, giving credit where it was due. As late as 1985 Rifka and Murray were one of 15 female artists cited by Harper’s Bazaar magazine as American women who, in what was big news then, “received recognition in the art world.”
A few varied series of “grey paintings” that hang in a row were done in the 1978-80 period, appearing to be collages but are only press type letters and then lots of acrylic systematically applied in layers creating shapes invoking fans, stencils, masks and puzzle pieces, depending on the series. Rifka calls those “trying to animate moving geometric shapes with color of human emotion.” Shapes are rendered with a sense of humor at a time when “art, and music, and night life encapsulated a changing of the guard from pure formalism”. In a video piece from that same era, the 1980 collaboration “Slap Pals” was played on video screens in New York City clubs such as Danceteria and the Mudd Club and then featured in a show of visionary video work at The New Museum. “Bruce Tovsky and Robert Raposo composed the music. Julius Koslowski and I threw down acetates onto a TV Screen, and shot animation in Super 8."
It makes sense that an artist who works in layers and movement, as well as time, would experiment in video. She provides images to animators. She animates them herself and works with musicians. In fact, Rifka is as good with moving images as she is with paint. In fact, the colored forms from the early plywood paintings turned into a video were projected on a giant screen at the opening, bringing the 70’s and her current work full together as the shapes and the viewer seemed to spin on multiple axes.
"Gosh I like these,” Rifka told me about her linen on linen collages. “These are ‘animal spirits’, a title I made up from watching turtles closely, and feeling their interaction in nature and their fleeting lives in relation to us. The body portion is one piece built from an accretion of smaller parts, and traced and cut as one. There are several other pieces you have noticed, mostly the letter pictograms using this method.” These works were made at the Fabric Workshop, the Philadelphia museum founded in 1977 to provide studio facilities, equipment, and expert technicians for experimentation and innovation with fabric and other materials and media.
In 1984, Rifka took a foray from unusually shaped canvases to experiments with materials. An oil on linen work featured cut painted pieces, also of linen, pressed into the paint creating thick versions of her signature lines moving laterally across the picture plane from top to bottom.
Then, also in 1984, wanting to see paint, like light, “reflected back off the surface” Rifka pushed a screen mesh into oil paint mixed with a wax and resin medium so that the oozing paint formed little goopy building block vectors of mostly white pigment. They do, indeed, look like they are “bouncing” toward the viewer from the canvas. “I have chosen a subject where the light would be noticeably reflected to the point of blinding,” she said. Rifka’s earlier Malevich explorations thus moved into the area of “a material translation of light.” Following further experimentation with tree bark seen here, we sail into the late 80s with a series called “History of Sculpture.” Rifka calls that “my pictorial reading of a book on that subject.” The images are like stencils made from fragments of positive and negative letters. She also explains that “cutouts of Greek broken sculpture fragments” were thrown in. The works look like collages but are actually acrylic paint applied in layers, including the Greek fragments. Through the flatness, pieces of letters appear, creating visual poetry. Rifka is still fond of the “suggested cacophony of scrabble anagrams and pictograms.”
John Haber wrote about this show, “Rifka insists on layering and motion as a constant in work of more than forty years. It is consistently slippery, between two and three dimensions, subject matter and composition, image and object.” Rifka continues to dwell in a land that is all art but her inter-dimensional explorations bordering on science and cryptography create intriguing ambiguities. She once titled an image “Epiphysis cerebri,” the name given to the pineal gland, the part of the brain that Descartes held to be the “seat of the soul,” which provided “an important clue” according to one of the many writers who have written about Rifka and in this case attempting to understand one of the many daily postings she shared on Facebook. She amasses ‘likes’ and comments by the dozen while contemplating new left brained layers to the perceptions of her right brained output. These days it is almost possible to forget that social media has anything to do with technology or science at all but that fact gets more visible reminders from Rifka’s comet-like return to scientific metaphors for her creations on a daily basis. Referring to one of her more recent paintings at the Yard, Rifka mentions the lines and shapes in “Distance Of Sun To Earth, Size Of Moon” by Leonardo da Vinci, one well-known image from the 13,000 pages of notes and drawings that survived him, merging art and natural philosophy and leading to the modern conception of science we all, except a few climate-change-deny-ers, dwell in today. But as any naysayer would gladly remind you, when not busy with fuzzy thinking, while Leonardo’s drawing is beautiful, he conceived of an Earth fixed in position with our moon and our sun revolving around it. Leonardo may have invented the parachute, the helicopter and the tank but his limitations charm us in spite of inaccuracies. Pierre Étienne Bézier was a French engineer at Renault who lived from one end of the 20th century to the other, dying in November of 1999, revolutionizing manufacturing and design with math and computing tools. His Bézier curves and surfaces are now used in most 3D computer modeling systems. Judy Rifka’s current body of work subconsciously recreates these curves and surfaces in traces of handmade visual sentences filtering Leonardo-influenced lines through a digital mind that thinks largely in 0s and 1s but is not of the belief that an occasional half step is out of line. At the Yard in Herald Square yet another new world of shapes and lines and color was situated strategically among works from her career in the 1970s and the 1980s to create a dazzling retrospective that points forward while looking back at the early stages of evolution of an adeptness with painting. Building imaginative surfaces that support experimental laboratories for interferences in sensuous pigment is what she does best. As Judy heads to Dubai for a show of new work this Fall that directly has evolved out of her past and combined it with her present as a result of this show at the Yard, I think I finally have a grip on what she is up to. WM