Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart
Marcia Hafif is renowned as a painter of experimental canvases that suggest both minimalism and process art. For over six decades, Hafif (1929-2018) created a vast amount of art within which she questioned subjects from the history of painting practices to museum architecture, from constellations to tables and boxes.
I find a subject that interests me, inspiring a desire to know more, then find a way to do that using drawing, photography, painting, or sculpture. The subject can be anything from designing a museum to the writing of foreign calligraphy, from naming weeds to making ice in the desert using cold night winds. Or grinding dry pigments into oil making paint and preparing a traditional canvas support. For me they are all experiments for the purpose of seeing more closely. What does that color of red look like alone?
In 1947 Hafif enrolled at Pomona College as a creative writing major while taking painting and art history classes. Then, as a junior, she shifted her major to studio art. Her expanded practice encompassed painting, drawing, photography, and writing. In the exhibition “Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart,” the Pomona College Museum of Art places her paintings within a context of sketches, architectural models, photographs, and text, bringing together works that investigate lived spaces, drawing forms, and site-specificity.
“A Place Apart” includes over 100 artworks, many never exhibited before, and is the first to highlight the more personal and intimate side of Hafif’s drawing practice. Works in the exhibition focus on how naming can lead to concrete acts of drawing and building. The exhibition presents sketches, photographs, plans, models, and artifacts from realized projects such as the Lusthus Wanas in Sweden and Hafif’s mill house in upstate New York; a wide variety of drawing portfolios and sculptures focused on imaginary projects such as The Hut Has No Walls and A Place Apart; and several paintings titled after specific sites: Roman Colors and Pacific Ocean Paintings. Another section of the exhibition includes drawing groups of common forms such as grids, maps, and constellations inspired by the artist’s interest in her surroundings and a new site-specific wall writing piece, Cooking Fish. The exhibition frames how Hafif’s works, while shifting temporally and physically, retain a focus on the world around her—a signature of her practice.
“Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart” represents a close partnership with the artist. Each element was collaboratively conceived before her untimely passing in April 2018. The exhibition and accompanying publication honor her voice and vision and are dedicated to her memory.
The exhibition is curated by Rebecca McGrew and Nidhi Gandhi and is accompanied by a publication designed by Kimberly Varella of Content Object. Contents include an introduction by McGrew, a new scholarly essay by Gandhi, writing by Hafif, and new photographs of the works by Fredrik Nilsen.
Marcia Hafif: Drawing Places Apart
Five unique buildings—first imagined in a series of gold and rusty orange watercolor and graphite drawings, then transformed into small wooden sculptures—constitute Marcia Hafif’s A Place Apart museum (1997). A companion text, neatly typed, outlines her vision for this museum:
Purpose: A quiet place apart from everyday life in which to contemplate certain installations of painting or sculpture. The place has only this purpose—no more.
The idea of A Place Apart—a museum imagined “in an isolated space, perhaps within a forest, there would be five buildings each illuminated by the sky and with no side windows…there would be no café, no book store, no docents"—embraces the expansive potential of Marcia Hafif’s work over six decades, and here, the concept of the exhibition at Pomona College. “Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart” is the first survey exhibition that examines Hafif’s work apart from painting and highlights the more personal and intimate side of her drawing praxis. Art historian Jane McFadden argues that Hafif’s proposal for the A Place Apart museum suggests “a further reading of her works themselves as a place apart—one that [focuses on] specificity and difference, time lived in the present, with no distractions." The exhibition at Pomona College—and this book’s title—evokes Hafif the artist as maker, thinker, and writer, and was conceived as an exploration of Hafif’s lesser-known oeuvre over geography and time.
“Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart” examines Hafif’s work in a wide range of media as well as the paintings she is most well-known for—experimental canvases that suggest both minimalism and process art. After graduating from Pomona College in 1951, Hafif settled first in Claremont, then in Rome in 1961, where she remained for almost eight years creating abstract paintings. She returned to California in 1969 to start graduate school and completed an MFA degree at the University of California at Irvine, where she experimented with film, photography, and sound installation and studied with fellow Pomona College alumni Chris Burden (’69) and Barbara T. Smith (’53). In 1971, Hafif moved to New York to attempt a return to painting, and made her breakthrough pencil on paper drawings in early 1972. In 1978, Artforum published an essay by Hafif, “Beginning Again,” that reflected her thoughts on the then current state of painting.
In New York in the heady 1970s, Hafif painted, studied art, taught studio art, and wrote. In her influential Artforum article, she wrote about the history of art, but also closely considered her peers who worked with paint and reevaluated painting including Robert Ryman, Dale Henry, and Ralph Humphrey, among others. About her own work, she notes that she “examined the pigments used in making paint, as well as formats, media and mixes, and…used those separately in making paintings in order to make visible the qualities and attributes of a specific pigment color in a specific medium and format." Near the end of the article, Hafif sums up the changes and challenges involved in working in painting that was both demonstrative and conceptual. Painting became: “a thing to be examined…color became opaque, seen for itself rather than being used to create an illusion or to express. Line was used for itself rather than to delineate shape or form. Personal touch was readmitted as the sign of the brush and the artist’s hand was again visible. These are the elements of painting." Most recently, Hafif said she “was just looking to see what that color looked like."
In “Beginning Again,” Hafif discusses how she and the artists she writes about began “an inventory—the cataloguing, the examination of painting." Her website, while a work-in-progress, comprehensively documents her work in two categories, The Inventory: Painting and The Inventory: 3D. This exhibition consists of work gathered under the umbrella of The Inventory: Drawings (yet to be published on her website). Hafif states: “The Inventory is a listing by series of works in the approximate order they appeared. One series followed another at approximately two-year intervals, in idiosyncratic order, building my project of examining the methods and materials of Western Painting in the form of works of art."
Hafif’s expanded practice now encompasses painting, drawing, photography, and writing. Her interest in how things work underlies the entirety of her oeuvre, from “how cheese or the joinery in a Japanese building is made, or how to play the piano, read a map, follow a recipe. Learn to read notes and make music, or even learn to read and you find the whole world open to you." She has created a vast amount of art within which she questions subjects from the history of painting practices to museum architecture, from constellations to tables and boxes.
A subject interests me, inspiring a desire to know more, then find a way to do that using drawing, photography, painting, or sculpture. The subject can be anything from designing a museum to the writing of foreign calligraphy, from naming weeds to making ice in the desert using cold night winds. Or grinding dry pigments into oil making paint and preparing a traditional canvas support. For me they are all experiments for the purpose of seeing more closely. What does that color of red look like alone?
Hafif’s study of painting and the history of painting echoes her interest in, and facility with, writing and other text-based explorations. In 1947 Hafif enrolled at Pomona College as a creative writing major while taking painting and art history classes. As a junior, she shifted her major to studio art, but never abandoned writing. It is unsurprising to learn of the rich extent of Hafif’s writing in daily journals. Hafif, now almost 90, is rereading these journals, and “thinking about who I am. I have always, from childhood, been a reader, a painter, a writer. I have kept diaries since the age of about 10, I have notebooks from 1953 to present." Hafif writes in her notebooks because she wants “to remember time, places and people, but also as a way of inventing. I write there about people, about things I do, they do, and about what I want to do and make drawings related to what I want to do." Recently, in preparation for this exhibition, a collection of her “black notebooks” were shipped from her studio in New York to her current home in Laguna Beach, California. An excerpt, “The Blue Diary” from Hafif’s unpublished literary memoir, The Book of Tea, conveys the substance and style of Hafif’s nearly ekphrastic prose, bridging philosophical questions at the heart of her artwork with everyday domestic concerns. She employs poetic fragments, stream-of-consciousness, descriptive diaristic notations on her daily activities, and lengthy observations of weather, clouds, colors, plants, and food, among other items. Hafif’s narrative autobiography, “Places and Houses,” also frames the themes of this exhibition. These potent texts, in their precisely observant quality, convey how Hafif’s intensely self-aware writing echoes her thought processes in her visual artwork.
This insistent temporal and spatial specificity and close looking is most apparent in her work apart from painting. The exhibition “A Place Apart” places several of her paintings within a context of texts, sketches, architectural models, and photographs, bringing together works that investigate lived spaces, drawing forms, and site-specificity. By examining Hafif’s lesser-known drawings alongside her painting, the range of innovative experiments in art-making that Hafif has explored for six decades becomes profoundly clear.
Works in both this book and in the “A Place Apart” exhibition focus on how naming can lead to concrete acts of drawing and building. Two loose themes emerge to frame and understand the breadth of Hafif’s explorations—site-specificity and a focus on intimate examination of one’s surroundings. Sketches, photographs, plans, models, and artifacts from realized projects such as the Lusthus Wanas in Sweden and Hafif’s mill house in upstate New York; a wide variety of drawing portfolios and sculptures focused on imaginary projects such as The Hut Has No Walls and A Place Apart; and several paintings titled after specific sites: Roman Colors (2015) and Pacific Ocean Paintings (2000) reveal her interest in site-specificity and lived spaces. Art historian and co-curator Nidhi Gandhi’s essay in this book analyzes how Hafif’s mill house and the drawings, sketches, and photographs associated with it reflects the breadth of Hafif’s own life. Contextualizing Hafif and her work within the major art historical developments of the 20th century, alongside her former neighbor in Soho, Donald Judd (who also envisioned an imaginary museum for the “Un Musée – Imagine Par des Artistes” exhibition in 1997), and fellow painter of experimental canvases, Agnes Martin, Gandhi astutely frames the significance of art and place within Hafif’s work.
Another thematic grouping includes texts such as The Lake (2011), words (1976), and Notes on Bob and Nancy (1970-72); the Pomona Houses (1972) books; and drawing groups of common forms such as grids, maps, and constellations inspired by the artist’s interest in her surroundings and in how things work. These works also explore the temporal and physical specificity of Hafif’s immediate situation and geographic site. For example, Pomona Houses represented her search for houses similar to her grandparent’s home in Pomona, California, where she visited frequently in her childhood; the Constellations (1985) reflected her time in upstate New York at the mill house and her interest in learning about the sky by drawing constellations; her Grids (1988) continued her cataloguing of drawing conventions, with the grid being the simplest; the drawings and sculpture for The Oval House (2002) were influenced by her work at the mill house and directly responded to an invitation for a group exhibition about housing; and the painting Roman Colors: Ochres, Siennas and Umbers reflects colors that Hafif imagines remembering from her eight years living in Rome in the 1960s.
Many of these artworks fall into a category of The Inventory that Hafif considers other Work. She writes:
“Other” work I have done has been created in response to different situations, an invitation to work and to present the work in another kind of space with few white walls or some subject presenting itself that was outside of the discipline of painting. That has ranged from The Cave in Los Angeles that I did not consider to be art at all [The Cave, 1960], to work with language in Poland, that I call performance, which simply came about because I was there and intrigued by the Polish language and its pronunciation [Language Exchange, 1990]. An interest in architecture was stimulated when I lived near a forest walking in it often and beginning to invent habitations: solar homes, pavilions and imaginary enclosures. Inspiration from Japanese teahouses and gardens must have influenced the Lusthus in Sweden and A Place Apart in France. Ocean Sounds I wanted others to hear. The schoolroom at P.S.1 was an impossible place to install paintings.
The most recent work included in “A Place Apart” is a new site-specific wall writing piece. Hafif’s first wall-writing was Schoolroom (1976) at P.S.1 in New York, where her assigned room for the group exhibition presented a question she answered by including text that related to her life in 1976. The wall writing series has seen three other iterations, each unique, and each corresponding to Hafif’s situational moment. They complemented her Wall Paintings of the 1970s where she chose to make independent paintings directly on the walls in response to specific galleries. Each wall writing consists of a large rectangle painted in a single color containing Hafif’s text in cursive writing. The wall writing at Pomona, Cooking Fish (2018), is a new text that poignantly reflects on an injury Hafif recently sustained in Laguna Beach interspersed with her observations about birds in her gardens and her favorite musicians. Cooking Fish, along with other work in “A Place Apart,” encourages close looking and intimate contemplation of the fullness of each present moment. In sum, Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart frames how Hafif’s artworks, while shifting temporally and physically, retain a focus on the world around her—a signature of her practice.
Pomona College Museum of Art
“Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart” represents the first exhibition of Hafif’s work at her alma mater, Pomona College. We are thrilled to welcome Hafif back. It has been an honor to work so closely with an artist in such command of her vision for her artwork, her life, and her legacy. It has been a pleasure to spend numerous sun-filled days at her beautiful home in Laguna Beach planning this book and the accompanying exhibition. We extend our deepest gratitude to Marcia Hafif for her hospitality, vision, and generosity. We also are extremely grateful for the guidance and tireless help provided by Taketo Shimada in New York.
The exhibition and publication are made possible by generous support from Fergus McCaffrey, New York, and we thank Fergus McCaffrey, Geanna Barlaam, and former director Lisa Panzera. Assistance with research in Switzerland was provided by Mark Müller at Galerie Mark Müller in Zürich, Ines Goldbach at the Kunsthaus Baselland in Basel, and Roland Wäspe at the Kunst Museum St. Gallen in St. Gallen. The images are by Fredrik Nilsen, and we’re grateful for his acute eye. Kimberly Varella of Content-Object Design contributed an elegant design for the publication, and we are grateful for the stunning results.
At Pomona College, we would like to thank our colleagues at the Pomona College Museum of Art: Kathleen Howe, Justine Bae, Barbara Ditlinger, Steve Comba, Frederik Gallegos, Anne Merten, jill moniz, Gary Murphy, Mary Roy, and Madlyne Woodward for their support throughout the planning and presentation of this project. We are grateful to curatorial intern Noor Asif and former curatorial assistants Ian Byers-Gamber and Benjamin Kersten for their research and assistance.
March 7, 2018
 A Place Apart, 1997, see pp. 12–13 and pp. 128–133. Hafif, along with other artists, was invited to draw up plans for an imagined museum; the results were displayed in 1997 in “Un Musee – Imagine Par des Artistes,” Espace de l’Art Concret, Mouans-Sartoux, France.
 See A Place Apart, text, 1997, p. 128.
 Jane McFadden, “Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart,” in Marcia Hafif, The Inventory: Painting (Laguna Beach, CA: Laguna Art Museum, 2015), 29–30.
 Marcia Hafif, “Beginning Again,” Artforum, 1978.
 Marcia Hafif, email to the author, February 13, 2018.
 Hafif, “Beginning Again.”
 Marcia Hafif, The Inventory: Painting (2015) was the first major exhibition and catalogue to explore this facet of Hafif’s work.
 Marcia Hafif, email to the author, February 22, 2018.
 Hafif, email to the author, February 22, 2018.