Somewhere Before: Judy Pfaff at York College

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Amy Boone McCreesh on Judy Pfaff’s Immersive Exhibition at York College’s Wolf Hall

Judy Pfaff’s work always delights me with unexpected bursts of color, unconventional materials and compositional choices. I have been a devoted follower of this artist for many years because of her unique ability to create immersive images and environments seemingly out of common elements. On a recent trip to my hometown of York, Pennsylvania, I visited Judy Pfaff’s exhibition Somewhere Before at York College.

Pfaff, who was born in London, England in 1946, has built an impressive career that includes a Macarthur ‘Genius’ award, exhibitions at the Whitney and MOMA, and representing the United States in the 1998 Biennial in San Paolo Brazil. The artist has also been featured on the Art 21 PBS series, which gives intimate insight into her creative process.

I was excited not only for this exhibition, but to see it displayed in a region not typically celebrated for exhibiting internationally known contemporary art. Many years ago, while attending high school in the area, I begged my mother for a reprieve from being grounded so that I could attend a Jeff Koons lecture and exhibition at York College. Koons also grew up in the area, and my attendance at the lecture that evening solidified my passion and determination to pursue the visual arts. Judy Pfaff’s show left me with a similar jolt of energy and fervor; this powerful exhibit is capable of reviving an artist’s spirit.


Pfaff has a power over materials, simultaneously allowing them to be authentic and controlled. In Somewhere Before, her work arrives at a mystical and magical presence, where it’s nearly impossible to determine how her constructions were assembled.

I wandered around the exhibit for almost an hour, taking in gravity-defying installations and studying the wall-works. York College’s Wolf Hall contains a gallery with two large rooms. During my visit I had the pleasure of being the only person occupying them both. In one room, the sculptural forms, lit from below with neon, hover around one another. It looks like the pieces are in motion, like planets, evolving or devolving in front of your eyes. Many of these works were also punctuated with projected and physical halos that reinforced an otherworldly presence. Swirling artificial colors are frozen over organic material and blend with found objects like wire and wood. Many of the sculptural pieces in this show are reminiscent of Lynda Benglis’ Phantom Series from the 1970’s that glow in the dark. Like Benglis, Pfaff’s works also seem to exist despite a lack of visible structure and glowing lights add to their already animated qualities.

Pfaff started her career primarily as a painter, and it is clear to see this, even in her sculptural works. If you were to isolate many portions of the sculptures they could act, convincingly, as paintings. The interactions of mark making, balance, and color illustrate an expert understanding of composition. The placement of works emphasized a visual relationship of the room as a whole, taking attention away from some of the less desirable details of the architecture, even though a carpeted floor unfortunately erased opportunities for intermingled colored lights and reflections to glow.


Graphic moments of colored Plexi and the geometry of the metal fixtures on which the sculptures hang came together to unify and anchor the installation, which could otherwise become visually overwhelming. The repetition of certain visual elements and the implied motion of the swirling forms and colors created a feeling of a space that felt alive. In the hallway, a collection of various two-dimensional works, mostly mixed media, acted as a visual segue to an octagonal room of wall-based works beyond where each wall is painted a different color.

The variety of differing colors and sheer number of works in the show were slightly distracting here, due to the vibrancy of each colored wall and the close proximity of all of the works to one another. This room could have been just as powerful with white walls, highlighting the works themselves, rather than the intense color-clashes in the painted space.

After leaving the previous gallery where all of the sculptural forms fed into one another, there was an abruptness in the organization of the next room of mostly sculptural relief that was jarring. It didn’t make me like the work in this space any less, but made me question the presentation choices made. Despite the overwhelming wall colors, I still appreciated the opportunity to view Pfaff’s wall-based works.

Beautiful drawings and wall hangings consisting of cut paper, found objects, and also lights adorned the space; all feeling haphazard, yet so deliberate at the same time. Two of the pieces here were very large-scale works on paper that contained human marks and collage, and each had a color connection to the wall on which it was hung, though they could have worked just as well on a neutral surface. The more sculptural works in this space were again the ones that captured me: honeycomb cardboard, paper lanterns and fake flowers all clinging to the wall for dear life while radiating color and energy at the same time. The pieces free of frames and glass are the ones that feel most alive. They have the visual freedom to interact with one another and combine to create a world that is unmistakably Pfaff.


Author Amy Boone-McCreesh is a Baltimore based artist and professor.

Somewhere Before has been extended to March 17, 2015. 

On March 10, The Contemporary’s Deana Haggag will be doing a lecture at York College, a perfect excuse to make the trip.

Special thanks to the gallery director, Matthew Clay-Robinson for bringing the work to York College and for the insight into Judy’s methods during this installation. York College is about an hour north of Baltimore, just off of I-83. Check out their website for more information and directions.





















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