For several decades, California-born artist Marcia Hafif has generally been known in Europe as a practitioner of ascetic monochrome painting. Her recent exhibition at the Kunsthaus Baselland, which surveyed her career from 1968 to 2009, revealed the remarkably multifarious quality of her monochromes and provided an opportunity to see her lesser-known works in other mediums.
Three “Black Paintings” Hafif made between 1979 and 1980 started the show, each a large, seemingly black rectangle that, when viewed up close, proves to be a profusion of vertical brushstrokes mixing umber and ultramarine. In one painting, the umber dominates, creating an earthy impression, while the other two pulsate with a vital blue charge. At the end of the 1960s, after living for most of the decade in Rome, Hafif embarked on a graduate program at the University of California, Irvine. There, she abandoned what she describes as a “Pop-Minimal” style of abstract painting and immersed herself in the monochrome—or at least her own version of it, which, as the “Black Paintings” make clear, is hardly as straightforward as the designation suggests. Key to her work’s development into this purest of painting genres were drawings like April 13, 1972 (1972), a dense mass of rows of short pencil marks. Such works helped her crystallize the strategy for her monochrome paintings: she begins by choosing a certain support, type of paint, and brush size to use, and then applies the paint to the ground with meditative, intuitive, vertical gestures.
Hafif’s “Inventory,” as she calls her body of work, is extensive. It includes paintings made on various supports (wood, canvas, paper) and in various mediums (oil, acrylic, watercolor). Much of the painting on view consisted of suites of multiple compositions. Shade Painting: Group 6 (2013) is a group of six different-colored square canvases whose intense hues have been achieved by adding black to the oil, while Twenty
Glaze Paintings (1995), likewise consisting of square canvases in assorted colors, makes use of a glaze medium. The artist’s “Inventory” also encompasses her works in other mediums. Among such works in the show were videos (transferred from Super 8), photo-based projects, and text pieces rendered in vinyl applied directly to the wall.
One video, Letters to J-C, Broadway, 1999, #10 (1999), combines stationary camera footage of pedestrians on New York streets with the artist’s voice-over recounting how she had followed a woman as she walked around the city. One thinks of John Smith’s 1976 film The Girl Chewing Gum, in which an authoritative voice-over appears to direct the action occurring in an observed street scene. Using a similar method Hafif achieves the opposite result: the longer we watch, the greater the distinction becomes between what we see and what we hear, the latter taken from a letter Hafif wrote to her friend Jean-Charles Massera. The photograph suite Roman Sunday (1968) comprises twenty-three images shot from a fixed position in front of a gelateria door; the strict framework allows for a celebration of the differences between the people and actions depicted. Such works helped highlight the ways in which Hafif rejects the monadic even in her monochromes. Not only demonstrating variations within themselves, the paintings seemed to engage with one another and with the Kunsthaus’s light-filled industrial architecture, showing how ascetism can foster a kind of openness.