A tone of whimsy, eccentricity, and pop irony permeated “The Potential of Women,” a colorful and engaging exhibition of recent work by Polly Apfelbaum. The New York-based artist is well known for elaborate installations featuring small pieces of hand-dyed and cut fabric that she typically arranges on the floor in complex, abstract designs radiating out from the gallery walls, corners, or support columns. Textiles remain central to her most recent endeavors, but ceramics and paintings on paper have also become prominent features.
“The Potential of Women” was inspired by an image of an abstracted female head created in 1963 by the American modernist graphic designer Rudolph de Harak (1924-2002). The hard-edge, logo-like motif consists of an oblong head with two black dots for eyes and a helmetlike black hairdo. The original design was used on the cover of The Potential of Woman, a book of essays by authors who participated in a 1963 San Francisco symposium on the emancipation of women and the shifting dynamics of gender roles. Though regarded as progressive at the time, the event featured a discussion of the patronizing notion that one day women would make important contributions to society. For Apfelbaum, the book provided not only a unifying visual motif for the show but a conceptual one as well, since it subtly links her work to a broad range of feminist issues and themes.
The street-level gallery was filled with medium-size gouaches repeating the schematic head image in grid patterns and various high-key tones. Apfelbaum derived her palette from the studies in Interaction of Color, Josef Albers’s seminal theoretical work on design and perception published the same year as The Potential of Woman.
The main, upper-level gallery featured a striking installation. Four wide horizontal bands in pink, red-orange, and white were painted along the walls, matching the palette of the book cover. Viewers were required to remove their shoes or wear cotton foot coverings to walk on the four large carpets that covered most of the gallery floor. Woven in Oaxaca, Mexico, by Zapotec artisans, the panels are emblazoned with the de Harak head. In working with these artisans, Apfelbaum alludes to the profound influence that Zapotec weavers had on Anni Albers when she and Josef first visited Oaxaca in 1936.
A welcome respite from the precisely rendered motif, more than seventy funky handmade glazed ceramic wall reliefs, rather like shaped abstracted canvases, were hung along the central white band on the walls, just a few inches apart from one another. These abject-looking, irregularly shaped platters, which the artist produced over the past three years, could pay homage to artists like Richard Tuttle and Lynda Benglis. They also introduced a welcome absurdist element into the show. While the works are completely abstract, their titles bear proper names. Joanne has a richly textured surface covered with pink and white blobs, bifurcated by a line of green; Myra, an elongated composition in red, is punctured by three perfectly round holes.
On some level, the installation begs comparison to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79), but in contrast to the overt feminist iconography featured in that work, Apfelbaum’s ceramic pieces appear as painterly abstractions. Nevertheless, their titles make reference to individuals, and, hung in close proximity, they suggest a community, or perhaps a symposium. Indeed, in “The Potential of Women,” Apfelbaum proposed a new kind of gathering, echoing the one documented in the book but with a stronger, more knowing, and more playful feminist agenda.
Having long made work that straddles painting and installation, Polly Apfelbaum has recently split one decisively from the other. This past summer, she showed discrete little image-objects made of Plasticine and polymer clay at D’Amelio Terras. Flat and either squarish or roughly round, the irresistibly appealing “Feelies” were shown on sheets of wax paper laid atop low, wall-hugging corrugated cardboard shelves. They suggested pint-size Thomas Nozkowskis or Mary Heilmanns—or potholders made by a preternaturally gifted preschooler.
With Off Colour, the room-filling installation that followed in the fall, Apfelbaum returned to her work’s longstanding support, dispersing eccentrically shaped pieces of sequined stretch fabric all over the floor, which was painted glossy white and further brightened by abundant illumination. (Apfelbaum says that dimmer lighting made the fabric seem too chintzy, so she amped it up.) Slinky and gaudy, and ranging in color from magenta and pink to lime green, gold and orange, the fabric was cut and arranged on-site, in a departure from the artist’s established practice. The jagged-edged pieces suggested elements of sewing patterns—sleeves, pant legs, shirt halves—or the scraps left over from cutting them out of a bolt of cloth.
The installation made viewers more than customarily self-aware. Because the fabric was laid down without anchoring or adhesive, and was very thin, you were forced to pay careful attention to where you put your feet in the narrow and irregular intervals between shapes. You had to think about stance, stride and—when the gallery was crowded, as on an especially circusy opening night—how to negotiate social space. You had to consider your shoes.
Indeed, contemplating style, and how it is connected to allure, was forcefully encouraged. Off Colour’s titular reference to naughty jokes was buttressed by the exhibition poster, illustrated with four amateurish cheesecake shots of a ruddy-faced blonde framed by green plastic 35mm slide mounts. These are among a group of slides Apfelbaum found at a London market, which served, the press release explained, as a loose basis for the installation’s palette.
The new embrace of unpredictability—of serendipitous encounters with color and chance arrangements of form—was balanced with a hint of nostalgia. Along with ’70s glam and “bad girls” vamping, the sequined fabric evoked Ree Morton’s swags and Lynda Benglis’s sparkles in works of that decade. Off Colour revived questions much in the air at that time, of how decoration relates to art, and art to craft, or decor, or fashion. With a potent blend of sophistication and mischief, Apfelbaum makes these issues seem both sexy and amusingly periodized.
Photo: View of Polly Apfelbaum’s Off Colour, 2010, synthetic sequined fabric, dimensions variable; at D’Amelio Terras.