Marcia Hafif: An Extended Gray Scale
On ViewFergus Mccaffrey
February 17 – March 20, 2022
5142 West Jefferson Blvd.
On the occasion of Frieze Los Angeles 2022, Fergus McCaffrey gallery has exhibited Marcia Hafif’s An Extended Gray Scale (1972–73) in a temporary space in central LA. A painting of 106 individual, 22-by-22 inch panels charting the gradient course between zinc white and lamp black in Winsor & Newton oil, it is a study in visual acuity. Hung in a linear configuration across three walls of the cavernous space, the work surrounds the viewer with its subdued form and sits easily within the history of expansive work of its period, both durational and environmental. “I feel like I’m in Marfa,” a friend remarked to me, and in her reference to Donald Judd and his own pared down, situational explorations, succinctly summarized one well-known history of this genre and its blind spots, as well as an extreme viewing experience that was once off the beaten path. Hafif’s Gray Scale was certainly out of step with the crowded, fast-paced art-viewing taking place up the road at the Frieze fair proper, and was, in many ways, the perfect counterpoint, if not antidote, for that venue.
The singular environment of the Gray Scale consists of thousands of discreet, short, vertical marks that make up the monochromatic panels. Most easily seen in raking light, these marks track material moments, minutes, hours, and months of work, across a life lived. They evoke a sense of the bodily engagement of the artist, as well as her extraordinary visual discernment. The work in turn demands careful consideration from the viewer, over time and throughout the space. Standing next to any two or three panels, it can be difficult to detect the subtle shifts in shade that the viewer knows are happening along 106 panels between black and white. Yet when we glance down a row of panels, the gradient appears seamless, as the work becomes a perspectival vector through the space. The experience is enveloping, meditative, curious—evoking a slow awareness rarely encountered in the twenty-first century.
The work itself is an outgrowth of a series of drawings Hafif had begun making on New Year’s Day 1972 in which she filled the page with a series of short vertical marks in rows. (An example of the duration of this ongoing practice from 2011 could be seen across town at the Pasadena Armory in the group show here we are in time and space featuring Hafif, Nancy Buchanan, and Barbara T. Smith.) Having arrived in New York shortly after completing her MFA at the University of California Irvine, Hafif had been interested in returning to painting (which had been her dominant medium of the 1960s when she was living in Italy), but she struggled to do so. Marks became the method. The expansive horizon that is the Gray Scale, however, also evokes the ocean she had left behind, the dance and performance she encountered while living on the West Coast, the durations of the films she made, the seriality of her snapshots, and the taking account (of art, color, food, sex, and life in general) in her journals, one day after another. Marks, for Hafif, exist as a most basic unit of painting, but also of lived experience. In a 1978 essay on the matter of painting for Artforum, “Beginning Again,” Hafif noted: “The artist is involved in being as a way of doing and in letting be…”
Difficulty of categorization has always followed work that might be called monochrome, and so for Hafif’s practice; but both the expansive nature of the Gray Scale, as well as its refusal of complex pigments, allude to something other happening—a challenge to authority, hierarchy, and singularity that we might associate with the medium in general. To understand what is at stake, rather than look to theorizations of art in the 1960s by authors such as Judd, we might instead consider Hafif’s brush with emergent Italian feminism in Rome, where subjectivity and objectivity were under interrogation. Simultaneously, one can see in this work the ground of her future explorations of sites, institutions, and social exchange, which would accompany and inform her decades of painting panels, mark after mark, that begin at this time.
As is often the case with women of a certain age in the art world, Hafif’s career began to gain renewed attention over the last decade before her death in 2018. Much of that attention focused on work that had been occluded by the market, the “not painting” of her practice: photographs, films, writing, knitting, and architectural models. (Exhibitions featuring this work include a survey at Pomona College Museum, an exhibition of films at Lenbachhaus, Munich, both in 2018, as well as the concurrent show at the Armory.) Perhaps this emerging context is what makes this rare showing of the Gray Scale even more profound. An Extended Gray Scale declares Hafif’s agility and endurance (both literal and figurative) as a painter, even as she challenges the field.
An Extended Gray Scale has been exhibited previously in its entirety, also by Fergus McCaffrey, in conjunction with Art Basel in 2015. Its exhibition raises certain familiar specters about support for women’s practices both then (knowing what we know about how scale and cost were handled for Hafif’s better-known male contemporaries) and now (when it still has not found an institutional home); and the occasion reminds us, as well, how we need to continue to rethink and reconstruct established histories. I, for one, was gratified to see An Extended Gray Scale out in the world encouraging studied engagement—a lovely and rigorous respite from the incessant demands that our days be more superficial.