Herald Square isn’t the first place in the city one normally gravitates to for a fine art experience. But Times Square in the years leading up to 1980, probably wasn’t either. Artist Judy Rifka is no stranger to diverse venues. During the 1970s and 80s she was not only included in two Whitney Biennials but also sold small works through the artist-run Colab/A. More Store. She showed with Soho’s Brooke Alexander gallery and was included in the influential Times Square Show in 1980. I once found a flyer at an archive I worked for that advertised “3 Geniuses: Judy Rifka, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg”. When I showed it to her she just sort of laughed it off. She’s that kind of cool.
In The Yard, a space on 32nd Street, curator Gregory de la Haba, over the course of several months, has been presenting a retrospective of Ms. Rifka’s work. The show was presented in two parts. Part one was shown last winter and the more recent installment closed this past Friday. It was an ambitious project spanning the period from around 1970 up until…well, probably hours before the installation was completed. As anyone who’s connected with her on social media can attest, Judy seemingly never stops working!
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the show was the inclusion of a number of extremely minimal paintings on plywood produced during the 1970s. These were originally shown by Keith Haring at the Mudd Club in 1980 and have not been exhibited since.
In 1981 she was included in Artforum’s seminal article by Rene Ricard entitled The Radiant Child. Among standout New York City artists of that defining moment like Haring, Ricard singled out Judy Rifka and Jean-Michel Basquiat specifically. But unlike Haring and Basquiat she is still happily here and making art. The works in this retrospective represent carefully chosen selections from the thousands of pieces she’s created over the years and includes some of the artist’s personal favorites.
After viewing both iterations of the show, I took the opportunity to ask Judy about her work. I gained some valuable insights and enjoyed hearing her describe her process as follows:
“Space and composition in painting are generated by moving from one mark to the next. It is a decision to go from here to there. It is generated by emotion, or logic, and produces a visible reference to that: referential space. But that is the problem: how to turn that reference into reality? So I move the paint stroke in trajectories taking the paint where the space was.”
“One thing the retrospectives really brought home to me was that it’s less important to know when a painting is finished…than it is to know when it is started. I make a number of moves on my surfaces setting the stage for the action to begin.”
Rifka considers the video, Two-Ply, a major highlight of this show. Two Ply brings her current video techniques together with the layered painting style she has favored throughout her career. Her film and video work go back to the 80s when she showed films at downtown dance clubs. She spoke a bit about this part of her work:
“Thank goodness for video! Inexpensive art materials!”
“I don’t really work so much in animation frames. I work in continuous motion and morphing. A number of the videos are Photoshopped 3D filter morphing of the actual painting shapes. Others use superimposed layered techniques that are found in the paintings. An important aspect in both is the acceptance of unexpected occurrences, letting the image do as it will, even if I don’t get it. Or I listen to a tiny hint in my head and follow that along. I would have to say, in both painting and video, I watch the art make itself.”
Following this show, de la Haba plans to bring Rifka to Dubai for yet another large-scale exhibition of her work.
“This September, the Jean Paul Najar Foundation in Dubai, will present my works. In the 1970s, Jean Paul collected nearly the entire significant period of my works that directly followed the plywoods. I have recently seen the photos of the collection and had not realized or recalled the extent of the work and his very discerning taste! Deborah Najar–Jossa, Jean Paul’s daughter is carrying on his legacy, and now getting them set for an exhibition called ‘RETRO active’. Mostly late 70s…plus brand new works and installation”.
Retro, perhaps at times, but it’s active – always! As she continues to work from her Gowanus, Brooklyn studio and engage with her art-making and art-loving peers, she continues to be a torchbearer for painting, art and the unique creative spirit. As she explains:
“I started doing art when I was very young. I have always painted or drawn. Perhaps for this reason, I rarely ask myself why. ……Why do art? Why? Because that’s what I do.”
Alison Pierz is an independent curator based in New York City
Her collaborations with Judy Rifka include:
Cutlog Art Fair, 2014
Judy Rifka: Star Street, Trestle Projects, 2014
No Object (group exhibition), 2013
Sun Spots (video project), 2013
Important Works by American Artist Judy Rifka
Amstel Gallery at the Yard
106 West 32nd Street
May 10-July 7, 2016
Curated by Gregory de la Haba
* All photos courtesy of the author except where noted